Pin It

Emperor Norton's Boozeland: Seen and Not Heard 

Wednesday, Nov 27 2013

The bouncer outside Emperor Norton's Boozeland, in the Tenderloin, got mad at me for holding my license in a way that obscured the birth date. Come on. Who are we kidding? I'm not nearly pretty enough to get carded.

One step inside was all it took to make me gasp. Boozeland boasts gorgeous art deco fixtures — pillars; great molding; tasteful wallpaper; a split level with wooden floors where they keep the pool table; an outdoor nook with picnic tables — oh man. I took a seat at one end of the beautiful elliptical wooden bar and wished I lived there.

The bartender was hassled. Someone hadn't shown up for a shift. He would periodically jump on the phone to arrange coverage. He shot down my "What do you do make especially well?" shit before the words could get out of my mouth. "There are the specials," he told me, pointing at the wall. It was mostly beer-and-shot combos. I ordered the blood-orange punch. Seemed unusual.

I was having a hard time placing the crowd — a strange mix of the hard-knocks and hip, of visiting money and regulars. Maybe that's because the bar itself is a hybrid — a high décor beer joint in a rough neighborhood that's rapidly gentrifying.

A new bartender had arrived and was settling in. She saw what I was drinking. "How do you like it?

"I'm on the fence about it, honestly."

"You are?"

"It's got nice qualities but the bitter isn't blending well with the sweet."

"Oh," she said. "Well, I made the whole batch of it this morning."

Damn. She moved on to other customers. I never saw her again.

Eventually the original bartender came back to me. "Want another?"

He seemed more relaxed, so I tried again. "Do you have any drinks that you especially..."

"Look," he said, as nicely as possible, "I'm a bartender, not a mixologist. I don't take pride in making homemade bitters. I pour things." He thought about it for a moment. "We are developing a specialty cocktail, like a sazerac, but it's not worked out yet and I'm not pouring anything until they can give me a recipe. Okay?"

Emperor Norton's is a bar that's developing a specialty cocktail but hires a bartender who refuses to make it. Awesome — but also emblematic of the contradictions it straddles. Much too beautiful for an ordinary neighborhood joint, much too confident for a hipster destination, not nearly pretentious enough to attract big money, it's balancing on a shot glass. Sooner or later it has to fall in one direction.

"Hey," I heard a purebred hipster tell his friend. "You've got to take over with the jukebox. I've run out of songs, and they don't play any music unless you're paying for it!"

I jumped in. "You've got a problem with that?"

He looked shocked. "Well, yeah."

Old argument. "You come here not to hear people? To interact with them less?"

"No ..." He thought this through. "I like to interact with people in a lively atmosphere. Work is quiet enough already."

"Okay," I said, "but what have you been talking about all this time while the music was playing? Be honest."

The hipster's face fell. "Work."

His friends came to the rescue. "Well, okay," one girl said, "but we're talking shit about work!"

"And the music helps?"

"Absolutely," said a gorgeous, quiet girl. "I think most conversations are better if you can't really hear what anyone's saying."

I nodded. "That does guarantee you'll always get the conversation you came to have." Pretty people often prefer to be seen and not heard. Whereas I'm a word guy: I have to be heard to attract that kind of attention.

"Why do you come to bars?" one of them asked.

"Amazing and unexpected things can happen at bars, if you pay attention. That's why I'm skeptical about gratuitous music."

They all nodded. "What do you do?" one of the girls asked.

Work again? It's always work with these kids. I handed them business cards that say "Fascinating Stranger" and left.

There's room enough for everyone around the gorgeous bar at Emperor Norton's Boozeland — but the sweet and bitter aren't mixing in this neighborhood. Only some can become regulars. When the neighborhood picks a direction — or has one picked for it — Emperor Norton's will accommodate its regulars, whoever they are, and do it well.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed