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Carpe Noctem

[whitespace] Dr. Winkie

There's a new wave of dining in San Francisco, and Mercury's legendary Dr. Winkie is more than riding it--he's inviting all the beautiful people to join him

Words by Michael Stabile
Photos by Farika

We allow dancing." Dr. Winkie stresses this fact with more resignation than bravado, as if he's been finally forced into it by raving hordes in a fin-de-siècle remake of Footloose. "I'm not going to stop people from having a good time. But I don't think that nightclubs are what's in in the '90s, or the millennium. I mean, I've been doing them for a long time, but you need to be taken seriously if you're going to do food. And we're very serious about our food."

As the former owner of the now-legendary San Francisco nightclub DV8 and a partner in the starstruck power-lunching Les Deux Cafe in L.A., Winkie is attempting to fuse the two in a city where fusion is traditionally limited to cuisine. With "Carpe Noctem" as the recurring mantra of his "restaurant.bar.lounge," Winkie (the one-word name by which he is colloquially known, like Cher and Charo) is making an all-out bid at seizing San Francisco nightlife, creating a destination that incorporates casual cocktails, haute cuisine and after-dinner posturing in a multilevel temple of sensory luxe. It's a huge investment and a substantial risk, but given the success of similar if smaller ventures, such as Backflip, Black Cat and asia sf, it may be, as Winkie would hope, the new face of millennial dining.

Dressed in a well-cut black suit with red Chinese dragons racing down each arm and sitting on a raised banquette that looks out over the main dining room, Winkie commands a presence more Mafia godfather than high-end restaurateur. Sidecar in hand, he surveys his domain with an ever-attentive eye and ear. In the middle of a sentence, he suddenly realizes something is missing. "Will you excuse me for a moment?" he asks. "The sound system is off. There's no music." And in a blink he has disappeared. In this Oz, Winkie is the man behind the curtain, and Mercury is his larger-than-life incarnation.

The original driving philosophy behind this venture was, he admits, "not to build a restaurant but a big bar that serves food." That, however, was in March 1997. During the intervening 18 months, he also toyed with building a supper club, which he later deemed too demanding of patrons, detracting from the influence of his ultimate vision of a space decorated by the people who dined there. "The problem with a supper club is that you have to have a stage. And if you have a stage, you impart the personality of the musicians you book. We decided to eliminate the stage and not impose art or anything else around [the diners]. The people are what create the mood in this restaurant."

Mercury has little tolerance for a color scheme that extends beyond black, white and silver. The three chandeliers that hang over the main dining room glow an off-eggshell amber, which seems an exotic hue in the colorless sea. His overriding visual urge was to pair beautiful design and beautiful people. "As nice as people like to say it is," he modestly expounds, "I've only done it to complement the people who come here." Perhaps that explains the heavy, though not industrial, presence of polished silver--all the beauty reflects.

Though the artfully presented food is exquisite, the most distinguishing feature of Mercury is its layout. The very address, 540 Howard St., is the same space that housed the infamous nightclub DV8 for 11 years. And, while walls were knocked down and columns dressed up, the basic feeling remains. Hallways curve around the edges of the main floor, revealing small hidden tables and discreet side bars. A mezzanine level, where a more relaxed and less expensive menu is served, is broken into private leather booths. Near the entrance is a silver-walled room with plush chairs reserved for cocktailing. What was once a dance floor is now a dining room.

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Like Backflip before it, Mercury's mission statement is to mix eating with clubbing while trying to excel at both. Though Backflip still serves food, its strength has always been attracting the attractive to the bar, which tends to overshadow its dining element. Two years into its run, dinner is still something of a side note, an afterthought following too many drinks. Elysium, at the Andora Inn on Mission Street, and the Rite Spot on 17th Street suffer from similar ill definition. It's not that the food isn't any good, it's just that it clearly takes a back seat to the lounge/club element.

And while asia sf excels as a cabaret-style restaurant, it's more supper club than nightclub. The downstairs dance floor is nearly empty most nights. Suddenly, the stakes have been raised for all those who came before offering merely a half-realized vision. If Mercury is a success commercially, the San Francisco food and bar scene will be irreversibly changed.

Another common problem with this new breed is a separation from mainstream locations, which inhibits the variability of the clientele. Backflip is in the middle of the Tenderloin, asia sf is located amid South of Market warehouses, and several others are deep in the Mission. This includes Reed Hearon's jazzy Black Cat, which is separated from the rest of North Beach by strip clubs and sex shops. It is much easier to attract a younger crowd to such fringe venues, a crowd that generally is less critical of food and more intent on drinking. One of Mercury's strengths is its location. A short walk from Market Street, it's as likely to attract downtown business men and visiting luminaries as it is students from the Academy of Art College across the street.

"What San Francisco has always had difficulty at is really mixing audiences," Winkie says. "You can be more cosmopolitan really in New York, in London, in Paris. It's a little bit tougher here to take all the cross-sections of the suits and the clubbers and the drag queens and mix them all together." Winkie's analysis is more than mere speculation. At the New York institution Tatou, evenings begin with high-quality cuisine and end with the restaurant morphing into a discotheque. Like Mercury, Tatou encompasses several floors and maintains a full book of reservations as well as a velvet-rope club clientele. San Francisco, lacking the Studio 54 star presence of either Los Angeles or New York, has fewer venues that attract such a mixed crowd. Winkie hopes to change that with Mercury, but is nonetheless daunted by the task. "You have to shake really hard to mix oil with water."

A large part of this strategy is the downstairs Feather Lounge. Plastic booths filled with black and white plumage look out to a dark space with columns covered in silver corsetry. Acid jazz and retro cocktail music play in the early hours (that is, until midnight), after which the house DJ moves toward a more danceable beat, despite Dr. Winkie's lack of enthusiasm for the activity. With no dance floor, no cover charge and a policy that specifies only to "dress chic," computer executives belly up to the bar next to Castro Street gym bunnies and makeup-counter coke heads. Very Wallpaper magazine. Underground basements seem to lend themselves to this illicit mixing. Speakeasies are a common example, but gay clubs as well started out sheltered from the prying eyes of street level cops. There is something both naughty and transgressive about descending stairs into a windowless room. Something secretive akin to suburban teenagers forsaking their virginity. It makes you feel special--and that not everyone can get in.

The most amazing thing about Mercury is its potential. In order to get downstairs, one has to pass the entrance to the dining room with its hip decadence and casual luxury. For once, San Francisco is offered a restaurant that matches edgy presentation and adventurous staff with a deservedly challenging menu. It gives one pause: what if all the speed freaks in San Francisco started eating again? Mercury is less a restaurant for Nob Hill than for the young, social and occasionally affluent (i.e., you just got paid). For now, there's no Steve Rubell doorman guarding the entrance to what may possibly be the food and beverage industry's Loma Prieta, but Winkie has proved he has more than one trick up his couture sleeve and he may soon be greeting you outside with a yes or no.

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From the November 2-15, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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