On Thanksgiving, the Solace of Booze and Turkey for a City’s Adult Orphans

By the time I arrived at the bar, an hour late to dinner, the plate where the main course was sitting had already suffered significant modifications. What had begun as a “turducken”—a dish featuring a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey, and one described by Urban Dictionary as a “culinary grotesque”—was now a mixed pile of meat from all three animals, with one untainted turkey leg pushed alone near the edge. Fortunately the bar was still lined, from end to end, with other dishes that were comparatively fresher—stuffing and gravy, candied yams, pumpkin pies, and some raw olives that I had brought, only to watch them go untouched. The bar was also lined with drinks to wash all this down, including a large bottle of whiskey sitting mischievously in an establishment licensed only for beer and wine. The name of the establishment was Café Royale, and was one that, perched on a corner in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, with front windows stretching from floor to ceiling, would have fit anyone’s definition of a classic neighborhood bar.

The bar, which regularly hosts, in its small but airy confines, everything from stand-up comedy to live jazz, was tonight throwing an “Orphans’ Thanksgiving”. The event is a tradition dating back to the previous owner—who is father to one of the three present ones—and has long been the bar’s way of thanking its customers. That night about two dozen had arrived, not only for free food and alcohol, but rounds of billiards, and conversations that flowed the entire time with classic soul pumping over the speakers.

According to the woman I sat with, Orphans’ Thanksgivings are common in bars across San Francisco—something she could attest to, having visited different ones each of the last 11 years. While some were open to the public, most were, like at Café Royale, available mainly to regulars away from home for the holiday.

Although having never visited Café Royale, I had gotten news about the event through the neighborhood grapevine, and was allowed to come after permission from Will, one of the bar’s owners. This—and the fact that I was merely visiting San Francisco—made me an anomaly, since most patrons there had frequented it for years. While some were, like the owners, a bit younger—meaning under 40—the group overall was middle-aged and of professional bent, and fit well with the bar’s mildly sleek decor. Like regulars at other neighborhood watering holes, they mostly lived within several blocks of Café Royale, and viewed it less as an establishment to get drunk in than, in Will’s words, a “second living room”, or what sociologist Ray Oldenburg would call a “third place” that was distinct from work and home.

That San Francisco has so many Orphans’ Thanksgivings, in bars like this, says a lot about the culture that’s always existed here. While the city has many families, it is also a magnet for transplants, many of whom are educated, single, and global in outlook. Their absences from their own family Thanksgivings are but one small detail in a broader trend, of them permanently leaving their hometowns for big cities like this one. Whether they are immigrants, students, strivers, or, according to Will, just a bunch of “ragtag kids from all over”, their initial isolation in the city causes them to join communities of like-minded people, where they create families “out of those who are within close proximity”, to replace the real ones back home that they no longer daily see.

For such people bars can be essential, serving as those “living rooms” to be used for casual conversation, “free therapy”, or refuge from the urban curse of tiny apartments (many of which themselves don’t have living rooms). They can also, like tonight, be places for Thanksgiving dinners. They certainly aren’t ideal for this; but going to the one this year reminded me of why cities like San Francisco are alluring to so many people, even on lonely holidays—because they provide opportunities for new friends and experiences that aren’t available elsewhere. Their communities, while less bonded, involve a greater and more diverse number of people, who are only linked casually, but still well enough to eat memorable meals together. All this I pondered at Café Royale while 3,000 miles away from my own home, before grabbing a second helping of yams—which were similar to those I grew up on—and sitting back down to indulge, face in plate, with my new kinfolks of “close proximity”.

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