The San Francisco “Cocktail Route”

The Cocktail Route — “Champagne Days of San Francisco”

Spring is most definitely in the air right now, which has brought my thoughts back to one of the great phenomena of San Francisco’s pre-earthquake era, the “Cocktail Route”.

champagne-days-of-san-franciscoI know I’ve mentioned the “Cocktail Route” in previous shows, but I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear that it was both a real, chartable path and a kind of a beloved civic institution. I’m far from an expert on the subject, though — for details, the woman to consult is Evelyn Wells.

If you ever start nosing around the 1890s, that most sparkling decade of the Gilded Age — you’ll inevitably end up perusing a charming volume from 1939 entitled Champagne Days of San Francisco. Evelyn Wells wrote for Fremont Older at the San Francisco Call back in the day, and in this lovingly written narrative she reveals the City’s quirks, foibles and peculiarly San Francisco-flavoured ways of doing business through a trio of characters called only the Senator, the Banker, and the Judge.

And though it’s completely un-footnoted and occasionally inaccurate, Evelyn’s portrayals are so vivid, and provide such entertaining insight into the way lives were lived among San Francisco’s upper crust, that this book is always right up there at the top of my recommended reading list.

I’m going to start right in on a lightly edited version of Chapter Four, “The Cocktail Route” — and I think you’ll see exactly what I mean.

geary at kearny streets, lotta's fountain - 1885The Cocktail Route

The Senator, like all true sons of the Champagne Age, never permitted pleasure to disrupt the even flow of business. “No matter how enthusiastically we celebrate the week-end,” once commented, “we are always in our offices by two on Monday afternoon.”

Easy-living, unhurried San Francisco had resumed the burden of life again by two o’clock … the male population that had celebrated so violently the week-end had resumed responsibility — personal, civic, or state. Again, in bearded dignity, the men of the vivid nineties trod the corridors of banks and hotels and courts. Life was real and very earnest, until five o’clock.

At five the Senator drew his large gold watch from its chamois bag and sighed with relief. It was Cocktail Hour.

All over San Francisco at this moment men were buttoning Prince Alberts and cutaways, balancing derbies and toppers, preparatory to venturing forth into Montgomery, Kearny, and Market Streets, following a Cocktail Route famous around the world.

On the Route they would meet friends discuss politics and the latest scandal, and adjust matters of business.

The Cocktail Route was a tradition. Created in the eighties, in the city where free lunch and the cocktail itself was born, it was trod by San Francisco males “to the Fire” of ’06.

The Senator proceeded down Kearny Street to Sutter, to the Reception Saloon where the Cocktail Route began, at five on weekdays and earlier on Saturdays. Some men started the Route at its opposite end, on upper Market Street. But the Senator adhered to tradition. To start the Route at the wrong end was to upset a man’s entire evening.

There was no haste in the Senator’s gait. Men did not hurry in the Champagne Age. There was no “after-work” rush at five o’clock. At that hour loitered along the streets and strolled leisurely through swinging doors upon such scenes, rich and warm, as greeted the Senator’s brightening eye when he marched into the Reception Saloon.

For the saloon, in champagne days, was more than a warm meeting place at the day’s end. It was a man’s club and salon and conference place.

Fleas, cold, poor beds, and drafty lodgings had driven the pioneer into the saloon. Food, drink, and conviviality held him there. In the nineties comparatively few saloons were cursed by the prophetic legend over a side door, “Family Entrance”. It was still a man’s age. The saloon was still a haven against feminity. In it elections were predetermined, political machines adjusted, and voting machines “fixed”.

san-francisco-saloonFor a moment, halting in the heady atmosphere, the Senator’s noble nose quivered over his splendid beard. Surely, over this fragrance of imported liquor and Havana smoke and sundry mouth-watering odors emanating from the free lunch counter, there hovered the scent of freshly cooked terrapin! Other saloons had other specialties, such as crab, turkey, or corned beef.

The sparkle of gas-light through crystal candelabra shone on colorful banks of bottles, large mirrors, and expensive oil paintings, white-coated bartenders, and many friends of the Senator grouped along the shining mahogany bar. Here were the leaders of the city — merchants, judges, politicians, bankers, newspaper men, and gay young blades, resplendent in striped trousers, fine cravats, and amazing waistcoats, some brocaded, some of moleskin and one, even, of seal. A few men carried canes crooked over arms not needed at the bar.

Low-voiced, well-mannered, they made room for the Senator.

For the rest of the content of this podcast, you’re going to have to, well, either listen to it, or peruse Chapter Four of “Champagne Days of San Francisco“!