The School of Aub Zam Zam

Bruno Mooshei was a San Francisco legend known as much for his fierce demeanor as he was for his strangely wonderful little bar in the Haight-Ashbury. David Lebovitz recalls his many nights at Persian Aub Zam Zam, and how Bruno still impacts the way he drinks today.

Bruno Mooshei was the Haight-Ashbury’s dreaded dictator in the days when the neighborhood was still a “free-love” zone that drew people from around the world.

Bruno was the owner, and sole employee, of the Persian Aub Zam Zam—a dimly lit cocktail bar on the street known for everything from the best place in San Francisco to score reefer to where Janis Joplin, The Doors and the members of Jefferson Airplane hung out.

Like the neighborhood, the Persian Aub Zam Zam was the kind of place where anything could happen. Curiously named for a sacred well in Mecca where it’s believed the water is generated by God, and where millions make a pilgrimage each year to take a swig, if you managed to have a drink at Bruno’s bar without being thrown out, you might have felt as if you had arrived at a sacred site, too.

The first time I went in the mid-1980s, a friend and I had memorized the drill: Go in quietly, take a seat at a stool at the bar—not at a table—and order a Martini. Whatever you do, don’t order anything else. And don’t ask whether it is a gin or vodka Martini, or you’ll quickly discover that you have no business being there in the first place.

The only place to sit at the Persian Aub Zam Zam was at the semi-circular bar, which the stout, balding and grumbly Bruno lorded over, clad in a bow tie and stiff black barman’s vest. If there wasn’t a seat at the bar and someone had the temerity to sit at a table, Bruno would erupt: “Those tables are CLOSED. Get the hell out of here—this is a bar, dammit!”

We made it through the first night without getting kicked out, and I soon became a regular. But I knew my membership in the club of people who had the right to drink at his bar could be rescinded at any time, for even the most seemingly harmless infraction—like pulling up a seat at one of the tables or ordering a third cocktail.

The only place to sit at the Persian Aub Zam Zam was at the semi-circular bar, which the stout, balding and grumbly Bruno lorded over, clad in a bow tie and stiff black barman’s vest. If there wasn’t a seat at the bar and someone had the temerity to sit at a table, Bruno would erupt: “Those tables are CLOSED. Get the hell out of here—this is a bar, dammit!” before muttering something under his breath and going back to drying glasses.

He believed that if you were going to drink a cocktail, you should do it at the bar—and only if you were seated. (I never mustered the confidence to ask him why he had tables in his cocktail bar if he didn’t believe you should drink at them.)

The only people who ever received preferential treatment were women, who got a napkin under their drink, while men did not. Everyone was limited to two cocktails, and not because he was trying to move people in and out. To the contrary, I think he was his happiest—or least grumpy, I should say—when the bar was only ten percent full. (His family owned the building and he didn’t need to make money.) He simply felt two cocktails should be everyone’s limit.

The way Bruno made his $2.50 Martinis (considered cheap even at that time) would make today’s crop of craft cocktail connoisseurs cringe. There was no Plymouth or Hendrick’s at his bar—just Boords, which presently costs around $16.99 for a 1.75-liter jug. Bruno would pour it into a cocktail pitcher filled with ice, along with a teensy amount of vermouth. Then he’d take a muddler and pound the hell out of the drink. When I finally got up the nerve to delicately ask him why he did that, he said, “You have to ‘pound’ the Martini. That’s what makes it really, really cold.”

To this day, I have yet to be served a better Martini.

A few decades have passed since I’ve had one at the Persian Aub Zam Zam, but I’ve realized that I still hold onto those standards that I learned from Bruno, who, after 40 years serving customers (well, a selected few of them), passed away in 2000. Two habitués who couldn’t bear to see it close have kept it open. I haven’t been back, but I assume their policies are far more lenient than Bruno’s.

During my thirty years in San Francisco—a city that thirsts for reinvention—I saw many changes, but Bruno never budged. Still today, whenever I step into a bar to size it up, I’m not swayed by the bearded bartender with ironic tattoos, exotic bitters and tinctures, or the attractive twenty-somethings clutching their $16 drinks. That’s not what I look for in a bar.

Instead, I look first for an acknowledgement of my arrival—stern or otherwise. If there are no seats, I don’t stand. I leave and come back another time. I rarely order a non-classic cocktail, and if I do, it’s at the suggestion of the bartender. I’m polite and respectful of whomever is behind the bar, which includes taking their advice. And I feel awkward if I leave less than a 25 percent tip, mostly out of personal reverence for Bruno; he always gave you a half-dollar coin back as change for your $2.50 drink, and that was the tip you always left.

I also learned from Bruno that a good cocktail isn’t necessarily about fancy spirits infused with nutmeg hulls from Zanzibar, or bitters made from the exotic fronds of a fern found only around the perimeter of an active volcano in Samoa. The cocktail is a singular experience—the result of a relationship between the drinker and the bartender.

Perhaps this is why Bruno was so selective, and why he insisted on his patrons sitting at the bar. However gruff he might have been, he reveled in the exchange. I entered respectfully, he poured me a stiff drink and I silently agreed to never ruffle his feathers.

Countless times I heard him say, “Why don’t you go to the bar down the street? I think you’d like it better,” to a group of know-nothings, tossing them out in his matter-of-fact way. And once they were out the door, and back on the sidewalk, he would come back over and pour me my second round. But never a third.

David Lebovitz lived in San Francisco for thirty years as a professional baker and pastry chef (and frequent cocktail drinker), spending thirteen years in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He's the author of seven highly acclaimed books, including The Great Book of Chocolate, Ready for Dessert, The Perfect Scoop and The Sweet Life in Paris, a memoir of adjusting to live in Paris, and My Paris Kitchen, recipes and stories gleaned for living in Paris for over a decade. He is the author of the popular blog, www.davidlebovitz.com.

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