Built by drunk miners and called home by some of America’s most famous hoochers, the City by the Bay possesses a rich history steeped in hooch and hangovers. We sent correspondent Nick Plumber to San Francisco to see if the tradition survives.
Denver International Airport
Naturally I set off the metal detector at the security gate. They made me take off my boots and patted me down. I hadn’t even left Denver for San Francisco and already I was being felt up by an old man. After my ordeal with security, I felt the need for a drink or two, just to calm my nerves.
Cantina Grill at DIA
2 Coronas, 1 Dos Equis, 1 Negra Modelo, 2 scotch and sodas, 1 Grand Marnier Margarita
I hoped the drinks would would also serve to get me in the mood to cover the story, especially since I didn’t have a real idea what the story was.
“Capture the essence of the drinking culture of San Francisco,” my editor had told me. “Gather some nuggets of truth our readers can use. Take some chances. You the know the deal.”
But did I? How the hell do you capture the drinking culture of a city of two and half million people in less than a week? God knew how many bars there were. And how many drunks there were inside those bars, waiting to tell their story. If they would tell me at all. The photographer, Carrol, didn’t seemed the least daunted by the gargantuan task, she was already taking snapshots of the oily drunks idling at the bar; she was gleaning nuggets and we were still a thousand miles from our destination. She had it easy. All she had to do was stick a camera in their faces and wait for the flash. I had to actually converse with the savages.
In Flight: Denver to Phoenix
By the time we boarded the flight I was feeling more confident, even starting to think I had a grip on the thing. We touched down in Phoenix with an hour layover, so we visited the bar.
Taberna de Tequila, Phoenix Airport
2 Coronas, 2 shots of well tequila
Maybe it was the booze, but the closer we got to our target, the more I believed I could pull it off. Sure, it would be easy. We’d arrive drunk as bastards and just storm in like journalistic magnets that would suck the hard truths from the darkest corners of the dingiest bars. I suggested we do a shot to celebrate my fine new understanding, then left to board the final ride to our victory parade.
Five minutes later I became convinced, despite the high terror alert, the nation’s airports are run by foot fetishists. Again the old men at the gate asked me to take off my boots. Smell my breath! I wanted to shout at them. Mujaheddin don’t drink! If there is one group of Americans that should be above reproach in these matters, it should be us drunks. My nerves again shaken, I resolved to fall back onto alcohol to further steel my nerves.
In Flight: Phoenix to San Francisco
2 Scotch and Sodas
No sober mujaheddin blew up the plane and I did not commit air rage and we arrived in San Francisco at midnight. We took a cab to a cheap hotel in the Marina district. Exhausted and disoriented by all the sea-level oxygen, we decided to wait until the next day to tackle San Francisco.
Mad Dog in the Fog, 530 Haight
2 Bass, 2 Bud
Despite its fortified wine ringer, the Mad Dog is a fairly typical English pub with a extensive beer selection. A caveat for lovers of the hard hooch, however—San Francisco offers two types of liquor licenses. A full license and a beer and wine license. The latter is much easier to get, so many more bars have them, like Mad Dog in the Fog. They try to make up for it by offering an broad selection of beer and wine, but if you want a shot, you’ll have to cross the street.
We gathered as many local publications as possible and headed back to the hotel to lay out our plan of attack. After extensive research, we made a list of bars to hit then headed out for a night on the town.
The Tonga Room, 950 Mason Street
2 Flaming Volcanoes for 2
This is one of the strangest bars I have ever drank in. The Tonga Room is the king of all fern bars, it is a redwood forest of ferns and tiki statues, crowded around a monstrous artificial lagoon. The food and drinks are expensive, so we skipped the food and hacked our way to the bar. As we were sipping our Flaming Volcano (which they sadly don’t light on fire any more, thank you very much Bin Laden) fake thunder rolled, and it began raining in the lagoon. I’m fucking serious. Then a actual barge with a tiki band on it paddled out into the middle of the lagoon. If you’re sipping a fruity drink with a forest of umbrellas stuffed into it while watching a waterborne Polynesian lounge band, you can’t help but think Elvis is about to jump out out of the bushes and launch into Blue Hawaii. Which may be your dream come true, but quite frankly, it creeped me out. We stayed for the set, paid our volcano-sized tab and headed for Polk Street.
