Man at His Best

Drinking In San Francisco

We sent our Fashion Director, Janie Cai, to check out three drinking institutions in San Francisco.

BY Janie Cai | Oct 12, 2016 | Food & Drink

Our fashion director was in San Francisco recently and since her idea of a fun is listening to David Attenborough narrate Planet Earth whilst nursing a glass of home-brewed kombucha, we decided that she’d be perfect for checking out the Fog City’s more legit nightlife. Forget polished hardwood with glass interiors and shimmery drinks with names forged from a random scroll through a 1920s phone book. These bars, recommended to us locals and friends, don’t take any bullshit.

Zeitgeist—199 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94103

Purportedly the No.1 Beer Garden in San Francisco, according to their website (are dive bars allowed to have websites? Isn’t that a bit like a hermit with a handphone?) it was the wounded howl of a long drawn out “FUCK YOUUUUUUUUU…” coming from a wildly gesticulating man underneath what I thought was a Playboy bunny sign (but on closer look, turned out to be a skull with Playboy bunny accoutrements). I thought at first they were doing a shoot for Hedi Slimane’s last Saint Laurent collection, “Wow! Cool!”. Only to realize that the guy rocking super skinny red jeans, a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut-off and dirty blond hair, was in fact, a homeless man yelling at his invisible friends. Then my companion (did you think I was going to these dive bars alone?) asked me to stop staring and get inside, where we promptly got carded by Conan the Barbarian’s heavily-tattooed grandfather.

 Archer was playing on a grubby TV screen above the entrance and the staff behind the counter looked like they ate hipsters for breakfast, but wrapped up in a Pendleton blanket like a flannel-flavoured burrito. In truth, they were actually very nice and didn’t blink when I ordered a Duchesse (a red ale), just gave me my drink and change and then proceeded to ignore us. I get it, if I wanted small talk I would have signed up for a book club. Instead, there were 64 beers on tap, an outdoor area where burgers and sausages were being grilled and a jukebox that looked slightly the worse for wear. The vibe is chill, the beer is good and people generally leave you alone.

Check out Zeitgeist here.

Take it or leave it: Unless you decide to get up and dance on the table—one thing I learnt that day is that dive bars have rules too, and they are usually unspoken and swiftly enforced. And at Zeitgeist, Rule Number One is not to step onto the table. Do not break Rule Number One, because you will get kicked out (Yes, even at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon).

The Sycamore – 2140 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

Another corner house, but this time with a tattoo parlour in the back*. Burgundy-coloured painted walls, fairy lights, and a ceiling hung with old draft tap heads, like the spoils of ancient beasts hung up to dry in the great Viking halls of Nordic warriors. But don't stop there, after you've made your selection from the list of draught beers, including ciders and stouts, on tap, (they have a pretty decent bottle selection too) then mosey on down through to the backyard to relax in a chill oasis in the middle of the Mission. When we were there, there was a sweet punk couple doing needlepoint work—an unblinking eye staring out through two fingers done in delicate satin stitch in case you’re wondering—and someone’s adorable giant Boxer dog, who would roll over and play dead for treats. I had a pint of Cot in the Act’s unfiltered apricot cider from 2 town’s Ciderhouse, which was on draft and was delicious, especially since the weather was hitting 24 degrees Celsius. I also did not attempt to get onto the table. Not even once.

*Hah! It’s not a tattoo parlour after all, I was fooled by the prints of tattoo patterns lining the wall! Although I stand by my belief that having a tattoo place incorporated with a bar would result in people getting many more interesting, aka highly regrettable, tattoos.

Check out The Sycamore here.

Take it or leave it: If you're in the Mission and need a break, saunter in and take your pick from their cache of board games above the bar. Grab a beer, make a friend, and start playing.


Toronado - 547 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA 94117

Toronado is an honest bar. I know this because after getting carded at the door (a wooden portal that’s been sawn in half like a magician’s magic coffin), you enter a dimly lit room painted the same insipid green of Napoleon’s last lodgings and look up to see a bright neon signage that reads “Garage Service”. Except I read too fast, so I saw “Garbage Service”, which meant that I was pleasantly surprised when the bartender took our orders with aplomb, got us our drinks within minutes and was both polite, and nice. Which goes to prove that there’s nothing like a spot of dyslexia for lowering expectations.

The selection stares down at you from a giant board affixed to the central beam and the place is covered in stickers. All kinds of stickers, from such inspirational quotations as “All employees must carve ‘Slayer’ onto their arms when returning from their break”, to a small, white, puffy bunny sticker that seemed to have hopped out of a preschoolers sticker collection and into the bar in need of a stiff drink.

According to the bartender and his non-garbage service, there are 55 beers on tap, including an excellent selection of fruit beer, sour ales, and California brews. If the drafts don’t titillate your taste buds, however, then Mr Barman will pull out a bound book listing their selection of bottled brews. Perhaps monsieur ou madame would prefer a Cantillon rosè de Gambrinus 2008 (at $180 for a 750 ml bottle) or a Boon 1976 Framboise Lambic brewed by Frank Boon? You could sip on these in the dark back parlour room (surrounded by more stickers and sickly green) and no one will judge you. Because no one cares.

Which to me, is the greatest thing about so-called dive bars—you can just go in, have a drink and plot your sinister plots and no one will give a damn, or bother you. And you’re not surrounded by delicate stemware that costs more than the rearing of a small child, or conspicuously minimalist magazines that tell tales in five single-syllable rhyming nouns and elegantly constructed images. There are no magazines, no exquisite bonsai in hand-shaped earthenware pots and definitely no Cronuts or Cruffins.(there may, however, be the occasional grilled mystery meat, which you should order because it would usually taste sublime). Also, all the bars tend to be 'Cash Only', so although most also have an ATM somewhere on their premises, it's still better to come prepared. 

Check out Toronado here

Take it or Leave it: If you start feeling peckish after a glass of three at Toronado’s, hold you seat and zip next door to Rosamunde’s Sausage Grill, where the blond-haired Rosamunde (My sausage gut says it’s her) will grill up some awesome, quality meat sausages. You be faced with a choice of five toppings, of which you should definitely go with the grilled onions.