Houseplants have been a breakout trend during the pandemic, with bored urbanites stuck at home filling their small apartments and lives with an overabundance of flora. Apparently, the same obsession has seized bars and restaurants, as the overwhelming design trend seems to be dining rooms downright dripping in plants, with succulents rooted between seats, ferns hanging from light fixtures, and vines climbing the walls. It’s an aesthetic that’s been growing in the past several years, but with a trio of recent openings, plants are currently thriving in San Francisco bars.
Hot new cocktail bar Propagation opened in the bar-hopping heart of the Tenderloin in March 2021. Personal and professional partners Heather Hoffman (on drinks) and Lauren Nguyen (on design) say they were obsessed with plants first, and the name grew organically out of that. As a designer, Nguyen often holds back on the plants she recommends to clients who are scared of maintenance. But for her own bar, she finally went all in.
The result is a space with black-and-white checkered floors and well-worn leather chesterfields and wingbacks, filled with ficus trees, elephant ears, cactuses, succulents, palms, and pothos — “The whore of plants,” Nguyen says. “They’ll take any light.” She dedicates two hours every week to nurturing “all my babies,” she says. It’s like the overgrown living room of your dreams, and a comfy reentry point post quarantine for drinkers tempted back out by pineapple cocktails topped with fresh leaves and flowers.
Crawl over to Polk Street, and Macondray is also lush in plants. That bar opened in January 2020, just before the pandemic. Owner-bartender Aaron Paul says his mother ran a greenhouse, so he grew up with lots of plants, and they were always built into the vision for the bar. Designer Marissa Jade Marsh crafted a gorgeous green, gold, and mirrored space, and specifically installed a metal grate shelf running down the left side of the room to rack up plants.
A year and a half later, the vines are climbing and have grown into their own. Paul estimates 50 to 60 plants now line the dining room, most gifted by friends and family, and as the self-described “full-time plant mom,” he comes in early every couple of weeks, locks the doors, and climbs a ladder to water them. Ultimately, Macondray transformed a dude sports bar into a thriving green space with spicy margaritas and lobster rolls. “We wanted to appeal to women and everyone,” Paul says. “And really make it an LGBTQ- and trans-safe space.”
Back downtown for happy hour, Nightingale opened in December 2019. Of these three plant-filled bars, it’s the most explicit throwback to a 70s-style fern bar, which welcomed women with Tiffany lamps, frilly ferns, and sugary drinks. But Nightingale modernizes those historically dim and living room–style spaces with disco balls, hot pink neon, and not-too-sweet punch bowls. It’s part of the Future Bars group, known for bourbon speakeasy Bourbon & Branch and tiki lounge Zombie Village. And Nightingale is equally immersive, catering to the office and convention crowd — all those tech workers with cacti at their desks, who might crave a green escape from screens at the end of the day.
Installation artist Ivan Lee Mora created and installed both the chandeliers and ferns hanging them, as well as the cacti ensconced in the walls. But even with prior live-plant tiki experience, the team wildly underestimated the maintenance, according to Brian Sheehy, founder and CEO of the Future Bars group. The ferns and cacti required training the team on plant care, automatic irrigation, and overnight lights — when the bar closes at 2 a.m., the UV lights flip on, and the cacti continue to party. “If you’re desiring more of an experience,” Sheehy says. “This is whimsical, quirky, and peculiar.”
There’s been speculation about the return of the fern bar, but all three owners say the current trend feels fresh and different. Despite the reference, Nightingale is really more Instagrammable in style, with nary a retro-fabulous Tiffany lamp in sight. Propagation just happened to already have a checkered floor; they weren’t going for a TGI Friday’s look and feel, the ladies would like you to know. And while Macondray rocks a “fruity, pink drink,” Aaron Paul is a veteran cocktail pro, balancing smoky mezcal with smooth tequila, fresh juices and spicy chiles. No “hummingbird juice” here, as he affectionately calls the super sweet drinks of the 70s and 80s.
But the through thread seems to be the overall obsession with plants, which are having an undeniable cultural moment, as well as the cultivating of cocktail spaces that welcome more than just men. “Nightingale looks super cool, and it’s a shout out to our past,” says Aaron Paul of Macondray. “But I think it’s a little bit different. [At Macondray,] we didn’t want a dark dive. We wanted to appeal to women and everyone. And that’s not an old-school fern bar. That’s just a bar filled with plants.”
Still to come: Henry Africa, a new bar and grill from Dennis Leary (House of Shields, the Sentinel), which may continue the fern bar legacy in another form. The upcoming project is named after Norman Hobday, who opened early fern bar Henry Africa. His last bar was Eddie Rickenbacker’s, which is the now the space the new Henry Africa hopes to move into. Leary is known for old-school bars and sandwich shops with a lore of San Francisco history, but with pandemic delays, it remains to be seen when the new project will open — and exactly how many ferns are involved. But stay tuned for lush updates.