In 1995 I was offered a chance to move to San Francisco to open a new location for the Planet Hollywood chain. A chance to finally live in California was not something I wanted to pass up so I accepted, despite having never been to that famed city. Looking back, I’d not visited Tulsa or Dallas before moving to either of those places, so I figured what was one more leap into the unknown.
July 4th weekend found us on the road. All of our belongings had been sent ahead by movers, paid for by the company. We packed the car with personal stuff and clothes, snacks and maps. Go west, young man.
In Abilene we stopped for fireworks to light off in the desert, dancing around like shamans under silvery sparks.
In New Mexico we made our way to Santa Fe for an amazing meal at dusk, knowing we may never be this way again.
Finally turning North onto the I-5, we drove through California’s concrete South, its verdant middle and into its Northern half, hanging a left at Tracy and snaking our way into the East Bay.
Like it was yesterday, I remember driving that night onto the Bay Bridge. Starting on the Oakland side, the bridge then glides down to Treasure Island, rises again above the bay and then slopes down offering a first glimpse of SF. The car was silent as we took in the Transamerica building, Coit Tower, the “Port of San Francisco” sign.
We don’t belong in a place like this, I thought…this peninsula of towers and hills and fog. We were used to flat plains and baked sun. We hesitantly made our way to the hotel, secure only in the fact that we were strangers in a strange land.
Eventually we found an apartment in a building next to the Fillmore Auditorium or “Fillmore West” as they called it, Bill Graham’s legendary music venue. Small and cramped given all of the stuff we brought, but a world away from where we’d been.
I made my way to the restaurant to meet my new bosses and see what I would be doing there. Having been the bar manager in Dallas, I was told that I would be occupying the same position in SF. Immediately, I began contacting local vendors to equip us with supplies for opening day. What I couldn’t find, however, was the pear brandy.
A brief history on this stuff. Legend has it that Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the celebrities behind Planet Hollywood, was a HUGE fan of this obscure elixir…an aged brandy that had the distinction of having an actual pear IN the bottle. His personal bottle supposedly traveled from opening to opening like some crazy talisman, bringing good luck to all. Further legend had it that the bar manager of each location (see: me) was in charge of making sure that the bottle made its way to the opening party. Failure to do so would result in a lifetime of company obscurity.
So there I was, in a new city, with new vendors, trying to make a new home and getting ready to open a new location in two days, suddenly getting this question:
“Hey dude….did you get the pear brandy?!”
“Pear brandy?? What are you talking about?”
“Arnold’s pear brandy! It HAS to be here?!”
“Ryan, I don’t know what you’re talking about! What fucking brandy?!” He then proceeded to tell me the story…
SO, I exclaimed in my head, what you’re saying is: I need to drop everything I’m doing about getting supplies for the opening, stop interviewing and hiring the 150 people we needed, quit getting the offices set up AND fend off an increasingly irate girlfriend who was having to do ALL of the unpacking at our new digs. I need to stop doing all of that and track down a single bottle of what evidently was the Holy Liquid Grail.
A quick phone call was made to the Reno location, site of the most recent opening. When that search yielded no fruit (pun absolutely intended), I called the home office in Orlando, desperate for leads. I was given the name and number of the head beverage guy for the company and placed a quick call to his office.
“Hey, its Dave Lory in San Francisco. We are opening in 2 days and I’m trying to find some pear brandy stuff for Arnold? Does that sound at all familiar?”
There was a part of me that wondered if I was being had…if the restaurant gods were having a little fun at my expense. We’ve all been there, right? Tell the new server to go next door to TGI Friday’s to borrow a “bag of steam” for the espresso maker? Make the new hostess ask the executive chef for a “french fry ruler”? Tell the new busboy to empty all of the hot water from the coffee machine (which will never empty as its attached to a main water line. The unfortunate rube in this situation will stand there for an hour trying to get the last of the water out….). Perhaps all of my past transgressions in the interest of comedy were coming back to haunt me.
“No, its real, and you better find it! Try the Beverly Hills store…” and then he hung up. I swear I heard laughter at the end.
