Mirth and Martinis

Finding the snippets of real-life drama at happy hour

“No, no! He told me all about golf—but he didn’t say anything about you!”

Now, that’s good writing—crisp, funny, a little eccentric, exactly the kind of dialogue that a first-rate play depends on. But I am not watching a play. I am sitting in a bar in Marin County, sipping a vodka martini while eavesdropping on a conversation between a man in a blue sweatsuit and a younger woman clutching a glass of red wine. Though I’m not clear on the context, I can see that the woman’s mood instantly shifts from miffed to mollified upon hearing the gentleman’s offbeat assurance.

So far, so good.

Bar chatter, if one pays attention to it, can be every bit as entertaining as a night at the theater. And just as in the world of theater, the scene varies vastly from venue to venue. Some nights it’s all tragedy, and on others it’s pure romance. Tonight, in the lounge of San Rafael’s popular Seafood Peddler restaurant, just before 5pm on a Tuesday evening, the show is shaping up to be a bit of a farce.

As the candles are lit one by one across the spacious fishing-themed space—nice “set design,” with lots of ship models and fake lobsters—six casually dressed, retirement-age characters sit at the bar. Sporting a just-off-the-links vibe, they’re costumed in extremely casual garb (49ers jackets, sweatpants, hooded sweaters, sandals and sneakers), all talking in a rising and falling blur of half-sentences, snippets and out-of-context commentary.

“I’d do better hitting the ball with my cane than with the club,” one older man remarks to another. “What the hell’s going on down there?” a laughing woman calls down to the other end of the bar. A few minutes later, a voice is heard saying, “The ironic thing is, the escrow closed earlier than anyone expected!”—a remark that, for some reason, causes an explosion of raucous laughter.

At the Seafood Peddler, Happy Hour runs from 4 to 7pm, Monday through Saturday, and as is often the case, the show takes a while to get going. Things heat up a bit as diners begin filling the lounge, waiting for their table in the main restaurant. Tonight, the highlight of the show takes place in the corner of the lounge near the baby grand piano, where a twenty-something couple are waiting, a bit nervously, with the woman’s parents and grandparents. It seems that the grandfolks are meeting the girl’s boyfriend for the first time, a tattooed fellow with a shaved head and multiple piercings. When the drinks are delivered to their table, the grandfather challenges the boyfriend’s choice of beverage: a Shirley Temple.

“What are you, an alcoholic?” the grandfather asks.

“Actually, yes,” the boyfriend replies in a subdued voice.

“Well, then what are you drinking a Shirley Temple for? You’re already an alcoholic! Have a real drink!”

All in all, not a bad little bit of entertainment.

At John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa, Happy Hour is a different and dramatically less casual show altogether. The cast is a bit younger, a combination of business folk unwinding after work and conference visitors from the surrounding Vintners Inn complex. The “set” has a decidedly masculine vibe resembling a hunting lodge in a dark forest, with lots of wood surfaces, low light and flickering candles.

“Did you watch Wednesday’s episode of Revenge?” one patron is heard saying to another. “Freaky! Daniel really told his mother off good!”

The big night for happy hour at John Ash is Wednesdays, when from 5:30 to 6:30, free snacks are part of the show. Tonight, though, is Monday (happy hour 4 to 6pm), and the place is quieter, the overall atmosphere much like a good prime-time soap opera. The bar steadily fills up with people, most of them locked in low-volume conversations that, based on the expressive faces all across the lounge, range from agenda-based business meetings to friendly catch-ups between new and old acquaintances.

Unfortunately, it’s much harder to hear conversations here.

“Mom needs a new doctor,” one woman says to a man, whom I take to be her brother. “The current one keeps finding things wrong with her, and she’s never been good with adversity.”

Yes—that’s the best line of dialogue all night. There is clearly some juicy drama going on, but with so many people talking so softly, the drama is more like a silent movie in a beautiful theater. Perhaps, at venues like this, the best way to have a good time is to bring a friend and make a some entertaining conversation of your own.