Way back when, bars were mostly dark lounges, places to escape into shadowy corners with drink in hand.
But by the 1970s, the mood had switched to light and airy. Social drinkers wanted to go somewhere that felt like an oasis.
Enter the fern bar, coined for the plethora of plants, fake and otherwise, situated around the formerly dingy dens to create a tropical garden atmosphere.
San Francisco Rose on Lower Greenville was once the only choice in town for fern bar seekers because it was the first to bring the format to Dallas. Today it is once again the only choice, because it is the last bar in town holding the torch.
The Rose opened nearly 40 years ago after bar founder and previous owner, legendary East Dallas restaurateur and bar aficionado Scott Fickling, traveled to San Francisco and found inspiration in this new style of bar.
Just like rap music in the 1990s, there is a rift in the fern bar community between East Coast and West Coast styles.
The fern bars that began in New York were basically just old saloons with a new coat of paint. In the mid 1960s, Big Apple bar owners were looking to attract young, single women out for a night of coed drinking, and the dive bar aesthetic didn’t prove very welcoming.
In came the bright colors, tons of wall decorations, sugary drinks, fake Tiffany lamps and plastic plants. Rumor has it that New York’s first fern bar was created by Alan Stillman on 63rd Street — called T.G.I. Friday’s. This was long before the restaurant franchised and adopted an affinity for all things flare.
On the West Coast, the fern bar began with Henry Africa’s in San Francisco. It opened in 1969 by an out-of-work veteran, Norman Hobday. The bar, and the huge crop of fern bars that followed, used the same format as their East Coast compatriots: Drop the opium den design and bring in young people. These bars also featured outdoor seating areas that were enclosed with plants.
No matter which fern bar lore you ascribe to, both East and West Coast fern bars went out of style in the 1980s.
Today, Lower Greenville has no lack of bars with 21st century trendiness, yet the Rose marches on, true to its original intent.
Calvin Bow, manager at the San Francisco Rose, says that the bar’s success doesn’t have much to do with changes in fashion.
“We’ve just tried to be a good neighborhood bar,” Bow says. “We do have a lot of regulars who’ve been coming here forever. Not a day goes by that I don’t work where someone comes in here and says, ‘Oh, I met my wife in here.’ ”
The Rose is on its third owner, Boo Bradbury. Bow says that Bradbury has kept the charm of the bar intact, but removed a few of the ferns over the years, which would likely seem tacky to today’s patrons.
“I used to work here back in the ’90s,” Bow says. “Back then there were lots of [fake] flowers hanging up.”
That’s not the case anymore. While the bar still has plenty of adornments on its red walls, only one houseplant stands watch at the bar‘s entrance, a lasting tribute to the final fern in Lakewood’s last remaining fern bar.
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