An interlopers’ where-to pre-game besides near the pop-up ESPN studio at Fisherman’s Wharf. Where to admire the frisky and the young who have replaced generations for generations—gone in a short sleep. Where to see the people who refuse not to be seen as The City hugs its knees close to its chest and rocks itself to that final passage of obsolescence in an alleyway near Grant and Green.
If you are packing your bags right now to descend on the Bay Area for Sup Bro 50, chances are you’ve done this before. You’ve watched your soul escape in tiny bits from each dirty exhale on similar sojourns over meaty red fish flown in from more miles away than you will ever travel, from oceans deeper than you can fathom—in effort to consider for a moment the near-extinct jewel entering your maw as the rest of your machine marinates in corn syrup and Crown Royal.
The corpulent worries pace above you. And the part of you that shivers with the clanging knowledge that no matter how many zeros and commas after your name, there’s no escaping and there’s no salvation. And this all floats lifeless just beneath the same three bullshit stories. So have another and hope you wake up tomorrow. Because, once again, it’s the first week of February and it’s your time to rally. Hold all calls. Let your rarified combination of coin, lack of creativity, free time and free-will carry you through this mess; let it save you from boredom and wrinkled shirts and that sinking but eternal feeling that only you and Yahoo! employees have.
- The inheritor of your great-grandfather’s Stone Mountain, Georgia-based Pepsi bottler and distributorship. You rebelled against your Bulldog lineage because “Athens is for liberals and queers” and went to Ole Miss for two semesters, attempted to date rape a cheerleader, got bailed out of any real legal comeuppance because your stories didn’t match and that was somehow her fault; but still you got kicked out and went to work at the factory. Your dad said you’d have to start in dispatch and work your way up but that didn’t quite take, so they shuffled you around to various and sundry meaningless regional sales positions until the thirty-second birthday happened and you were given the keys to the snack cabinet and the corporate card which means you now golf five times a week with your mobile device clipped to your belt and toy with the idea of opening a half-dozenish Papa John’s in neighborhoods you won’t drive through at night.
- Upper-middle management at Visa. You graduated, somewhat surprisingly, from Arkansas State (which you refer to as Arkansas) with a sociology degree and tell everyone within earshot that you walked on as a sophomore. They all assume you mean football and you don’t correct them because what you actually mean is you physically walked on…to the field after a game sophomore year. You earned your MBA from Meredith College School of Business and scored a job at TrialPay from your ex’s dad who helped start the thing. In the 18 months of your professional career, you’ve navigated a series of near-miss fireable offenses most of which started and finished with sake bombs and survived by reading bargain bin management books and spitting proactive-type terms like, “We’ve got a lot of wood to chop” when natural pauses in key meetings occur. You’re able to actually drink most people into submission at trade shows, proving that you must have some kind of internal engine that’s good for business and your bleached teeth and tips stand out on your lanyard.
- A direct descendant of one of the 32. Your industrialist grandfather owns a majority share in several businesses including staffing, trucking, insurance and date rape kit manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies and you basically have followed the career path(os) of George W. Bush. You squeaked through private primary school and at your private alma mater, entire library wings have been erected in the name of not kicking you out. You have a job within the organization that requires you shake hands and try to keep yourself from jerking off in the regular employees bathroom once a day just to add a dash of excitement. Everyone around the Thanksgiving table lives off interest. Last year’s highlight was being outed on Ashley Madison and your wife didn’t bother to look up from her iPad long enough to care. You bet on things. You do well with strippers and you are that guy in the box wearing the beanie and whining like Spaulding as you conveniently bite into a hot dog during the cutaway while gramps looks constipated and frozen and dead-gray but for the lively jiggle under his chin when he coughs.
First, the immutable good news: You are going to fit in just fine here this week; no pride parade is going to swoop you up and make you denounce Jesus (or at least say his name really loud while you get flogged). No progressive-lens-wearing cult leader is going to sweep you off your feet to make the most potent of all cocktails for you in Guyana. Burners aren’t going to turn your rental car into a rolling display case for doll heads. One warning: that stuff on the ground—it ain’t dog shit.
