Drinking Bourbon in the Zam Zam Room

August Kleinzahler

The best bar in San Francisco reopened for business the other day under new management. But it’s no good. They’ve got it all wrong. For one, the place is too bright and cheerful now. The new owners have installed all manner of lighting and cleaned up the mural over the bar. It looked better with sixty years of smoke stains, a kind of patina. Now, it just looks like what it is: a 1940 interior decorator’s kitsch version of a magnified Persian miniature. If that weren’t enough, the new owners have slapped a fresh coat of paint on the walls and put flowers all over the place – lilies, for crying out loud, gladioli, birds of paradise. Hideous. But worst of all, they keep the door open to the street, inviting all and sundry to come and take refreshment at the Persian Aub Zam Zam Room. That would have horrified Bruno more than anthing else. A bat could have dwelled happily, day and night, in the original Zam Zam. If someone opened the door, especially in daylight, and hesitated before coming in, Bruno would shout: ‘Shut that door, there’s a stench out there. Away with you, barbarian!’

Bruno Mooshei, sole proprietor and bartender, was famous for two things: his dry martinis and throwing people out of the bar. People from all over America, and even Europe, would come to the Zam Zam, sometimes for the martinis but usually to be thrown out. When David Letterman came to town to do a week of shows his advance people phoned Bruno to see if he would throw Letterman out of the bar on the show. ‘No, I’m sorry, thank you,’ Bruno said over the phone. ‘Who’s David Letterman?’ he asked us. ‘I don’t know this person. Why do these people bother me? He must be some New York person.’

A New York person was not a good thing to be. Bruno found they tended to be noisy and self-regarding, and they always let you know they were from New York. Bruno, who was born in Baghdad and taken to the Bay Area as an infant, liked to boast that he’d never been east of Reno. He did admit once that he wouldn’t mind ‘flying to Iowa and having a big, corn-fed steak. You know, just to see what it would be like.’ But the only time Bruno left town was to go to Reno to play keno and eat ‘extra heavy’, or to visit family in Modesto. He’d never been on a jet and didn’t like flying in general. ‘I went to Mexico once and was sick for 18 years. Isn’t that right, Ruth?’ ‘That’s right, Bruno,’ old Ruth would chime in from the corner stool.

I have always regarded it as one of the singular pieces of good fortune in my life that Bruno didn’t throw me out when I first wandered into the Zam Zam twenty years ago. It was a small, dark, cave-like place with Moorish arches and decor. It took a few moments to adjust your eyes to the darkness. There was an old-fashioned, vintage jukebox to the right with old-fashioned music playing, 1930s and 1940s big-band stuff. Bruno was at the far end of a 1940s-style, well-detailed, semi-circular bar with an old-fashioned, vintage cash register. The whole place was old-fashioned, vintage, including Bruno, who was chatting with a couple of friends. They all three glowered at me, hoping I might go away. It was one of the most depressing, unfriendly rooms I had ever walked into. I knew immediately I had found sanctuary.

I wasn’t good for much at the age of 30, but I could drink bourbon and I knew which bourbon I liked and how I liked it. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of the brands acceptable to Bruno. If you ordered Jack Daniel’s, for instance, Bruno would tell you that you were more or less a fool, in thrall to Madison Avenue. Tanqueray gin and Chivas Regal also earned you a rough ride. But Old Grand-Dad was jake with Bruno, a good, unfashionable whiskey. So it was my order that saved me, and knowing to put my money on the plank before having to be asked. And then shutting up. Having another two in quick succession and leaving quietly, a modest tip behind, didn’t hurt either.

Who was allowed into the bar and who was thrown out was a celebrated topic of conversation among drinkers in San Francisco. In fact, it wasn’t all that complex, at least on the surface. You took a seat on a stool at the bar, not at one of the tables in the back room. You had your money ready on the bar and you ordered your drink. This last had its hazards. Apart from the brands proscribed by Bruno (but which were nevertheless available), he held beer in low esteem. If you insisted, he would say: ‘I’ve got the horrible Budweiser, Becks and Heineken.’ Needless to say, if you ordered a Long Island Iced Tea or a Sex on the Beach, or even a margarita, he would throw you out. A bit of a minefield, but once you had it all figured out you were probably OK, unless Bruno just flat didn’t like you or the way you looked.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in