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San Francisco’s Financial District: Social Club as Self-Satire

The Battery
The BatteryPhoto: Nathanael Turner Photo: Nathanael Turner

I only joined for the connections,” my friend “Kate” assured me, for about the 12th time, as we drifted through the Battery, the Soho House–style social club that has become San Francisco’s emergent metaphor for clumsy, tech-era elitism. “And the gym, and the library,” she added, only a little sheepishly. “Also this lotion they have in the downstairs bathrooms.” She paused. “But really, these are not my people.”

Whoever they are, they’ve got a five-story, 58,000-square-foot, members-only, imported-from-some-much-more-avaricious-city hangout, complete with invented “customs” (“We call our club the Battery. It is not the “Battery Club” or shortened to just “Battery”) and a penthouse that rents for $10,000 a night. “We’ve created the benefits and access that accompany membership at the Battery to be extremely worthwhile. Okay, ‘coveted’ may be a more appropriate word,” the website reads humbly. On this Tuesday evening, more than a hundred members and I had come to learn about the science of taste and flavor from chef Kyle Connaughton, formerly of the Fat Duck. If the topic sounds TED-ish-plus-foodie-ish, well, yeah. The Battery has arrived at a time when San Francisco’s taste and flavor inch closer every day to the going parody of the place.

As we waited for Connaughton’s talk, Kate showed me around. Here’s a bookcase that’s actually a secret door. There’s some expertly roasted black cod, served under a wall of animal heads. Near the heads is a casual scattering of coffee-table books on subjects such as women’s bottoms and the Hermès scarf. It looks not so much like a club as a twee CGI rendering of one. In the nautical-themed library, a tidy young man with aggressively perfect lats was killing it via video conference. It would’ve been helpful to know what the agenda was, he barked into his laptop. We took our seats in the parlor (featuring something called antelope carpeting) in time to hear someone nearby recounting an article he’d read criticizing the Battery. “It’s not like we’re all assholes,” the woman beside him said. She was friendly-looking, wore wool tights. “I’m not an asshole!”

Connaughton was finally beginning, a little drily—shouldn’t there be larger points about disruption, say, or innovation? But then, as he moved to the difference between orthonasal versus retronasal olfaction, and the science of pig glands, and the Maillard reaction, the mood in the room lifted. We learned how tongues work and how gummy bears taste different in different cultures, and when at last we got up, Kate and I heard two different and happy conversations about the chemical composition of truffles. On our way out, we passed a sign, eight unattributed words aglow from a hidden light: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

San Francisco’s Financial District