It used to be that the late 1960s got all the attention, because the early ’60s were more or less an extension of the ’50s the way the early 1990s were basically the High ’80s, and nobody liked anything about the ’50s except for muscle cars and The Lucy Show. Then Mad Men came along and we realized the hippies threw out the baby of glamor with the bathwater of sexual repression.
Not even Matthew Weiner could reignite the appeal of the lost art of having an overstuffed ashtray in your impractically ill-lit office, but Sterling Cooper sold us on one idea: The early ’60s exude that jetset cool. Guillermo del Toro grasped this instinctively, calling the period “the apex of the postwar opulence.
“In 1962, a certain idealized version of America crystallizes and then stops,” the director told vulture.com last year. In The Beehive, a hyper-stylish new bar on Valencia Street, the crystallization shows up in the honey, ginger, and salt in the titular cocktail, a gin-based $13 drink that sets the scene for a sophisticated experience.
You can’t not be impressed with the former Range, whose spatial division into three rooms, shotgun-style, feels even more differentiated. While the center area opposite the kitchen will probably always feel like overflow and fill up with bodies last, the front room feels like a living area for an 8 p.m. cocktail party while the back has a louche, let’s-take-it-back-to-my-place vibe. It’s darker, and to the eternal credit of designer Floriana Interiors, it dodges easy signifiers like, say, a hair-dryer from a 1960s beauty parlor that looks like a gigantic standing mixer. The Beehive is a project from the team behind The Treasury on Sansome Street in the Fidi, and their light touch with that eve-of-Prohibition space likely led them to some of these good decisions. Can I get an Amen that there are zero silkscreened Warhol Marilyns in there?
Still, from the couches to starburst chandeliers to the honeycomb wallpaper, the design is total — although there are touches of humor, including a vintage soda machine stocked with period Dr. Pepper bottles. Before the Apollo program dreamt of sending people to the moon, the Gemini spacecraft brought us to low-Earth orbit, powered by gumption and Tang. So the Gemini (a Ketel One, manzanilla sherry, and Tang slushy, $13) has that wink-at-someone-else’s-childhood nostalgia that underlies the fact that it just tastes good.
More than a decade before The King started shooting at TVs, Elvis was shimmying at Satan’s clambake, and the Hound Dog channels his ribald energy into the Hound Dog (peanut-washed Bulleit bourbon, olosoro, and faint notes of caramelized banana, $13), a nod to his favorite sandwich. For a proper tiki experience, there’s the Bikini Drifter (Havana Club Blanco, Mt. Gay Black Barrel, coconut, pineapple, and anchan chamomile falernum, $13), while unattached gentlemen — or anyone else — may gravitate to one of three “Bachelor” highballs, various liqueurs and bitters over ice and soda.
Chef Byron Gee’s menu isn’t so much bar bites as appetizers, in the vein of people who would later go on to host key parties. There are Swedish meatballs and a house-made “Spam” rillette on “Ritz” crackers — the scare quotes are The Beehive’s own — that neither look nor taste anything like Nabisco. Egg foo young fritters and deviled eggs make an appearance, but the centerpiece is fondue. One of the two savory options is a Kaltbach cave-aged cheese with saison that tastes like a Gruyere and melts like a champ, with a bit of wheaty heft. It comes with plenty of potatoes, broccoli, and sourdough — let’s just appreciate one more time how lucky we are to be that bread’s home turf — plus optional add-ons like crudités and beef filet. At $26 for the small and $40 for the large portion, you could easily drop $50 or more on fondue. But that’s the Mission in 2018 — and who else has the nerve to serve fondue, anyway?
The potential issue with The Beehive is that it’s not so much married to its own concept as physically bonded to it like runners in a three-legged race. It could run out of oxygen, in the sense that after you’ve had fondue once or twice, you may feel like you’ve been there enough times. It’s a very large kitchen for what amounts to thematically coherent hors d’oeuvres, which indicates frequent back-room closures for private events.
While The Beehive could easily expand its offerings, the lavish print menus also suggest a certain sunk cost and determination to stick with the plan. It feels as though the art direction dictates everything else, which is truly a midcentury, High Modernist mindset. There’s a VIP seating area for four that can be partitioned off for privacy by a curtain, possibly for people who like to go out without being seen by anybody else, or maybe for double-dating teens who want to neck. If that’s your thing, go on and conceal thyself, but it’s incongruent with the otherwise friendly atmosphere. Like a woman of the early ’60s who absolutely never left the house without looking 100-percent put together, The Beehive could stand to relax just a little.
The Beehive, 842 Valencia St., no phone, thebeehivesf.com