Hemlock, 1130 Polk Street
7 Buds, 8 Newcastles, 2 Jameson Rocks, 2 Shots of Basil-Hayden
Hemlock is a dark, comfortable bar with a back room for live music. We dropped in with the intention of continuing on to other bars, but it was too comforting, an island of sanity in what was apparently a creepy and insane sea. More importantly, Peter the bartender insisted on buying us rounds of drinks. Who was I to insult him by taking our act to another bar? He introduced me to a superlative brand of bourbon called Basil-Hayden. Peter told me it was a sipping whiskey so I made sure I drank them in no less than two swallows.
We used this time to further our research, asking the regulars in which bars hid the essence of the drinking culture of San Francisco. They politely provided us with a list that would take Bukowski a year to drink through and napkin maps that would give a cartographer psyche-scarring nightmares. Not to mention detailed diagrams of where to precisely sit in the respective bars at which hours, and finally highly detailed descriptions (I could have picked them out of line up) of which bartenders were worth sucking up to. D-Day wasn’t planned so well.
We had a few more beers, a couple more shots, and more beer to escort the shots home. That’s the fantastic thing about plunging down from the Rockies to drink at sea level, you feel like some manner of drunken super hero: “I am Cannot Get Drunk Man! Bring me more shots of your vile liquors, they amuse me, ha ha ha!”
Molotov’s, 582 Haight
2 Buds, 1 Bass, 1 Prohibition Ale
Molotov’s is a hip dive bar with oddly uninsulting art on the walls and a post-industrial, pre-mafia Soviet vibe. With no small excitement, we’d discovered the night before that introducing ourselves as staff members of something as ludicrously yet intriguingly called Modern Drunkard Magazine had the effect of causing free drinks to appear from every conceivable direction. We resolved to test this happy phenomena, and I when I say test, picture a Fearless Chuck Yeager Strapped Into An Insanely Unstable Jet Rocket Trying To Break The Sound Barrier kind of test. We made our professional introductions, flipped out the obligatory business card, smugly ordered drinks we had no intention of paying for, then braced ourselves for the tidal wave of gratis hooch.
“Six bucks,” the bartender said without the least bit of irony in his voice. “Please don’t mention the smell.”
“Smell? What smell?”
I was mystified until I went to the men’s room. The bathroom had that quality of unbearable odor you find only in truly authentic dive bars, that nose-smashing stench that lets you know this joint means business. It’s comforting in a nauseating way.
I returned to the bar and smiled my shark smile at the apologetic bartender. I wrinkled my nose and I knew I had him dead to rights. It was time for another round and this time he bought them. With one on the cuff, I broke out some fancy footwork and hoped he’d start whistling the free drink ballad. I noticed a tap for a local microbrew called Prohibition Ale, brewed by Speakeasy Brewery. Perfect.
“I run a speakeasy in Denver,” I told the bartender, ordering one.
“Cool,” he said with less interest than I had hoped.
“A real one,” I affirmed.
“That’s right. Totally illegal.”
“Awesome. Four bucks.”
It was pretty good ale. Very heavily hopped, and I liked the name. Because, you know, I run a speakeasy in Denver. A real one. Ah, fuck it.
Noc Noc, 557 Haight
2 Coronas, 2 Newcastles
Who’s there? Arty types, that’s who. While Molotov’s is a do-it-yourself/excuse-the-smell kind of art bar, Noc Noc comes off like Tim Burton got twisted on absinthe and went on a decorating spree. Like an evil octopus, art entwines everything in the joint. It’s where I’d take a girl if I wanted to get her drunk on sake and impress her with how terribly hip I was. The beers are dear and when I say dear I mean fucking pricey. I kept jerking my head around, fearful some guy with a scarf and a beret was sneaking up on me to discuss Heidegger’s failure to follow up on Nietzche’s attack on organized religion.
