Monday, July 16, 2012

Fern Bars

In case any of you are unfamiliar with how the rabbit hole that is the internet works, I'd like to explain how I got to writing about Fern Bars:

I clicked on a Hairpin link titled "Almost vilely sweet". This intrigued me. I like good juxtaposition and have ever since we had to read that story in 7th grade where our teacher pointed out the narrator telling the girl character about someone being "awfully good". (I can't find a link to the story that was in our reader but it taught our wee brains about using different layers of narrators in a story I thought was called "The Narrator" but like I said, can't find. Man are things imprinted on us in our childhood.)

The Hairpin article included a link to one of their contributors writing about Fern Bars. Having come of age after the era of Fern Bars, I had no idea what one was. While reading about them, with the always odd pina colada song playing, I discovered that, apparently, San Francisco was the place where the fern bar, which sounds appropriately cheesy and very much like a late 70s/early 80s thing, was born. What now? How could something have been created here and I've never heard of it?

So from that second link was the link that would lead me to learn about the birth of the fern bar in San Francisco at a place called Henry Africa's. (I feel like I'm Inception. Links upon links upon links. But we've all done this on the internet. Clicked through on ten different things and wondered how the hell we're reading what we are. Magic!)

Here's where this becomes applicable to my life: Henry Africa, which obviously wasn't his real name, upon closing that bar, then opened a place called Eddie Rickenbacker's. It was in this funky looking place with a motorcycle on the building around the corner from where I went to law school. It was more a financial district lunch spot than full blown fern bar but now knowing what one is, I could maybe see a little of that carry over.

I was always curious about the reastaurant and one time as a 1L, I dragged my law school bff (who would DQ out after our first year) to have lunch there. It was busy and the only available seats were at the bar.

What I didn't know about the place, despite my ample use of the internet, was that it was famous for the giant orange tabby cat who took up residence on the bar. I'm not talking cat wandering around a bar. I'm talking about a giant orange cat with its bed and dish ON the bar. It was seated next to my friend and we were like, "Uh, that can't possibly be okay." But we ate anyway. I remember the food being pretty good. Still. There was a cat. On the bar. We were also unaware that it was the eccentric owner who resembled a homeless man sitting in the front in his recliner with his oxygen tank. It was a putting. We didn't go back there for lunch during the rest of our first year. Or ever, actually.

But, as I would discover later, the owner of Eddie Rickenbacker's (real name Norman Hobday) was a larger than life character.

So here I am down this rabbit hole of fern bars and SF establishments, when one of the articles I've ended up on says that the lamps that adorned the place are genuine Tiffany lamps and have been sent to Christie's for auction. Gorgeous examples of stained glass. Since I'm catching up on all this late, the Christie's auction has now closed and the lamps went for over $800k total. My mother, apparently more up on the news than me (I really should read more news), knew about the auction and thought that the lamps were supposed to have fetched closer to a million. (If you look at the auction breakdown, one lamp, on its own, went for over $600k. Holy...)

Now, for the kicker: I know of a girl who stands to gain a bit from that sale. My dad's law school classmate, and my aforementioned (somewhere, I'm sure) bar crush's sister was an oft put upon hostess/manager at the restaurant. But for putting up with an ornery old man and a cat that violates health code regulations, that same eccentric owner left her a good chunk of the business, and presumably profits from sales of items in the restaurant from when it's shuttered. Good for her.

One of those first links about fern bars discussed how it was a little disappointing that there had yet to be a fern bar revival, as we could all use our own Regal Beagle to retire to. I couldn't help thinking that although one instance does not a revival make, SF was surely still in possession of a fern bar, as I was positive I had been to it. Except whenever I would get stuck going to this place, I would refer to it as having a worn out bordello vibe, not being familiar with what, until a link from The Hairpin, a fern bar was. My friends who do a lot of their hanging out in Polk Gulch would always want to meet there and I was never enamored with the place because it has uncomfortable, worn, Victorian revival couches for sitting, which I guess are charming if that's your thing. After racking my brain and pin pointing it, I realized the name of the place (which always escapes me because it is nowhere on the establishment, the entrance of which is appropriately ensconced in large overgrown potted plants) is the Royal Oak on Polk. Next time I'm roped into ending up there, I'll don some 70's attire and pretend I'm with Mr. Roper and embrace the laid back vibe of SF's fern bar. 

So there ya go. Fern bars. Now you can rest easy because you too are enlightened on this late 70s/early 80s phenomenon.

(I really hope this ends up on trivia someday, making my falling down a rabbit hole of fern bars worth it.)

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