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"It's the bartender's secret," adds Mike Fogarty. "You knew when you were having a shot of Fernet with your bartender that you were part of the deal." He adds: "The perfect cure in the morning, when the whips and jingles are fast approaching."
In a city that prides itself on food, independence, and sophistication, and certainly the need for a hangover cure, Fernet-Branca offered a perfect fit for San Francisco's character.
The cautious marketing of Cattani and her partner Licu doesn't hurt either. They've avoided the mainstream promotional tactics of the of-the-minute liquors (a recent spread in King magazine featured two half-dressed Hpnotiq hostesses serving the drink while rolling around on a pool table) and have successfully wedded Fernet to San Francisco's underground community. They're sponsoring a Fernet-Branca-themed art show at the Shooting Gallery on Dec. 15 (with an open Fernet bar, of course), and constantly back less mainstream events like the Noise Pop music festival.
"If you go into a bar and someone in a spandex dress gives you a shot, sure, the guys will love it," Licu says. "But they're only going to remember the girl in the spandex dress, not the drink. San Francisco is too smart for that."
"It is a cult. It is a love-hate relationship. You get it or you don't," Cattani says simply. "San Francisco gets it."
And, most of all, Fernet-Branca allows a huge spectrum of San Franciscans to feel like they're in on a secret: Hipster kids with sideways haircuts can slam it in Mission dive bars, the blue bloods can sip it after gorging on haute cuisine, and everyone in between gets the sense of insider ownership with just a drink.
Italy's gift to the world.
-- Fernet-Branca advertising slogan, 1850-present
The R Bar, a plain facade situated just between Nikki's Oriental Massage and Amanda for Hair at the dodgy end of the Tendernob, is at the center of the Fernet-Branca phenomenon, and, as such, is something of a miraculous place. Coming through the doorway, you pass beneath a shelf lined with Fernet empties, which stretches into a long, narrow room -- a polished wooden bar on the left, a few small tables on the right, and a small lounge in back. The jukebox plays a steady gale of kitschy, nostalgic butt-rock -- Mötley Crüe, Guns N' Roses, and AC/DC -- a soundtrack suited to the tastes of the quarter-life-crisis patrons who greet each other with hands on the smalls of backs, fraternal shoulder pats, and the too-friendly hugs of people whose bonds are largely based on getting shitfaced in common physical spaces. Dim and loud, the R Bar looks a lot like any other bar in any other neighborhood in San Francisco on a Friday at midnight, except that it's Monday, just past 10 p.m., and this is Fernet-Branca ground zero.
"Everyone wants to be the No. 1 Fernet bar in the city -- but no one can even touch the place," Licu says.
That might be because when you take inventory of the room, it has all brands of Fernet drinker: after-work servers from top-flight restaurants around the city -- hosts and managers from Michael Mina and Myth, Crustacean, Cortez, and Town Hall -- weathered Italian barflies, and the underground fashionista set. The Fernet family.
You saddle up to the bar to yell orders at Chris Fogarty -- the only staff tonight -- and have a few shots of Fernet with ginger backs; soon you're part of the family, too. If every bar in San Francisco has a story of Fernet, the one in the R Bar seems most complete.
As Fogarty does a quick shot with some friends, it starts to rain outside and a cool, clean breeze enters the bar though the open doors and under the shelf of empty green bottles, bringing to mind the parting words of Branca's spokesman, Ricardo Destesano. "I say to San Francisco: I give you my baby! Enjoy! Take the good care!"
The family members in the bar hold their drinks carefully in the air, look each other in the eye, and make a toast -- to each other, to Fernet-Branca, to San Francisco.