Waiting at the bar in The Beehive on Valencia between 19th and 20th, I am sipping “A Beehive” (Botanist gin, sarsaparilla honey, ginger, lemon, salt). It’s served in a highball glass and has a long, perfectly clear, rectangular ice cube in it, the kind that you can look down through and see out the bottom of your glass. Which was a nice trick the first time I saw it in a bar. But that was years ago.
But then, The Beehive is a deliberately retro space: “A ‘60s-inspired neighborhood cocktail bar that channels free-spirited, funkier times,” to quote the website. Physically this means it has ugly ’60s-ish wallpaper, plays ’60s music, and has a modern TV playing the John Waters movie Cry-Baby, which was made in the 1990s and set in the 1950s and … I dunno, somebody thought it worked.
I’m waiting for Miriam, and lost in nostalgia of a different kind. She used to be my favorite drinking companion, years ago, before she moved back to Australia. We’ve sorta kept in touch since then, you know how that goes. Then yesterday, at a party to celebrate the publication of my new book, I walked back to the merch table and there she was, standing next to it, nonchalantly flipping through pages. She’d been planning a trip back to the States, saw I had this event coming up, and arranged her trip to make it there — then hadn’t told anyone she was coming to San Francisco, so she could take me by surprise.
It worked. I’d been completely thrown. Now, the night after, we were going out to a bar together, to see if we still had the magic.
“The Beehive,” I’m sorry to say, was a disappointing drink. The flavors just didn’t come together. It seemed like this bar could do better. The long shelf of liquor behind the bar seemed decently curated, with a good whiskey selection. I hoped this wasn’t an omen.
Miriam arrives 10 minutes late, but she arrives. We hug, she sits down, and then she immediately says: “San Francisco seems weirdly like the set of a Netflix show to me.”
“Yeah – like a staged set for a TV show or movie where most of the buildings are just fronts, and if you walk around the back you see a whole bunch of crew working to keep the illusion up that this is a real place. It’s weird. All of America, from what little I’ve seen since I got back, feels that way, but San Francisco really seems like it. And it wasn’t like that when I lived here, was it?”
I consider. “San Francisco has always been a place for transients and people spending time between other destinations … but, yeah, I think a lot of its organic communities have been devastated, and without that, the whole thing is more like a staged version of a city than an actual one … a model for real estate showings …”
“Every time I used to come here, I was so compelled to try and stay if I possibly could, I was really expecting that to happen this trip, too, but so far I feel completely distanced from it all. It’s weird.”
I nod. “You’ve had a really hard time with that. Do you want to stay?”
She shakes her head. “I’ve stopped trying to figure out what I want. Instead I’m figuring out who I am. When I can do that, what I want takes care of itself.”
“And so far?”
She gives me a sad look. “Nothing here’s speaking to me now. I don’t even know what I’d be a part of if I were to try and be a part of it.”
There’s a pause “Hey,” she asks, “are you going to get another drink?”
“Yeah, I’m going to order a Giant Step” (Dewar’s 12 Scotch, Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Pear Brandy, Fortified Wine)
She gives me a disappointed look. “You’re not going to order the way we used to?”
“It’s not going to work here.”
“No, it’ll be an asshole move.”
“Really? Were we assholes?”
“No it’s not always an asshole move. Some people really love it, they seize it as a meaningful opportunity. Other people … sometimes they get really upset, even offended.”
“Oh.” She takes a look at the menu. A moment later, she puts it down and sighs. “Honestly, I don’t think I even can order drinks off a menu anymore …”
I nod. “All right, let’s try this.” I get the bartender’s attention.
“I’ll have a Giant Step,” I say.
“Sure,” he agrees.
“And she …” I grin. “Is very hard to order for.” Actually, this was always my thing. She picked it up from me. She just likes to take things further than I do. “She wants the drink that is the essence of your skill as a bartender. The drink that most speaks to your soul and craft.”
The bartender blinks. “I can make you any drink you want,” he says. “Any drink at all.”
“Right,” I say. “But what drink do you make, you personally, that inspires you? What if we were to put the menu down and just do something interesting?”
A slightly panicked look sets into his eyes. “Honestly folks, I can make you any drink in the world. You just have to tell me. All I want to do is to make you what you want.”
“Thank you,” Miriam says. “But what I want is for you to be active in this moment with us, to be creative. What flavors inspire you? I want to try that.”
He gapes at us, and after an uncomfortable silence Miriam picks up the menu and orders a Hound Dog (peanut-washed Bulleit Bourbon, Oloroso Vermouth blend, caramelized banana). He makes it quickly, driven by obvious relief, and I order a banh mi slider to go with, just because.
“See?” I whispered to Miriam as he gathered his ingredients. “Told you.”
She sighed. “Yeah. I swear, is San Francisco becoming the new Ohio?”
“Maybe. But Ohio’s got some really creative people in it.”
“That’s my point.”
My drink is fine. Better. Perfectly adequate. Miriam’s is also fine, although you can really taste the banana. “It seems like banana is kind of a recurring flavor here,” she says. “I’ve smelled a lot of it since I came in.”
She sighs. “The thing about this bar,” she says, “is that it could totally be in Ohio. It’s got a whole ‘60s theme, but it’s Mad Men ’60s, not San Francisco ’60s. There’s absolutely nothing connecting it to the city, to the Mission, to the local culture, at all. It’s just trying to be hip in a way that will be obvious to someone who just got off a flight, and so it has nothing to say to anyone who lives down the block.”
“Yeah, there’s no San Francisco in it.”
“Can we go somewhere else?”
We discuss what old places are still around, and whether they’re what they used to be, and then head off into the night. We’re gonna be at this a while.
“Have a good night!” the bartender calls after us as we leave. He looks, in that moment, less like a person and more like an actor playing one.