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Good Libations

Does the perfect neighborhood bar exist outside the platonic realm of ideal forms? Shut up and have another drink

Introduction by Zack Stentz

Photo by George Sakkestad

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Some of my very earliest memories are of the rhythmic collisions of darts and boards at the well-loved East Bay pub the Albatross. Bartending at the Bird (as regulars still call it) was the only job my mom could get that let her keep her 3-year-old son close by. In this case, close by was a little room right behind the dartboards, where my mother would lay me down on a cozy cot, read me stories and put me to sleep, all before the first call of the evening.

It was a wonderful arrangement that would probably cause Carry Nation to spin in her grave fast enough to run a turbine, but in my case it led to neither a life of alcoholism nor an addiction to salty snack foods. On the contrary, the experience of being a juice-sipping toddler among the beer-quaffing UC professors, Oakland teamsters, artists and smugglers that patronized the Bird of that era gave me a lasting appreciation of the neighborhood bar as a valuable institution of warmth and community.

But in Puritan-influenced America at least, the neighborhood bar (not to be confused with the yuppie meat markets or the downtown nightspots that pass as such these days) has long been somewhat morally suspect, the realm of Bukowskian degenerates or beaten-down spouses delaying their homecoming to joyless marriages. This wariness is reflected in the changing portrayal of bar-goers and drinkers in the arts, who have devolved from Shakespeare's lovable reprobate Falstaff ("If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them, should be to forswear thin potations, and to addict themselves to sack," he declares in Henry IV, Part 2) down to The Simpsons' rotund alky Barney Gumble, though the latter occasionally displays bursts of astonishing self-awareness.

The Brits, on the other hand, know the value of a good neighborhood watering hole, and proletarians and intellectuals alike unashamedly sing the praises of the institution. In one famous essay, George Orwell even identified the qualities of the neighborhood bar he most cherished. "If anyone knows of a bar that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms," he wrote in the Feb. 9, 1946, edition of the London Evening Standard, describing his bar of ideal forms in almost Platonic terms.

On this side of the Atlantic, San Francisco is lucky enough to remain one of the North American continent's last strongholds for the locally rooted drinking establishment, and for very many of the same reasons as in Britain: high population density, well-defined neighborhoods, and good public transportation links. San Francisco is blessed with Muni, BART and three-quarters of a million souls packed into its 49 square miles of diverse subregions, which goes a long way toward explaining why the neighborhood bar still thrives here while the rest of the nation's watering holes steadily convert to nail salons and video rental stores.

On the following pages, notable San Francisco bartenders and bar patrons alike share with our writers what they look for in a neighborhood bar.

As for me, I'm still looking for my own ideal neighborhood bar, which not coincidentally would probably look a lot like the Albatross of my youth, with good company, lively conversation and no television. But darts still make me sleepy.

Local notables, bartenders and The Metropolitan staff pick their favorite local watering holes


"If you're going to drive your old man to drink, this is the place to drive him to" was once how one individual described Bloom's. But if you're going to drive your old man away, it's also the place he'll end up drunk. Two wifeless but happily chatting men drinking at the bar one afternoon in Bloom's say that Lotto scratch cards are the newfound calling for love in their lives. "They don't talk back," one puts it, as he scratches away. Bloom's is Potrero Hill's favorite bar (or at least the fave of The Metropolitan staff--our global headquarters is two blocks down the street), with a breathtaking view of San Francisco's skyline from the back window, and a posse of owner/bartenders who'll twist a tale or two and serve up some tasty beers on tap while they're at it. At 1318 18th St. Open daily. 415/861-9467.

Mr. Lucky
Jennifer Vermut

It Is Babe, Isn't It?: Mr. Lucky luxuriates in the ambiance of a bygone era at McCarthy's Cocktails.

Bobby's Owl Tree

As the name suggests, this spot, located right where the Tenderloin shades into Nob Hill, is chock full of owl memorabilia. Sure, it's a little frightening to enjoy a drink under the watchful gaze of dozens of owl eyes, but that's part of the charm of this friendly, distinctly unpretentious place.

And best of all, there's no television. "I do just fine without it," says bartender and longtime proprietor Bobby Cook. "The places with the television turned up, you can't have a decent conversation there."

Not that Bobby is casting aspersions. Magnanimous to a fault, he declares: "We don't really have any competition. We have a very different clientele than our neighbors. We get a lot of service employees from the hotels and bars down by Union Square coming in after they get off work, and other people who just like the atmosphere and like the company."

