A is for Aub Zam Zam

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In the Haight, just a few blocks from Golden Gate Park, in the heart of hippiedom, sits a very un-hippie place: the Aub Zam Zam room. A martini bar. And inside the bar used to reside a very decidedly anti-hippie bartender: Bruno. Bruno Mooshei, to be exact (Bruno passed away about nine years ago but the bar still remains). And Bruno hated hippies. I watched him kick person after person out of the bar with a frank, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” or “I think you would like it a lot better at the bar down the street.”

Bruno wore the uniform of someone who might be anti-hippie: white shirt, black vest, a tie. He was stout. Making a martini was a delicate affair of engineering. He made change out of an antique cash register. Even while wearing jeans at that bar, I felt like I was wearing a Christian Dior dress out of the 1950s.

In the early days of my twenty first year, my boyfriend, who at the time lived above the Panhandle, and I used to wend our way down Clayton over the narrow track of grass called “the Panhandle,” and down to the Haight for dinner after a listless afternoon of my angst and what I now see as his thirty year old bored amusement of my angst. Oftentimes, we would stop at the Persian Aub Zam Zam for a martini.

There are two visits I will never forget.

The first time we went to the Aub Zam Zam, I didn’t have my ID on me. I was twenty-one. But Bruno let me in, not without first staring me down with a look that made me wilt and want to turn around and say, “Nevermind, I don’t need a martini, really.” He turned to my boyfriend and said in his stentorian voice, “You’re lucky she looks so young.” And proceeded to make me a martini.

I’d ordered a “gin martini,” and Bruno answered right away, “Young lady, is there any other kind?!” Because Bruno never ever served you anything other than a gin martini, stirred. Ask for vodka, and you might get kicked out. Ask for your martini to be shaken, and you might get kicked out. Ask for a whiskey or a cosmopolitan, and you might get kicked out. And you sit at the bar, not at a table, even though the place is clean and all the tables look ready to receive you. Because otherwise, you might get kicked out.

There might be people drinking something other than a martini, but they were on a whole ‘nuther level, possibly Bruno’s friends. You didn’t dare follow their example.

Still, the martini was fine. The best, really. And Bruno was an excellent host if he approved of you. He laid down a napkin for me, “because a lady always needs a napkin.” And he would compliment you–again, in a voice that sounded like he was berating you so that if you were a dog you’d cower in the corner because you wouldn’t understand English to differentiate the content of his message. And the place was clean, and the Moroccan door so old fashioned and…awesome.

He’d berate the street urchins, wish for the old days when the Haight was “not like this, full of punks.” And most of all, it was fun to watch the other people get kicked out. One night, a bunch of folks came in and said they’d just finished dinner and would like a martini.

Bruno kicked them out. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” When they resisted he continued, “Don’t you know a martini is not an after dinner drink!” They left, one of them laughing, delighting in the privilege of being kicked out.

Being a “good girl,” I was horrified at the prospect of being kicked out. And yet I delighted in watching others turned away from the bar at which I sat. Another party entered and before they even got to the bar, I knew he’d kick them out. They were boisterous, their laughter and swearing filling what had seemed like a peaceful martini tomb. They got kicked out.

I sipped my martini like it was privilege.

The other time I won’t ever forget…is the time I actually GOT kicked out. I had returned to the bar with another boyfriend-now-husband. This time he was twenty-one, and I was older by eighteen months. It was his second time at the Aub Zam Zam.

We ordered our martinis. Gin. Stirred. Cold. And were sipping. Watching other people get kicked out. I don’t remember who it was Bruno had just kicked out, but I’d had my entire martini, and I was feeling giddy, and I couldn’t help myself: I giggled.

“Young lady? What’s so FUNNY?” Bruno turned his short, stout body to me.

I was horrified. “I just thought something was funny.”

“We don’t LAUGH like that in PUBLIC. You are being VERY RUDE. I have to ask you to LEAVE.” I’d heard him say those lines before, but now they were directed at me. Oh. I could hear my boyfriend-now-husband sucking down his martini next to me, finishing as quickly as he could.

We walked out, my head hanging in shame. My boyfriend-now-husband, knowing my relationship with authority and approval put his hand on my shoulder and said he thought it was funny.

I looked up about to argue that it was NOT funny, this was SERIOUS! But then I saw we’d entered a different world full of street urchins, second hand clothing stores, the air heavy with incense. I guess it *was* sort of funny.

***

Joining Charlotte’s Web in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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23 Comments

Filed under Alphabet: A History, Life, Memes, Memories

23 responses to “A is for Aub Zam Zam

  1. mysticonnie

    lol! Great story. :)

  2. anonwupfan

    No other kind indeed!

  3. Ericka

    I never got kicked out! Point of pride. But lots of my friends did. He sure had me cowed into good behavior, though, that Bruno did. Sometimes I miss those days. Usually I do not.

