My first impression of Slate* is that it’s a dark, cavernous, bar that is more “open” than “space.” For city bar connoisseurs, I’d describe it as “Noc Noc without the creativity or charm.”
The back of the long bar, on 16th Street between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue, is impressive and warm, sure, but the floor and walls are cold and colorless. It has some paper stars over hanging lights, a pool table, a mirror and a photo booth. There’s plenty of seating at the bar, and a little around the rest of the main room, but the vast majority of the floor space is reserved for standing and performing and dancing. Slate* is one of the dwindling bars left in the city that tries to keep a variety of live performances going most days: Dance nights, open mics, DJ sets, bands. Nothing too weird or unusual, nothing that comes from the San Francisco I most call home, but events all the same.
At this moment in the city’s history, that’s something to celebrate; venues are really hard to come by, and Slate*’s layout and decor feels functional because it’s meant to serve a function. It’s lacking in a level of style, because it’s trying to do something.
Aren’t we all.
No one was masking. Half of the bar was packed, and the other half was almost entirely open, so I sat at the open end and looked over a menu. It’s a single large piece of laminated paper, double-sided, containing all of their drinks, so it’s a relatively small selection as these things go. Slate* looks like it’s trying to cover the spread of drinks so that everybody will find something acceptable to their palette, rather than really impressing anyone. A guy walked over next to me as I considered the drink options, and then flagged the bartender down.
“What’s the cheapest beer?” he asked.
$4,” she said.
That was all he needed to know. He ordered it.
I ordered a Flood and Drudge (scotch, luxardo maraschino liqueur, sweet vermouth, $12). “Gina” arrived as it was being made.
“Thanks for coming,” she said as we hugged.
I was at Slate* because tonight was a stand-up comedy open mic, and a friend of Gina’s was performing. She’d wanted company: It can be nerve-wracking seeing your friends perform for the first time. You have no idea if they’re any good, but you have to be supportive, and it helps to have someone there who you can really talk to about the experience later.
There’s a stage in new friendships where you really can lose the friend if they insist that they’re a poet and their poetry is bad. It’s dangerous: The only way artists can make it these days is if they have a really supportive group of friends, but pushing your art at your friends can quickly drive them away. Gina once said to me, “you write books and then never tell anyone about them.” That’s part of the reason why.
My drink arrived, and it was pretty much exactly what you’d expect: a whiskey with a light, sweet cherry flavor. I didn’t like it at first, but it grew on me over time. Gina held out a card: “My tab for both of us,” she said, before ordering a Lagunitas IPA.
I guess she was more grateful than I’d thought.
The open mic started a moment later.
Slate* is going to be a very different bar, depending on what’s happening there on any given night. It’s a chameleon: Its lack of style means that it’s more adaptable to whatever kind of show is going on in the moment, and the people who come out for a DJ night or a blues night are going to bring a very different energy and vibe than the people who show up for a stand-up comedy night.
Or who don’t show up. It was a small crowd, which is a problem for stand-up: a joke that gets a small laugh from a small crowd will barely make a ripple, while a small laugh from a medium-sized crowd or a packed house has an impact you can feel. You need to absolutely kill to make a small room work at all. The comics tonight were going to have to work for it.
I ordered a Corpse Reviver #2, as a gesture of solidarity with those who were going to die on stage. It came back tasty; this wasn’t mixology to write home about, but it was very competent.
The room at Slate* was big and the crowd was small, but it was incredibly accommodating to the comics. There was no cross-talk, no competition for eyes and ears. Everyone was paying close attention. The only interruptions came when someone went to the bathroom — the hand dryer made enough noise that it was audible all the way up on stage. Everyone pretended that wasn’t happening, and a diverse succession of comics got up to do their time.
The semi-pros were hosting but, beyond that, this was a very amateur night, the kind where many of the comics were reading off their phones, and clearly needed to work on their stage presence. There were very few laughs, but it was fascinating to watch, because when you get a diverse group of people still learning their craft come up to try to tell you their stories, you get a wide and unpredictable slice of the human condition.
“I’ve been reading a lot of bell hooks recently,” said one comedian, which I had not expected at all.
“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about China’s one-child policy,” another comic said, out of nowhere.
Most of them weren’t very good, but they were likable. We were rooting for them. And they were among friends: almost the entire crowd was made up of comics, waiting for their time, showing up for one another.
I ordered a Patty Has A Love Story (whiskey, sweet and dry vermouth, angostura bitters, lemon twist, $12) as Gina’s friend came on. Fortunately for their friendship, he was good; a much more polished performer who was here to work on new material, rather than practice the basics. We both breathed a sigh of relief. Their friendship can proceed.
We left Slate* shortly after — we had a whole weekend planned — but agreed that it was an interesting enough experience that we could see ourselves coming back sometime, just to hang out for a little while, drink some competent drinks, and respectfully listen to some comics come working on the basics of their act come out of left field with something we never expected to be talking about.
We all need people to do to that, sometimes.