It took me a long time to figure out why Winston Churchill was not re-elected in 1945, after World War II. It is hard to imagine something like that happening these days: A strong public figure leads his nation through its finest hour, only to be defeated by someone from the opposing party when all is said and done. Even our fair country re-elected George W. Bush after 9/11, and he, sir, was no Winston Churchill. I believe what it came down to was this: The Tories were not big on handouts, and Britain really needed a bunch of them in the wake of all that destruction. Labour offered the citizenry a lot more. Still, Churchill had to feel like a governess whose charges had outgrown the need for a nanny; you give and you give, and then poof! One day they are off to college with nary a goodbye.
The bar space at the corner of 14th and Church has undergone a lot of changes and reinventions, so perhaps naming its latest avatar Churchill makes sense. Judging by the fly-by-night, short-lived, and unsuccessful nature of its last two incarnations (the Transfer and BOC), it will need the stalwart, bulldog tenacity of its namesake to make it — not to mention some fiscal conservatism. There is something freaky about the placement of this bar; the qi is off, despite being at a busy corner that would seem to have everything going for it. Safeway is nearby, should you need to buy yourself a roast chicken. You have the J-Church line right outside the door, should you need to hop on and get your upper-middle-class ass back to Noe Valley. Still, inside any bar that sets up camp on this corner, you can't help but feel like a roadhouse Goldilocks in some sort of holding pattern, holed up in a demon-rum purgatory for lost souls who haven't quite made it to the next bar.
A reader told me that the place was “strange,” and that he had walked in, looked around, and then promptly left. He wanted me to form my own opinion, so he didn't give me much information. I was intrigued. Would there be the fabled assless chaps (a clichéd holdover from the 1970s I have yet to see, ever, in the Castro), or a roomful of nuns, or perhaps bikers, or maybe even kitten jugglers? My friend Ed and I were determined to find out.
We had just finished dinner at Home, where the food was as good as usual but our server was way too old to be rocking a Bieber cut. Churchill is right across the street, so we stumbled over and got in line to have our IDs checked. This was already something new. I have never had to show identification at this address. I got a brief look inside, and the joint was packed. Drag queens slipped past us and headed down the street, which was odd, because at first glance the place seemed filled with straight professionals. Once inside we stood there, looking around, unsure of where to head. It was an eclectic mix of people, gay and straight, older and younger, rich and barely making the rent on their studios.
The decor was quite nice, though a bit trendy: Old West chic, with reclaimed wood, interesting uses of rope, and burnished metal thrown in for contrast. Churchill is also one of many places pushing the artisan drink thing. I have gone on and on about this, and will not bore you with it now. I will say that this bar's current incarnation is its best yet. Once the dust settles and the novelty wears off, it will be interesting to see what sort of people will continue to populate it. You can't go wrong with bottomless mimosas in this neighborhood, so there's always that to fall back on should things start to slow down.
Ed and I sat on the edge of one of the sofas on the raised platforms near the windows. The rest of the bar was standing room, with some tables scattered around. In the back is a pool table, which is so close to the women's room that I would guess that at least a dozen asses are poked each night.
I was a bit baffled about the crowd. How did downtown professionals and people who listen to John Mayer end up here? I suppose they might live in the neighborhood, but they were all dressed up. Girls were wearing heels and dresses, and not just the drag queens. There were packs of men from J. Crew catalogs leaning against the bar. Gay or straight? Hard to say. I chose the J. Crew analogy because they seemed East Coast-ish in their style — not hunky enough to be Abercrombie and Fitch, but way beyond Penney's.
I found myself staring. I asked Ed what he thought: Were the guys at the bar straight? He stared, too, and pondered. “Hard to say,” he offered. One way to tell is to see whom they are looking at. This is harder than it sounds. Men get a certain look when they are scoping out a sexual ideal, but following their gaze to the correct ass is more difficult. I decided to make eye contact with one of them. Not that I look like Megan Fox or anything, but straight men who make eye contact with straight women in a bar give off certain “tells.” For one thing, they immediately look away. If they think you are cute, they will look back again. They might also put their hand in their hair, unconsciously fixing it. Women do the same thing. I chose the one guy from the pack of four who I thought might be a sexual ideal, and waited for him to notice me burning lasers into his face with my eyes.
Pearl Jam came on the sound system. I fucking hate that goddamn band. Churchill was getting lamer by the minute. Ed ripped into his Eddie Vedder singing impersonation, which always cracks me up. I still hadn't gotten the attention of my target. Finally, he glanced over. We locked eyes. He lowered his head slightly but kept my gaze, then he took a pull on his beer and looked to the side. He finished his swig, looked down at his bottle, then back up at me. Aha! Straight.
“They are straight, ” I told Ed. “Wow, we can play this game all night.” As soon as I said it I knew it was a lie. Besides, some bad reggae came on the sound system. People were asking the drag queens if they could take their picture. It felt like an office Christmas party had invaded Moby Dick.
We left, but I hold out hope that Churchill will continue to have a mixed crowd. It's not for me, but I'm glad it exists. Kind of like avant-garde jazz.