I walked into Lone Palm on one of those days we’ve been having where San Francisco can’t decide if there’s going to be a thunderstorm or not. Crossing the threshold, I went from “cloudy” to “dark” – Lone Palm is a “forget we have windows, drink by candlelight” kind of place.
It’s also the kind of place that seems larger than it is. Though only the size of a tech billionaire’s other walk-in closet, Lone Palm uses its space well, with about a third devoted to a long bar with lots of seats, and the other two-thirds all tables and chairs. The lone TV was set in a corner, silently playing a black-and-white movie. There were only a few people there when I arrived, all of whom were obviously regulars.
“… I’ve been working in bars a long time, so, there are things I understand that people might not immediately understand,” the bartender was telling the customer I sat down next to at the bar. “But some things seem really simple to me, and I don’t know how some people don’t get them. Like, ‘Don’t swing up the counter to get behind the bar when there are things on it.’ ‘Don’t unplug stuff.’ These are things you should just know.”
A moment later she turned to me. “Hi. What can I get you?”
I took a breath. “Let’s talk cocktails. What do you recommend?”
“I’ve been making a lot of cosmos and Manhattans lately.”
Those were a good pick for a place like this, but I wasn’t feeling it. “What’s the cocktail that, if I didn’t drink it here, I’d be missing out?”
A long pause. “I honestly don’t know how to answer that. I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“Okay.” I nodded. I’ve encountered this before, but rarely with an apology. Usually bartenders just tell me to shut my pretentious mouth and get with the program. But I like asking it anyway. How they answer this is the difference between a “cocktail bar” and a “bar that serves cocktails.” Lone Palm is definitely the latter.
She hadn’t given up, though. “Is there a base liquor you’re looking for?” she asked. “A flavor?”
I considered. “I have just returned, tempest tossed, from a long a long and precarious trip.”
“Thank you. Whatever that makes you think of, make that drink.”
She considered. “I’ve been drinking a lot of mescal lately.”
“Mescal will work.”
“Okay … Let me make you what I’ve been drinking lately.”
See? This can turn out very well after all.
She came back a moment later. “This is basically a mescal Collins,” she said. I offered her a “cheers” with the glass.
It was good but unspectacular – a “table wine” of cocktails.
Another regular joined us, who knew both the bartender and the other person I was next to. An older man, he started talking about an artist residency he’s applying for in Kentucky. A chance to get away and focus on his work without being distracted. The city can be distracting.
Both men, it turned out, were artists, and as the bartender left to talk to other customers, they talked about the benefits of staying up late versus getting up early. “I’m naturally nocturnal, but … the advantages of being awake in the mornings when everyone else is are just too good these days,” the first one said. However distracting it may be, the city has gone from being hospitable to night owls to favoring to early risers.
It’s unfair to expect it, but I’m always disappointed whenever I eavesdrop on artists talking about anything other than art.
I turned my attention to the snack bowls, five of which were spaced periodically along the bar. Lone Palm is locally famous for the quality of its bar snack mixes, and it’s easy to see why: Not only was everything I tried delicious – kind of a “Chex Mix” collection of salty-savory items, if Chex Mix actually gave a damn – but each bowl had different ingredients in it. That … that is amazing. Someone puts real time into this. A labor of love.
The artists moved on to talking about how much they hate writing artist statements. It’s hard to verbally describe what you’re doing with visual mediums, and if you try, you often end up being overly technical. “I might end up paying somebody to write it,” one finally said. The other agreed that might not be a bad idea, then stepped outside for a cigarette. I never saw them again.
The bartender was chatting attentively with a group of regulars at the other side of the bar, being sure to call them by name. So far she’d known literally everyone who’d come in, except me. This place pulls regulars, and keeps them. Not surprisingly, it didn’t seem like she was paying any attention to me at all. But the moment after I was finished with my drink — literally the moment after — there she was, asking if I needed anything.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s what you’re drinking now. What’s the cocktail you were drinking before you shifted over to this?”
She smiled at me crookedly. “Rosé.”
I laughed. We are booze-incompatible, but we seemed to be making this work anyway. “Okay, I’m looking for some kind of cocktail sequence ….”
She was there with me now, all traces of her earlier hesitation gone. “I can make you something else I’m drinking a lot, which is tequila, lime, and Campari with sweetener. “
“Yes, let’s do that. Although …”
“It’s pretty bitter.”
“That’s just what I was going to ask about. Can we up the sweetener?”
“Sure! But I’m trying to keep you in the agave family, since I think if you mix them it’s not so great the next day.”
“I’m glad you’re on my team.”
I looked around again as she made the drink. I could imagine Hemingway drinking here. Dark and foreboding but also welcoming, with an easy vibe that plays well against the sense that this is a place you would go to hide out. The name evokes exactly the right spirit for the place. It’s not a San Francisco bar: It’s an expat bar that appears at the beginning of a noir movie set in Cuba.
The new drink was balanced just about right for my taste, and was a delightful improvement over the first. This was working well.
Two guys in suits sit down on the other side of me. “The usual?” The bartender asked one of them
“What kind of vodka do you like?”
As she made the drink, they started talking in rapid-fire German. They were clearly talking about how somebody’s Valentine’s Day had gone, but I couldn’t understand any of the details. I hate it when that happens. Why don’t I speak more languages? The place was starting to fill up. It wasn’t “packed” yet, but it was on the verge.
“Get you anything else?” The bartender asked at exactly the moment I’d finished. She is SO good!
“How about one more in the sequence? Where do we go from here?”
“Ummmm … ” She wracked her brain. “How do you feel about spicy?”
“I can do spicy.”
She nodded, we trusted each other now, and a few moments later came back with a drink. “It’s pretty much a spicy mescal margarita, but instead of lime it has lemon.”
This was the best of all. Still, at $10, I’m conflicted. If I’m just paying for the drink, that’s too much. They’re tasty, but this is simple, no-frills, mixology. But if I’m paying for the atmosphere with the drink, that’s just fine. And it’s probably not an accident that most people here had been ordering wines and beers, all of which are cheaper. Whether you’d call Lone Palm’s beer and wine list “predictable and pedestrian” or “comfy” is your call, but again, it’s not really the point. You don’t go here for the booze, you go here to step into a moment from the beginning of a noir movie, where you get the sense that everybody has a story and that, for all the darkness, everything just might turn out okay.