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Steampunks Invade Whitechapel

The San Francisco gin bar opened its doors to local steampunks for tours led by its co-owner

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Steampunks staged a friendly invasion of Whitechapel on Tuesday — not the district in London’s East End, but the gin bar and restaurant in San Francisco that’s modeled after an 1890 Underground station. Staffers obliged the invaders by serving food and drinks as Whitechapel co-owner Martin Cate led a series of informative tours in which he described the facility’s design and construction.

Martin Cate

Cate is best known as the owner of Smuggler’s Cove, a Caribbean-themed tiki bar that specializes in rum. He got the idea for Whitechapel after former Smuggler’s Cove manager Alex Smith suggested that he open a gin bar.

“I’ve always been fascinated by London’s past, in particular anything underground,” he said. “I thought, ‘What if there had been a tube stop, built in late Victorian 1890s, that was abandoned or walled off or bypassed?’ Some people broke into it and said, ‘This would be perfect for a secret clubhouse-slash-distillery.’”

To make it happen, Cate and Smith first traveled to England. “We spent a lot of time going to as many Victorian engineering works as we could,” Cate said, including old tube stations and even sewers. They looked at “the ornateness, the engineering work, the architectural design elements.”

The task of designing the facility fell to Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez, who runs Top Notch Kustoms, a hot rod fabrication and customization shop in San Jose. Gonzalez has a side business designing tiki bars, and Cate had previously turned to him for Smuggler’s Cove.

For this new project, “we’d say, ‘Look at the way that arch is built. . . look at the way the riveting work is done, look at how they have these ornate plaster rosettes,” Cate recalled. Given Notch’s background as a hot rod builder, “this is almost easier for him than tiki, even though he’s most famous for his tiki bars.” With all the welding, rivets and other metallic elements, “it was like, ‘I got this.’”

The bar opened in October 2015 after a year-and-a-half of construction.

A Guided Tour

Whitechapel has three main sections. First, you enter the station platform with its distinctive barrel-vault ceiling, which proved to be a big construction challenge. “We wanted it to look like a tube station,” Cate said, but “building a barrel vault ceiling is not fun.”

Station Platform

Strung along the walls are black garden hoses designed to replicate the harnesses for the station’s electrical wires. An artist came in to create the appearance of water damage in the ceiling.

The bar’s ornate green tiles were manufactured by Fired Earth, which also makes tiles used to repair broken spaces in London Underground stations. “These are no fun at all to air freight from England, but they look terrific,” Cate said.

Next up was the distillery, “where we venture a little bit more into steampunk, in a way, from real Victorian engineering,” Cate said. It’s not an actual distillery, instead serving as a fanciful idea of one that might appear in a Victorian science fiction tale. The most notable elements are nine “infusion tubes” that function as light fixtures, each containing a botanical used to flavor gin. Recreations of valves and pipes are overhead.

Admiral Nemo

The final stop was the Gin Palace in back, which you enter through what appears like a giant hole in the station wall. During the Victorian era, Cate said, “gin brands would come to a pub and say, ‘Hey, we’ll spend a lot of money, make your pub look really elegant, really formal. You’ll sell our gin, of course.’ They became nice diversions for people who lived in London in the 1850s.”

The palace is lined with Whitechapel’s own wallpaper, featuring “our four icons: cocktail glass, royal lion, alchemy beaker and juniper sprig,” Cate said. Behind the bar is an oil painting of “Admiral Nemo” in full naval regalia. In real life, Nemo is a dog who belongs to the project’s general contractor.

Despite the obvious steampunk appeal, Cate said he did not set out to create a “steampunk bar.” Instead, the idea was to “skew toward Victorian engineering works,” with the hope that steampunk fans would still like it.

Whitechapel is located at 600 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94102, phone (415) 292-5800.

New Meetup group

The outing, which drew about 40 people, was organized by Steampunk Field Trips, a new SF Bay Area Meetup group founded by Charlie Wong and Thatch Durbin. Charlie handles marketing for Clockwork Alchemy, the Bay Area’s major steampunk convention, and Thatch is Clockwork Alchemy’s former chair. Next up is “A Midsummer Night at Obtainium Works,” set for Saturday, August 11 in Vallejo.

The gallery below includes our own photos as well as photos by Kelly Puleio. The latter are used by permission of Whitechapel.

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