Cinderella Story, Day One
The secret of a good sports bar is that it makes you feel like you belong there. The wisdom of Sam, Woody, and Coach aside, there’s some perfect harmony that emerges from just the right mix of atmosphere, patrons, and amenities to create a sense of welcoming. It is this ineffable attribute that makes me emerge from my living room’s comfortable familiarity, where I pour the beer and know which couch is luckiest, empirically. And so, faced with the multi-screen behemoth that is the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, even a borderline shut-in like myself must sally forth—first putting on pants—to find that special home away from home.
But where to go? In a city filled with options, there was only one fair way to find my perfect sports bar: a bracket! I visited 16 of the most intriguing spots in the city and then let them have at it to determine the best sports bar in SF. So, as you learn about the bars I visited, I’ll keep you updated with the results of the match-ups. It’ll be just like watching sports, but with words! My metric includes number of screens, sight lines for the same, number of beers on tap, food quality and prices, bathroom upkeep, extras (like pool tables), and salads—a great way to convince yourself that spending a day inside watching sports is still somehow "healthy."
And yes, I realize that I am the luckiest bastard around.
[One note: My intent was to only visit spots that featured enough TVs to watch four (or six) games simultaneously. We all have favorite bars that persist in not covering their walls with plasma, but this is not the place to talk about them—there’s basketball on!]
Just in case you don’t think I took this seriously, know that I got up at 7:30 a.m. and fought Bay Bridge traffic in order to get to my first destination before the opening games began. My haste was rewarded, as the venerable Final Final was open and ready for the big day. Nestled in a sleepy little neighborhood at the foot of the Presidio, the place takes its name from a patron’s expression for the last round of a night—“Let’s have a final final”—although you need not stop at one. The neighborhood feel continued inside, where 11 screens were well distributed throughout the medium-sized space. As the opening round provided a near upset and a double OT thriller, there was no need for the friendly smattering of patrons to avail themselves of the two pool tables or dart boards.
Glug: The knowledgeable bartender had 22 beers on tap, and a spicy Bloody Mary for the morning drinker.
Chomp: Price is right (wings for $6.50 a pound!) for lunch and dinner but the only breakfast item was a store-bought bagel.
Pro tip: Make sure to grab a spot on one of the streets that offer three-hour parking, instead of only two.
And yet, despite it's laid-back charm, Final Final proved no match for the even more charming-er Noe's Bar. You'll find out what I mean further on down.
Ted's Sports Bar & Grill
Deep in the seedy heart of SOMA, across from the Hall of Justice, downstairs from a bail bond company and a forensic psychologist stands the oasis of hospitality that is Ted's Sports Bar & Grill. The tiny space is crowded with 10 screens, a pool table, and numerous regulars who may or may not actually live on the premises full time. The eponymous landlord is a host in the truest sense of the word and he doled out free pretzels and profanity-laden advice in equal measures while toggling expertly between the games. The booze was cheap and, despite having only four beers on tap, the bar does offer a happy hour special—a brew and a burger for only $8.50. No word if Ted’s upstairs neighbors have similar deals.
Dollar, Dollar Bills, Y’all: Check out the awesome installation at the back of the bar, where patrons have covered a wall in decorated singles.
Kezar Pub & Restaurant
Most sports bar aficionados already know and love the Kezar Pub & Restaurant, which is located in Cole Valley, just across from the stadium that gave the establishment its name. The place was completely full at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday, but rather than hardwood fans, these were partisans for Ireland, supporting their boys in a crucial rugby match against Scotland. Of the bar’s 24 screens, only two were tuned stateside. The crowd’s enthusiasm was contagious—a delicious Bloody Mary didn’t hurt, and soon I was cheering on the Clovers as well, although I kept a close eye on St. Mary’s upset win.
Chow Time: Kezar has a full menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as frequent specials—like the corned beef hash I happily devoured.