  4. Is this bar still open? Where is it?

    • Aub Zam Zam is still on Haight near Cole. Bruno is long gone (he passed away almost 10 years ago) but the bar’s still there.

    • zmayhem

      Still there, Haight near Cole, next door to the fantastic faux-vintage lingerie store, still with the same lovely mural over the bar, the same classics on the jukebox and the same gorgeous antique cash register. Sadly, nobody gets kicked out anymore, but they still make exquisite martinis.

      The last time my spouse and I went there, we fell into a lengthy conversation with an ER doc from Colorado there to visit his just-a-friend from high school (though it was clear from the not quite accidental hand touching and the way they stared dreamily after each other when one got up to use the restroom that their just-friends status was about to change) about Crazy Patients and Hospital Bureaucrazy Clusterfucks We Have Known, with digressions into Tom Waits and Iris Murdoch.

      My husband goes there on his own every now and then and ends up talking for hours with the bartender or another regular about everything from the true history of Caligula (this was with a regular, a plumber and self-taught Roman history scholar) to Chaplin vs. Keaton to the best sandwiches in San Francisco. It’s that kind of a place.

      • Dear zmayhem: thank you for your kind comments on Shakesville. :) I was wondering why I was getting so many hits on this page, and then I saw the referring Shakesville Friday Blogaround post.

        I love the Aub Zam Zam. The conversations you speak of having at the Aub Zam Zam…describe the “vibe” there to a T. I hope it will always be around. And I hope I do justice to the other letters of the alphabet, too.

  5. that bar would raise my anxiety to horrible, horrible levels. But it does sound like a very fun experience to reflect on. Loved this!

  6. lila

    so much about sf still to be discovered or lost to the ravages of time… i just heard of the aub zam zam for the first time on anthony bourdain this week.

    i love the alphabet history idea!

  7. So funny! I wish I could be insta-cool enough to be laughing when I get kicked out by a guy like that, but am afraid will take a few hours before I see the funny side.

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  9. Ah yes, Zam Zam . . . I was the first bartender that the new owners hired after Bruno died and worked there for over 5 years. Great times hearing (and re-telling) all of the stories from the old regulars.

    • Courtney: ha. It did mine, but that was part of the experience!

      lila: the Aub Zam Zam is still a good place, even sans Bruno. :)

      SenNim: total trauma!

      Josh: Welcome to the blog, and thank you for being the first to fill Bruno’s shoes.

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  11. Charles C.

    Wow indeed!I used to live about 3 blocks up the street(Cole Valley) so this was unofficially one of my neighborhood bars.I had heard about it from a co-worker at Neiman Marcus back in 1996 and was intrigued to say the least.It took about six trys to even walk through the door due to his bizarre hours of operation(whenever he felt compelled).I was allready well versed in the “true”martini and it’s attributes,so there wasn’t ever a problem with my drink.I too enjoyed his prompt ejection and/or disallowance of “Riff Raff” while I enjoyed my martini and his conversation.I took a girlfriend in for a drink before dinner one night and he almost kicked us both out because she hadn’t heeded my warning and asked for a Vodka Gimlet.I was absolutely shocked that I was still seated and in what seemed to be “good graces” with ol’ Bruno.He gave me a look that I interpreted as “You both get to stay because I like you,but get her straightened out before you both get the boot”.
    My last Martini served by Bruno was on a Rainy,cold Friday eve in March of 1998..I sat alone and enjoyed my drink.It was about 7:00pm.The bar was empty except for the two of us.I gazed around at the interior of the Zam Zam to try and take in as much of a visual record as I could.I explained to Bruno that I was moving to San Diego and might not be back for awhile.He made me another martini without me asking and refused to take my money.When finished with this one,he asked if i’d like another.I said that “I could go get drunk like a fool at any old bar, but I come here for a proper Martini and some Class when I feel like mine is worn a little thin.

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  16. infomaven

    My late sister took me there in the 1990’s and it was just like this. We sat there for about 2 hours, quietly sipping our drinks and watching Bruno kick people out.

    I like martinis and this was one of the best I ever had.

    RIP Bruno. They don’t make them like you anymore.

  17. Loved the story, a perfect match to my memories of the place. An old Brunoism popped into my head and so I searched for stories about him. My favorite quote: after a poor soul ordered a cosmopolitan or something like that, the collective groans of the room were audible. Then Bruno leaned over and said “I’m embarrassed for you, I’m embarrassed for me and I’m embarrassed for everyone in the room. Now I will ask you to leave.” Now I live in Brooklyn and no Bruno or am Zam around here.

    • @infomaven: I’m still looking for a martini like Bruno’s. I got really close with Antonio’s martinis in London at the Egerton Hotel. RIP.

      @David: I love your Bruno anecdote. I’m now in NYC, too–I’ll let you know if I find a place that comes close. ;)

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