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Swank by day and by night

Photographs of Swank by Susie Biehler

SALOONS | Chris Barnett

A bar with a walkway to a motel might raise eyebrows. But Swank, on the corner of California and Presidio Avenue and connected to the 49-room Laurel Inn, is no dreary dive. That was its predecessor, G Bar, which tried to gussy itself up to snag the young and the restless. But it fell flat owing to its cheap decor and rookie barkeeps.

Swank is its polar opposite: a throwback to the early ’60s, a time of presumed innocence when everyone liked Ike, worked for The Man, wore white shirts, thin ties and suits or bouffant hairdos, tight pastel sweaters and skirts.

Swank’s mid-century modern decor captures the era perfectly. It’s a welcoming living room with comfy, cozy leather sofas, low-slung seating, sleek Scandinavian-style lamps, chairs and tables au deux, plus nooks and crannies for soft conversing or discreet cuddling. Three televisions download mostly old movies from the satellite during the week and pro football on Sunday, when it becomes Harry’s Bar West — but only for a day.

A mosaic-tiled fireplace with a gas-fueled fire warms up the evening chill. The 12-stool, brushed aluminum bar is a refuge for solo elbow-benders and has generous pours and great happy hour prices. A massive Sputnik light fixture radiates a soft glow in all directions. And the bathrooms are sleek designer creations.

Swank may sound like an apres-work, pre-canoodling pit stop for trysters who wouldn’t want to risk it at the Ritz or bump into a buddy in an airport hotel. But with prodding by visionary hotel lord Chip Conley, whose Joie de Vivre Hospitality firm also manages the tasteful El Drisco hotel in Pacific Heights and the Kabuki in Japantown, Swank seems more of a destination than a curiosity.

Consider, too, the back story: Literary lions of a certain age will quickly grasp the genealogy of the bar’s name. Swank was a Playboy wannabe men’s magazine that debuted in the 50s but never quite measured up to Hugh Hefner’s brainstorm. Original Swank covers are framed and hung in the men and women’s exceptionally roomy WCs. Painted turquoise, with one wall paneled in the same stainless steel that tops the bar, they are apparently seductive venues for customers who succumb to the libidinal stirrings of the spirits poured.

Says Emily Smith, Swank’s chatty, congenial coffee master: “Every morning, the stainless steel walls in the bathrooms are covered with palm prints and butt prints that have to be wiped off.”

Smith smiles and points to an enlarged, framed Swank cover in the men’s loo that sports an eye-catching coverline pitching special rates next door from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. The tariff is $159 weekdays to $189 on weekends.

In fact, Swank is a saloon with a split personality. From 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays, it is Laurel Inn’s coffee shop, pouring chicory-laced Blue Bottle coffee straight from New Orleans and priced at $2.75 a cup. Other coffee drinks plus a naked OJ fetch up to $4.50. Pastries and scones go from $3 to $4.75. It’s a comfortable place to hang out in the morning, with gratis WiFi and no crowd.

Joie de Vivre pitches Swank as a “cocktail and coffee club.” That’s stretching it. You don’t need a membership card, a secret handshake or a password to get in. The crowd on the weekend is a mix of 20 to 40-somethings, many from the neighborhood. Weekdays, it attracts Laurel Inn guests who are mostly budget-minded business travelers and families visiting their kids.

The 5 to 7 p.m. happy hour during the week and bartender Kaitlin Kushner’s outgoing, attitude-free personality are twin draws, according to some regulars. Bottled Budweiser, Bud Light and Scrimshaw pilsner on tap are $3, down from $5 and $6 respectively; the house wine is $4 a glass and well drinks are $5. A bar menu has small, medium and large plates. Tasty and reasonably priced are the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with pecorino and goat cheese for $6 and mushrooms filled with chorizo, garlic and fresh herbs, $5. Those who crave something more can try the chorizo, shallot and olive pizzetta for $14.

If you miss happy hour, brace yourself for some steep wine prices by the glass. Napa’s Sycamore Lane cabernet and chardonnay are $7, but all the other reds and whites are $8 to $15. A little swanky.

Where Swank shines is its cocktail list, a heady collection of classics, variations of respected recipes and some new creations, along with a line about the origins of some. The revered daiquiri goes far afield with Don Q Cristal rum, sweet Chambord, fresh mint, lime juice and strawberries, a fair deal at $8. A bourbon sidecar, said to have been invented in Paris during World War II, mixes smooth Bulleit bourbon with Cointreau, fresh lemon and a touch of maple, strained into a snifter with a sugared rim, $9. The house martini is fashioned out of Bombay Sapphire gin and Martini & Rossi dry vermouth, $9.

Hearken back to the ’40s with a champagne cocktail, rarely seen on bar menus anymore but a standard in the repertoire of the wise and worldly. Start with apricot brandy, add a couple dashes of Angostura bitters, drop in a sugar cube and top it off with champagne. Swank substitutes a non-French lower-priced sparkling brut for $9. In these volatile economic times and yo-yo markets, we must learn to live with bargain bubbles.