It's 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and I stroll into Eddie Rickenbacker's in SOMA, nearly knocking over a stubble-faced duo in the entryway playing '70s classics on a piano and sax. I plop down on a stool at the end of the bar and order a whiskey.
While I wait for my drink, I stare at the green and gold Tiffany lamps littered behind the bar, which, I've been told, are worth a lot of money. Planter boxes line the windows and motorcycles hang from the ceiling – those stripped-down, old-fashioned looking bikes with narrow handlebars that you've seen in black-and-white movies.
I like coming to places like Eddie Rickenbacker's because they're casual and kitschy. What I didn't realize until recently was that this bar’s particular brand of comfort is something the owner, Norman Hobday, has been cultivating for more than four decades.
For the longest time, people knew Norman as Henry Africa. In 1970, he opened a bar at the corner of Broadway and Polk named for his alias. It was what many have called the world's first fern bar.
It was the Swingin' Seventies, and fern bars forever changed the way men and women went out drinking. This was before the outbreak of AIDS, and fern bars played host to the most vibrant singles scene the city may have ever seen. So says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler's Cove, a tiki bar in Hayes Valley, and an unwitting expert on the subject.
There are only a few fern bars around these days, Martin tells me, but back then everyone seemed to know what they were. Big windows would offer peeks into well-lit, well-decorated rooms filled with potted plants, big brass rails, and ornate Tiffany lamps. Eligible singles would sit in plush, oversized Victorian couches and sip on lemon drop martinis. Feather-haired, big-collar-wearing preppies would hurl pickup lines like, "What's your sign?"
Martin says fern bars were light, airy, and friendly. “It was like being in your grandmother's living room," he adds, an amused tone in his voice. "The immediate effect was that girls came. The net effect is it created this really lively singles scene."
I can't for the life of me imagine my grandmother owning Victorian furniture or Tiffany lamps, but I nonetheless bite. Why did people want to go to places like their granny’s living rooms to hook up?
Because they were comfortable, Martin says. Fern bars were, I learn, familiar and nonthreatening, but kind of decadent at the same time. They served fruity flavored drinks with ice cream in them. They made it easy, according to Martin, for women to go out to bars, which he says didn't really happen in the shot-and-a-beer guy's-club bar scene.
"Norman said he wanted to ‘take the opium den atmosphere out of the saloons,’" explains Martin.
To experience these bars firsthand, I tag along with Martin to some of the local fern bars that are still around today, starting with the corner of town where it all started.
Sitting inside Rouge, a Russian Hill club where Henry Africa's was once located, I'd say opium den isn’t the first description that comes to mind. It's an open space with high ceilings and gaudy chandeliers. Big red booths line the perimeter, which opens up into Nick's Crispy Tacos, located a storefront down. While none of this décor was here when it was Henry Africa's, in many ways Rouge seems to have the same vibe of decadence.
A self-described "fat, bald, white guy in a Hawaiian shirt,” Martin says he first started getting into fern bar history because the '70s were considered the dark ages in the cocktail world. It was the era of the blender, and while mixology aficionados say the drinks were unsophisticated, it did bring us things like ice cream daiquiris, frozen mudslides, and California root beer floats (which tended to be some sort of mixture of Kahlua, Galliano, and beer or club soda).
While I'm not surprised by the absence of a blender at Rouge, the atmosphere here makes it easy to imagine what the scene might have been like back in the '70s. The last time I was here, it was for Nick's Taco Tuesday night, which seems to draw the prettiest people from the northern half of the city. It was so crowded that evening, I had to stand to eat my tacos.
During my return visit with Martin, the crowd is smaller, though no less purposeful. People are chatting about where they work or what they like to do for fun, but all the conversations seem to have this implicit, understood subtext of flirtation. Like Casanova in the Mission or the bars on the Triangle, I’d say it’s one of the few places in the city with an overt pickup scene. But nobody would confuse Rouge for a fern bar.
So I ask Martin to take me somewhere that would still be considered a fern bar, wondering if any of the original places still have mojo. The closest spot is actually just a block away on Polk, the Royal Oak. It opened years after the fern bar phenomenon died out, though, so we opt for a lesser-known venue in Lower Pac Heights called Lion Pub.
It's difficult to tell what Lion Pub is like from the outside. It’s a corner bar, and large trees with fronds obscure its entryway. Once inside, a visitor is greeted by a darkly lit, low-ceiling room. Red cellophane strips cover a series of track lights, adding a rosy tint to the place. A fireplace roars on one end, tall ferns stand proudly on the other. All throughout, white porcelain lions stand guard on all fours.
Martin and I sidle up to the bar, where I order a Harvey Wallbanger, one of the more popular drinks from the fern era. The bartender, a tall, clean-cut guy, tries his best to play off the fact that he doesn't know what it is before Martin steps in and explains that it's a screwdriver with a splash of the anise-vanilla liqueur, Galliano. I feel sophisticated drinking it, though I can't really say why.
It's early in the night, and except for three couples whispering among themselves in separate corners of the bar, it's just Martin and me.
Why ferns? I finally ask.
"Norman Hobday's big idea was to take all these trends that were happening and distill them into a bar," Martin answers. The ecology movement in particular was getting big, and people cared about nature and the environment way more than they ever had before. (Greenpeace officially formed to protect and serve the environment a year after Henry Africa's opened its doors.)
Sipping my cocktail, four 20-something girls walk in, all dressed up for a night out. I stare at the leafy, fussy plants just to my right. There's a reason, unfortunately, that these types of bars are no longer household names.
The free love, casual sex era that fern bars helped usher in notably died as the AIDS epidemic began sweeping the nation in the early '80s. When Henry Africa's closed in 1983, it made national news. But fern bars, according to Martin, have had a lasting impression on drinking in San Francisco. Not just because the Harry Dentons of the world got their start working for Norman Hobday. And not just because fern bars are still around today, however under the radar they may fly.
They offered whimsy, a bit of creativity to a bar scene that before was downright caustic. And while that helped bring girls into bars back then, it’s one of the reasons why kitsch-filled places like Kozy Car, Latin American Club, and Smuggler's Cove are around today. They offer an experience outside of the norm. And in a city that values inventive décor, those unusual drinking experiences help define San Francisco nightlife.
Soon, a handful of people filter into Lion Pub. A couple guys in polo shirts underneath V-neck sweaters swagger past. A mildly made-up woman sits down beside me and orders a blended peach margarita.
No one is probably gonna call this decade the Swingin' Tens, but at least we'll always have ice cream daiquiris. I'll be the guy at the end of the bar, an extra scoop of ice cream in his glass, asking the girl beside me if she comes here often.
The Royal Oak is about as close as you can get to experiencing what a fern bar was like back then. Lone Palm and Lion Pub are all fern bars in their own way, and Eddie Rickenbacker's cocktail menu even has some throwbacks to the days of Henry Africa’s (even though motorcycles hanging from ceilings might not remind you of being in grandma's house). Some say Perry's on Union Street is another grandfather of the fern bar era, though people like Martin think it's not a true one because it's also a restaurant.
Or, if you just want to try a fancy drink (and happen to already live in your grandmother's living room), you can make a Harvey Wallbanger at home pretty easily by mixing vodka, orange juice, and adding just a splash of Galliano.