You have to hand it to the proprietors of Bourbon & Branch and Rickhouse. They are the Ken Burnses of booze; they take events in American history that burned bright and faded into memory, and transform them into carefully crafted visual and sensual experiences — oops, I mean “bars.” Bourbon & Branch tips its hat to Prohibition with its speakeasy vibe. Rickhouse, at least to my eye, is about the Gold Rush. Both are gorgeously designed and serve delicious concoctions; the bartenders set each drink in front of the imbiber as if it were a little, precious gift brought by the magi. Pretentious? You betcha. But these bars have the right to that golden stick up their asses. They've earned it.
When I heard that another drinking establishment from the same folks had opened up just blocks away from Rickhouse, I thought, dang, what hubris. Then I learned that it had a “newspapers” theme, and was housed in the old Hearst Building, and now I believe that their decadence knows no bounds. The decline and fall of print journalism is a perfect backdrop to assisted alcoholism. During my tenure at a newspaper, I found that the classified ads staff were potheads, the display ad staff were cokeheads, and the writers were drunks. I had a bar setup in my office that could rival Don Draper's. So yes, drinking and newspapers makes sense to me.
What I was really excited for was how the décor was probably going to be at this new venture, which they have named Local Edition. A newsroom could translate well when given to the right interior decorator. I saw rolls of newsprint seemingly undulating off presses along the ceiling; tables that look like desks; glass partitions — I was sure it would all come together beautifully. The inside of Rickhouse is stunning, after all; they managed to make the Old West look chic and new.
When you arrive at Local Edition, you enter a foyer and immediately see an exhibition dedicated to old newspapers. They hang from the walls and are encased in standing displays. It's almost like a natural history museum, but instead of dinosaur bones there are sepia-aged copies of the Chronicle. I had a serious flashback to a fourth grade field trip. Not that I could really see anything, because the darkness inside the Local Edition is pretty damn pronounced. Don't get me wrong, I like that. Once my eyes adjust, and I no longer need to use my fingers to make out the features on the bartender's face, I love low lighting as much as the next guy.
“Are you Rosé?” asked the host, who was standing behind a lectern near the entrance to the main bar.
“Excuse me?” I said, thinking that he had mistaken me for a red-wine drinker.
“Rosé? Is that your name?”
“I wish,” I replied, saying that I didn't have a reservation. “Jesus, this joint is big. Do you serve food? Is that why you are seating people instead of just letting them park it themselves?” The host, doing his best to remain in character, merely nodded in snooty agreement, inviting me to take a look around. He obviously never got the brief about the arrival of a saucy female journo: Everyone underestimates her, but she has a nose for news and could really shake things up at this paper.
Let me first say that the room is big, vast, sizable, with lots of elegant tables everywhere. The bar itself is pretty small, with only a few stools. There are some typewriters tucked into the rafters here and there, but overall, there is absolutely nothing that says “20th Century Publishing Empire” about this place. The seating is white leather, Danish Modern. Long, floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains flank the walls. There are hints of black.
Hey! Wait a minute! What is black and white and red all over? Holy crap. Brilliant.
I sat at the bar and ordered a variation on the Bloody Mary, which they say has pho broth in it, although I could not detect it. It was still delicious. These people know how to make drinks. The bartender was like all of the bartenders in these places: He was there to make you a drink, but he wasn't going to be your buddy. The music was a rather contrived mishmash of golden oldies, oldies, and oldies-but-goodies. When I looked out over the entire area and imagined people sitting at all of the tables, I could see a certain Cotton Club or Hollywood Canteen appeal. (The bar says that it will soon be offering live music, too.) Still, everything felt forced, like the positive copy that William Randolph Hearst demanded that his newspapers write about his girlfriend Marion Davies. “Hey!” said the owners to themselves, “There's an empty space available underneath the old Hearst Building! Let's craft a publishing-empire-themed lounge around it!” And so they have, and It Is What It Is, to quote some douchey fuck-buddy whom you have fallen in love with but who does not share the sentiment.
Will this place do well? Heck yeah. Rickhouse is for after-work punch-bowl frolics with post-MBA guys who have “It Is What It Is” tattooed on their forearms. Local Edition is a date spot, or a place to take a client when you want to land a big deal, or a spot where people named Rosé unwind after a long day of redecorating the house in Sea Cliff.
Yes, nothing can stop these owners. Everything they touch turns to gold. The sun will never set on their empire. It's unsinkable.