A call to Beverly Hills finally got results. Yes, we have it, the bar manager said.
“Can you PLEASE overnight the bottle, dude? I will owe you 1000 favors.”
Not a problem.
The next morning, which was opening day, I received a FedEx package. I opened the box slowly, treating it like the Ark of the Covenant. Inside I found this:
I wiped down the dusty bottle and label. I had done it, I thought, giving myself a silent attaboy. Now I could get back to the 746 other things I had to do.
That night, as celebrities arrived for the opening, I searched for Arnold, to let him know that I, Dave Lory, intrepid adventurer and finder of lost artifacts, had the goods. There was Bruce Willis autographing hats for the kitchen guys. And over there was Sylvester Stallone, holding court with a bevy of beauties. But where was Arnold?!
Eventually I found him getting ready to walk outside and wave to the fans behind the barricades set up along Stockton Street. I tore up the stairs in pursuit. Mr. Schwarzenegger, I called out breathlessly. His ever-present bodyguard tensed up as I approached.
“Just so you know, we got your pear brandy in,” I said nervously.
“The what?” he said in his thick Austrian accent.
“The brandy with the pear in it…it’s here for you”.
He looked at me and cocked an eye. “That’s great, kid”, and moved towards the door, not giving a rat’s ass about my accomplishment.
The opening night went off without a hitch, and the bottle of pear brandy never moved from its vantage point on a shelf behind the bar. Eventually, I forgot about the bottle and focused on getting the place cleaned up so I could meet up with the rest of the team getting pleasantly tossed at a local bar.
SF was an experience I will never forget, and remains one of my favorite places to visit. The city has more history and experiences in it than I was able to absorb in my 16 months there. Some memories:
A Thai restaurant called New Delhi was our watering hole of choice. Many were the nights we would land there to discuss the events from our shift, drinking from cold bottles of Singha and sharing tandoori platters. I remember sitting by the front window, watching as the fog slowly enveloped the city at night.
Driving my new Jeep Cherokee with MANUAL transmission up and down the hills of the city. I had purchased it during my year in Dallas and had no idea that 8 months later I would be white-knuckling my way up and down steep avenues, double-clutching like a madman. Soon, public transportation would be the desired choice.
Salt-water fishing on my 30th birthday. Well…everyone EXCEPT ME fished while I hung my head over the side of the boat and prayed for death. Mel had procured the trip as a present and I eagerly accepted. Unfortunately, the night prior I went out with old friend Chalmers for cigars, cocktails (including “Tosca-cinos”: Armagnac, bourbon, chocolate ganache and steamed milk, made famous at the Tosca Cafe in SF) and shared memories of our mutual time in Tulsa. Brian rolled me home around 2am to a alarm that went off at 6am. Mel got us to the docks while leftover booze calmed my hangover. Not for long. As the boat pulled out away from it mooring, I felt the queasy start of something unfortunate. Flash forward to me curled in the fetal position in the cabin, rising only to hurl evil from my body, then back down in a state of shame. Eventually I rose to try and make the best of the trip only to find we were headed back in. The trip was over.
Riding bikes on the Embarcadero sidewalks, moving past Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, listening to seals and sea lions barking in the distance.
Getting tattoos at a tiny shop on the Height, sober as a judge and with no regrets. Visiting that same area a few months later the day that Jerry Garcia died, August 9th, 1995.
Late night cab rides and stories, sharing both.
Finding $10 in a pants pocket while scraping by check-to-check living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. I was making a salary NOT commensurate to our living expenses; Mel was waiting tables while finishing her degree. Finding that small fortune we would go downstairs to the coffee shop for two cups of their weak brew, then walk up Fillmore Street towards Pacific Heights, window-shopping with the salty bay breeze on our skin, feeling like kings.
If you haven’t been, go.
Author’s note: The title of this story is a riff on the Grateful Dead song “New Speedway Boogie”, one of my all-time faves. I tried to juxtapose the title with my time in SF (the band’s home for many years), my being there when Jerry died and the ever-present SF fog that is strangely outside my SoCal home at this moment. A rare cold day in these parts, perfect for writing.