Which you can tolerate for only so many drinks. We hopped a bus to the Mission District. Public transportation in San Francisco is very drunk friendly: it’s inexpensive and still running after the bars close. Which makes it a breeze to bar hop without having to worry about those buzz-quashing DUIs.
Kilowatt, 3160 16th
1 Anchor Steam, 1 Bud
Kilowatt is a roomy rock and roll bar with, yet again, a superb beer selection. San Francisco is a beer drinker’s paradise. We didn’t come across a single bar that didn’t have at least ten different brews on tap. We chatted up the locals, made a play for a free drink, lost the game badly, then jumped ship with spite in our hearts.
Rite Spot Cafe, 2099 Folsom
2 Anchor Steams, 2 Buds
Even a blind hog will crack an acorn in his jaws if he roots around long enough, and we were no exceptions to the rule. Tucked away on the edge of a warehouse district, the Rite Spot Cafe resembles a seedy old-man bar from the outside, but looks can be deceiving. While San Francisco’s no-smoking laws are surely a sign of creeping fascism, it does offer one powerful advantage—you get a fair idea of what a bar’s clientele is before setting foot inside because half of them are smoking outside. The Spot’s window dressing looked right and we weren’t misled—inside we found a 30’s style jazz band called the Frisco Follies laying down the beat and it was a hell of a metre to drink to. Carrol oiled up the bartender as I absorbed their fine collection of bar napkin art. A fine place, I thought. A fine place to get hammered. But only a fool stoops to pick up a silver dollar when fifties are fluttering in the wind around him. Also, they wouldn’t buy us any drinks.
Bottom of the Hill, 17th & Texas
3 Bud Lights, 5 Newcastles. 4 Shots of Tequila
Bottom of the Hill is an extremely large live music venue. The cover charge is daunting ($7-10), but it earns you the right to catch San Francisco’s best bands. The gregarious staff treated us as prodigal sons returning from a long bender, and as such they hooked up the welcome home shots. We settled in at the end of the bar to swill beer, watch the show and sink shots with Buddha the doorman. Like George Washington at Valley Forge, we called off the campaign and hunkered down to wait out the long winter of the night. The natives appeared friendly, the liquor wholesome, and the war could wait until tomorrow.
Taqueria de Mexico, Polk Street
2 Dos Equis
San Francisco has a multitude of great restaurants, especially the taquerias, which are cheap and serve beer. Sea level hangovers are generally mild and a morning cervesa made quick work of it. Bring on the fucking Redcoats.
2 Scotch and Sodas, 2 Buds, 1 Newcastle, 1 Basil-Hayden
Hemlock was quickly becoming into our field headquarters. General Grant never said no to a free drink and who am I to question the wisdom of that great commander. Peter was manning the wood and I decided to test his killer instinct. I ordered a scotch and soda and he poured it homicidally strong. I appreciate a bartender who wants to kill me, and Peter had pure murder in his heart when he poured that fucker. I shifted to sipping whiskey, realizing we had a long campaign ahead. It would be a mistake to settle in, I understood this absolutely, if we didn’t get out of the trenches and attack—and soon—the war would be lost before it begun. It was time to hop back up onto the booze pony and ride it until it, or I, fell down. Drunk.
