Akvavit in San Francisco
I’ve never been to Norway, but I’ve been to the Norwegian Club.
Months earlier, I’d bumped into Erik in San Francisco’s Panhandle Park as I walked home from work. It took me a moment to recognize him in his formal wear, but his long red beard was unmistakable.
“I joined the Norwegian Club and I’m on my way to dinner. You should come some time! The food is great and don’t worry about being Irish. We don’t mind,” he said.
It took a few months to work out a suitable Thursday, but I recently found myself dressed in a sport coat and bowtie pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of a large Victorian mansion on the Panhandle’s northern side, waiting for the rest of our gang to arrive.
Once we’d all gathered, we entered the building. The dark wood and burgundy carpet of the foyer and front room gave way to a large dining hall swirling with busboys. We descended a flight of stairs into a cozy salon where an ancient Nord poured cocktails and other guests and members munched sugar-cured Gravlax, hard cheeses, and brown bread.
At 7:30 p.m., a bell chimed and everyone ascended the stairs to take their seats for dinner.
Promptly after being seated, bottles of ice cold Akvavit arrived at the table. Shot glasses at every place setting were filled. Once everyone had a measure of Akvavit, the hall went quiet and someone began the club’s traditional snapsvisa (a Scandinavian drinking song). Starting low and rising an octave each time, the group chanted a round of skål (a word for “cheers” that rhymes with coal) four times up and four times back down before shouting a ninth skål and drinking their shots. We would sing the snapsvisa many more times before the night was over.
We dined on soup, braised brisket, and steamed vegetables. As we enjoyed our main course, Erik stood and told the tale of California’s most famous Norwegian, a 19th-century volunteer postman and the godfather of California skiing, Snowshoe Thompson.
By the time we’d finished our fruit tart desserts, the crowd was well lubricated. I lingered in the front room and spoke to a member named Nick who invited me to come back any time. I explained my Irish heritage, but he didn’t seem bothered.
“All you need is a couple of Norwegians to vouch for you. We have an allotment of memberships for non-Norwegians and we could use more young blood around here. The rates are extremely reasonable.”
I said I’d think about it and that I’d certainly be returning as a guest to enjoy another evening in their company. I said my goodbyes and walked home in high spirits with a full belly. I was happy that I now knew about a secret clubhouse where I could enjoy a few tipples and tall tales in good company.