Arcana is a plant store near 21st and Mission streets that has been open for about six months. About six weeks ago, they turned it into a wine bar at night. They bring out tables and you nestle in among the plants, drinking a selection of unusual, often small-batch wines from around the world.
The moment I stepped in, I felt good about the place. So many San Francisco bars have a gimmick. The great bars have an identity. Acana feels like exactly what it is, in a way that’s comforting, even disarming.
It was an off night, one of those especially cold and wet days we’ve been having recently. The place was deserted except for the bartender and a woman in a semi-formal black dress. The two were bantering in a way that made me think they were old friends. I was supposed to meet someone here, but was pretty sure I was going to be stood up tonight. It was disappointing, but maybe for the best: I’ve been telling myself I need to go to bars alone again, to learn how to meet people and have casual conversations the way I used to.
Meeting strangers at bars used to be one of the great pleasures in my life. Meeting people during the height of the pandemic was a different skill set, one I learned out of necessity. I got pretty good at finding ways to turn new online contacts into those “let’s meet in person” potential friends and dates. But it’s a completely different dance. Over the past few months, as I’ve gone to bar after bar with people I already know, I’ve wondered if I’ve forgotten how to meet strangers the way I used to.
Arcana’s not a big space, but it feels spacious, especially when it’s almost empty. I stood at the bar as the bartender checked my vaccine card and ID (a lot of places have been casual about that recently; Arcana wasn’t), and then showed me the QR code for their menu. While she chatted with the woman in the semi-formal black dress, I ordered a glass of malvar, a moderately uncommon Spanish wine that I don’t recall ever seeing on a menu around these parts before. This wasn’t a white or red wine, but an “orange wine” which, if I understand correctly, is white wine grapes that are fermented with the grape skins and seeds still in contact with the juice.
The bartender went to get the bottle, and I smiled at the woman next to me and wondered if I should try bantering or just leave it alone, but she introduced herself to me. We’ll call her “Beth.”
Oh, I thought. Okay. This is happening. Great.
I introduced myself, and told her that I was clearly underdressed.
“No,” she said. “I’m overdressed. I’m always overdressed.”
Beth works at a business in the neighborhood, and is a regular at Arcana now, in part because the bartender is one of her very favorite people. “Isn’t she amazing?” Beth said.
“You’ve picked well,” I told her.
“I always pick well,” she replied. “I pick people really well.”
I nodded. “That’s a great skill.”
“What do you do really well?”
Oh my God, I thought, are we flirting? Am I flirting with a stranger at a bar for the first time in almost two years?
It felt like flirting, but could I even tell anymore? Intellectually, I understood how this was supposed to work, but none of my emotional muscles were responding properly. I was mentally unprepared, even sclerotic.
“Well,” I told her, “I may have a hidden talent. Maybe two. No more than three.”
She grinned. “What are they?”
“If I tell you, they won’t be hidden!”
She kind of laughed, and considered what to say. “Well,” she said, “I do two things, I have two special talents. I pick the right people, and I make people feel like they’re exactly where they’re supposed to be.”
This seemed to be going well. “Wow. That’s impressive. Does that second talent feel like a burden sometimes?”
She considered, and nodded. “With the wrong people, absolutely. It does. But that’s why I pick the right people.” She grinned.
I nodded. “How do you make people feel like this is where they’re supposed to be?”
She put her hand against my cheek. “I just do,” she said. “Like this.”
And we’re definitely flirting.
It’s in high gear.
Such high gear that something felt off to me. Like it wasn’t really about us meeting but something else going on, under the surface. But was that just me, second guessing myself? Or maybe it’s been a long time for her, too? I wanted to be generous with us both about this … but if flirting with strangers is a dance, it felt like the music had suddenly picked up for no clear reason.
The bartender came back with my glass, and Beth abruptly turned her attention back to her. The wine was excellent, and I listened to them talk for a bit before the bartender turned back to me to ask how I liked it, which pulled me back into the conversation and soon we were comparing notes on wines and bars.
“What are your favorite wine bars around here?” the bartender asked me.
