This is an article that journalist Ray A. March wrote in 1991 to mark the opening if the Cypress Club in San Francisco. It was first published in StatesWest Travel May /June the same year. I didn't see it at the time but knowing my deep love of all things Chandler, Ray was kind enough to send me a copy.
I was fascinated. His evocative description of the brand new Cypress Club bowled me over and the references back to The Big Sleep were too wonderful to leave resting in a long-ago file. And so I wrote an piece called Stellar Rays, The Fashion for Chandler - in homage to both Raymond Chandler and of course to Ray A. March. It was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of Suspense Magazine and shows an image of the original article. Stellar Rays is also right here on my website. But the image Ray's original piece is too small to read comfortably so here's a transcription - just to make life easier.
That has to be Eddie Mars at the bar. Can’t be anyone else; racketeer owner of the Cypress Club, famous fictional character from “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler. Who else could it be? Custom Tuxedo, gray satin tie with the two scarlet diamonds, great looking blond doll on his arm. Of course, she’s not his wife. This is the Cypress Club, right?
Right, but as Eddie would say, “Things is different now.”
The Cypress Club Eddie Mars owned was in Las Olindas. It was a flash gambling place for flash people. That’s how private eye Philip Marlowe saw it.
“The Cypress Club was at the far end of town … in a thick grove of wind-twisted Monterey cypresses, which gave it its name,” was Marlowe’s description. “Eddie Mars had left the outside much as he found it, instead of making it over to make it look like an MGM set.” That was in 1939.
Tonight’s Cypress Club is in San Francisco, and the flash is still there – on the inside. Outside, in the dark rain the cabby slows down looking for a sign, lights. Something, but here’s nothing. He makes a guess, throws a U and comes to a stop.
“This has to be it,” he growls.
We walk past the food groupies at the door and let the hostess know we’re on time for our reservations.
If ever the world’s a stage and the patrons the players, it’s tonight at San Francisco’s restaurant de siècle. The first thing that hits you is the glamour. It could be an MGM set. A black tie and sequined crowd just down from the private opening of Vinoteca/Jackson Fillmore restaurant mingle at the bar or table hop as they wait to be seated. Everybody knows everybody. Or so it seems. And owner John Cunin knows them all. He should after five years as general manager at Masa’s. (He kept Masa’s going after chef-founder Masa Kobayashi was murdered.)
Talk about flash. Copper pilasters envelop the doorway to the private dining room. Undulating waves of copper frame the tiered dining area from the bar. Outsized deco chandeliers hover overhead. A mural following the trail of the Monterey cypress rings the room at the ceiling. The walls are sculpted. Its bosomy and warm. There’s a feeling of importance and of being important. It’s been said there’s Chicago money behind it.
Cunin is stopping at each table.
“It reminds me a little bit of Sicily,” a guy with a red display handkerchief in his tuxedo jacket tells Cunin.
“It’s whatever you want it to be,” Cunin says.
The architect and designer, Jordan Mozer, another Chicago connection, thinks of his creation as “sort of like an overstuffed mohair sofa meets a 1948 Hudson.” Mozer has been seen reading “The Big Sleep.”
This place is so auspicious in its menu and interior design that the foodies have been standing in the rain for what seems like an eternity waiting for space at the bar. It’s so inspiring in its culinary daring that cuisine guru Jerimiah Tower is here to chick it out for the second time in three days. And on this night the Cypress Club is only three days old.
If the atmosphere takes on new dimensions, the menu goes even farther. There’s a welcome departure from the color coordinated food of the ‘80s. A chicken breast looks like a chicken breast, but this one is excellently accented with escarole, bacon and pinenuts. The steamed mussels come in white wine, shallots and cream. The loin of lamb on the bone with cannellini beans in ragout is tender and beautiful. Peppered lamb’s sweetbreads are braised in red wine with pancetta and satisfy. Don’t miss ‘em.”
Executive chef Cory Schreiber, only 29, calls his menu “American-style.” It’s about time.
For some, desserts are the main course, or at least the proper punctuation to a good meal. Step forward Mary Cech, Cypress Club’s in-house pastry chef. She’s from Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago and she’ll do just fine in San Francisco. Witness her nut brioche pudding on warm poached fruit with Devonshire cream.
For San Franciscans, a good dinner, or lunch for that matter, is naked without a glass or two of wine. In anticipation that this tradition is more than a trend, two temperature-controlled cellars house and estimated 14,000 bottles – more than enough to appease tonight’s crowd. For a moderate approach to wine tasting, the Cypress Club regularly offers diners more than 20 wines poured by the glass, or they can sample a four-wine “flight” for comparisons.
Tonight Sommelier Scott Bauer reinforces our selection of a 1989 Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc as being one of the all-time great new wines.
“Great choice,” he says, “one of the best for the price.”
Who’s complaining at $24 for a bottle of wine in a place that spent $2 million on renovation? At least they’re not trying to make it all back in one night. Even a cheapo like Marlowe could afford to eat here – if he had the flash.
Talk goes back to the cypress tree mural. It’s a work of art that stands on its own and would make the boys at the all-white private Cypress Point Club down in Pebble Beach envious, even with their cash. Those guys have a way of thinking they originated the cypress tree. They should see this one.
The tree is voluptuous, not skinny and wired in concrete like the Lone Cypress. Its roots are exposed and there’s sensuous and flowing expression in depicting its evolution as the mural makes its way along the California coast, beginning at the beach, passing through the wine country and ending – appropriately – at the bar. It was painted by Mozer with some kibitzing by Cunin, who wanted to lighten up the dark, clubby atmosphere. No old men smoking cigars. Cunin, unlike Eddie Mars, was after whimsy and a feeling of place. The paint was still wet when the restaurant opened for business.
The diner is well-placed, considering the over-flow crowd, the demands on the kitchen and waiters and waitresses learning their stations. There’s time to let the effect set in: not just overstated, but extremely overstated, sending a message to have fun, pretend and escape. Much like women’s hair styles of the ‘40s; there’s curve, flair and bold statement. We may be on the verge of war, but we still have to live.
Outside it’s still raining. Couples are scattering into the dark.
“You call for a cab?”
The cabby holds the door open until we’re seated, then looks back at the façade of the restaurant. No visible address, no sign under the lights.
“What’s the name of this place?”
“Cypress Club, huh?”
Ray A. March is an American journalist who has worked as a general assignment and investigative reporter in Europe and the U.S. He is also the author of five nonfiction books including River in Ruin: The Story of the Carmel River 2012. His writings have appeared in Time Magazine, New York Times, Associated Press and San Francisco Chronicle among others. His upcoming Mass Murder in California's Empty Quarter: A Tale of Tribal Treachery at the Cedarville Rancheria, University of Nebraska Press, is scheduled for production in fall 2020. He is co-chair of the Ed Kennedy Pulitzer Project, a nationwide effort by journalists to award the late Kennedy a special Pulitzer for his World War II reporting. You might link to check out his website
Janet Roger's article Stellar Rays was first published in the Spring 2020 edition of Suspense Magazine