So many people have been gushing to me about True Laurel that I’d expected to walk into some kind of palatial estate, a Versailles on Alabama Street where Willie Brown was dressed like a 16th-century Catholic Cardinal, whispering advice to the bartenders on how to maintain the balance of power in Europe.
Instead it’s a small room of concrete and metal that uses furniture to divide itself into sections and appear more spacious than it really is. It has two bars — which is astonishing for a space so tiny — and a set of tables. Far from Versailles, it reminded me of a black box theater about to do a really unconventional staging of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Which is fitting. Because, when you think about it, drinking together really is the original form of immersive theater.
I just saved you the cost of season tickets to A.C.T. You’re welcome.
There was only one seat open at the bar when I arrived, so I jumped on it. It was, I have to say, an ergonomically perfect, contemporary, and practical twist on a bar stool: comfortable to sit on, with a convenient place to put your feet. It’s weird, I thought, to sit down at a bar and hope that the drinks are as good as the stools. But this focus on design, I would come to learn, is kind of True Laurel’s calling card.
There were three servers behind the 12-foot long bar, which meant my water was poured and my menus set before I’d even finished sitting down. They were asking if I could be helped more quickly than I could process the question. Just a few moments into my making jokes about it being a black box theater, True Laurel had made me feel like I was on an assembly line. This is not what I had expected at all.
Full disclosure: I’m loosely friends with an owner. We haven’t seen each other in at least a year (the last time was, curiously enough, at a nearby McDonald’s, where we both seemed vaguely embarrassed to admit we were eating lunch), but we go back to the days when he was running his brilliant illicit kitchen out of a Mission space that I helped manage, and we occasionally talked and admired one another’s work. And the thing that I always remembered about David’s work — aside from its utter idiosyncratic genius (that Versailles thing? He could pull it off) — was the fact that even though his kitchens really were a kind of assembly line, cranking out ingenious gourmet food like it was needed to win the war, it always felt like you were dining. You got to sit, and get to know the people next to you, and luxuriate in this weird and wonderful experience you were having. There was a timeless quality to the illicit experience, while the legit space of True Laurel seems rushed. I’d spend all night trying to figure out if this was a deliberate aesthetic choice, or if it just worked out that way.
The drink menu was heavy on the $15 cocktails, but damn they looked good. I started with a Spirit Sage (Islay gin, wild black sage bud, lime, stoka, ting), and unlike literally every other premium cocktail in the city, it arrived with blinding speed.
And it was delicious. So were the Crispy Hen of the Woods mushrooms (“basically an excuse to eat lots of crunchy batter and sour cream,” the server who recommended them told me). These also arrived as if they’d been delivered by bullet train.
The True Laurel spirit list completely ignores the standards to go straight for the impressive and obscure — which is exactly what I had expected. There’s a $60 reserve scotch and a $40 reserve Madeira that I longed to try, but didn’t. I didn’t need to: Everything under $20 was great.
The presence of all the staff and the emphasis on fast, efficient service lead to overboard moments. I was constantly being asked how I was doing, and whenever I put the menus down — even for a moment — a bartender walked over and re-positioned them so that they were flush with the edge of the bar, where he wanted them to be because …. they looked better? They improved the feng shui? Even when I explained that I’m still using them, that I really will pick them back up and look at them in another minute, thank you, they got moved 30 seconds later.
I felt like either we had a failure to communicate, or I was a faulty part that needed to be recalled by the factory.
I moved on to an “In the pines, under the palms,” (toasted coconut rye, terroir gin, pine tips, sweet vermouth, maraschino, absinthe) which was somehow so gently spirit-forward as to be lightly overwhelming. It’s like drinking something that will kill you slowly on a bracing mountain top, breathing in the healthy air.
One of the bartenders also strongly recommended the True Laurel patty melt, so I tried it, and immediately asked myself two questions: first “what witchcraft is this?” And second “why do I ever eat anything else?”
“Yeah,” the bartender said. “I just got my wisdom teeth out, but as soon as I can go back to solid foods? I’m ordering two.”
I laughed, because it was true, and a moment later another bartender walked by and re-adjusted the menus from where I’d put them down.
This time I stopped him. “Okay, WHAT’S UP with this?”
He laughed, slightly, self-depreciatingly. “I’m obsessive,” he admitted. Then walked away.
Okay, well, at least he’d admitted it.
He walked back. “Actually,” he said, “our menus are expensive.” Then walked away again.
Wait, what? Were they? They didn’t look especially expensive. Just the usual small folded paper rectangles. And why would that mean they needed to be placed flush against the edge of the bar instead of …
He came back again. “It just looks better that way,” he told me, and then moved off.
Somebody involved in True Laurel is neurotic as fuck, and I’m pretty sure it’s not me.
Well, not about this, anyway.
Even as True Laurel cleared out, the pace never faltered. No matter how many people were in the bar, the staff kept crazy busy, a whirl of activity. Everything arrives moments after you’ve ordered it. The bartenders aggressively “serve” you, but they don’t really interact with you. They don’t seem to have the time.
Or maybe I’m just not a regular. Or maybe they’re all afraid I’ll steal their menus. Which, for the record, is true. If that’s what was happening, they were absolutely right. They had me from the get-go, and even if I hadn’t been planning on stealing their menus when I walked in — which, to be clear, I was considering — I was sure as hell going to do it now. They were all but daring me. This was the shoplifter’s equivalent of an attractive nuisance.
I finished the night up with the Mai O Mai (Panamanian rum, pistachio orgeat, Curacao, coffee rum float, milk washed), also a clean and intense spirit-forward drink. Then — on the bartender’s recommendation once again — ended with the fig-leaf ice cream, which was superb. It was all so damn good.
As she took away my bowl, yet another bartender re-adjusted the menus to make them flush with the edge of the bar.
“See?” the first bartender said, walking by. “It isn’t just me!”
Um … yeah …
I left True Laurel with the strange impression that it is a beautiful but unhallowed hybrid: an industrial factory of a high-end cocktail bar that does both insanely well, but that I don’t really want to go together. I would take someone there who I wanted to impress, but not someone who I wanted to have a good time with.
I suppose, all things considered, that I only have this final message to offer:
David, your menus are safe. If you want them back, you know how to reach me.