San Francisco has been welcoming to all comers approaching drink in hand like a spurned lover on a bender for decades. For those still faithful enough to recall the warbling half-poetry at City Lights, I appreciate the crouching, inextinguishable love of The City in black and white. But even those guys were the interlopers of their day. The City is lucky enough—through fire and shattered glass and waves of concrete or the darkest room of a freeway collapsing overhead—to be stretched taut over one of the most perilous tectonic tightropes on this Earth guaranteeing constant renewal. Long-time residents know if that cinnamony manhole exhaust of free-range capitalism doesn’t seep up into your nostrils, get into your brain and kill you first, that nature certainly eventually will. From the moment we step into town, we are all San Franciscans. So dance and laugh and learn to embrace the fog and all the mistakes it covers up.
For centuries San Francisco life has receded from beneath its denizen’s feet and the sand has been wiped clear of memory by a sneaky tide: Gold Rush to the post-quake rebuild to the Summer of Love to the ‘80s when all the shipping left for across the Bay and left only Walter Shorenstein, Don Fischer, Gordon Getty and Chuck Schwab standing. From dot.com 1.0 to 2.0 and whatever current end of this we pretend isn’t coming. Because it’s not a tech bubble as much as it is a tech balloon. And you can only blow up the same piece of spitty rubber so many times with businesses that don’t make any money and don’t provide much of a service before they pop or at least do that pffffffffft fizzle before coming to a limp and forgotten end under the fridge. One hundred years from now Steve Jobs will be reviled as the man who took us off the pace of flying cars and molecular reconstruction and disease eradication and space colonization and crisper-crackling amps and solar everything and gave us instead, like any evil carnival barker/toy maker would, a faster way to send each other pictures of cats and our own genitalia. Because nothing, not even Nick Nolte, ages worse than technology.
Refer to it as ‘Frisco? Awesome. No fucking idea who Harvey Milk was other than that he bears a strong resemblance to Sean Penn? Cool. Don’t know that Jim shot Artie? Fine. What famous columnist coined the term Beatnick? Shrug and say “I don’t fucking know, your mom?”
You’ll fit right in.
First, a disclaimer: Before we get to the best of the worst places your expense accounts will allow, a little context: If you’re looking for a pub crawl map featuring of traditionally bro-gasmic hazardous watering holes: Eastside West, Mauna Loa, Rogue Ales Public House (or whatever’s 673 Union is currently called), Perry’s, Bus Stop…anywhere on Chestnut and ending up in a fight at over a chick from Saratoga with a huge ass and a profile pic that’s way hotter…and the last slice of pesto at Pizza Orgazmica, you’ve come to the wrong place. It’s not only too obvious, but really now, The Triangle and the Marina are kind of so bad they’re good again.
So we’ll leave that whole scene out of it. Although, if you dare expose yourself to the Comet Club after midnight do so at your own risk and expect flare-ups every three to six months thereafter.
Because everyone secretly knows the letterpress/beards/mason jars/manscarf/sleeve tats/Girls season two and beyond/vinyl/reclaimed wood paneling/upcycling/teardrop lighting/subway tile-farm basin/skinny jeans whole aesthetic is done. Williamsburg-light has basically filtered to all corners of whatever’s left of the gooey suburbs and it’s time for something new, less flimsy.
Maybe after this week it’s about something else. It is writing letters. Maybe it’s ditching your device. Maybe it’s more meet-ups or just simplifying. Reading books and grabbing coffee and consuming it without having to post a photo of it. Either way, those visiting The City will soon realize that the Super Bowl in Santa Clara is as much of an empty promise as the distance itself between the two points: as Temecula posing as LA, Montpelier trying to be Boston or Mount Vernon being mistaken for an actual mountain—or a place that didn’t keep slaves.
Maybe this time watching people watch nothing as their heads stay down and their earphones stay on will make you think what I always do when I’m in town: 1) I had all the music and movies and thoughtful and entertaining information at my disposal, three lifetimes worth by the early ‘00s. And that doesn’t mean good stuff doesn’t continue to come out, it just means I didn’t have to sift through massive piles of shit to get to it like I have to today. 2) Hearing someone at a restaurant say they miss the heft of real phones is truly refreshing and 3) John Cusack is best in movies where he’s broken-hearted and mostly standing in the rain. Scratch that, mostly standing in the rain on a payphone.
