BARchive: Valentines Day On the QT
My boss invited me to a Jacques Brel revue to celebrate his forty-ninth birthday. It was the 1970s when one went to Polk Strasse for dinner and cabaret.
"Meet me at the QT," he said. "It’s at 1695 Polk."
"Sure," I said hesitantly.
"It’s on me," he added.
I didn’t think that was how birthdays usually worked, but I agreed.
During the 1960s, Polk Street had grown gay. Some complained; others saw financial advantages. Straight places remained empty. Gay places didn’t.
The restaurant at 1695 Polk Street wasn’t making it as a straight place. In 1970 it turned gay, was tarted up, and came out as "On the QT."
It was a piano bar that offered fine dining at intimate tables where suits wined and dined T-shirts, and introduced them to the finer things in life. In the 1970s it was where Polk Gulch met Nob Hill.
I parked my pickup around the corner on Clay Street in a loading zone. A scalloped, tasseled canopy welcomed me to On the QT. Potted junipers framed the door. Inside candelabras posing as flower baskets hung from the ceiling.
I spotted my boss at a table with another graying man. A third at the table was young, had short curly hair, and a whisper of beard. Handsome.
I was introduced around. Young Sheldon, from Brooklyn via L.A., gave me a fetching smile.
Amid the clatter of china and small talk, we finished dinner. Cigarette smoke and a hint of cologne mingled with aromas of frog legs and garlic from the next table.
The revue began. Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer songwriter, was popular in San Francisco, thanks in part to his friend, local poet Rod McKuen.
Mixed drinks, gay chatter, and a confusing game of footsie carried us from the Brel impersonator’s You’re Not Alone, through a number of unfamiliar songs, to an encore-ending of If We Only Have Love.
The four of us left for the baths.
The following Saturday was Valentine’s Day. I was between boyfriends. Something drew me to On the QT. Again I found a parking space in a loading zone. The place was packed. The small tables were occupied by older single men and a few May-December couples. Younger guys lounged along the crowded bar. I headed for the bar.
"How you doing, Jim?" It was Sheldon, the guy from Brooklyn. "Want to take the table that just opened up?" He nodded toward the empty table at the end of the bar. I did.
We talked. The hour grew late. Singles and sometimes couples drifted out. We still talked.
The piano crooner with a pencil-thin mustache spotted us.
"I’d like to dedicate this next Gershwin tune to the guys at the table by the bar," the piano man said. Heads turned toward Sheldon and me.
Someday he’ll come along, The man I love. And he’ll be big and strong, The man I love...
On the QT was at 1695 Polk Street from 1970 to 1979 when it moved to 1312 Polk, shortened its name to QT II, and became a premier hustler bar. The Red Devil Lounge today occupies the 1695 address.
Copyright 2013 Jim Stewart. For further true gay adventures, check out the award-winning Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970s SoMa and Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco by Jim Stewart.
Jose Sarria, (front, in drag) and BAR columnist Sweet Lips (second from left, back) and friends enjoy the café seating at On the QT. photo: courtesy the GLBT Historical Society.
1970s cabaret piano man John Trowbridge, at On the QT. photo: Jim Stewart