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Distillations: Red Sky at Morning at Smuggler's Cove 

Wednesday, Mar 5 2014
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Smuggler's Cove is often described as a tiki bar, but that's not quite right. Instead ... well ... a friend of mine recently took her young daughter to Disneyland, and went on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. On the ride, they were astonished to see "wenches" for sale, along with realistic hangings. "Why are those women tied up?" the daughter asked, and mom wasn't prepared because she thought she was going to Disneyland, goddamit.

Smuggler's Cove is functionally a tiki bar, but it's dark — literally and figuratively — and it takes rum damn seriously.

The bar stocks more than 400 rums, and its cocktail menu is a work of art: a hard-bound 10-page illustrated guide (with a table of contents) to rum drinks ranging from the 17th century to the specials blended exclusively for this bar. It's hard not to be impressed, and the bartenders know their stuff: I sat at the bar on the main floor sipping a "Tradewinds" (lemon, coconut cream, apricot liquor, both dark and silver Jamaican rums), watching them light drinks on fire, and getting an excellent lecture on the difference between Spanish-, English-, and French-style rums.

Today in San Francisco, the descendents of the Beats and the Hippies celebrate the Gold Rush miners and the Barbary Coast sailors as harmless eccentrics and individualists. We see them as our ancestors, we believe they helped make our social fabric what it is today. But of course, at the time they were aggressive invaders and agents of economic forces that rip societies apart, bringing with them great wealth and great injustice, changing neighborhoods, writing over the city's DNA.

Just before I went to Smuggler's Cove to quietly sip a Dead Reckoning (private reserve rum, pineapple, lemon, vanilla liquor, maple, tawny port, angostura bitters), a major piece of public art was being unveiled eight blocks away. Caruso's Dream is a wave of steel and glass pianos stretching across a 17-story high-rise on Ninth street, just off Market. It's named for the great opera tenor Enrico Caruso, who in 1906 was roused from his bed at the Palace Hotel by the cataclysmic earthquake and went to his window to watch San Francisco collapse and burst into flame. He later said at that moment, he did not know whether he was awake or dreaming.

That night at the high-rise, after a parade of pianos, a live operatic performance, and recording of Caruso's interpretation of Pagliacci, three aerialists descended from the top of the building to dance around the sculpture and untie its veil, revealing it to the public.

Caruso's Dream is one of many pieces of our city inspired by its own devastation: Along with the miners and the pirates, the Beats and the hippies, destruction is a popular myth here — turning the epic ruin of San Francisco into fodder for the city's culture of art and inspiration.

Sitting in Smuggler's Cove after the spectacle of destruction, surrounded by the kitsch of pirates, it became clear that if San Francisco survives this new century's challenges — if it's still here after global warming, if it doesn't turn into Martha's Vineyard, if there are still artists and dissidents and cacophonists living here instead of people whose idea of whimsy is laughing at the homeless...

... then in 100 years, there will be amazing "techie invasion"-themed bars with cocktails meticulously researched from Facebook's original bartenders and Google's early mixologists. The architecture will be a gorgeous re-interpretation of cubical farms and ping-pong tables; the menus will be AIs that describe drinks in Sergey Brin's voice. The Google Bus will be seen for the pirate ship it is, the riders will be recognized as updated incarnations of the pirates and gold miners that they are, and acrobats and opera singers will unveil new pieces of public art inspired by the time we almost lost everything and instead found new common ancestors.

If ... if ... any artists and bohemians are left.

Because gated communities aren't known for their art scenes. Martha's Vineyard hasn't got enough mythology to inspire a limerick, let alone an opera.

Like San Francisco, Smuggler's Cove is small: It holds just 40-odd people at a time. Too many people trying to get in could very well destroy its appeal. I shouldn't even be telling you about it. But what fun would that be?

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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