Tradition is the newest bar in the Bourbon & Branch family. I tried to put off writing about it as long as I could, probably for the same reason why, if I were the editor of a school yearbook, I wouldn't want to put a picture of anyone voted “best looking” on the cover. This bar dynasty is getting so large that San Franciscans may start to view it as a chain and start avoiding its outlets.
The bars are part of the so-called “cocktail revolution,” and they use farmer's market ingredients to create delicious drinks. But I ask you, is it still part of the local and farm-to-table shtick if you have five venues that are, on appearance, raking in massive amounts of cash? I suppose if the point is to infuse capitalism into sustainability, then these mofos are really on to something.
So now we have Tradition, which salutes American bar culture. Its main selling point is its reservation-only “snugs” (booths) that each embody a different kind of bar: The dive, the Big Easy, the speakeasy, the grand hotel, the tiki room, and Scottish/Irish/English pubs. Each has its own menu of specialty drinks that arrive at your table roughly 30 minutes after you order them.
One thing I always look forward to in these bars is the décor: The Rickhouse is amazingly designed, and Bourbon & Branch is of course completely gorgeous; Local Edition is so-so. In the same way that I like to check out each new Disneyland ride that comes along, I always want to see what these folks come up with.
Sadly, Tradition is a whole lotta meh. It looks like the Tadich Grill, with warm wood paneling and an old-school mafia vibe. Since it is right across the street from Bourbon & Branch, I am not quite sure why anyone would go to Tradition instead.
When I heard each booth had its own theme, my mind traveled to animatronic landscapes with parrot sounds and bagpipes and sultry sax solos. The waitress would change her hat every time she went to a new table: a tam-o'-shanter for Scotland, a fedora for the speakeasy, a Romney '12 trucker cap for the dive bar. But alas, 'twas not to be. It seems that the themes are merely an excuse to sell even more boutique varieties of alcohol, not that there is anything wrong with that.
I avoid anything that requires reservations; I do not have my shit together enough to plan ahead. That left me at the bar itself, complete with the rather uncomfortable wooden stools that I managed to hoist myself onto. The bartenders all had that same can-do attitude that made this fiefdom famous; there are also certain bartenders who are worthy of accolades. Still, I can't help but think of the Replacements lyric about haughty stewardesses: “You ain't nuthin' but a waitress in the sky.”
I told him I liked pineapple and that he should wiz-bang me a fizz-nip, and so he did. It was of course amazingly tasty; mixology is something I will never fault them for.
And so I sat there. I very soon realized that I felt the same way that I did at Local Edition or the Rickhouse, which is that I don't earn enough money. I also realized that as beautiful as these places are, they don't have one thing that makes a bar really special: regulars who set the tone. I suppose they have the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, but not enough time has passed to give these places any patina of authenticity. Even Tradition's theme is a play on the authentic without actually being the real thing.
So yeah, phonies, to quote Holden Caulfield. But all bars have to start somewhere. In 20 years, these places will be bona fide institutions, just like Bourbon & Branch.
Now came the part that I always dread, which is leaving a bar in the Tenderloin at night and walking down to BART. On the way, I of course passed myriad real dives, and poked my head in a few. Inside there was the usual assortment of hipsters, poor people, oldsters, and other random San Franciscans keeping it real. There was the PBR “snug,” with Bob Seger playing, and the Jameson snug, with Rocket from the Crypt, and the well-vodka snug, with Songs Gay Men Over 60 Like.
Here's a good idea for a bar: Have snugs, but make each of them a bit bigger and really go nuts with the themes. Each one could be a different S.F. neighborhood. The Chinatown one could have Mai Tais, lanterns, and dehydrated sea cucumber fixtures. North Beach would have a titty bar theme with some good Italian wines thrown in; Sean Penn will sit with you for an additional fee. The Mission section would have a drink called 16th Street Smack and a friendly churro vender on hand for late-night snacks. Hayes Valley would outfit you with some really sharp eyewear before you peruse the menu. The Castro would give you two drinks for the price of one. Man, I think I am on to something.