A couple of friends made a point to tell me how much they enjoyed my post on the Lush Lounge so I've decided to write more about bars, since after horror movies, opera, 70's rock, old-school hip-hop, Tolstoy, Henry James and middle-age White American male angst it's probably the topic I'm most qualified to write about. The dilemma is to wax poetic about what is now gone, such as the hey-day of The Mason Street Wine Bar in the 90's or to explain why the most recent version of Mayes Oyster House on Polk is doomed to failure. Perhaps the post should be called "Just Because You Have the Money to Open the Place Doesn't Mean You Should be the One Making the Decisions," which means I'm going to discuss Mayes.
The original version of this place lasted over 100 years at 1233 Polk Street before closing in the 90s (?). Eventually it re-opened as Axum 2, an Ethiopian food/jazz club that looked poisonous from the doorway. The guys who run O'Reilly's in North Beach took it on and made it the most beautiful room on Polk Street bar none, and one of the most beautiful in the City, calling it O'Reilly's Holy Grail, while leaving the original Mayes sign above the door and trying to capitalize on the building's history. The place was truly gorgeous and the owners had imported these amazing stained glass windows from Ireland to mask out the skanky alley that bordered the building (and was the location of the doorway of the ill-advised O'Reilly's hotel/motel above the joint).
Then it sunk. Over-priced menu that made no sense. Too few tables in the bar, too far apart and too understaffed to get a drink in a reasonable amount of time. Service that was spotty. Cozy as hell but it was never clear what the place was supposed to be- bar? restaurant? jazz-lounge? Oh yes, there was music too, and it usually was embarrassing, which is a shame considering all the talent in this city that has all too few places to play. But then again, the grand piano was in a spot that made no sense at all- halfway in the restaurant, halfway in the bar, it centered neither. For a decent musician it would have been embarrassing to tell your friends you were playing there- so obviously they didn't.
Boom. Gone one day, with a sign outside saying it would be back. Meanwhile, these same guys take over Jonny Wok's next door and turn it into McTeague's- the best idea anyone has ever had as far as a bar goes in this City in the last 20 years and the most poorly executed. Okay, so there's this alley named after Frank Norris. Norris was an American writer and a proponent of literary naturalism who is chiefly remembered for two books: The Octopus, which is an indictment of the railroad industry, and McTeague, which is probably the greatest and most entertaining novel ever set in San Francisco, specifically Polk Street at the turn of the century- and I don't mean the last one. The great thing about McTeague is that if you look closely enough and pay attention, you can still see the vestiges of Norris' San Francisco in the neighborhood, which is fun and reassuring because you realize the street has always been a magnet for the best and the worst in the City and that in some ways nothing has changed at all in the last hundred years. At least that's reassuring to me, because my life in this City is somewhat anchored to Polk Street- which on the middle to southern end can often seem pretty disheartening on some days and wildly entertaining on others. However, after you read Norris's book it makes you feel like you are just part of the inevitable chain of history in the neighborhood.
McTeague was an ignorant, drunken dentist who sat in his office drinking Anchor Steam beer and playing his celesta while waiting to pull teeth out of the people who came to his dirty office on Polk and Pine. Then, because he's an idiot, he blows it all and ends up killing his equally stupid wife. Then he can't figure out a good way to dispose of her body. It's American literature, it's fun, it's the Tenderloin! Read the book- it's terrific- one of my favorites of all time. And now you know why there is an alley named "Frank Norris" and who he was. So what is McTeague's bar like? Depressing beyond belief. It's an Irish sports bar with televisions all over the place and very loud, bad music. Hello, two words here, in two different versions: FUCK YOU and MISSED OPPORTUNITY!
Meanwhile, O'Reilly's/Mayes resurfaces as a douche bag-bar-of-the-month called Midpoint, meant to signify it's location between not-quite upper, definitely-not-lower Polk Street. It looks like Gavin's Matrix in another, less lush life. Fails within months, if not weeks. Yet still, these guys are the driving force behind stringing holiday lights across Polk and they've sunk a lot of money into this joint in a neighborhood that is crying for someone to make it pop and for that reason one can't hate them and must root for them, but they simply blow it at every turn. Midpoint is shuttered. McTeague's stumbles forward and a sign appears announcing an eventual rebirth of Mayes' which lingers on for months. Then a menu appears in the window which makes me intuitively understand they still don't get it. Dumbshits. This will never be a destination restaurant street on this end. La Folie is a mile away and in another universe. It needs to be an interesting neighborhood joint with great and unpretentious food that caters first to the neighborhood- everyone in the neighborhood regardless of their age.
What they've done is come up with a place for 20-30 somethings who can't afford much beyond the $1 happy hour oysters and more than one $9 cocktail before they find a hook-up for the night. The stained-glass windows are gone and the hostess has no idea what happened to them although she says many people have asked about them. The bar area still hasn't figured out the seating arrangements. The service by all accounts sucks because they still don't know how to staff the joint. Worst of all, later at night it wants to be a club with a dance floor playing doucheco in the back part. No, no, no- why don't they get it?
Stop me now, because what the fuck is this place? In a word, dead within the year, leaving the owners flat-ass broke on their third time at the track betting on a loser and an eventual shuttered building in a prime spot, once again. It's too bad, too. It really is a great room and has so much potential. But you read it here first. Prove me wrong- please. You guys have a year.
And about the Mason Street Wine Bar... now that was a joint!