I don’t know how many movie-themed bars a city like San Francisco needs, let alone how many it should have on the same block. But here we are, with Laszlo (the bar attached to the Foreign Cinema restaurant) and Bear vs. Bull (the bar attached to the Alamo Square movie theater) just a few doors down from each other.
Of the two, Laszlo is by far the better bar, but somehow is the one that I remember least. Walking in, I had a strange sensation that was the opposite of déjà vu: I knew I’d been here, but I had no sense of familiarity. How many years had it been? Who was I with? What did we drink? What did we talk about?
Nothing came to me. I was in a familiar place that was absolutely contextless. Which sounds like the premise of an artsy foreign film.
Laszlo, on Mission Street between 21st and 22nd streets, has an upstairs lounge, but the main bar is a typical San Francisco rectangle. It has high ceilings, lots of classic movie posters, and a single TV which was showing “Highlander” (the original movie) with the volume off and the subtitles on. Music was playing over the speakers, too loudly. I hadn’t tried talking to anyone yet, but I could already tell that the music was going to make it hard.
No one was masking and everyone in Laszlo that night seemed to be going out of their way to sit as close to each other as possible. All the outdoor spots were taken and, inside, everyone was crowded at the bar, even though there was plenty of open table space just behind them. It’s not a big space, granted … but there was a lot more elbow room than people were taking.
I don’t get this.
I didn’t like crowded bars before the pandemic, and I’m baffled by them now. Why would people squeeze together unnecessarily? Is it some kind of counter-reaction to social distancing? An urge to cluster near strangers and have them breathe on you?
I had as little understanding as I had memories, but there was just enough room at the bar for me to take a chair, and so I did, going with the flow rather than demanding to stand apart.
That has been my approach to everything these days. I’m still just as paranoid about covid … I rail inside at the stupidity of our going indoors and doing maskless things with large groups of strangers during a period of mass contagion. But as society normalizes around pretending that Everything Is Fine, I have found myself going through the motions that everything is, indeed, fine. We are all heading over a cliff and to our collective doom, sure. But I don’t want to feel left out.
There were two bartenders working at Laszlo that night, both with beards and mustaches and glasses, because of course a cinema-themed bar in San Francisco would have that. No sooner did I sit down than one immediately put the menus in front of me.
“We have a great dinner tonight,” he said. Glancing over the menu, it sure looked like they did — I mean, Foreign Cinema — but I shook my head. I was actually just killing time before meeting a friend nearby. One of her co-workers had had a gun pulled on him outside the office during a robbery. She needed to talk it through.
“I’m just drinking,” I told him.
“No problem,” he said, and then ignored me for the next five minutes, even though I was literally sitting right in front of him as he cleaned glasses. I wondered what he was thinking about as I watched him. When he finally looked at me again, it seemed like he was surprised to see someone sitting here.
I’m not actually complaining; I was in no hurry, and I believe in bartenders who take their time. I’m genuinely curious: Where did he go in his head? What conversation was I watching him have with himself as he cleaned glasses?
I ordered a Just Like Honey (Barr Hill gin, Vermont honey, Moroccan spices, fresh lime, club soda, fresh mint), which came back fast and was really delightful; a wonderful sweet and spicy that is flavorful without going over the top in either direction. It made me wish I remembered what it was I was drinking and thinking about the last time I was here. It had to be good.
That is, unless the music had been this loud last time. It was just too much for the space: I was right next to people huddling together who still had to shout to hear each other. But a moment later it quieted down, “The Killing Moon” played more softly across the space, and for a moment everything was lovely and clear.
The other bartender put a frothy, lightly violet-colored drink down in front of a woman next to me.
“See what you think about THIS!” he said, then stepped away to help someone else.
“Wow!” said the other bartender, coming over “What is THAT?”
“I don’t know … ” she said.
“It looks like it was made with love,” he replied.
She took a sip. “It’s REALLY good!” She calls out to the bartender who made it, “what is it?”
He started to explain that it’s a gin drink with egg white, but a new song came on, the music swelled again, and I lost the rest of it. A moment later, she was back on her phone, unable to keep the conversation going.
I decided to interrupt. “Did you order something off-menu?” I half-shouted at her.
She laughed. “Dealer’s choice. I was feeling indecisive.”
“Good for you!” I said. “That’s actually one of my favorite things to do with high-caliber bartenders.”
The music got louder as a friend of hers came in, and even though they were talking right next to me I could no longer eavesdrop.
I ordered a South of Heaven (Condesa prickly pear and Fords gin, Marie framboise strawberry cognac, Lillet Rosé, rosemary) which was also excellent, and started to wish that I had the night free to order food, too; everything here is so well done, and for all that the music was too much, it was a surprisingly easy space to lose yourself in, staring off into space, tasting something wonderful, and contemplating your life.
That must have been what I was doing here last time, too. It’s strange to encounter a bar that is both a great place to have dinner and a great place to stare off into space, but that somehow completely fades away when you’re done. I will be back to Laszlo, but only when I want to eat or lose myself.
When I said that I needed to cash out, the bartender immediately brought me my bill. Then he ignored my credit card for another five minutes. We were finally on the same page.