Restaurants and bars with themes have always rubbed me the wrong way. I think of the first and only time I walked into Butter. It must have been 2003. While I was as well-versed in irony as any literary theory buff with a fresh diploma, the brown-bagged forties, snack stand carved out of the side of a trailer, and steaming tater tots seemed a bit much. I’m not a stickler for good taste, but I was instantly annoyed by a bar dedicated to aping the coarsest trappings of poor white culture for the amusement of privileged San Franciscans carousing through SoMa. I’ve seen it before around these parts: even politically radical non-profit workers who would rather poke out an eye than offend a person of color think nothing of throwing “white trash”-themed birthday parties for themselves. Plus, tater tots are actually really good — without irony, just ketchup.
Still, I’ve splashed around the Tonga Room, stomped into the Bigfoot Lounge, and knocked back a whiskey at Bourbon and Branch, that classy throw-back to San Francisco’s speakeasy-riddled past — appealing themed joints, all of them. The other day, I was talking themed bars with some buddies, one of whom manages a newish decidedly un-themed establishment in Russian Hill, on Polk, just above the Tenderloin. The topic was Manhattan bars, where drink costs soar to airport prices — $6 for a bottle of beer, $10 for a well drink. We joked that someone should start a really, really expensive bar in San Francisco called $$$. There would be a $50 cover charge, and no music, karaoke, free food, pool, or pub quiz to account for the steep entrance fee. The drinks would not be made with fancy infused potentially illegal spirits or feature small artisanal producers. They would be perfectly plain and perhaps a little weak. Still, if you could afford to buy your way in, you could hang out with others who could as well, which might be reward enough. It’d be pure elitism, distilled — as appropriate a theme as any.
My trip to Japan late last March gave me a new perspective on themed drinking establishments. I wasn’t there long enough to deliver an exhaustive report — I’m sure some late-night Travel Channel special has already tried. There was so much I did not see, particularly in Tokyo, where I only spent a few jet-lagged days. My home-base for most of the visit was Kyoto, Japan’s old Imperial capitol. Still, after a week of bouncing around that city’s bars and informal late-night eateries, my head was throbbing — and not from too much single malt. Along Kiyamachi St., very close to the Kamo River, tiny izakayas and watering holes burrow into unassuming commercial storefronts and stubby office buildings. You walk up a few flights of stairs — as if going to see a disreputable dentist — and knock on doors that open on to strange, insular, fastidiously detailed worlds. They reminded me of levels in Super Mario Brothers: through one portal, a swanky, pocket-sized cool jazz club draped in blue curtains appeared, through another, fittingly, a red-and-white toadstool-themed “mushroom” bar no bigger than an apartment kitchen — both in the same building, occupying suites on the same floor.
One night, I visited two establishments thoroughly preoccupied with Jamaica’s most prominent (and cliched) cultural and artistic exports — Bob Marley, an easy way with marijuana, Rastafarianism, ripe for the watering down, and the flag’s black, yellow, and green color scheme. Despite being a huge reggae fan, in the United States, I wouldn’t have had the slightest interest. Nonetheless, Rasta and Rub-A-Dub were a lot of fun. The first is a dark cave on the 4th or 5th floor of an office building. Muzak renditions of Rockers classics seep from hidden speakers. A weed leaf mosaic rises up out of the tiled floor. A shrine to Mr. Marley occupies the middle of the back wall, bathed in chartreuse light, overlooking the scene. When I was there, the crowd was typically diverse: bartenders with desperate attempts at dreadlocks, a few business guys enjoying an extended happy hour, a party of ladies on the heels of a shopping trip, and a couple hanging out along the side wall, with the lanky American gentleman trying not to look as absurd as the retina-burning blue “island” cocktails in his glass. Significantly older, Rub-A-Dub is located in a frond-filled basement. According to legend, the owner, a Japanese man, married a Jamaican woman, and opened the bar to continuously remind her of her homeland. In truth, theme aside, Rasta would be considered a pretty good restaurant in San Francisco, offering roast fish heads and Japanese riffs on jerked chicken and seafood. I didn’t eat at Rub-A-Dub (too many fish heads at Rasta), but I did have a few drinks under bunches of bananas hanging from the ceiling.
I returned from Japan in April — just ten days after I’d arrived — but I started thinking about themes all over again last week, when I read an S.F. Weekly blog post about Hogs & Rocks. Set to open in May or June, this joint endeavor of Maverick chef Scott Youkilis and Eric Rubin of Tres Agaves will serve 45 different kinds of ham, along with pickles, salads, and oysters (the rocks, of course). Unlike, say Rasta, Hogs & Rocks will do food and drink first, letting aesthetics follow suit. If the bar sprang up in Japan, the floor cushions would be swine-pink and sewn up to look like plump hind legs. There’d be small chairs shaped like oyster shells. Albums by Badfinger (lead singer, the late Peter Ham) would boom on the stereo. Images of piggy pop culture’s most prominent representatives — Wilbur, Porky, Pooh’s nervous little friend, and a rogue’s gallery of notorious male chauvinists — would line the walls. The atmosphere would be unsubtly rendered, but genuine, irony-free — seriously silly, with excellent food. That’s one distinction I can draw between themed bars and restaurants here and there: seemingly goofy joints in Japan actually tend to have good food, whereas in the United States, even in San Francisco, corny trappings (from tiki bars to Chuck E. Cheese) all but guarantee an indifferent kitchen.
In Kyoto, the most unassuming bar I visited was in many ways the most revealing. To launch a long night of drinking, my girlfriend and I wandered into Color, an elegant, stylish lounge decked out in handsome modern furniture and classy vintage appliances. This was a nice place to drink. It reminded us of countless bars we’d patronized in the States. We discerned no theme, which, obviously, didn’t surprise us. We’d seen plenty of regular bars around. This one just felt cozier than most. Then, we grabbed a card on the way out and read the finer print. The bar did in fact have a theme. It identified as “New York-style,” which explained why it struck us as so familiar — right down to the $10 cocktails.