Paprika, which was described to me as “an Eastern European-themed gastropub” on 24th off Mission, really does have the atmosphere of a cafe in a formerly communist stronghold that’s occupied by leftover revolutionaries and hard-up intellectuals. It’s a small room with just a few tables, feels a little run down, and — on a recent visit — featured a strange and weathered old man with a beard and a scarf sitting at the very small bar for no clear reason.
When you walk in and see him staring into space, you ask yourself, “is he thinking something profound? I bet he is.” If you saw this man sitting on a park bench, you would not give him the benefit of the doubt. The small party at a nearby table also featured someone with a beard holding forth on the decline of San Francisco.
The trouble with classic Eastern European communist holdover cafes is … they’re usually pretty terrible. The fact that Paprika was fairly crowded early on a Wednesday night made me hopeful that it would display some hidden talent, some special gift — and, in fact, it got absolutely bustling for almost 90 minutes that night, with the small and charmingly apathetic waitstaff clearly working harder than they signed up for to keep up with the rush.
I found a table and looked at the menu. It was … small. Just one page, double-sided, with a few food options on one side, and a few beers and wines from the Czech Republic and Hungary on the other, both in large type. There was no point in studying the menu — it was its own flash card. I got a Czech Pilsner (let’s please not pretend that we know enough about beer to really tell one Czech Pilsner from another by name alone — this one was golden and only slightly hoppy) and settled in with a book.
Michelle came in and joined me 10 minutes later. She ordered a beer, too, and we began talking about big art events that have recently happened.
“Life is … extra weird … right now,” she said.
“Hey,” I asked. “Are we still going to organize the wedding show in November?”
She took in a breath. “I really want to, but “NIMBY” “needs a fundraiser and they’ve asked me if I can produce another smash arcade in the fall. And if it happens anywhere near November, I just won’t have the time.” She thought for a moment. “It would be great if you could help with the smash arcade! Do you want to?”
I exhaled. “That depends on when they’re planning it, because I have an out-of-town retreat I’m helping design in October, and then I’m leaving town at the end of November, so, it just might not be possible.”
And there you have the San Francisco underground artist’s conundrum, circa 2018: We can’t create the underground events we most want to because we’re too damn tired from putting on the underground events we most feel obliged to.
The scene isn’t dead, it’s just exhausted.
We ordered more beers, and our food came — and a minute later Michelle gave me a look. “It’s … not very flavorful,” she said. “And, even though we ordered different things, I think we got exactly the same dish, just that yours has beef and mine has chicken, and there weren’t that many things to order in the first place.”
I liked it, but not in a “you must try this goulash!” kind of way. I leaned forward over the table. “Okay,” I whispered. “I’m going to admit it: I DO NOT UNDERSTAND how a place like this can possibly stay in business near ground zero of the gentrification war!”
“Yeah! Usually places that can sustain themselves here are colorful and flashy.”
“I know! The way things work around here for a place like this, between the moment we sat down and now, somebody should have bought the building, torn it down, and built a luxury condominium around us. Instead of a barback asking for our orders, there should be a Google executive standing by our table laughing that he’s going to use the Ellis Act to evict us from our chairs, and we’ll never be able to sit in this town again.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “I’m happy it’s here, but … how? WHAT is the appeal that keeps it going in San Francisco? Our tastes are so baroque — it offers nothing we look for! Even if there’s some kind of Bay Area scene for Eastern European bistros that I don‘t know about, surely they’d all be flocking to a borscht pop-up with fusion ingredients operated by the mustached guys who did the cinnamon-avocado gnocchi stand that everybody loved back in 2016!”
“Is it that hard to find Czech beers?” Michelle asked.
“No! They’re the gold standard for lagers!”
“Do you think it’s a front? And we’re surrounded by the San Francisco Czech mafia’s dinner rush?”
I considered this. “It does kind of remind me of this vacuum cleaner store near my house and … I cannot understand how a place like that exists now either.”
“And you think that place is a front?”
“I really do, although I don’t know for whom.”
“Did you ever buy a vacuum there?”
“I did! It was actually really handy — the one time I shopped there in the last eight years.”
“Huh.” She looked around. “Yeah, I don’t understand this place at all.”
We ordered another round or two, we kept talking, and gradually Paprika emptied out around us.
“Are you having this thing happen,” Michelle asked, “where some of your oldest friends from back home are all going kind of crazy at once? Because I am.”
I sighed. “I don’t have enough friends left from ‘back home’ to notice a trend. But it used to be that, when my friends were suffering, it was easy to figure out how to be part of a solution for them. Now, I’m increasingly finding that when my friends suffer, they’re going into some kind of spiral that they don’t seem to pull out of. And it’s terrible. Friends you can help are the best.”
“I think it’s getting harder for weird people out in the world,” she said after a moment’s pause. “It’s lonelier and more bitter than it used to be. I think.”
“In a way I am grateful for the exhaustion, “ I agreed, “because it’s better than bitterness.”
The waiter came over to us. “Excuse me,” he said, “how many beers did each of you have?”
“Are you closing?”
“Oh no no no,” he said. “Stay as long as you like. I just want to check.”
We told him what we’d ordered, then added one more round, and sat a while longer. We couldn’t tell you a single reason to really like the place, or why so many people obviously seem to, but the fact is — we had a great time. It’s somehow a perfect spot to linger with a friend over a very limited selection of moderately exotic beers and wine.
“Maybe it just gets out of its own way?” I suggested as we descended into the BART station. “Maybe that’s the secret.”
“That makes sense,” Michelle agreed. “But how do you DO that in San Francisco?”
We still don’t know.