This is a bar favored by other bartenders--now there's a vote of confidence. But what about the, shall we say, more roguish elements the Tenderloin is so well known for? "The hustlers, the pimps, the hookers--they don't give us many problems," Cook nods. "We don't exclude anyone, but we do ask for IDs.

"And what do you know," he adds with a chuckle, "none of them carry one on them." At 601 Post St., 3pm­2am daily. 415/776-9344.

bar table

Expansion Bar

The Expansion Bar is a wide, expanded room of oddities and amusements. The model trains and toy cars behind the bar are from the Prohibition days, when patrons use to smuggle bourbon inside of them. There's a juke box and a pool table--plus, for those pinball wizards (we met a wild, long-haired one, a.k.a. "WOO," who fired that ball so hard and fast, he practically blew up the machine), there's the ghoulishly gorgeous "Elvira's Pinball Game." Try to snap the game into multi-ball because the game takes a mind of its own: coffins open, skeletons jiggle and heads roll. Other unexpected entertainment might include a couple of magic tricks from one of the regulars that'll leave you so bewildered, you'll wonder how many drinks you've really had. Clientele ranges from old drinking cronies and loners to neighborhood gay and heterosexual friends out for a pre-party cocktail or a mellow evening drink (or drinks). Also, some homeless and street people venture in and out, one of whom was selling a set of used blinds and two animal skulls for no more than $10. At 2124 Market St., 10am­2am daily. 415/863-4041.

Double Play Bar & Grill

Double Play is run by the double-duo of father Gigi and son Gino, who say that the clientele runs the gamut from the 65-year-old baseball fan reminiscent of the good ol' days when the Seals Stadium was across the street (it was torn down in 1958, with the space now inhabited by a chain shopping center) to the twentysomething-year-old going to or from Slim's (only two blocks away). "Our exposure has tripled since the shopping complex was built," explains 10-year owner Gigi, who bought the bar from the family who had owned the place since its 1909 opening. "The area has definitely changed, but we still know everyone who comes in here. Every once and a while, Willie Brown shows up for lunch.

"And we're still a sports bar," he adds, proudly motioning to the old sports photos and S.F. Seals/PCL baseball paraphernalia that adorns and clutters every nook and cranny of the bar and dining room. Sounds and images of a game on the television play and flicker in the background, and if you walk around to the rear of the bar, there's a dining area with a painted floor and walls depicting the way the Seals Stadium use to look.

But for the old-timers, it just isn't the same. "I came here as a kid, to watch the baseball games with my dad years ago," pipes in one guy hunched over the bar, sipping a beer. "And to this day, I still enjoy coming to this bar, but it ain't like it used to be in those days. Now all we've got is Candlestick." At 2401 16th St. at Bryant (across from Seals Stadium). Mon.­Fri. 7­11am breakfast, 11am­2:30pm lunch, bar open all day, banquets on weekends. On-site parking. 415/621-9858.

Finnegan's Wake

In the March issue of The Metropolitan, writer Steve Bjerklie lovingly described one of the rarest psychedelic rock posters in existence--a beautiful Dennis Larkins work announcing a Grateful Dead concert at Radio City Music Hall. Nearly all copies of the poster were destroyed by the hall's management, who were displeased with the image, but guess what? Curious art lovers can see the genuine article hanging on the wall at popular Cole Valley hangout Finnegan's Wake, along with other works by Bill ("Zippy the Pinhead") Griffith and other counterculture artists, and the requisite faded sports banners. "Dennis also painted our sign out front," says co-owner Tom Frenkel. "That was before he moved to L.A. to work for Disney."

And don't get any funny ideas about carrying the poster off, hidden under your overcoat. "It's bolted to the wall," Frenkel adds with a smile.

But if patrons come for the art, they stay for the well-stocked drink selection, comfortable environment and open-air back yard (wouldn't Orwell be pleased!), which on sunny days reverberates with the distinctive "click-click" of a hard-fought table tennis match. It's the perfect place to work off those recently gained Newcastle Brown calories. At 937 Cole St., open 11:30am­2am daily. 415/731-6119.

Grandma's Saloon

Don't expect to see Little Riding Hood here, but you may cross paths with the Big Bad Wolf and Grandma among the eccentric folk who congregate at this longtime neighborhood bar. But don't be put off, because Grandma's has all the necessary ingredients for a great bar, complete with a jukebox, pool table, Pac Man and the rare five-plays-for-a-quarter "Earth Shaker" pinball game. If you've lost your ID, though, don't bother making the trip all the way out there, no matter how old or young you're trying to look, because bartender Karen Patterson is a stickler for proof of age. But she'll gladly take you under her care, with her amazing sure-fire cure for a never-ending case of the hiccups. When asked why the name Grandma's, Patterson answers, "Old owner named it that, and it was cheaper just to keep the old sign up, so we kept it." At 1016 Taraval St., 11:30am­2am daily. 665-7892.

