It’s been more than two years since I’ve been to Trick Dog, and I kind of dragged “Martin” there because I was curious to see how the pandemic had changed it.
“I’ve only been there once. I remember it being really crowded and really loud,” Martin said. “It was an interesting bar that it was impossible to enjoy myself in.”
“Exactly!” I said as we walked over from his office. “It represents the absolute best and absolute worst of our bars at the same time. The drinks are amazing — always among the best San Francisco’s pouring. The menus are genuinely innovative and interesting, actual works of art. The space is gorgeously designed, it’s truly lovely. So much thought has gone into the physical design of the place. But absolutely no thought has gone into the human element of it.”
“It’s an uncomfortable space to be in,” Martin said.
“Right. The moment you get more than just a few people in there, the acoustics make it hard to have a conversation, the arrangement of sitting and standing areas makes it somehow both hard to hang with the people you came with and inconvenient to meet new people … it’s one of the best bars in the city and one of the worst places to have a bar experience, and the contradiction just drives me crazy.”
I took a breath. “Or at least that’s what it was like in 2019.”
What we discovered, a few moments later, is that over the past three years, Trick Dog has changed far less than I have.
They ask to see your vax card at the door; that’s different. And they have an outdoor seating area now. Beyond that? Trick Dog has picked up exactly where it left off.
It was moderately crowded, and the echoey acoustics made the combination of the standard bar noises and background music a hostile environment in which to talk. On the other hand, Martin was immediately impressed by the current menus, which took the form of an intellectual broadsheet.
“This is embossed!” he said, running his hands over it. “That’s really cool.”
“They’re works of art,” I agreed.
“It’s funny,” he said, “I don’t usually like places that have punny names for drinks or work a theme to death, but for some reason I don’t mind it here.”
“Honestly, they do it so well here that they make it look easy, which encourage a lot of other places to try to do it too, and since those places aren’t nearly as good at it, it drags the whole quality of San Francisco bars down,” I said. “It’s a blessing and a curse. There’s a lesson here somewhere.”
I ordered a Michaelangelo (Don Q rum, amontillado sherry, pandan, coconut dulce de leche, and lime), and Martin ordered a Hungry Ghost (Ketel One, amaro Montenegro, poppy seed, date, lemon, and rose), and there was no question that we would immediately take them outside to the covered parklet. It was cold and gray out there: Outdoors wasn’t a good option, but it was still a better option.
Back in the day, Martin was involved in organizing a number of the strange and wonderful art events that made San Francisco what it was but have been poorly recorded by history — things like Popcorn Anti-Theater and the Funeral Lottery. We’ve never really worked together on anything like that, and we were talking in a way that suggested that might change in the future, but who knows? Who can imagine a future right now?
I looked around at Trick Dog, first inside, then out, and shook my head. “I’m stuck between being glad that things are still the way they were, and wishing they had changed,” I told him.
“Oh, they will,” he said. “They always do. It just takes longer than we think. And with the pandemic, all of us said ‘Oh, this will change everything!’ but when we started coming out of it, we all started telling ourselves ‘I have to do everything the way I used to!’ so … it will change. We’re just holding on.”
If I’m holding on, it’s just barely. This was the first bar I’ve been to in the almost month since I caught covid, and there’s no way around it: I’ve got the yips.
Honestly, even if it had been empty and pleasant inside Trick Dog, I probably still would have wanted to drink outside, because I’m spooked. Our covid rates keep climbing and yet we’ve abandoned our mask mandates on public transit. What the hell is happening? I’m afraid to talk to strangers again. Two guys in suits were sitting near us in the parklet for a while, and one of them was talking about his plans to neutralize his political enemies at work. It sounded so trivially machiavellian … machinations over millions of dollars often sound more like children’s games than they do real life … and there was a part of me that desperately wanted to pry my way into that conversation. But I couldn’t. I don’t have it in me right now.
For all its remarkable beauty and wonderful drinks, Trick Dog could never offer me the kind of bar experience I wanted. But, even if it could, I can’t do it.
The Michaelangelo came in a tiki glass and was exceptional, a remarkable blend of flavors. I felt the same way about the Hungry Ghost, but Martin didn’t like it. I admired the balance, but he wanted the rose and date flavors to be much bolder. To threaten to overwhelm him. I felt terrible: The only reason he was here was because of me. And, dammit, I do love these drinks.
“Change always takes longer than we think,” I told Martin. “People saw the financial meltdown of 2008 coming, it was absolutely predicted, but the predictions were that it would happen in 2005, 2006, 2007 … it took years longer than seemed possible, but it happened. It’s the same thing with our current stock market crash … that’s been in the works for a long time. Hell, the pandemic’s impact on the economy got delayed longer than people thought … but eventually it comes. Slowly, then suddenly.”
“I didn’t know the 2008 crash was predicted,” he said. “That’s interesting. I think our current political crisis has been predicted for a while.”
I nodded. “Have you ever read George Washinton’s farewell address?”
“No,” he said. “Washington? Really?”
“Yep. He explicitly warned America not to create political parties, because exactly this was going to happen. Then, as soon as his speech was done, what did they do but create political parties.”
“We can’t say we weren’t warned.”
“No we can’t.”
Michael finishes his drink with a gulp, and then I have to finally speak the obvious truth. “You’re cold and miserable right now, aren’t you.”
“I can go back to the office and get another shirt and a coat,” he said, putting a brave face on it.
The truth is, I wanted to go in for another drink. The truth is that I am hanging on to Trick Dog with my fingernails, even as I want significant things about it to change. But here we were, and my friend was suffering.
“Nah, we can go do something else.”
Read more Distillations here.