The new Amber: Can you go home again?

Pub date January 29, 2010
SectionPixel Vision

We’re not at Amber anymore. Photo by Darwin Bell

Blame it on “Fringe,” but I’ve been thinking a lot about alternate realities lately – you know, the possibility that there’s a parallel universe a lot, but not quite exactly, like this one. Perhaps there’s still a Molly Freedenberg, but in the alternate reality, she’s a doctor, not a writer. Or San Francisco is a mecca for conservatives. Or Amber is a non-smoking cocktail lounge.

Oh wait. This last one, as of January 16, is true. And a parallel universe is exactly what I felt like I was in when I visited the bar on 14th and Church that’s served for three years as my living room, my last stop, my birthday party venue, and, not insignificantly, one of the last pieces of proof I could hold on to that smoking is cool, cosmopolitan, and bohemian, and not simply insane and self-destructive.

The strange thing about the new Amber, now called the Residence, is the way it still refers to its past incarnation. The seating is arranged the same way in the room, though it’s now leather and whicker, rather than wood and ’80s upholstery. The bar’s in the same place, though the countertops are sanded down and stacked bottles of Stoli have been replaced by Grey Goose and St. Germain’s on dark wood shelves (with mirrors behind them)! The bartenders are the same, but Phil wore a black shirt and tie rather than his green ’70s jacket. Even the bathrooms are in the same place, but now sport floral and striped wallpaper. It felt like some kind of de ja vus. Something about this place is eerily familiar, but I know I haven’t been here before.

It took me a good hour to stop staying What The Fuck? This sentiment was seemingly echoed by another regular I’ve often seen stop by with his big shaggy dog who entered the bar and stood still, dumbfounded, for a good five minutes before finding his usual spot near the wall.

Shock withstanding, though, I have to admit that what the folks at Nonsmoking Amber (as my friends are calling it) have done is nothing short of amazing – and bold. Not only did they completely transform Amber’s interior and identity in two weeks, but they dared to tamper with an institution that has many die-hard loyal fans. It has yet to be seen whether the same crowd who appreciated the kitschy ’70s TV set and bathrooms better used for any purpose than actually peeing will also appreciate the new, more sophisticated vibe at Residence. I also wonder what kind of new crowd will be attracted to the new spot, which features cocktails with ingredients like absinthe and ginger liqueur for $8 and no PBR (though there is Hamm’s and Olympia, perhaps as a nod to exactly those regulars), and how they’ll get along with the old Amber crowd. I have a feeling there will be some spill over from the folks who’ve fallen in love with Blackbird, meaning swankier dressers and better tippers. Can everyone get along? Or will those who loved the gritty weirdness of the corner that used to house Amber, the Transfer, and the Expansion find another place for smokes and coke?

Either way, it seems the folks at Residence are ready for change. When I expressed my sadness over Amber’s impending revamp (though, thankfully, not closing), Pete, co-owner of both ventures, said, “It’s time for Amber to grow up, and for our clients to too.” Whether that’s because the bar business is demanding a move towards mixology (though Residence bartenders don’t want to be called or considered “mixologists”), impending anti-smoking laws would require a dramatic change of culture anyway, or the co-owners of Amber were ready for a bit of personal growth, the reasons don’t seem to matter. Like the college days that Amber always reminded me of, all things must pass. Unlike my school dorms, however, which are now filled with new people and new energy, Residence still has the people, location, and casual vibe that I loved about Amber. In fact, if this new, more subdued, higher-end iteration survives, I believe it’ll be because of the things it shared with its earlier self. There are lots of places in San Francisco selling fancy drinks in well-designed rooms. But going to Residence still feels like visiting friends. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to order the cheap whiskey, but I might be inspired to get the Manhattan instead. And so what if I can’t wear my pajamas there anymore and I have to smoke inside? At least I can finally take my nonsmoking friends there without having to offer to do their laundry in the morning.