It’s a rainy San Francisco evening, and Bon Voyage is just on the cusp of being “too crowded” when I arrive. My friend Scott has already texted me to say he’ll be 30 minutes late, which is gracious of him and entirely expected. I hate this city sometimes.
Bon Voyage is a high-ceilinged room, two stories with the second story used for a balcony area with tables and its own bar. There’s mostly standing room and bar seats on the first floor. There are three bartenders behind the first-floor long bar, and no sooner have I sat down than one of them is in front of me, pouring a water and placing a menu.
The tiki-themed cocktail menu isn’t extensive by serious cocktail-bar standards, but it’s just big and original enough that I decide to ask one of the bartenders what she recommends. She points me first to a Bay Wolf (Plymouth gin, Lillet, Suze, “Hawaiian punch,” green tea, lime, prosecco, served frozen.)
“People tell me it’s the best slushy they ever had, and it’s really indicative of what we’re trying to do here,” she says. I order one and look over the food menu, which is an experience of cognitive dissonance. It’s not because, damn it, I am not going to spend $17 on Americanized Kung Pao Chicken (which is exactly how one of the bartenders described it to another customer).
No, the problem is that the food menu is Chinese, the cocktail menu starts with Singapore-inspired drinks, then goes full Tiki, while the room decor is African — or rather, I should say “African,” because while I’m no subject matter expert, I also see no evidence that any specific tribe or nation is represented here. Rather, it’s “Africa” as a kitsch safari concept, an evocation of the exotic. Which is worth a discussion on its own terms, but the point right now is that I do not understand what the fuck ties all this together. What am I missing that helps all this make sense?
The bartender puts my drink down and, sure, okay, it’s a tasty slushy in a small glass. All the drinks I have at Bon Voyage will be tasty and well-made, but they are also all $14-to-$16, and I struggle to convince myself that they’re worth it.
But I do ask her the question that’s bothering me. “What ties this all together? What am I missing?”
“Well,” she says, “I can tell you the story that they came up with to explain the bar.”
The way she phrased that doesn’t seem promising. “… okay …”
“Imagine that there was a guy in the 1950s, an explorer type. And he had a boat, and sailed all around the world to the countries on the equator. That’s what this all is. It’s equatorial. And then he came back, and opened a bar in Florida in the 1970s. And this is that bar.”
Okay, be honest — this is really weak, right? It’s not just me? The guy doesn’t even have a name! It’s like they consulted the hottest experience designer in the shitty-bar-concept industry, and he sketched this idea out on a cocktail napkin before dying on the spot of a heart attack, and they decided to run with it as-is.
It also doesn’t answer the question: What The Fuck? It’s a deliberate non-answer: If there were a guy who liked all this stuff and he opened a bar, this would be that bar. Okay, but, since there wasn’t, and he didn’t, why did you?
I order a second drink, the Cox’s Bazar (Don Q anejo rum, Worthy Park Overproof Rum, Ancho Reyes, Hidalgo PX sherry, coconut mango chutney, lime, served on crushed ice), which comes in a tiki mug that is, as tiki mugs go, understated. As I’m texting my delayed friend, the man sitting next to me, who has the hint of an accent from the Subcontinent (an explorer perhaps?), asks what I’m doing.
I’m texting a friend, I say, and he says, “Yeah, I used to have friends.”
He explains that he used to have a bunch of pals, a whole circle, and that they all did things together, went out to restaurants, movie nights – friend stuff – but then he got so busy with work that he just didn’t have any time for them, and eventually they stopped inviting him to things and took him off their email list.
“I just got so busy with work, you know? You really have to hustle all the time, in this city.” I assume he’s talking about his tech career until I mention tech, and he corrects me: “No, I sell cocaine.”
Ohhhh, right, I get it now: This is a pitch meeting.
“Tell me about your history with cocaine,” he says. “I know you’ve got one. I can see it on your face.”
He is literally the first person ever to think that about me. Oh brother, have you got the wrong guy. But we’re way past the “none of your business,” stage, so I shake my head sadly.
“Oh no, I never talk about that time in my life.”
“It was good, though, right?” he asks.
“It was …” I affect a far off, contemplative, look. “Intense.”
“Like highs and lows?”
I shake my head again. “It’s over. It’s done. Never to be spoken of.”
“Shit went down?” he asks.
“Have you ever killed a man?”
What kind of first impression did I make?
“I don’t necessarily mean on purpose,” he explains. “It could have been an accident. That happens.”
I do not understand his sales technique.
But maybe, if there were a guy in the 1950s who sailed around the equator, and then he opened a bar in Florida in the 1970s, this would be the dope dealer at that bar. Sure. Why not?
I’m in the process of explaining, once again, that the door on this terrifying-but-fascinating period of my history is closed forever, when Scott arrives, and I suggest that we move to a quieter part of the bar to catch up.
It’s a lie, of course. There is no quieter part of the bar. But it does the trick.