Sometimes bartenders change your life.
One New York night my spirit was sick and in pain, so I decided to go to this fancy bar and spend as much of my meager reporter's paycheck as it took for my senses to happily overwhelm my soul.
A bartender named Joe walked over. "How you doing tonight?" he asked.
"My soul is sick," I replied, "and I have lost my joie de vivre."
"What?" he shouted, slamming his fist on the bar. "No! Not your joie de vivre! This cannot stand!" He mixed a drink with the best infused vodka I've ever tasted and thrust it into my hand.
Another bartender, Brian, ran in from the back. "What happened?"
Joe pointed at me. "He's lost his joie de vivre!"
"No!" Brian shouted. "Not his joie de vivre! We can fix this! There's still time!"
They spent the next 10 minutes huddled up, discussing cocktail combinations to bring my joy back. That was my personal bar for years.
Eventually Brian broke my heart by leaving. Then I left, moving to San Francisco. I came back to visit, and discovered that Joe had left too. I tracked him down to his new bar, sat at a stool and just waited for him to notice me. Eventually he did a double take.
I pointed. "You left!" I shouted. "J'accuse!"
Joe and Brian changed my life.
I have been to many bars in San Francisco, a few of which I love. But I've never had a bartender here change my life.
I went to Oddjob with Mari. Many bars attempt to turn their space into works of architectural art. Oddjob succeeds. Every surface that can be made out of exposed wooden beams or old machine parts is, and the plentiful open space combines the best parts of "club" and "museum." They have a drink-making machine that's a cross between an upside-down metal spider and a glass punchbowl. The bathrooms are monkish little unisex cubbies with neon lights. The cocktails are pricey but exquisite.
This was going to be an easy review. You put a drink into Mari and hilarious words come out: I was going to quote some, reveal our mutual quest to deal with less bullshit in life, touch gently upon the Isla Vista shooting ... she doesn't want to think about it, I'm following the conversation about it closely ... and then leave with a sense that life can't be all bad if you have bars like this.
Then we went to the back room, a semi-separate bar called SRO (Standing Room Only) and met Joey.
Joey stands behind a bar that can seat 10, in a small room with curtained ceilings that can fit maybe ... maybe ... 20 more. He asks every new patron their name, and remembers it. There is no menu. Like all my favorite bartenders, he is a street poet who improvises his creations on the basis of the people in front of him and the action in the room. He never makes the same drink twice, though he has a lot of theme and variation. He takes his time. Fifty people can be trying to crowd in this room, screaming for a cocktail — he takes his time.
But that night, it was just me, Mari, Amanda (a divorce lawyer who once hit her baby daddy with a Louisville slugger) and Raphael, who tends bar elsewhere in the city. We got to know each other as Joey made poetic drinks involving mushrooms, curry bitters, and fennel pollen.
Mari told him she doesn't like whiskey. He made her a whiskey drink. She's still raving about it.
After two hours, I told him that I was going to keep coming back until he was ready to create a cocktail that was the essence of me — my soul in drink form.
"Oh, I've got this one," he said.
"Right now? Already? I was going to give you months."
"Right now — if you really want it. If you want to know."
It was a mix of two very different scotches in a mezcal-rinsed glass with the nectar of ... pear. Of all things, pear. It tasted sweet and soft on top, with a lot of layers, and then a core of hard liquor and distant highlands underneath.
Go ahead, visit. Ask for the Benjamin. See what happens.
Joey changed my life.