Some people go to bars to hear themselves jabber, preferably into a cellphone. Others enjoy a saloon's copulative possibilities, thrumming sound design, braying televisions, or carefully cultivated sneering-hipster ambience.
But for those of us who consider the consumption of a well-crafted cocktail an opportunity for reflection and repose, the words of Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Bernard DeVoto are a kind of credo: “Quiet and softly lighted, of course, not necessarily tiny but at least small, only a few stools for the solitary, and if banquettes then not violently colored, if booths then not cramped. There is no more fitting place for the slackening of exigency, the withdrawal of necessity.”
These cocktail-hour parameters are especially desirable in the summer months, when work and worry take a backseat to the relaxation of body and soul, and a peaceful little bar is the best place on Earth.
Here are a handful of San Francisco saloons where quiet conversation is the common currency, comfortable seating invites lounging and lingering, extraneous sound is hushed or nonexistent, and the bleating of the lout and his gum-snapping consort is heard no more. Each offers a spiritual diminuendo from the clanging city beyond the gates as well as a place where you can sip a tranquilizing cocktail and understand the true meaning of dolce far niente: How sweet to do nothing.
The Big 4 (in the Huntington Hotel, 1075 California at Taylor, 771-1140, www.big4restaurant.com) is in the great tradition of the dark, elegant leather-and-mahogany lobby bar. Here you can relax in an armchair by a crackling hearth, sipping cognac while a pianist noodles away at Gershwin and Mercer on the concert grand. The saloon's overarching theme revolves around the four men who plotted the nation's first transcontinental railroad; a treasure trove of train-themed maps, photographs, paintings, and objets d'art decorates the polished-wood walls and cabinets. The bar menu features excellent lamb stew and chicken pot pie, just the thing on a cool, foggy San Francisco summer's eve.
The View Lounge (atop the Marriott Marquis, 55 Fourth St. at Market, 896-1600) is the most easygoing of the city's hotel-top saloons. The mood is relaxed and friendly. High ceilings keep the decibels to a pleasant murmur and make intimate conversation manageable. There are big, richly upholstered sofas and armchairs to relax in, and the soft background music tends toward the low, hypnotic vibrations of Sade and Bebel Gilberto. A menu of standards (antipasti, crab cakes, filet mignon, and the like) is available to complement your cocktail, and while the 39th-floor view (strikingly displayed through an arched floor-to-ceiling steel-webbed window) may concentrate more on downtown skyscrapers than the bay and its bridges, the effect is dramatic just the same.
On a lazy, sunny weekday afternoon, Pier 23 (Embarcadero at the foot of Greenwich, 362-5125, www.pier23cafe.com) has to be the most languid spot in the city. The outdoor patio is one of the few places in town where you can sip a cocktail right on the edge of the bay; the decorative surfboards, palm trees, and South Seas paraphernalia lend a touch of the tropics and a getting-away-from-it-all quality to your midday margarita. Sailboats drift idly by, waves lap against the seawall, Tony Bennett croons a jaunty riff, and before you know it, the fish tacos and the calamari are a memory and another day has been blissfully wasted. Live music nightly except Mondays (if you're into that sort of thing).
The Clement Street Bar and Grill (708 Clement at Eighth Ave., 386-2200) is like an Inner Richmond outpost of the Tadich Grill without the teeming pinstriped clientele. There's the starched tablecloths, the curtained booths, the stately old-S.F. ambience — everything but the panting crowds, the rattling dice cups, and the din of hungry stockbrokers attacking their sand dabs. The 10-stool worn-wood bar near the front is a pleasant place to enjoy a quiet drink with the locals while cool jazz meanders from the stereo and the game plays out silently on the TV. Anchor is on tap and an excellent smokehouse-almond bar mix is within reach; a murmur of conversation mingles with the tinkle of ice; and oysters, chops, pasta, and calamari are available just in case you get hungry. There are 10 wines by the glass and effortlessly well-crafted cocktails to boot.
The place: Le Colonial (20 Cosmo at Post, 931-3600, www.lecolonialsf.com). Downstairs: a dining room featuring classy French-Vietnamese cuisine. Upstairs: a lounge with live music, dancing, and plenty of chitchat. But pass through the shuttered doors at the end of the room and you'll find yourself on an open-air veranda with ceiling fans, wicker armchairs, potted palms, and the quietude of a summer's evening in the tropics, gin rickey at hand. Below is a courtyard cloaked in banana trees and bougainvillea, further enhancing the urban oasis atmosphere. This is a drowsy-dreamy place to enjoy an Emerald Buddha or a Saigon Sangaree, lemongrass-chicken satay, and scallop potstickers on the side.
Bourbon and Branch (501 Jones at O'Farrell, 346-1735, www.bourbonandbranch.com) is not only an atmospheric throwback to the Prohibition Era, with unmarked door, secret password, Jazz Age flappers, and the like; it also takes the word “speakeasy” seriously, requiring its patrons to keep their voices at a civilized level and, for god's sake, stow the cellphone. In other words, this is our kind of place. The main room requires reservations, but if you haven't planned ahead you can ask your flapper to escort you to the “library,” a hidden candlelit room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of Brontë, Balzac, and Sandburg; a brick-backed standup bar; and a staircase to the basement where an actual speakeasy flourished in the 1920s, complete with escape tunnels. (The “speakeasy” rules don't apply in the library, but things don't get too rambunctious until 8 o'clock or so.)
“Thus islanded in dimness and the murmur of traffic fading toward silence, one is apt for the ministration,” DeVoto wrote, so order another highball, nestle into the shadows … and relax.
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