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Six blocks of separation

Photographs of Solstice by Daniel Bahmani


Like many residents and the great Tony Bennett, I left my heart in San Francisco. But I think it’s fair to say I left my liver at Solstice lounge.

I first discovered the restaurant and bar eight years ago when I moved to the neighborhood. Solstice had just opened at 2801 California, at the corner of Divisadero, in the spot formerly home to Rasselas Jazz Club. We were both new kids on the block, and we liked each other immediately. I quickly became a fan of the friendly bar staff and their classic cocktails. And it was nice to have a neighborhood joint where I could hang out with old friends and meet new ones.

Best of all, it was stumbling distance from my apartment.

The culinary brainchild of owners Leslie Shirah and Matt Sturm — who also own Fly Bars at 762 Divisadero and 1085 Sutter — Solstice offers guests a Bohemian oasis on Upper Divisadero, or what residents like to call the Upper Diversion. The sultry interior boasts several cozy booths, palm trees and an inviting long dark wooden bar. Funky artwork adorns the walls and a lounge, sunken off the main room, that accommodates private parties of up to 40 people. Unlike most spots, there’s no room rental or reservation fee — just a food and beverage minimum.

On any given night, Solstice offers patrons a tantalizing array of stiff cocktails and small plates paired with people-watching and amusing conversational sound bytes. You’ll overhear everything from cheesy pick-up lines to girlfriends dishing about their lousy boyfriends.

The restaurant’s menu won’t necessarily give Gary Danko or Michael Mina a run for their money, but the compact kitchen serves reliable pub grub that always hits the spot. Menu favorites include the gorgonzola mac and cheese, Kobe beef sliders, ahi tuna tartar and tempura battered fish tacos. I’m personally partial to the prosciutto-wrapped chicken medallions and prosciutto pizzetta. The food, all priced under $20, is great for sharing with friends or perfect for the hungry bachelor too lazy to cook for himself.

Solstice was one of the first places to offer half price bottles of wine on Mondays before every restaurant and its mother copied the idea. The wine promo is still a hit, attracting a number of young singles on their first dates. In fact, sometimes the bar looks a lot like an ad for match.com.

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It would be easy to dismiss this place as just another Pacific Heights hang-out — and, in fact, it does attract its share of investment banker types in button-down shirts and aspiring Stepford wives in tube tops. However, unlike the Marina, these patrons drink and dine harmoniously next to Mission hipsters sporting colorful tattoos and facial piercings.

Solstice is also a haven for members of the restaurant and bar industry. When the clock ticks past 10 p.m., bartenders and servers from Tataki to Spruce arrive for a nightcap and to dish about their customer experiences. The go-to drink tends to be a shot or more of Fernet Branca — a bitter Italian liqueur and digestif that’s like a bastard cousin of Jaegermeister. Chances are if you order a shot of Fernet, the bartender will join you.

Over the years, Solstice has continued to be the epicenter of my social universe. It’s where my friends and I still choose to meet and catch up. Having grown up in Marin, it never ceases to amaze me how many of my childhood mates live within a six-block radius. Sure, we love to try others bars and restaurants around town, but as we get older and our jobs and lives expend more of our time and energy, we have a greater appreciation for convenience and comfort — and Solstice fits the bill.

Solstice has been the setting for many seminal moments of my 20s and 30s. I have met new friends and old friends there. I’ve had first and last dates there. I’ve celebrated birthdays and New Year’s there. I’ve toasted my triumphs and I’ve drowned my sorrows there.

Sometimes Solstice feels like the set of the sitcom that is my life — similar to Al’s in Happy Days, the Central Perk in Friends or the bar in Cheers. Each episode features a colorful cast of characters: regular bar flies, kooky neighbors, potential love interests — and sometimes special guest stars.

On Solstice’s one-year anniversary, I presented the owners with a monkey lamp that looks like a Phantom of the Opera prop. The lamp was a white elephant gift I won at a holiday party. While I loved the idea of a monkey dressed in a suit and holding two candles with a lampshade on its head in my living room, my roommate wasn’t a big fan. So rather then toss this primate illuminary into the trash, I gave it to Solstice, where it still resides. One of the monkey’s hands is now missing, due to wear and tear, but he still stands tall at the end of the bar where he blends in well with the dark jungle-like interior.

When I was in my 20s, I wondered why people in their 30s or older were hanging out at this place. Shouldn’t these old fogies be at home working on crossword puzzles or watching Murder, She Wrote? Alas, I’m now in my mid-30s, and I wonder if the younger kids are thinking the same thing about me.

One thing I can say is that people of all ages are welcome at Solstice. The bartenders and servers — an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, actors and dreamers — never fail to greet you with a smile, remember your name or favorite drink and make you feel like your patronage is appreciated. At the end of the day, isn’t that why you go to your neighborhood bar? It’s not just for great drinks and food — it’s for a welcoming vibe and a sense of community.

It’s been eight years now since Solstice and I first met. And it’s a relationship I will continue to cherish for years to come — probably until the day I retire to the suburbs, where I’ll be sitting in my rocking chair rooting for Angela Lansbury in reruns on television.