Tales of the Cocktail Preview: Fern Bars

Wait, we’ve barely finished detoxing from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, and already I’m talking about Tales of the Cocktail? You betcha. Already I’m looking forward to attending The Smooth and Creamy History of the Fern Bar, to be led by tiki tastemaker Martin Cate.  In a nutshell, Cate traces a line from “fern bars” to frozen-Margarita-slushie-abomination chains like TGI Friday’s and Bennigan’s, as well as the Regal Beagle of Three’s Company fame.

Cates’s tiki-themed Spirited Dinners are always one of the highlights of Tales, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to inquire what polyester-attired mischief he’s up to this time.

Kara:  Tell us about the Fern Bar concept you have planned for Tales.

Martin Cate:  The event started as a conversation between me and Jeff Berry, we were talking about this forgotten and despised era in history. It came up recently because I became interested in Norman Hobday – his name is mentioned in Tony Abou-Ganim’s book as a legendary cocktail figure. I did some research and started to learn more about him. His bar, Henry Africa’s in San Francisco, was considered by most to be the first Fern Bar. Hobday was an esoteric character. He wore safari suits and was a larger-than-life figure. He had the idea to do this bar, more like your grandmother’s sitting room vs. a dark, dungeon-y space. It attracted professionals, girls, and changed the bar into a more relaxed, familial atmosphere.

It’s widely thought that he invented the Lemon Drop. He was something of a crazed character. He invented a chain, went out of business, came back later, started another. He’s a cocktail impresario of the era…but unlike Don the Beachcomber or Jerry Thomas, he’s alive.

Is he coming to Tales?

No, he won’t be there, but I’ll be interviewing him for the event. Has a place in San Francisco. He has this cat – a Katrina rescue cat, named Mr. Higgins. He’s huge – he has to be the biggest cat I’ve ever seen. He sleeps on the bar. It has to be one of those strange, only-in-San-Francisco stories. It’s a story of the era, the style, the look and feel of the era.

We’ll be talking about what made these places popular, what was their appeal, their draw. The cocktails – universally hated now, these ice cream, syrupy drinks. But people were crazy about them. I don’t think the trend will go back. But when you look at the drinks you can say – what were the inspirations? What were the flavors? That you can apply to current mixology. Sure you can dismiss the ingredients as high fat, etc. But what was it that people got a kick out of with these drinks? Tastes change, but there’s something to be learned.

It will be fun, a lively affair, with music and entertaining apparel. We’ll keep it light and breezy, like a top AM hit.


The Regal Beagle - the ultimate Fern Bar

So a Fern Bar is…what exactly? 

The look and feel is Victorian looking. It’s got brass rails and Tiffany lamps and lots of things like lots of ferns and potted palms. You can see that example in films. It’s a place for yuppies – the 70s into the 80s. Great example:  The Regal Beagle in Three’s Company is the archetypal fern bar – California yuppies with feathered hair enjoying ice cream drinks in a Victorian parlor-esque setting.  It started in very early 70s, popular through the 70s, and petered out in mid 80s.

You’re going to single-handedly revive this, aren’t you?

I hope not!  But it’s a change of pace from tiki. I just thought it was uncovered territory. People want to shove it under the mat. I hope people get a kick out of it.

What drinks are you planning to serve up?

We’re putting the final touches on it now. I don’t want to spoil it by telling too much. They’re going to be frozen. They’ll be the lesser-known ones from the era, rather than go to the Lemon Drop, Harvey Wallbangers, wine spritzers, Fuzzy Navels, Pina Coladas.

Wanna share one?

No. I’m afraid if I share one people will stay away. My descriptions will challenge your concept of “good.”

One thing I can tell you is that we’re devoting the latter part of it to a singles mixer – we’ll put on mellow 70s tunes and say hello to all the pretty ladies.

It’s like that Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin –

Two Wild & Crazy Guys? It’s not entirely unrelated.