Max's 540

A fire in the early 1950s claimed the southern side of inner Clement Street. The building that housed Max's 540 withstood the infernal test to become what it is today: a quaint establishment with a pre-constructed constellation of Christmas lights that casts a preternaturally warm glow over the bar and its inhabitants. (The real stars overhead, competing with the urban glare, pale in comparison.) Today it resembles a miniature of a Las Vegas casino in its more prestigious and more lavishly appointed days, complete with telepoker video games. The establishment has its roots in the days before the fire that reduced most of the other side of the street to a valley of ashes. The facade of the bar (as well as the inviting retro-chic awning that elegantly reaches out over the sidewalk) attests to its history: Once a bank until its closure due to the stock market fall of 1929, the place was purchased in the late 1940s and assumed an incarnation as Hax, eventually becoming Max's 540 in 1976. If you're lucky enough to catch her, proprietor Annie Moran, a seasoned veteran of the San Francisco bar scene, will unravel many a yarn about local bar lore. One of the more intriguing incidents occurred in 1972, back when the bar sported curvilinear booth seating and a piano. "A guy quietly entered, ordered a drink, sat down in the corner and then blew his brains out," Annie says unwaveringly. Despite its macabre legacy, however, it still remains a popular reliquary for the locals and curiosity seekers who yearn to glean a bit of local Richmond District history. At 540 Clement St. 8am­2am daily. 415/752-7276.

McCarthy's Cocktails

Nestled in the Mission District like an old-timer between customers at a crowded bar, Original McCarthy's remains one of the last vestiges of old San Francisco. Famed McCarthy's denizen Mr. Lucky has been coming there since the late '70s (where he formed his first power-pop new wave band).

"It's a local's place," he says. "It's one of the last places one can hear the whiskey-soaked 'Sampiciscan' accents. The people here have been coming for some 20-odd years. Unfortunately, most are dying off nowadays."

The inhabitants of McCarthy's (which relocated to the Mission in 1932) are historical monuments unto themselves, especially 84-year-old Tom McGovern, who was one of the bar's original employees. Some of Mr. Lucky's other favorite aspects of McCarthy's are the occasional hotel customer "wobbling on down. Often I would have to carry them back upstairs again." On Fridays, McCarthy's is graced with the harmonica of "Squeaky" Nelly, an old-time jazz chanteuse currently fronting a hillbilly band. Sidle up to McCarthy's manager Patrick Conroy if you want a succulent, lilt-drowned morsel of San Francisco history. But do so before it closes: Unfortunately, the old San Francisco landmark is for sale. At 2327 Mission St. Days and hours vary. 415/648-0504.

Martin Ng
Ken Richardson

Tender Mercies: Pull up a chair and let Martin Ng pour at the 711 Club.

711 Club

A top-floor view of the downtown skyline it isn't, but what the 711 Club lacks in view, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. The walls are covered in cold nudes, the ceiling sparkles and the tabletop Arkenoid game always helps to release some built-up workday angst. And with its convenient downtown location, this bar is a more salubrious locale than the gym will ever be for a cocktail or two after work. The friendly five-year 711 veteran bartender Martin Ng serves up inexpensive heaping shakers of booze and a few tasty beers on tap. At 711 Market St. Mon.-Fri. 10am­11pm or 2am; Sat.­Sun. noon­2am. 415/777-4455.

330 Ritch

"I grew up in a very 'alternative bar' environment," says Mohammed Bilal, the alterna-rap musician for Midnight Voices, best known as the nice guy with braids from MTV's San Francisco edition of The Real World. "The place that my dad ran, The Upper Room, didn't serve alcohol. It was more of a cultural center and nightclub, all at once. We had a lot of poets, musicians and comedians coming in. It was cool, and it definitely pushed me in a creative direction. Our first record was actually called Late Night at the Upper Room."

But with the Upper Room now relocated to Oakland, Bilal now prefers to kick back at 330 Ritch, a South of Market combination bar/supper club/dance club. "It's a great place," he enthuses. "I heard it used to be a gay bathhouse or something. Whatever it was, the building has history, and a real energy to it, which is rare in a United States building. It's got some 'old vibrations.' "

Bilal also appreciates the varied entertainment that the venue features. "One night it'll be house, then it'll be swing, and the other it'll be salsa," he says. Sounds almost as eclectic as Bilal's own music. At 330 Ritch St. Wed.­Sat. 6pm­2am. 415/541-9574.

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From the May 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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