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L.A./S.F. : The Icy Truth of the North//South Riddle

October 20, 1985|CHRIS BARNETT | Barnett writes from San Francisco on subjects ranging from finance to saloons

For some foggy reason, a drink tastes better in a San Francisco saloon than in any Los Angeles bar--save, perhaps, Peter Monahan's Pasadena pub and the claustrophobic Chez Jay in Santa Monica. Scholars and world- class tipplers have debated this North-South riddle for decades. But the icy truth is that salooning is live theater in the Bay Area, whereas L.A. thirst parlors are too often tax-dodging, limited partnerships hustling for the buck.

Actually, it goes deeper than that. San Francisco is a necklace of neighborhoods strung across a city of hills. There is a European street life here. Stroll into a favored haunt and you're reasonably assured of drinking, jawing and laughing with a familiar cast of characters--chums, bartenders and the owner, who is almost always on the premises. In Los Angeles, cross-town friends often fight an hour of traffic to meet, then drum their fingers on the bar while an aspiring Robert Redford tries to master a simple Manhattan.

San Francisco drinking establishments have another leg up--history. That town was settled by brawling seamen and gold-crazed prospectors. They'd head for Robert Ridley's Billiard Room and Saloon, the El Dorado or the Bells Union Theater, which promised "fiery fun, a tumultuous time and really girly girls with buxom forms."

Today, San Francisco's best saloons are run--or staffed by--Runyonesque rogues who still believe that Prohibition has just ended. They've had the shot glass passed down to them by such masters of hospitality as Morty Miller, a former AP rewrite man with a voice so abrasive that it made Louis Armstrong sound like an operatic tenor. There was Cookie Picetti, a barkeeper emeritus whose seedy establishment on Kearney Street was patronized by governors, chief executives, barristers, bail bondsmen and police officers.

Before the poker-faced Picetti broke his hip and retired at 80, he liked to tell of the time that San Francisco disc jockey Don Sherwood raced his motorcycle across the top of the bar--toward the mirror--but jumped off when he saw another biker coming straight at him.

Another legendary barman moving a bit slower these days is Sean Mooney. Mooney's pub is gone now, but plenty of others are preserving the heritage. Some of my favorites are not the city's flashiest, but they have a personality--who's usually mixing it up behind the bar or schmoozing out front with the crowd.

Perry's at 1944 Union St. may be the best daytime saloon in the city when the chatty regulars convene. But steer clear at night when it's chockablock with singles and conventioneers--unless, of course, you are one of those. The star attraction here is not the owner, Perry Butler, who rarely mingles with the drinkers, but one Michael McCourt, the head bartender-in-residence, who has been prowling the planks since day one--16 years ago. A silver-maned Irishman from Limerick, McCourt has been mentor and minister to some of the town's better barkeepers, sermonizing on the importance of husky drinks and saloon etiquette.

Working under a weathered sign hawking "Temperance," McCourt once opined to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe that most drinkers learned their manners from Bogart, Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. McCabe often wrote his column seated at the bar in Gino & Carlo's saloon in North Beach.

Perry's, a fairly faithful replica of a New York City saloon sans the grit, is warm and woodsy and outfitted with brass railings perfect for leaning and gabbing. Scuffed, white drugstore tiles are underfoot, and an ersatz stamped-tin ceiling is overhead. The bar itself is piled high with bottles of good California wines packed in ice and with platters of crackers and cheeses, and it's stocked with every spirit imaginable, 18 beers (native-brewed Anchor Steam is on tap) and lined with bottled mixers and waters. Purists such as McCourt and his sidekick, Michael English, wouldn't tolerate a modern "soda gun." Old photos and vintage clippings cover the walls. Order a Bloody Mary, spike it with horseradish and spend half an hour walking, reading and soaking up history.

If you're lucky, you'll never have to buy a drink at Perry's. McCourt, like most San Francisco bartenders, will take on all comers for a fast game of bar dice. But rookies beware: He rarely loses. He and his waiters, in fact, recently won a showdown with the boss over a computerized ordering system. Waiters toted terminals and punched in codes for food and drink. But the gadgetry was plagued with so many glitches and Butler was besieged with so many gripes that he finally threw in the bar towel. Once again, drinks are ordered at Perry's the old-fashioned way--yelled out. Grins a jubilant McCourt: " 'Tis one large step backward for mankind."

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