P.S. This is no way an indictment on the viability of the below establishments or the business-savvy of those who run them. Adele, in other words, can’t help that she gets overplayed.
Now, on with it:
To follow, a handful of establishments where the biggest jerkfaces of all time will be hanging out this week: local, transient and lanyard-class. Treat them with respect and dignity if you happen to be the one in 300,000 left in SF who gives a shit. That these joints get touched up by the guy who’s constantly yelling over at the single-looking marketing girl like she’s the help, saying stuff like “Why don’t you introduce me to your friend” as statement while his wedding ring is engorged by poor circulation and finger hair is a natural for this kind of event. The breeding grounds of desperation for the pitiless yet hopeful traveler are best left to perennial host cities like Phoenix and New Orleans and Miami. But hey, San Francisco deserves its turn.
First Stop, Trendyish: Bar Agricole/Alembic/Whitechapel
It’s like a Habitrail full of fuckin’ assholes up in here. Bar Agricole proprietor Craig Lane is a damn good barkeep and if you can get over his apron and mustache and stir stick, he can—if given, I dunno, an hour or so—mix you a damn fine cocktail. But who are we kidding? Lane’s got better things to do than make you something your grandpa would fucking toss over his shoulder and snarl, “I said Dewers and soda.” So let’s get right to the monstrous clientele. There are people here who will actually dare brave the every other leap-year wait time and order a Rhum Agricole—the titular drink of the establishment—while refusing to simply roll over the h in rum. Then during the interminable lifetime it takes the barkeep to get the artisanal ice portioned just right, they’ll tell you about how much runway capital they have for an idea that’s an app that aggregates all your apps based on actual use and automatically deletes the bottom twenty percent from your device, ya know? If you don’t like this talk or maybe don’t want to be caught in the crossfire of a conversation about how Chipotle is on the rebound and up four percent from some piker who just hung an Edward Jones shingle in Pleasanton and is happy he found this on TripAdvisor for he and his swipe right for the night, then you’re in the wrong fucking bar.
Alembic is the sort of ground-zero “mixology” place now a decade old and quickly approaching its sell-by date. Respect. There’s a Sazerac which may not get you housed but is still cheaper than a 20 oz. beer at big game host Levi’s Stadium. Plus, it’s in the Haight next to the old Kezar which is where all football games of record should be played in The City. There is a bone marrow dish, deviled eggs from the future and something coined spiced duck hearts with pickled pineapple. And while I’d rather tuck into Soba Rau Cai Vegetable Soup washed down with Citrus Punch with Nigori down the way at The Citrus Club. Sometimes it’s more fun to stand in line because you get to say you did.
Whitechapel is a gin joint that opened in the used-needle and feces-rich Tenderloin. The loving brainchild of Martin Cate (see: Hayes Valley’s so-authentic-it-must-be-real tiki jam Smuggler’s Cove), the establishment boasts more than 100 cocktails, and if the presser is to be believed, four times that number in brands of gin. Cate Disneyfies his small, dark spaces which is to say he gives them an aesthetic and backstory that makes it seem real to the point of overly genuine, winking. It’s like Samuel Clemens in real time and is a shrewd way to do business in today’s SF where it’s not about actually being there as much as it is about having the properly staged lighting and backdrop to show you were there. If that’s too heady a concept, remember Whitechapel is not too far from O’Farrell Theater if you want to get a real taste of the old neighborhood or at least wreck it all over 40-year-old movie seat cushions which are still probably cleaner than your hotel sheets. Let’s see, where were we? Oh, the bar itself appears to be an underground that was abandoned at the turn of (last) century. If it was this century it’d be an abandoned Polly Esther’s. Either way, the line will be out the door by 5:09 and that’s not just LinkedIn-updating Twitter employees looking for an after-shifter.