Lush Lounge, 1092 Post Street
Our first foray into enemy territory was a bitter disappointment. Lush Lounge, while possessing a promising ringer, is the kind of place you visit when you have hankering for a raspberry vanilla martini with a cherry in it. We brooded in a vortex of hipster snobbery, getting stink-eyed by the excruciatingly well-dressed customers while the cruel bartender did a half-hearted rendition of his tired “You don’t exist, scum” routine. Many terrible thoughts ran through my head: I thought about urinating on the floor, I thought of informing them they lacked not one ounce of San Francisco drinking culture’s essence. I even thought about laying a beautifully executed two-legged Captain Kirk kick into the belly of the bartender, if only to get the fucker’s attention. But why, as I’m sure George Washington would agree, attack a heavily defended swamp that that possessed no essence? I did, however, fart loudly on my way out.
Edinburgh Castle, 950 Geary
2 Newcastles, 1 Miller, 1 Shot of Fernet-Branca
You feel safe in a castle. Edinburgh Castle is a cavernous pub with a theater on the second floor running “We’re Going Down The Pub,” about, you may have guessed, bars and drinking. Perfect. The scotch selection is excellent but, still reeling from Peter’s killer mixes, I resolved to calm down with beer. The bartenders, Sarah and Renzo, were more than accommodating, and Renzo insisted I try his favorite shot, Fernet-Branca. It tasted like bitter grass clippings, and if you ever wanted to meet a man who will drink free alcohol-steeped grass clippings, look me up.
Famed Geary Street, however, has a bounty of bars and their combined gravitation pull is undeniable. Like drunk cattle fattened on alcohol-steeped grass clippings, we staggered off.
Ha-Ra, 875 Geary
1 Newcastle, 1 Bud
If Bukowski had been gay, he would have hung at the Ha-Ra. It was empty except for a small gang of sour patrons and a surly bartender. The bartender turned off the lights over the pool table when we drifted in that direction, then got in a heated argument with a customer when we tried to ask why.
Gotcha. Not wanted. We go now.
Julip, 839 Geary
1 scotch and soda, 1 Bud
Julip is an aggressively-hip, over-priced dance bar, a would-be trendy hot spot undoubtedly lingering on the brink of oblivion and bankruptcy. Or maybe some of the surliness from the Ha-Ra had followed me in. A weak drink’s worth of yelling over a wall of blaring house music was enough. It was getting near last call and we wanted to take in one more bar, take one more swing with the allegorical pick-axe and pray to God a nugget—just one goddamn nugget—rolled out.
We traveled down Geary into the Korean zone. We needed a taste of the Orient to wash down the evil taste of Julip.
High Tide, 600 Geary
1 Bud, 2 Bass
At this point my notes look like chicken scratch. The tape recorder was less ambiguous, exposing the ugly truth for what it was. From what I can make of it, a drunk Korean named George and I alternately sang and argued, with the bartender Kim joining in for refrains of angry shouting. I insulted one of America’s heroic firemen. I offended one of our nation’s less heroic cab drivers. I giggled insolently at the stern cautions of our hotel’s night manager. Fine behavior for a foreign city. I actually hissed at the tape recorder when I played it back. It couldn’t be me. It just couldn’t.
Redwood Motor Inn
4 Rolling Rocks
The heroic fireman from the night before (I would later discover he was no heroic fireman at all, rather a thoroughly unheroic carpet cleaner posing as a fireman to impress my photographer) showed up at our door with a twelve pack, so we sat down and drank beer while planning our evening’s angle of attack. Before, during or after insulting the imposter I must have told him our room number. I was scheduled to meet an old friend at a bar called Odeon in the Upper Mission district and figured that since we were in the area, we would check out another bar I had heard about.
Mission Bar, 2695 Mission
1 Bud, 2 Bass
The Mission Bar is a nice little joint with no sign to announce its fame save for a neon broadcasting that most simple and sublime of syllables: BAR. It was quiet and we sipped our beers trying to get a feel for the place. What had I expected? The pearl? Just because Kerouac and Cassady drank there, and often? Soon it was time to meet my friend Ian, so we walked up to Odeon, feeling somehow shortchanged.
