A Good Saloon

A Good Saloon Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“A nice elderly lady who has never been inside one in her life asks me, ‘What is a good saloon like?’ She presumed from my writings that I had a certain expertise in the matter, and she is right.

“First, you should have certain warning signes. If there is any trace of neon outside the joint, shun it like a social disease. Especially, beware of those places which have a tipped cocktail glass about 15 feet up, done in glorious white neon.

“Not all of these places are terrible. The ones which have broken neon signs, like Gino and Carlo’s on Green Street, can be very good indeed. Despite the exceptions, though, the rule holds.

“Beware too, of artsy-cutesy names–like the Pink Panther, the Anxious Asp, the Dreamy Lagoon, etc., etc. This kind of name is for pop groups or Los Angeles. If the place has simply the name of the owner, and no neon, you’re on the way.

“Remember that a saloon is to pour drinks, in return for pay. Anytime a drinking place forgets that, it forfeits the right to be a saloon. The late John Lardner put it well:

“‘A drinking place in the purest possible sense of the phrase is one in which the boozing aspects dominates the eating aspect. This eliminates lunchrooms and all joints with floor shows or dance floors. In a true bar or saloon the focus of life is the bar itself, and the people on either side of it.’

“Like all good rules, this too has its exceptions. One of the best bars in San Francisco is at the New Pisa on Grant Avenue. This bar is just an adjunct to a crowded and thriving paisano-type restaurant. The small bar near the entrace is devoted wholly to the drinking business.

“Dante Benedetti, the owner, pours more whiskey for the money than any place I know in San Francisco, or, for that matter, anywhere. I once asked him why he poured so much booze. His answer was characteristic.

“‘Thirty years ago my old man told me to put out a good drink. So I do it.’

“Glenn Dorenbush, who has clocked more bar hours than anyone I know, has an added theory. In a good saloon, he says, everything will come to you if you sit on one bar stool long enough. He gets his friends that way, and his girls. He transacts his public relations business–for saloons, naturally–from the same stool right next to the brass service bar at Perry’s on Union Street.

“The owner of Perry’s, Mr. Perry Butler, is so awed by Dorenbush that he has placed a brass plaque on the bar, over the Dorenbush stool with the simple but impressive legend: Glenn Dorenbush.

“A good saloon is a great place to escape from cocktail parties, a curious form of social intercourse which gives a bad name to booze. Cocktail parties are a cross between a fashion show and a Persian Bazaar. Most cocktail parties are given by people who wish to make money out of them in one way or another. In a good saloon, you don’t talk about money.

“A good saloon should not have a clock. You go into one to get away from the tyranny of time, among other reasons. The most saloon-ish of all ‘Frisco saloons, the House of Shields on New Montgomery, does not have a clock. “Clock-watchers aren’t really people.” says barman Pete Ragen.

“The California attitude towards bars is well shown by the fact that, until the advent of this decade, you could not legally even call a drinking place a saloon. The liquor laws of this state seem to have been written by nuns, and administered by the FBI. Their underlying assumption is that there is a violent drunk inside every insurance salesman, and that all saloon keepers are felons at heart.

“A good saloon is, among many other things, a great place to exchange lies, to plan your future, get away from loved ones, make confession without fear of penance, learn what’s wrong with the ’49ers, work out the details of your estate, and eff off in general. It is also, as Mr. Dorenbush points out, a superb recovery room.”

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