I winced, and told the truth. “I used to have answers for that,” I said. “I used to consider myself an expert on local bars. But since the pandemic … I don’t feel like I know anything anymore. I feel like I have to discover everything again, even the places I used to know.”
The truth is, my favorite bars, the places I loved to take people at the drop of a hat, like SRO in Oddjob, had closed, and I’m reeling from the loss, and I no longer feel like I have any insight worth sharing beyond what I am experiencing right here and now.
Beth nodded. “I’m the same way,” she said. Suddenly, we were talking again as we drank. She told me she’s a burlesque dancer, and has been doing it for four years. She got out her phone to show me pictures, but the bartender came back around again and the conversion shifted again, and suddenly Beth asked the bartender: “Can we go out sometime?”
And I realized: They’re not old friends. They only know each other casually. Whatever intense energy Beth was bringing to me, she was bringing to the bartender, too. Were we all just figuring this out?
Or was something off? Something really felt off now.
The two of them agreed that they were going to go out sometime — but as friends, not anything more than that — and then Beth asked to settle up.
“You’re leaving?” I said.
She nodded. “Yes.”
“I’ve …” What were we doing here? Jesus, I used to be good at this. Or at least decent at it. “I’ve … really enjoyed talking to you.”
She gave me a look that clearly said to me “now or never.”
The honest truth is, in that moment, I wanted to say: “Hey, sorry, hang on, I’m into this moment, but something feels off, and that could just be because it’s been so long since I’ve done this. Can we talk about where your head’s at?”
But I didn’t. I couldn’t articulate that thought in time. Instead I went with the way I thought the moment was supposed to go, and said: “Would you like to get together sometime, too?”
“I would,” she said.
“Shall we trade numbers? Or would you like to just discover each other by chance when we’re out again?”
She got out her phone and gave it to me. We traded numbers.
When she was gone, the Arcana bartender asked me what I wanted to drink next.
I was eyeing a sangiovese, but then said, “first, is there anything you especially recommend?”
“Yes!” she said, excited. “Right now I’m in love with an Alibernet we have, it’s from Slovakia, it’s part Alicante Bouschet and part Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s really unusual and I can’t get enough of it.”
“I have to try that,” I said.
“Yeah?” she said.
“Now, wait,” she said. “Are you thinking about having another glass after this? Because this is a dark red, and once I serve it to you, there’s no place else to go tonight …”
I considered. “No, I’m probably stopping after this.”
As she went to get the bottle, I said “For a while, I had thought that you and Beth were close friends.”
“No,” she said. “She’s great, though.”
“Yeah, I … I wondered if she’s going through something, though? It seemed like there’s something going on there … under the surface …”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “She just …” she stopped and considered carefully. “She just lost somebody. She’s definitely going through something.”
Ah. I nodded. “Yeah, I … she wanted to trade numbers, and it seemed all right but there’s a part of me that wondered if …”
“Yeah, no, that’s not a good play to make tonight,” she said.
Right. Dammit. I was going to spend the rest of the night unsure if I’d handled that well. If it was healthy for me to be in her phone. Would I have had a better sense of where the lines were if I hadn’t been so rusty at meeting people in bars?
The bartender gave me a generous pour, and I toasted her with the glass. The wine was full and dark, with extended, slightly sour notes of berries and not-quite-ripe fruit. I can’t remember tasting a wine like it before.
“Oh, that’s really something.”
“Isn’t it?” she told me. “I’m really sad about this because we’re going to be out soon.”
“It’s hard to get?”
“A lot of our wines come from small batches, where there’s only maybe 150 cases made,” she said. “So there isn’t any more.”
“Ah … that is sad.”
“Yeah, we serve enough of them that we have to get used to the heartbreak.”
“That’s life’s tragic nature,” I agreed.
She poured herself a little, and we toasted to life’s beautiful and tragic nature.
I don’t know bars in the city the way that I used to. I’m no longer good at meeting people in bars. I don’t know if I should have told you parts of this story. A girl gave me her number and I don’t know if it’s ethical for me to call it, or if that was just a beautiful moment in a tragic story that should be left where it was.
All I know is: I have a new favorite wine bar in San Francisco.