Spirits: Is it time for a fern bar revival?

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Freddy Fudpucker (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is the fern bar ready for its revival? Are we soon to see trendy urban bars themed to look like the Regal Beagle, Jack Tripper's swinging hangout in the 1970s sitcom "Three's Company"?

Why not? We've already lived through the speak-easy revival and the tiki bar revival. The old fern-bar standard, the Harvey Wallbanger, made Imbibe magazine's recent list of "The 25 Most Influential Cocktails of the Past Century."

So I was not surprised, when looking at the schedule for this summer's Tales of the Cocktail spirits industry conference in New Orleans, to notice a panel titled "The Smooth and Creamy History of the Fern Bar."

That panel's moderator will be Martin Cate, tiki expert and owner of San Francisco's extraordinary new tiki bar, Smuggler's Cove. When I called Cate, he told me straight away: "The fern bar's day is not coming back. People keep asking me, 'Oh God, now you're going to start a fern bar revival, aren't you?' No."

Cate's interest is much more academic: the fern bar as a missing link in the history of the America tavern. "There's this whole dark decade that no one wants to talk about," he said. "Yet fern bars are the template of so many things in bars we take for granted today." For starters, establishments such as T.G.I. Friday's and Houlihan's would not exist as they do now had there been no fern bar trend.

The fern bar, for those of you too young to have frequented one, had its heyday in the late '70s and early '80s. Some trace its origins to Henry Africa's in San Francisco, which opened in 1970. "Henry Africa" was actually a guy named Norman Hobday, who favored safari-style garb and who decided that a bar should be more like your grandmother's living room: more brightly lighted than the dark, woody, clubby bars that existed at that time, and filled with overstuffed chairs, fake Tiffany lamps and, yes, hanging plants. Another San Francisco spot, Perry's, is also reputed to be the first fern bar. It has tile floors and checkered tablecloths and was made famous as a singles "meet market" in Armistead Maupin's novel "Tales of the City."

The emergence of the fern bar dovetails with the sexual revolution, a well-documented cultural development of that era. Single women began frequenting bars by themselves, something almost unthinkable even a decade earlier. "All of a sudden, single women liked to go to fern bars," Cate said. "Then, of course, the guys wanted to go to these bars, too." As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in a 2004 piece on Perry's, "There was a time, kiddies, when you could go home with a paralegal or a stockbroker for the night and no one had to exchange medical histories (though they may have had to come clean about being a Capricorn)."

Beyond cultural history, fern bar drinks are decidedly less than classic. Think Lemon Drops, wine spritzers, frozen daiquiris, Bahama Mamas, Mudslides and good old Harvey Wallbangers as the standards. Some of those certainly sound silly, but as Cate says, "There was more of a sense of humor about drinks back then."

A Harvey Wallbanger, for instance, is really just a screwdriver (that lowbrow mix of vodka and orange juice) topped with Galliano. Legend has it the drink was invented for a surfer dude at Duke's Blackwatch, a bar in Hollywood. Perhaps the bartender wanted to class up the screwdriver with something more, um, continental.

Whatever the reason, it was a boon for Galliano, a sweet Italian anise-citrus-vanilla liqueur. Of course, hardly anyone drinks it anymore. But its popularity well into the '80s might explain why that lonely, tall, dusty bottle of yellow stuff still sits on nearly every back bar you've ever seen. Its untouched presence is yet another fern bar relic.

I admit that I kind of enjoy one Galliano-based fern bar drink: the Freddy Fudpucker, Harvey Wallbanger's Mexican cousin, which replaces vodka with tequila.

"We look at those drinks now as sophisticated cocktail people and say, 'How disgusting,' " Cate said. "But people loved those drinks. We should look back at those drinks and ask why those flavors were so popular."

Were so popular? I pointedly asked.

"True," Cate said. "I mean, how many Bahama Mamas and Mudslides are being sold at T.G.I. Friday's at this very moment?"

So don't say I didn't warn you if you soon see high-end bartenders -- the same folks now in speak-easy vests and armbands -- starting to don leisure suits. Just smile, order your Freddy Fudpucker and ask, "Hey, baby, what's your sign?"


Freddy Fudpucker

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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