The waiters at the Aquitaine Wine Bistro are flirts. "How are you today?" one asked me as I went to my table alone.
"Life is complicated," I said.
"Well," she replied, "at least you still have your lovely smile."
My guest arrived and apologized for being late.
"No no," said another waiter. "We've just been waiting for you adoringly."
He couldn't have been more wrong. My companion tonight was "E.," and there's the kind of history between us that makes adoration complicated. Many years ago, on the other side of the country, she was my young protégé — and I eventually sent her off on a voyage that would lead her to a life in San Francisco. No sooner had she arrived then ... well, we weren't on speaking terms by the time I moved here just two years later.
E. had a child and moved back "home" for five years. Now divorced, she's returned to S.F. and is a successful tech executive. She reached out to me, a few months ago, asking for a chance to say "thank you" and "I'm sorry" at once. We've been seeing what happens.
Aquitaine is a French bar for exactly the reason that there are no "San Francisco" themed bars or restaurants elsewhere. Sure, our city by the bridge has iconic fixtures and soup in a bread bowl, but most of what we are is the breeding ground for new fusions: We are in constant pursuit of novelty.
But from its wines (the list of wines available by the bottle is a 13-page extravaganza), to its cuisine, to its small details of service, Aquitaine is rooted in France, and French history, and customs — things that people who don't value the new for its own sake have been living by for centuries. A rooted bistro in a rootless city.
E. isn't French, but she comes from people like that, who have been living on the same land for generations, doing what their parents did. It's what she tries to get away from, and what she goes back to.
We ask the waitress for her wine recommendations before we get down to talking. Wine is one of those drinks that rewards a knowledge of tradition more than novelty. The recommendations are exquisite.
"I feel like when I was here the first time, nothing ever changed: Businesses, communities, everything was stable and timeless," E. says. "Now, back after five years, all the people are scattering and you wonder every day what's going to fall next."
Having just moved back, she's already plotting her move out. "Can you see a way to stay long-term?" she asks me.
How did it all change so quickly, she wonders. Is it tech? Is it the national situation? Is it cultural factors? How can some French cities stay traditional and largely unchanging across decades, even centuries, while the culture of art and experimentation that brought her to San Francisco less than a decade ago is now near collapse?
I suggest over superb duck (served on a smoldering piece of wood, in a traditional style) and perfect pomme frites that much of the San Francisco culture she loves is facing an existential crisis: It can either grow and thrive on a larger stage, or it will be scattered to the winds. Before now, I say, it was never facing that kind of pressure. The stakes were low.
"The problem is opportunity," she says. "When I came here last time, I came to be here. To be part of this was the only goal, and I was accepted in. Now I'm here because there's all this opportunity, and I have to fight for every piece of it against everybody else who's here because they want to grab as much opportunity as they can before they go home. San Francisco today is like a bone I'm sucking all the marrow out of before I throw it away. Nine years ago, it was a bone I was fastening into a corset to wear."
"You left," I remind her, "the first time."
She smiles. She's still got it.
The waitstaff lets us sit there for hours, sometimes savoring our wine, sometimes just talking. The truth is, I'm exhausted: It's been a week of strange encounters and intimate conversations, breakneck debauchery and tiny heartbreak.
I needed a place like this, to step out of time for a while. I think the whole city does. I wonder how long it will last.