Saturday, 26 January 2013
Sketches from a Cigar Smoker’s Album: Occidental (Pts I, II & III)
San Francisco is certainly not a smokers haven, stringent laws and restrictions make this city a perfect place for those who wish to abstain from stogies and cigarettes - bar the Haight Ashbury district where the smell of pot is rife through an air that echoes with the sound of drunks, homeless maniacs and jungle music.
However, in a small corner of the financial district not far from my hotel, there lurked a corner of civilisation which thankfully had managed to bypass the strict dictats of the State of California. The Occidental Cigar Club is a unique establishment combining two of the greatest combinations known to man, hand-rolled cigars and hard liquor in excessive quantities.
I was immediately made to feel welcome on that quiet Sunday lunchtime fragile as I was feeling from a wonderful wedding that I had attended on the previous evening. Yvette, who has to be one of the most generous and helpful proprietors/hosts I have ever met started me off with something mild (medium for the yanks, mild for the British) and I sheepishly ordered a pint of the local Scrimshaw Pilsner to sup as I worked out what I was going to do with the rest of my afternoon.
Of course the bar’s atmosphere was intoxicating and every now and then someone new would come in and strike up conversation with yours truly - although it is more likely I was the one buttonholing them! and as the afternoon wore on one Scrimshaw turned into a Guinness and another which was chased by a smooth, sweet Diplomatico rum.
One of the fellows who pitched up at the bar was something of a scotch drinker, and worked in the film industry and, following suit with lengthy tasting of all the best the bar had to offer, I only thought it right that I should try it myself, along with some fantastic Glenfarclas and more unpronounceable and expensive. Of course, but that time the very agreeable Arturo Fuente had run its course and I thought it would be churlish not to indulge in another of the establishments beautifully kept cigars.
I then turned my attention to a Bolivar - their Dominican variety as it is The States - and continued my banter with my neighbour, who turned out to be in the film industry and had constructed the sets of a number of high profile films including Inception, Indecent Proposal, Misery and many more. Yvette charming as ever plied me with more delicious spirits and even a Phil Collins playlist - this had to be the best bar I had ever been to!
It was 17:30 before I received a call from a friend inviting me for supper and I realised that I had spent five hours in the place, if not more, so much for site-seeing.
I would be a liar if said that I didn’t go back to The Occidental, in fact I went there that very same evening, but on this occasion without the explicit intention to. Heading to supper in the tres chic Richmond area, which is choc-full of young, glamourous professionals one of my fellow guests pointed out that I smelt similar to the bottom of a very expensive ashtray and wondered where I had passed my time during the afternoon. Upon telling him he gesticulated wildly, clapping me on the back and exclaiming to the assembled company that, like a prophet of the tobacco trade, I was going to lead them all to this mythical bar - the only place you can legally smoke indoors in the city!
Heading back to the back in tow with ten friends and companions I was greeted with open arms at The Occidental. I cannot say the night was any less than a boozy, smokey affair where more Scrimshaw Pilsner was sunk but equally a chaser or five of Diplomatico rum was quaffed by the assembled party.
The highlight of the evening (bar the friends I had and made over the afternoon, who were still there) was a brief conversation that I had with a goateed fellow in a Russian trench coat, smoking a pipe and waxing lyrical on the mysteries in life via the magic of Nabakov. as he sucked on his pipe he informed me of the intricacies of being a short story author. It was to no avail...by that time I was the 'party man' and far beyond the nuances of controversial 20th Century literature. Like a creature of habit my next Bolivar arrived and the night blended into a myriad of scotch, smoke and seedy songs: you can have it (if you take my heart).
I had quite a morning in the foggy city - not that it was over-clouded on my trip - where the sky was blue and the chowder was gloopy. A filling and hearty stew was had on the waterfront as I watched the seagulls and ferries depart from the dock, out into the enigmatic pacific ocean... how pretentious... and certainly not a thing the Bloody Good Chap would do - or did he? the chowder was delicious in any case.
It was the last day in the city and there was a sense of regret that I hadn’t really seen too much of the town in my brief stay. Pondering this point I almost walked past the Occidental - as much as I (and my friends) had patronised it two nights previous it could have been a stretch to head back in, especially when the bar smelt akin to Heston’s Lapsang smoked salmon - but back I went for a night of gargantuan proportions.
You must know those evenings when you meet great people, the supposed ‘Dot.com’ millionaires and entrepreneurs that met on that fateful night (smoking a Bolivar & Aturo Fuente) by humouring my frivolous conversation and my arrogant comments regarding the merits of Cuban cigars, which I well knew none of them had smoked until a old buffer - all moustache and no gusto - said that he felt Cubanos were overrated. A point, but a poor one...
The afternoon slipped into the evening and my new friends and I were laying heavily into the rum and pilsner chasers as we chowed down of some serious cigars... sadly my impending flight beckoned and I had to take a sad leave of an establishment that been one of the most mutually beneficial experiences I have had on any holiday so far.
Next time, I will be discussing about the city’s amazing food scene for all my foodie followers who constantly accuse me of abandoning them!