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The Starlight Fades

You can't judge a bar by what's written between the covers


Part of what I do when traveling is go to bars, especially if I have read about them in fashion magazines or the in-flight airline tomes sandwiched between the Skymall catalog and the barf bag. For years I've been reading about Harry Denton's Starlight Room (formerly and from another era the Starlight Roof) that overlooks Union Square in downtown San Francisco atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The write-ups always describe it as a high-class joint, a tuxedo and gown kind of place with exquisite cocktails and dancing, all with one of the most incredible views of the city from it's 21st floor location.

Opened in 1996 by its locally famous host Harry Denton, the Starlight Room has been graced by numerous celebrities, all publicly paraded on their Website and in photos. Names like George Clooney, Sean Penn, Sharon Stone, Michael Stipe, Perry Farrell, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Cuba Gooding Jr., Don Johnson, Prince, Bill Murray and Francis Ford Coppola are hyped as having sipped concoctions in the bar.

I was intrigued that in numerous bios, Harry Denton claims to have come from Magic Valley, Idaho (pop. 800). And since I live in Idaho I was surprised because there is no such city or town as Magic Valley, instead describing a primarily agriculture region in the south central part of the state. Perhaps this was my first clue as to the hype being greater than the reality.

Numerous glowing reviews in magazines such as Vanity Fair justified a $15 door charge to get in. A hostess gave the all-knowing wink when asked about getting a table. Actually, she was a little more tacky and said, "Anything is possible," with her hand conveniently placed palm up. A twenty-dollar bill usually gets you a table, but on this Saturday night it got us a four-person booth next to the dance floor. Handled with not so much finesse, she had us follow her to the large booth and unceremoniously kicked out a Midwestern looking group of four tourists... not very classy at all and definitely without any finesse.

The cocktail waitress, adorned in a floor length cocktail dress immediately showed up and took our drinks. I've paid $10 to $15 for a cocktail before, but the ambiance has to be great and the cocktails exquisite. We had no reason to believe that to be untrue at this point. A Jack Rose and a Cable Car (one of the signature drinks on the cocktail menu) showed up quickly. But then the glamour quickly began to fade.

The waitress never showed back up although the busboy quickly removed our empty glasses. Drunken patrons literally staggered around bumping into tables. Hawks patrolled the perimeter of the dance floor looking for easy drunken tourist prey. Patrons sauntered by in ratty jeans and tank tops. "Whatever happened to a dress code?" we asked ourselves. People danced like they hadn't been out in years or had a drink since the last time they were in San Francisco or Vegas. Women in blue-jean Capri pants from outlet malls in Ohio gyrated their hips to the glorified karaoke band singing popular cover tunes from the 70s and 80s. This wasn't the classy joint we were led to believe.

Sure the bar was elegantly decorated, the staff (despite the serious attitude) was dressed nice, the view was incredible, but beyond that it was like any middle-aged pickup bar in any city. However, people seemed to be genuinely having a great time. Of course, when you take a frumpy Midwestern housewife in town with her husband for a convention and fill her with booze who wouldn't?

We never saw the namesake host, Harry Denton, famous for hobnobbing and, well, being the bar host. As I waited in line to get an elevator down and out of there (the line for the elevators longer than the line to get in), I contemplated the life expectancy of nightclubs. They often open with high hopes, dress codes, class, friendly service, but then they do fade. They become less popular, and to compensate lower dress codes, cut back on service. Perhaps to keep them alive they ramp up the public relations just a bit, allegedly pulling in favors from tourist magazine editors they plied with drinks.

In my opinion, the Starlight Room has lost its sparkle ... dimmed by the fog that we watched roll in that evening. In a deeper, sadder thought I felt it may be the end of an era, the one of the classy cocktails and dancing club. I am sad for that.