It was a surprisingly balmy evening last night as our cabbie took a courageous swerve to the left across Columbus in front of an onrushing bus, zipped past a double-parked car, and deposited us at Bottle Cap. The line already forming at the door, the smartly dressed crowd, and the plethora of hats could mean only one thing: It was time once again for the Annual Herb Caen Martini Competition.
This event is becoming a great little tradition right before the holidays, and the timing is not coincidental. This time of the year is when all our local nonprofits get hit hard, as demands for services increase and resources awarded early in the year dwindle. Proceeds from the competition go towards Project Open Hand, giving them a quick little boost before they go into overdrive.
And of course, there are the martinis. Now, those who know me well, or have been reading these scribblings know that I have a problem with vodka martinis. Well, to be more precise, I don't believe they exist. There is one drink called a martini, and it's made with gin. Not only that, the vodka martini was the cause of much angst between me and my father before we settled on the Vitamin V as the proper Caen vodka delivery device. I'll take this opportunity to clarify once again that a Vitamin V is not a vodka martini.
Where was I again? Oh yes, Bottle Cap. First off, I have to admire Liz Ferro and her crew for surrendering the plank to a pack of three competing bartenders from other establishments (plus a fourth from Bottle Cap) and a truly crazy mob of martini-fueled patrons. We got there just after the starting gun at six, and already it was five deep at the bar, with the stereophonic sound of martini shakers going up and down the bar.
Though I still can't walk in the door without seeing in my head the pictures of the legendary "Les Lapins Sauvages" softball team down the left hand wall, or Ron Fimrite chatting away with Ed Moose and Herb Allen at the bar, it's still a great place. I know that it's no longer the Washington Square Bar & Grill, but I think this crew has figured it out. There is enough of a nod to the past to be respectful, but it is also building its own legacy and history.
One of the great challenges of the HCMC (yeah I know, I just made that up) is actually getting one of these drinks. Part of the reason is the aforementioned mob at the rail. The other reason is that these are not your normal martinis. Each one is infused, reduced, coddled, cajoled, and twisted in a miraculous feat of mixology. Which means it takes the contestants forever to make them, and the drinks disappear the second they hit the bar.
I was determined to try all four of the contenders because, um, it's my civic duty to do so! And that's my story and I'm sticking to it. At first I attempted a direct attack on the bar, and was quickly blocked by a sea of judges trying out the contender from Campanula. I squeezed to my left, to my right, muttered "pardon me" several times, and finally managed to reach the drinks... right as they all disappeared. Drat.
However, down the bar I could see the Bottle Cap's own entrant about to hit the bar, so I did a quick about face, burrowed out of the crowd, and then looped through the dining and back in from the other side... hah! That'll show 'em! My moves were exquisitely executed and perfectly timed to get me to the other side of the bar just in time for all of the drinks to disappear. Again.
Apparently a change of strategy was required, and most of the judging was already happening. See the winner of the contest is decided with bottle caps. Every person who comes in gets a bottle cap, and each of the four bartenders has a little pot in front of them. You vote on your favorite by tossing your bottle cap into their pot, and the winning bartender is the one with the most bottle caps. See, you can run an election without the electoral college!
Finally, by carefully watching the ebb and flow of the drinks, I was able to slowly secure each of the four drinks. Our group then convened to decide, comparing our ridiculously detailed notes on the drinks, debated whether the Bottle Cap was cheating with their house special vanilla poached pear juice (does that constitute a home field advantage?), and finally arrived at our decision.
It was my last assault on the bar, and sadly I was going to screw this one up too. I had two bottle caps, one from Melissa, and one for me. I plopped her bottle cap in the appropriate pot, and mine was about to follow when bartender Gabe Bryant handed me a piece of paper that was the inspiration for his drink, "Cockroaches and Socialites." Yes, it was the infamous quote from my dad that cockroaches and socialites are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything.
It was shameless. And it worked.
Yes, I tossed my bottle cap into his pot. Upon my return to the group Melissa took one look at me and immediately said, "What... did... you... do?!" I sheepishly confessed, and then when the numbers came in, I knew I was in trouble. Gabe won by... wait for it... one bottle cap. Of course. So, the good news is we raised a bunch of money for Project Open Hand, added another chapter to the history of the Bottle Cap, and filled another room with fabulously attired people as only San Francisco can do. The bad news? Well, there isn't any. After all, it was a night out in San Francisco.