Two pillars of brick stand guard on a quiet suburban street corner in San Rafael. Like trunkless legs of stone, their red mortared features are slowly melting in the face of unrelenting time. Once they meant something, and one supposes that they still do, but ironically that meaning has reversed direction. Brick inspires confidence, confidence in longevity, but now they only inspire curiosity, and at some point, that curiosity will turn to contempt.
If a traveler passes up through them, that traveler will find the decaying wine cellar of a once proud building. That building was once a center of entertainment and culture. Lavish celebrations were held there: banquets and gatherings of all types. Inside the walls that no longer remain people celebrated life in all its splendor.
The Hotel Rafael (built in 1888) and it’s luxurious 100 rooms sat on 21 acres in the area now known as Dominican. It had stables, tennis courts, a bowling alley, a 135 foot tall observatory with a panoramic view of Mt. Tamalpais, and a labyrinth. It was the Overlook (the hotel in “The Shining”) of Marin and surely it shone. It too, had a famous bartender. William “Cocktail” Boothby wrote his one and only treatise on bartending, The World’s Drinks And How To Mix Them while prowling the plank there.
Surely it was hard to get a reservation. You might have needed to know someone. It was the very epicenter of many social celebrations, and epicenters are notoriously hard to get into. One can only guess that there were tip handshakes, a free drink here and there, and frantic calls to the manager requesting late reservations (on the relatively newfangled telephone). These things were probably universal in the industry, then, as they are now. As much as drinks and food change, one thing that doesn’t change are people. We still want what we want, when we want it, whether it’s 1888, 1958, or 2018.
These days we think of the hot new restaurant, or the stalwart classic, as forever standing the test of time. But look around. There are very few restaurants or bars that make it 25 years. That is one generation. This generation’s landmarks are the next generations curiosities. And the generation after that’s refuse. The poet Shelley once wrote a poem called “Ozymandias” about a decaying ancient statue with the inscription:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
We think of the works of men and women as the constructions, the containers that hold them. And nowhere is that more evident than in the bar and restaurant business. How many times do we see shiny glossy pictures of buildings, or of drinks, or of wine bottles. All are packaging to the real thing. Nightclubs without people are warehouses, drinks without people are products, and wine without the human component is merely the excrement of yeast. It’s the human part of the equation that makes it all worthwhile.
Anthony Bourdain is often quoted as saying “Eat at a local restaurant tonight. Get the cream sauce. Have a cold pint at 4 o’clock in a mostly empty bar. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Listen to someone you think may have nothing in common with you…” etc. The irony is that it is doubtful that he ever actually said that. Which doesn’t make it less meaningful, but it does make Shelley’s point. The world we know is ephemeral, it will pass, as will we. The “things” we value so highly: clothes, restaurants, cars, whiskey, will all merely be the punchlines in some future comedian’s joke.
So, drink what you like, go where you want, have that cream sauce. But do it with the people you want to do it with. Because where you do it is relatively unimportant. In the greater scheme of things, all that really matters are the people. Two pillars of brick in San Rafael proves that as much as do the trunkless legs of Ozymandias.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-Ozymandias is another name for Ramses II (the Great). Obscure in Shelley’s time, he is now perhaps the most well documented Pharaoh (in terms of research and history) that there is.
-That restaurant that you “just must get into” probably won’t be there in ten years.
– The conceit of humans is that we matter to the world. We don’t. But we do matter to the people we love. And often we ignore them for that world.
-The Hotel Rafael survived both a World War and a global pandemic only to burn to the ground in 1928 by a fire set by a disgruntled employee.
-Perhaps it is only irony itself, that is timeless.