The Fucking Ferry Building
I recall this place as the one I couldn’t go near in Jr. High because it was yellow-taped for demo after the earthquake. But here we are now, less than three decades later and this lead-filled dilapidated under-the-freeway tooth decay is hipster-tastic ground zero. The building itself is fucking great if not San Francisco’s unofficial gateway. Too bad there’s so many cheesemongers, butchers, baristas around making minimum wage you’ll wonder what happened to jobs? While we’re at it, what happened to all the black-pant/black-backpack girls dancing on the tables and spilling their something-crans all over the fucking place at Johnny Love’s at Broadway and Polk? Whoops, there she is looking to turn tricks for a better spot in line at Blue Bottle and cleaning up the spit-up off the Britax. She’s the cool mom. Plenty of this going on to spoil the otherwise unfettered and quiet something that stirs childlike deep inside you while watching the boats come in and out.
A quick waterfront rickshaw from the Ferry Building at Pier 3 is another loving note from The Slanted Door’s Charles Phan who made everyone in the West Coast believe that it’s OK to pay fucking $180 for a meal that costs $2.38 in his native Vietnam. With the backlit waterfront bar, he’s pulled another genius move and made a whiskey joint out of potential driftwood. There are flights that start for about $25 and you’ll see dudes there from Dallas and Hoboken and Chapel Hill sipping on stuff and talking about peat like they know what fucking famine and struggle and dark earth actually is. The only thing they can smell in the swill is whomever they were scooted close to on United lightly dozing over some movie nobody’s ever heard of starring Josh Duhamel. Want a real shot of whiskey? Uber it over to the Silver Spur on Irving. Sure, nobody there is going to look like Megan Fox circa 2008 but, then again, everyone looks good in the straight-up dark and drinks there will be, I dunno, about 5:1 pricewise.
The Fucking Mission
I had the sketchiest date of my life in the Mission. Actually it wasn’t a date at all as much as it was: I met someone and woke up in the Mission. She had a collection of those scary monkeys with cymbals and it was the sound of them clanging inside my head that I woke up to at 4 a.m. I escaped leaving only my mustard-yellow Banana t-neck behind. That was three weeks of well-earned guilt and one trip to a clinic. Worth every bit of palm sweat on then next twenty or so lunches spent ruminating over the decisions of my early 20s. That was, of course, in the ‘90s when we were all still paranoid for good reason. Now the Mission isn’t sketchy, it’s chic and oh can we take a moment to rue the day when parts of a beautiful oceanfront jewel like San Francisco cease to become sketchy. Now the Mission is the graffitiless home of spots like Ichi Sushi & Ni Bar’s space. It’s damned fine fish and a dozenish sashimi will run you about $70 and though you won’t find pioneer neighborhood guys like Bones Brigade emeritus/guitarist Tommy Guerrero grinding down here you will see the last vestiges of Google Glass wearers; lots and lots of patrons editing lightly their snaps of pre-consumption fish. Why pay the premium in the former fucking Barrio if you can’t show it off to the masses, or at least the three people who pretend to care in your network? You got the tip and maybe the reservation from the concierge, but really the only raw you’re spotting isn’t the salt-broiled fish collar at happy hour, it’s that slinky thing in the corner and you wonder if she takes bitcoin.
Going out after in the Mission is an exercise in forgetting pleasantries. You won’t get the Marina girl who just threw off the sweats and brushed out the pony a half-dozen times out here. She’ll only go so far as the Apple Store or the Horseshoe if she wants action. Though you may get something of a little better vintage—think the girl who was probably at home SOMA with a bottle of Mazzocco open doing an OPI by Gwen Stefani mani-pedi when her phone started to blow up (and not just with Intermix/SoulCycle push notifications and Tinder matches) that that cute guy who just got laid off from the customer satisfaction team is all up in here. And you will queue up the Royal Cuckoo and Zeitgeist for a chance to meet her or at least feel the hum of crowds that look like low-lit extras in a Sofia Coppola bar shot. No, you’re not going to impress her by dropping your neighborhood from Houston—unless, of course, you can claim it was the one where most of Rushmore was filmed. But you can buy eight minutes of her time with some tequila you’ll use your Spanish 2 accent to order up. She did, after all, grow up in Walnut Creek.
