Published: July 5, 1991

NOTHING is as bittersweet as the thrill of the rear guard. To discover the first of anything -- be it a star or a species -- is glorious and ennobling. But to encounter the last of a breed is more a call to somber reflection than to celebration. Imagine the hunter who punched the ticket on the last wild grizzly bear in the Golden State in 1922. Imagine Alfred Kroeber, the anthropologist who "adopted" Ishi, the last "wild" Indian in California in 1911. Imagine me finding the Bay Area's last wild fern bar.

Before we go any further here, we should get callow youth up to speed on just what a fern bar is: A long, long time ago -- in the mid-to-late '70s -- there were places where newly single men and women went to meet. These places were done up like plush salons and featured overstuffed furniture, overgrown flora and oversexed fauna. Men would attempt to "pick up" women with "lines" such as "What's your sign?" Every so often, a man with all the personality and wit of a tree-stump would encounter a woman whose "sign" read "vacant" or "Limited offer. Call before midnight tonight." This would result in a quick, indiscriminate encounter of the carnal kind. As implausible as these exercises may sound, they were once as common as mood rings or smiley-face buttons. (Go ask your mother.)

The last bastion of Mr. Goodbar is a stately old brick building on El Camino Real in Menlo Park -- the British Bankers Club. As my astute sister-in-letters Joanne Jacobs pointed out not too long ago, the once-booming singles scene has shifted from the B.B.C. to the sleek Kepler's bookstore next door. And "What's your sign?" has been supplanted by "Have you read 'Adult Children Who Love Insipid Self-Help Books Too Much' ?"

But the faux-Tiffany lamps of the B.B.C. still beckon to a few tragically lame Lotharios like the green light at the end of Daisy's dock.

At 8 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, none of the 40 people in the ornate 180-capacity drawing-room/bar appear to be either British or bankers. There are three swarthy Don Johnson wannabes at the end of the bar sampling the B.B.C.'s fine selection of British beers on tap and a set of four young businesswomen devouring a plate of calamari appetizers. In the harsh twilight streaming through the tall windows there's an older couple sipping port.

There's a pair of Y-persons perusing their Kepler's purchases on an overstuffed red velvet couch. And in a pair of wing chairs nestled beside a towering Corinthian column, a business deal involving some kind of lease is slowly unraveling under influence of the lessee's five Stolis.

The B.B.C.'s decor could best be described as an Edwardian garage sale run amok: The high-ceilinged room is crammed with old oil portraits rendered in the "Patrician Olde Farte" style, the dusty heads of stuffed ibex, water buffalo and other beasts not indigenous to Menlo Park, brass and marble fixtures, antique mirrors, and enough stained glass to rival a major cathedral.

And let's not overlook the king-size Egyptian sarcophagus on the wall that probably contains the well-preserved carcass of the poor soul who set the bar record for the consumption of Guinness Stout.

There is, however, one force pulling this resolutely un-hip establishment away from its retrograde orbit: The Essentials. Simply put, the B.B.C.'s regular Wednesday night group is probably the finest bar band in the Bay Area. Not that anyone in the club seems to know it. The Essentials' impeccable set of cool cocktail jazz standards and jump R&B seemed totally lost on the crowd. What's a nice band like them doing in a place like this? Who knows. For a group that works eight regular gigs per week, a paycheck is a paycheck.

After listening to them knock out a lean, mean set that included works by Louis Jordan and Louis Prima, it was clear they were the only hipsters in the place. After they stomped through a mean version of Wynonie Harris' "Grandma Plays the Numbers," it was clear they were the hippest band in the entire region.

I left alone, but picked-up nonetheless.

British Bankers Club
1090 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
Details: Live music Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. No cover charge.
(415) 327-8769

Previous article
Next article
Main index