Odeon, 3223 Mission
3 Buds, 3 Newcastle
We walked into the middle of a set by a lounge singer in a 70’s leisure suit and an afro wig. The phony fireman, Carrol and I joined Ian at the bar and got up to speed. It was a bizarre, freaky bar with a friendly staff, but the Mission Bar still haunted me. Something had went wrong. It was like being a kid and finally meeting your favorite cowboy star, and the fucker just stars at you blankly, saying nothing.
I had to go back.
Mission Bar, 2695 Mission
4 Buds, 4 Bass, 6 Shots of Jager
We returned to the Mission to find it wall to walled with the staff of the bars we’d previously drank at. Finally, and at long last, we were treated like conquering heroes. The owner bought us victory shots and at some point in the drunken haze Buddha the doorman invited us down to the Bottom of the Hill for their Sunday BBQ the next day. We called a cab, and for reasons I can barely understand the carpet-cleaning fireman followed us home and passed out on our hotel room floor.
Redwood Motor Inn
1 Rolling Rock
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling bleary but aware enough to be troubled about where the story was going, if anywhere. What nuggets of truth had we discovered, if any? What riddles had been cracked, what would I tell my editor? I opened a beer and stared at the sprawled and unheroic form of the carpet cleaner on the floor. Who the hell was this man and why was he passed out on my carpet? I thought of trouncing him awake, but then, I thought, he might storm out with his beer. And besides, were we not brothers in a way, both craven impostors living off lies and misgivings? I fell into an easy slumber, gathering up my strength for the morrow, where I swore I would struggle mightily to redeem myself.
Redwood Motor Inn
I awoke with sure knowledge I was no drinking superhero. I wasn’t even his weaselly sidekick. My high-altitude powers had deserted me and the late-night drinking was laying into me like Tyson before he acquired a taste for human ears. We drank strong coffee, squinted at the painful daylight and swore to carry on. San Francisco hadn’t beaten us yet. My brain still grasped desperately at the memory of Buddha the doorman making noise about a free BBQ. I relayed the memory to Carrol like Billy Graham pronouncing Heaven officially open. It was all the motivation we needed. We would have beer for breakfast, tequila for lunch, and we would win.
Bottom of the Hill
4 Bud Lights, 6 Buds, 5 Shots of tequila
Many bars in San Francisco lay out Sunday buffets and BBQs, and Bottom of the Hill’s is one of the jewels in the crown. For a seven-dollar cover you get all the red meat you can eat and all the music you can stand. Ian made the rendezvous and we started catapulting shots at our respective hangovers’ shoddy walls. When the walls went down we would storm the fort and there was no room for quislings and traitors—the carpet cleaner had to go. His whining was slowly sucking away our will to win and the resourceful bar staff offered up a keen, if ruthless, solution: we would drink him into submission then send him on his way. It was a brutal and grim skirmish, he was still queasy from the night before and said he didn’t want any booze. The bar back CL swiftly moved in for the kill:
CL: “Come on, let’s do a shot, it’ll make you feel better.”
Carpet Cleaner: “Well, all right, just no tequila”
CL: “This isn’t tequila, it’s hornitos.”
CC: “Oh. Okay then.”
CL poured the tequila and we put them down. Fifteen minutes later CL loaded up another volley. Five rounds later and the carpet cleaner started to shake like a broken machine. His eyes crossed. Yet he hung in there, the sonuvabich. After the buffet, the Bottom of the Hill closed and the staff joined us in a cab ride to Casanova.
Casanova 527 Valencia
2 Newcastles, 1 PBR, 1 Kamikaze, 2 Shelly Shots, 1 Jameson, 1 Manhattan
Casanova is a swanky dimly-lit lounge. By now we were a rollicking party crew and we hit Casanova with a vengeance. Two more tequila shots, chilled with a splash of Rose’s lime, and the carpet cleaner collapsed. We pinned his address to his shirt, shoved him in a cab and got back in the ring for another round. The lovely Yoshiko and the other bartender, Frank, kept the booze flowing. Buddha talked me into a Manhattan because, logically enough, “They don’t make Womanhattans.” By my 18th drink things became fuzzy, but there was one thing I was damn sure of—I was falling for Yoshiko. I had to make my move. It was the most important thing in the world. I looked her squarely in the eye, screwed my face into what I hoped was a cavalier yet charming smirk and said: “You da mose beuful woman in de worl. Da worl!”