Should you have a total creative collapse or if you need to bust out those $400 revenge jeans you bought after your most recent break-up then Mission Bowling Club is your place. I think like all things in SF 45.0 this place peaked during its opening year (2012). But now that we’re in the era of the recent wave of crashed start-ups looking to sell off cube walls and ergo chairs and corn hole kits, Dropbox is running out of money, Twitter can’t find a viable CEO and LivingSocial is a forgotten plague.
This isn’t a neighborhood or a movement as much as it’s a North Face store and a beer garden built over a former Naval industrial waste site. It really comes alive during baseball season when the even-year-winner Giants fill their band box on Second and King with in-game #hashtaggers. It will be mostly dormant during super bowl week but for those who got lost en route to the CalTrain station.
State Bird Provisions
This place has great bathrooms. It’s got great food. It’s got patrons who go ahead and snort chopped Xanax on the countertops inside the great bathrooms after enjoying the great food. A caustic glow infects all who sit here. And it shouldn’t. Their abject lack of joy over what lays before them, frantic, memorable food, just doesn’t register. Holy fuck the spoil of riches: guinea hen dumpling with aromatic broth, grilled shiitake with meyer lemon, kosho smoked trout with grains pork belly dashi, persimmon with kinako and black sesame, duck liver mousse with almond biscuit, crudité with sunflower-lentil hummus, lamb merguez with blood orange-fennel salsa, pork belly citrus salad, potato-trout fritter with black trumpet ranch, salt baked celery root with black trumpet and brown butter, snacking pork with apple mostarda and that’s just starters for starters. The decisions are paralyzing and it’s impossible to emerge from this experience unscathed. You HAVE to choose from this end-times menu of all-access. Look around, be exposed to and by and from everyone else here who coughs and eats like they’ve discarded their wallets. Nothing matters in the headiest and most precarious of all eras. That’s why nothing matters here. State Bird Provisions is rolling gunpowder between fingertips. A thousand lesser imitators from the Alice Waters coaching tree of local sourcing have come up since and since given up; fatigue. It’s impossible to paint masterpieces on so many Tuesdays in a row. And when the stunned look of total overwhelm leaves the diners’ faces and the sheer impossibility of the availability of so much magic in one place, on one plate even goes away—we know that San Francisco, as an allegory for this country and gracious host for its most specious event…is going down first. Long live Rubicon.
So there you go. Where not to go or do go. And oh yeah. And if you’re not a complete cocksucker—and I mean that in the most non-derogatory way to folks who actually take pride in such a glorious skill—here’s a few remaining warrens in SF to actually blow it out and have a little fun: The Greens Sports Bar (ersatz frat guys in the existential throes that no accumulation of Bud heavy will cure but the pictures on the wall tell the story). Yancy’s Saloon Inner Sunset (Ms. Pac-Man tourneys and a game called ‘Dare Darts’—ask a local…which you’ll find here). Cantina on Sutter (lower Nob Hill to catch a few stories from the few folks who actually still work and dress). The Blarney Stone (drink and hear Joyce quotes roll from tongues of actual undocumenteds in the Outer Richmond: aka the panic room of SF locals who refuse to dry out or leave). The Devil’s Acre (not too overdone throwback where the beats used to never surrender into the night; actually, fuck that, I just miss Ed Moose, tip one for him here). Cresta’s on Polk (never the same since barkeep Rory died in a mysterious apartment fire. RIP…but still a place for shotgun-style bar liar’s dice). The Tonga Room (saved from the wrecking ball too many times to recall gem in the basement of the Fairmont. Drinking from a hollowed out pineapple on the summit of Nob Hill is the closest to the chaste Rat Pack fantasy you’ll get for under $50).
Sadly, the place to go and disappear into The City for a game day afternoon such as this, Liverpool Lil’s (DiMaggio drank often post-career here on the edge of The Presidio) burned down last April. That would’ve been the spot worth abandoning your tickets on StubHub and hunkering down with an endless refill of Anchor Steam and a shaky game on a 20-inch tube TV enamored by the life story of the cabbie San Francisco forgot who’s sitting right next to you telling stories of what life was like before it needed a filter.
Johnny Loves photo courtesy sfgate.com