I Amsterdam

13 01 2012

So my big brother, S., and I decided to give ourselves (or each other) a Christmas gift: We went to Amsterdam for a long weekend.

It has been more than 15 years since I was last in the city, but it made an impression enough to make it on my “Top 10” list. (Along with, in no particular order:  San Francisco, Berlin, Helsinki, Sydney, Philadelphia Vancouver, Singapore, Toronto and Boston.)

In the meantime, the city has given itself a very catchy advertising slogan: “I amsterdam”.


And here I thought “Be Berlin” was pretty cool.

S. is on the meatmarket again, after a failed 10-year relationship-that-turned-into-marriage, which is in its final throes. (The entire Starr family will throw a three-day celebration when all THAT is done and dusted. Stay tuned.)

And what better place to test your self-marketing skills than Amsterdam.

He has been a few times, and on his last visit he discovered a special, secret, by-invitation-and-with-reservation-only bar. It was the highlight of his trip, at which he took the opportunity to tweak his flirting skills. So of course the experience had to be repeated, with his kid sister. (Even though the mere presence of something that looked like a “date” – me – would be insurance enough against scoring any action at all.)

The club is located in an inconspicuous row house on a non-descript street, tucked between a sex shop and kebab kiosk. I walked by it twice without realizing anything was there – to his amusement. The windows are blacked out, and all that distinguishes it from any other abandoned storefront is a single tiny doorbell.

We arrived fashionably late for our 930pm reservation. The staff remembered my big bro and greeted him very warmly, like he was a regular, or an old friend. The two bartenders, already hard at work, stopped to chat with us and offered a round of bourbon on the house. And the Singapore Slings were truly the best I have had in a very long time.

I think this was what was left of the second sling. But it could have been the third.

I have rediscovered evenings out ever since Europe went smoke-free. Thankfully, I no longer come home from a restaurant or a bar smelling like I washed my hair in cigarette ash. So my still-smoker-brother had to occasionally abandon me step outside to get his nicotine fix.

During one of these absences, a man sidled up to a beautiful tall Dutch woman standing at the bar next to me and I overheard his feeble pickup line: “I noticed you since the moment you walked in the door.”

Obviously, a raw beginner. Or someone trying to get back on his dating feet after a looooooooooonnng time. Kind of like my brother. Too bad he wasn’t around to witness the poor fellow crash and burn.

Her eyes opened wide and she said something to the effect of, “Uh, gee, I think I have to go now,” high-tailing it back to her date, a balding banker-type in a monogrammed shirt sucking down his fourth cocktail.

I categorized the performance in the column: “Most spectacular strikeout”.

When my brother returned and I told him the story, he didn’t understand what the big deal was.

Damn…. I’m just hoping his pickup lines are way better than that.

Golden Nugget(s)

6 09 2010

So we all know that there are about a million reasons to come to San Francisco, and it’s a scandal that it took me 37 years to get here myself for the first time. But for those of you who were lucky enough to have discovered this place long before I did, I’m wondering if you too know about a few of the treasures that my personal Swiss tour guide has on his list.

One particular jewel is a dingy little bar on Powell Street across from Union Square. Claiming to have been around since 1933, the Gold Dust Lounge was voted as the “Best Bar In Which To Nurse An Early-Morning Hangover” by “Best of  San Francisco” in 2005.

The Best.

Well as far as I’m concerned, it still is. Faux chandeliers hang from the high ceilings, decorated with painted murals of naked cherubs and frolicking nymphs. Its plush scarlet sofas and boudoir-atmosphere are the perfect place to unwind with an Irish coffee (voted as one of the city’s five best classic cocktails in 2010: “warm, fortifying, and downright hallucinogenic”). And if you ask nicely, the bartender can make you a pretty mean Singapore Sling, too.

An added bonus: this is a place that cards over-40-year-olds, as I had the honor to personally experience.

The three musicians, (“Johnny Z and the Camaros,” if the billboard outside is correct), whose combined age probaly equals the number of years since John Quincy Adams was President  (approx. 185), are really good. They take requests, crooning everything from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel. Their binders full of dog-eared, handwritten cheat-sheets, stacked at least a foot high, reveal their wide repertoire across pretty much all musical genres of the past 50 years.

The night we were there, they did refuse one request, though, from an overly made-up and inebriated middle-aged woman who was trying to hit on them. She repeatedly approached the band and desperately wanted them to play “Memory”… “That’s not a really uplifting song,” the drummer (who, I assume was Johnny Z) told her, repeatedly. “And besides, we don’t know how to play it.” You have to draw the line somewhere, I guess.

For the most part it was your typical Friday evening crowd, relieved another workweek was over and looking forward to the long Labor Day weekend. We sat in silence and enjoyed the music, the people-watching and the booze. And in a place like the Gold Dust Lounge, you know that deep inspirational toilet graffiti is not far. The best of the ladies’ room, in blue ballpoint on the inside of the door: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”

How true.