To cap my brilliant play I fell backwards off my stool. I shit you not. I’m that smooth. If there was one romantic molecule in her immortal soul, she had to be smitten with me.
She leaned over the bar and said, not unromantically, “You OK?”
“Fine. Fine. Jus hep me up.”
After that, to prove her love, she called us a cab. Carrol and I babysat each other like a couple feral mongoloids and we made it back to the hotel room in relative safety, save for running my head into a building, falling down a few steps, and scaring the bejesus out of the night manager.
“Wanna fight?” I mumbled as I fell into a fitful sleep.
Redwood Motor Inn
How I felt in the morning is immaterial. We were fully in the booze tunnel now, misery was for suckers. I had promised to meet another old friend at her favorite bar and I was fifteen minutes early.
Zeitgeist, 199 Valencia
2 Boddingtons, 2 Steelhead Extra Pales
Zeitgeist is a beaten-up old bar with the character that goes along with getting beaten up a lot. It has a courtyard styled after a German beer hall, and, as might be expected, an excellent beer selection. The food is good too, so I hear, but I wasn’t having any. I sucked down a few beers with Erika, trying to strangle a hangover with a very sinewy neck. We talked about old times then, apropos of nothing, I felt a powerful craving for tacos.
Taqueria de Pancho Villa
1 Dos Equis
I managed to force three tacos, escorted by a beer, to stay down.
3 Buds, 3 Newcastles, 1 Shelly Shot
We rebounded back to Hemlock to meet some local bar staff. It was their night out, and they swore to show us the real San Francisco drinking scene. At long last, we would get to the heart of the story. Led by native guides we would get to the heart of the story. I got some friendly ribbing about my floor diving routine from the night before, but what did I care: the lovely Yoshiko was there, nursing me with shots of tequila. I would throw myself from a thousand barstools, I wanted to tell her, but couldn’t. I was so blinded by the glow of her beauty I lost sight and control of my photographer, but what matter when I could take pictures with my heart? Pictures I would forever hold, special, sensuous photographs I could later examine at my leisure, perhaps in a lonely room, perhaps I am naked and, uh . . . well, that’s none of your damn business.
1 Stella Artois, 1 Shelly Shot
We cabbed to Kilowatt to rendezvous with more bar staff, once again forming a platoon of hard pounders We rallied the troops, bolstered morale with a round of shots, then marched to the Casanova.
1 Newcastle, 1 Bud
Carrol finally caught up and we sat down for one last beer in San Francisco. I felt beaten up, abused, and somehow betrayed. The natives swore they would lead us to the very essence of the drinking culture of San Francisco, promised to show us the secret garden outsiders never get a glimpse of. Instead they had led us right back the way we came. After a week of hacking through the dense undergrowth we’d found ourselves back at base camp, with the native guides too drunk to explain their treachery.
Perhaps it was for the best. If we had marched in a straight line into the booze bush, maybe we would have never made it back. We slowly finished our beers, bid goodbye to new friends, then walked back to the hotel, Yoshiko-less.
We got up bright and early and flew home. During the flight I sifted through my notes, trying to figure out exactly what we’d captured, what we’d missed, what we’d never caught sight of. It seemed as if we’d only skimmed the surface of the city by the bay, yet had still managed to grab hold of a few essential truths, some new friends. Not to mention my special and sensual mental photographs of Yoshiko. Which I will enjoy at my leisure. In a lonely room. Naked.
And from this day forward, whenever I fall off a barstool, I will think, “Yoshiko! I am fine! Hep me up, damn you, hep me!”