Chinatown is the place where you can tie one on without running into anyone you know — assuming, of course, that you're not a local, or a regular, or in some way affiliated with the Chinatown community. It's the neighborhood that gets eerily quiet after dark, the one where weary-looking souls trudge down narrow streets past stacks of boxes and strange puddles and pungent, fishy smells. It's the place where the bartender may ask, “You're all over 18, right?” and where the bleak, timeworn bathrooms often look like something out of George Orwell's 1984 but fulfill their missions as capably as any others. At the Grassland Cocktail Lounge, the yellow awning declares, “Where good friends and girls meet.” A trip inside reveals a few of the former, but only one of the latter. “OK, next time!” the latter says in parting.
Then comes Mr. Bing's, a dive-y little grotto where Mr. Bing is nowhere to be found. “I think he's in bed,” says Bruce the bartender, who explains that Mr. Bing is quite old, then promptly fills a lowball with six ounces of gin and perhaps a molecule of tonic. At 10 p.m. on a Friday, some two dozen customers have bellied up to the oddly triangular, neon-drenched bar. Most are young and slightly tipsy; no one seems to mind that last year's hordes of blue-shirted dot-barhoppers are nowhere to be seen.
Is it a trend?
“That would be good. I'd like that. I would love that,” says a customer named Gavin, looking decidedly unprofessional in checkered pants and white skipper's hat with a pin bearing the word “Dick” (as in Nixon) fastened to the crown. Of course, another explanation for the lack of Banana Republicans might be that, unlike other neighborhoods, Chinatown never saw many of them in the first place. To investigate this theory, the express continues toward Grant Street's tiny Buddha Lounge, where Mark the bartender seems to know everyone and looks mildly annoyed when he has to buzz people through the steel gate that leads to the bathrooms. Among the crowd of eight, mostly regulars, Ellen and Scott say they've stopped for cocktails on the way to Mr. Bing's; Brian and Reid say they've come because of Mark the bartender; while Mark himself is busy playing liar's dice. As for Ezra, he claims the Buddha has triggered a personal enlightenment: “I just discovered that I always liked Neil Diamond,” he says, smiling a bit too serenely as “Sweet Caroline” flows from the jukebox.
Meanwhile, across the street at the austere Li Po, three gentlemen converse heatedly in a (presumably) Chinese dialect. The rest is silence until a quartet of English speakers arrives, having passed over Chinatown's trendier Broadway bars (Rosewood, Blind Tiger) in favor of a red booth in the quiet back room. The recipe is timeless — two dudes, two blondes, and four super-potent Mai Tais — leading Steve to a stunning pronouncement. “This is the best bar in San Francisco,” he says. “Write it up. Where else can you get these drinks?” He reveals the secret ingredient — “That's rice whiskey” — then joins his friends in the back room.
“I guess so,” says the bartender.