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Writer Watering Holes

[whitespace] writers' montage
Matt Ipcar

Booze Bingers: Although few writers dare drink booze on the epochal level of, say, Hunter S. Thompson or dear Jack Kerouac, San Francisco sure reaps its share of heavy-drinking writers who seek comfort in the city's bars.

Some places where writers go to drink

By Jenn Shreve

Although New York is convinced of its dominance in the world of letters, San Francisco has always held its own, fostering the careers of a first-rate batch of writers, editors and publications. And for reasons perhaps accidental, or perhaps quite intentional, the act of putting pen to paper is often accompanied by another noble and historical profession: that of wanton substance abuse.

One might even venture that this city's attractiveness to those of an artistic bent is related to its renowned spirit of permissiveness that turns a blind eye to belligerence and the partaking of dubious substances (unless, of course, your vice is cigarettes, in which case you gotta watch your ass).

Although few writers dare binge on the epochal level of, say, Hunter S. Thompson or dear Jack Kerouac, San Francisco was more than kind to Samuel Clemens when he sought comfort in the city's fine bars. More recently, Herb Caen's passing was remembered with cheap vodka martinis, an appropriate tribute to a man who liked his liquor as strong as his typewriter tape.

Writers today, of course, are less ink-stained wretches than RSI-suffering stockholders. You'll find more artistic souls wallowing in the depths of despair over a less than lucrative book deal than struggling to find the center of their unwritten Great American Novel. But writers still booze it up. They do some Ecstasy and speed too, but let's save those substances for another occasion because the question of the hour is where do they drink?

Caen and other established bigwigs whooped it up at Moose's in North Beach. Newspaper men and women can still be found lingering over hops and Scotch at the M&M Tavern. Though more the domain of thrill-seeking tourists, the Edinburgh Castle (or more likely, Vesuvio's, looking out through stained-glass onto Jack Kerouac Lane) still retains its character as a beatnik bar, where poetry was scrawled onto napkins, bathroom mirrors and supple thighs.

A writerly haunt is a peculiar thing, and there's no accounting for where souls desiring to push their views on the reading public will gather. But there are certain qualities a bar must have to become a place where writers meet. It must be somewhat quiet to facilitate discussion. Dark lighting creates the proper mood for intense discussion or the swapping of scoops. Personality is important, because the dull and ordinary are uninspiring. And it's gotta be cheap enough for artist feigning starvation to buy a round or two.

I was recently sent on a fact-finding mission to ferret out a meeting place for a monthly group of hard-drinking writers. And although my research was in no way exhaustive or definitive, I've come up with a short list of bars that may or may not be the habitual watering holes of tomorrow's mid-listers.

Dalva
This dark, candlelit bar at 16th and Mission is a favorite with new-media types who seem to have tired of Bruno's swanky environs. Best identified by thick glasses and clunky shoes and profound phrases like "technocrat" and "free software movement," writers of the cyber bent can be found here most nights lingering over inexpensive liters of sangria. On weekends, the music can be impossibly loud, but the back room offers a reprieve for those interested in speaking below a shout.

House of Shields
Located downtown, at New Montgomery and Market, this bar has been infiltrated by the suits. But it once was a main attraction for the newspaper set, a few of whom can still be found attempting to buy the perky waitresses a strong cocktail. The heads of unfortunate animals peering down from the walls while anorexic chanteuses bellow out jazz creates an old-style funky atmosphere. And did I mention meat? Steak, potatoes and anything that bleeds make this bar's menu perfect for the self-destructive, indulgent type.

John Bull Cafe
OK, nobody in their right mind should ever step foot in this bar, located in scaryland central on Ninth at Mission. Most of the clientele are toothless--either from age or crack abuse. There are no women at this bar, save the bartender. Step in and confront a portrait of desperation and madness, which is why I suggest this spot for writers yearning to get in touch with the salt of the earth. The beers are like two bucks, and the well drinks are a few cents more. You'll probably get alcohol poisoning, but it's important to drink lots here and buy the bar a round--for those prices you can afford it.

The Rite Spot
Located away from the hubbub of the Mission on a dark, quiet corner of Folsom and 17th, this dive with a past is often deserted, but it attracts a random assortment of San Francisco characters. The smell of grease permeates the air; candles flicker in the gloom; the piano bench is never empty. It's a perfect getaway for making chit-chat or scrawling brilliant thoughts onto a well-worn notebook.

El Rio
Buried deep in the Mission, this is a big-ass bar with tons of personality, not to mention plenty of brain-dead activities for the world-weary writer seeking a break. There's your pinball, your shuffleboard, your pool table, your jukebox. There's a back yard for puffing away neurotically on a cig. And on Fridays, during happy hour, the oyster appetizers are free, and no scrawler worth her salt turns down free food.

Mad Dog in the Fog
Located in lower Haight, between Fillmore and Steiner, this bar caters to those who still delude themselves with British superiority when it comes composing works of English literature. Soccer games are the main attraction--shown from various TVs scattered throughout the bar. Wolf down English pub grub while pounding away pints and, just maybe, the Ghost of Charles Dickens will possess you.

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From the August 10-23, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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