Staying Rock 'n' Roll
When people use the phrase “back in the day” they’re usually talking about some storied and probably poorly remembered and overly glamorized time of their youth when they were baby adults and could therefore party balls while still pursuing their vision of reaching professional and artistic zenith. I was no different. Back in the day (the mid-’90s), I had just moved to my ideal hometown (San Francisco) and was living out the dream – writing about music for BAM magazine (RIP) and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I looked up to senior writers and editors I interned under and listened with envy to their tales of partying with rock stars, getting swag, and being on “the list” to everywhere.
One of those party hot spots that almost always got mentioned was Tenderloin’s legendary rock ’n’ roll Phoenix Hotel. It was the place for touring bands to stay, and its gilded pink-and-turquoise doors saw everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Anthrax to Robert Plant pass through. The Phoenix’s accompanying lounge/restaurants would have many metamorphoses over the years, from the Caribbean-style bayou bar Miss Pearl’s Jam House to the pseudo-LA-cum-Jetsons kitsch of the Backflip; the rather beige pan-Asian posh of Bambuddha Lounge and most recently, the Don Draper meets Ron Burgundy party pad vibe of Chambers Eat + Drink. Each incarnation has its own flavor of debauchery and wild times, but something has always remained the same: the Phoenix is the spot for bands, booze, and bacchanalia.
Once a boarded-up wreck in the Tenderloin purchased by Chip Conley (CEO of the Joie De Vivre hotel chain) way back in 1986, the Phoenix rose from the ashes of crack pipes and street sludge, and was made over as a fancy 44-room, pool-centered motor lodge for rock stars. The parking lot featured super outlets for charging tour buses. Regular visitors from the time the Phoenix opened to when Miss Pearl’s moved across the Bay to Oakland in 1997 included Joan Jett, David Bowie, The Psychedelic Furs, and Pearl Jam. Miss Pearl’s featured a bar that was all tropical kitsch décor and strong drinks: a poor man’s Trader Vic’s, if you will. One Yelper relates a typical story from this time: “It's 4:15 a.m., I'm full of booze and mushrooms, there's a mound of coke on the dresser and a fresh 30 pack on the ground. We decide to go skinny-dipping. Don't remember much after that. I think we were in the same room where David Bowie and Mick Jagger had sex. Yeah, the Phoenix knows how to party.”
When Miss Pearl’s closed, designers Craige Walters and Charles Doell turned the space into a perfect cohesive unit of bar, restaurant, and hotel. Backflip was born. During its six-year run, Backflip was known as one of the hottest places to be in San Francisco. Everyone from every scene rolled through at some point, mostly at the monthly poolside WET parties run by party promoters Martel Toler and Nabile Musleh, and staffed by top-notch bartenders and barbacks. Easily the most decadent and talked-about period of the place’s history, the Backflip era also served as a barometer for the cultural zeitgeist in SF at the time: dot-com boom, and party people with money.
These parties were legendary. You’d pay your $20 cover charge, walk past the transvestite serving as doorman and into the sky blue interior, where the staff wore vinyl uniforms, acted cocky because they could, and slung booze hard and fast. Every inch of the bar and poolside was full from 11 a.m. till closing time. Big-name DJs would play and between 2,000 to 3,000 people would be getting their heat on. We’re talking every type of drug ingested, nitrous balloons behind the bar, and people having sex at the bar, even while ordering their drinks. Yes, seriously. That happened. People came to party. The cocktail culture hadn’t started yet. It wasn’t about muddled fruit and top-shelf liquor, it was just people in the bar trenches, making drinks for a lot of people as fast as possible. Everyone knew they were going to make a lot of money and have a tremendous time, so they busted their ass.
Oddly enough, the WET parties were more about the spirit of rock and roll than the actual rock stars who stayed there. There was little to no bad rock star behavior, no one being boorish or strutting through. If anything, the famous stayed here precisely because they knew they wouldn’t be bothered. There was one very memorable guest in particular that former Backflipper Tadd Cortell recalls. Someone knocked on the side door around 1:30 a.m. saying, “Robert Plant is here and wants to know if he can come in and have a drink.” Although the Phoenix night clerk tried to insist the bar had to close, the bar crew joined forces and revolted, saying that if Robert Plant wanted to come in and have a drink, then he (the hapless clerk) could fuck off. So Plant and posse were diligently and humbly served until about 4 a.m., and were the most gracious of patrons. The Phoenix maintains its rep as a safe haven for traveling rock stars and actors for this very reason. Courtney Love, Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, and Red Hot Chili Peppers all rolled through during the Backflip era, not to trash the hotel rooms, but to hang out, have a drink, sit by the pool and be left the hell alone.
But all scenes, no matter how great, eventually come to an end. Backflip became the Bambuddha Lounge in 2004. Owners Gina Milano and Christina Deeb removed the kitsch factor of the space in favor of a sophisticated and modern Asian lounge. It was still an epicenter for everything from corporate parties to Internet start-up launches to DJ nights. You’d be as likely to run into Internet billionaires as up-and-coming bands like The Killers, Bloc Party, and The Shins. When Sean Penn, original fist-swinging bad-boy actor, rented the place to host the wrap party for his movie The Assassination of Richard Nixon , the Bambuddha earned its wings in the “party like you’re famous” lexicon. I remember drinking expensive booze and eating free fancy hors d’oeuvres while standing poolside at an Ubisoft video game launch party chatting with people I went to high school with in the East Bay. An early foreshadowing of my future career in the gaming industry with a nod to my Bay Area roots? Yes and yes. Stories from this era are less about poolside coke orgies, and more about seeing young start-up entrepreneurs take over the white vinyl lounge and bed area with harems of women, drinking bottle after bottle of Cristal. While the space remained successful, it had somehow fallen off the cultural radar. When Gina and Christina decided to part ways to concentrate on individual ventures, Chip Conley began soliciting industry vets to pitch him with new concepts. Enter Sean and Isabel Manchester.
Experienced hospitality executives and entrepreneurs, Sean and Isabel sold Chip on their vision of an eclectic, iconoclastic, and irreverent space. With a nod to its rock history and the way people referred to the hotel rooms as “chambers” during the Backflip era, the pair decided that the new restaurant and lounge, Chambers Eat + Drink would have, what they call a “British-glam-meets-stately-rocker or Jagger-meets-Tyler” vibe. They wanted to play up the rock ’n’ roll roots without the kitsch factor of previous spaces. They enlisted Charles Doell (who, as mentioned earlier, designed Backflip) and landscape architects Reynolds-Sebastiani to bring this vision to life. The result is a restaurant with a laidback ’70s retro-rocker lounge feel, with lots of warm wood and vinyl records lining the walls where you might expect wine bottles or books. It’s very your-father’s-den-meets-basement-party pad, and they’ve managed to breathe new life into a once-hot space that never quite found its legendary status again after the Backflip’s poolside parties hung their last wet bikini up to dry.
Isabel and Sean Manchester want to keep the vibe more toned down and just a little more adult. Makes sense when you consider the more sober and cautious feel of San Francisco today and the current economic reality, but it can’t preclude some old-school decadence from slipping in once in a while. A friend whose been to Chambers recently has witnessed teenage-style make-out sessions in its booths and spotted someone getting fingered to completion on one of the bar stools. It just goes to show – the spirit of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll will always linger on.
Hang out and eat like a rock star by visiting the Phoenix Hotel and Chambers Eat + Drink. Next year celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Phoenix, with some epic events in the works.