Proper Pints: The tough but generous ladies behind the bar know how to build a glass of Guinness, waiting for the head to settle halfway through the pour.
BABY IN THE BAR ALERT: To be fair, the little guy was pushing two, but he was still indisputably in the bar.
Listen: I love Ted. You'll love him too. But despite a valiant effort Ted's still goes down to Kezar, which offers many more screens and bang for your buck.
Bloodhound is a hipster-style "sports" bar that features three screens—but not the all-important package that allows you to watch all the games simultaneously. Since the late games featured mostly one-sided contests anyway, I stayed, partaking in a very solid Old Fashioned served in a Mason jar. This was not a very sporty crowd, but I still felt welcome as the staff and bouncers joined me in hanging on the few close shots. And, when the buzzers sounded, I had a commanding lead in my bracket pool! (Attention Law Enforcement: Please don’t arrest us! The only stakes are pride. And krugerrands.)
Street Knowledge: Although Bloodhound doesn’t offer food, there are several perfect options just up the block. They range from delicious, Chicago-style hot dogs from Da Beef to the delectable, high-end French fare of the Spencer on the Go truck.
Even though Bloodhound manages to overcome what could be a terminal case of ironic styling, the Bus Stop rolled through with its 18 screens and its storied sports bar past.
Right in the middle of the Sunset is the legendary Mucky Duck, which features an eclectic group of locals, a charmingly tough bartender, and a logo that must have been the source of several copyright disputes with Disney. In contrast to the popped-collar crowd at some of the other bars I visited, the vibe here was appealingly blue collar, a theme that continued to the remarkably cheap prices. Munching on free popcorn, I monitored a few blowouts on the six screens while counting the numerous beer taps, ultimately settling on 19. You gotta love any place that lists its specials by day, with the Friday offering being simply and incontrovertibly: PARTY!
Good Luck: There’s no way around it: parking is a major hassle in this neighborhood. Think about taking the N, which stops just down the street.
Jump/Jive/Wail: The crowd loved to choose songs from the surprisingly large selection of jazz and lounge on the jukebox.
Kennedy's Irish Pub
There’s something perversely appealing about the duality of Kennedy's Irish Pub and Curry House, a longtime North Beach favorite. On the one hand, it is a very passable Indian restaurant that has the distinction of serving food until 1 a.m. on weekends AND delivering to much of the area. On the other hand, the "pub" side of the establishment features foosball, air hockey, 10 screens, and a mind-numbing 42 beers on tap. It’s almost as if two random businesses decided to split rent. Somehow it works! My one peeve, a lingering incense smell, which faded when my food arrived, although MSU’s thrilling victory over Tennessee didn’t hurt.
Sharing is Caring: Don’t be put off by the $15 price tag—the mixed tandoori grill of chicken, shrimp, and lamb is the best deal in the house. Get it with some naan and it will feed three.
Belgian-sanity: The draft beer menu has a whole Belgian section of 13 delicious, high alcohol content brews. That’s at least a month’s worth of work, right there...
Jerry Lives: Check out the shrine to the late Grateful Dead frontman, complete with a picture of him in the bar.
The Mucky Duck is an institution in the best way, offering locals a place to gather and catch up. But how can it prevail in the face of 42 beers on tap, a full Indian menu and air hockey? It can't.
So, as the first round draws to a close, The Kezar, Noe's, Kennedy's and The Bus Stop are still in the hunt!
As the next round opens, The Bus Stop takes down Kennedy's, which finally succumbs to its incense issues. Here's why...
The Bus Stop
At around 5 p.m. on Union Street, the many bars were crowding with folks leaving work and anxious to enjoy an insanely exciting slate of games. The main room at The Bus Stop was busy, but I was able to find a seat at the bar amid the skirt suits, $100 ties, and one dude referring to Georgetown as "we." The dark space was positively packed with screens, 18 by my count, with 15 beers on tap and generous daily drink specials to go with them. A waitress told me that this was nothing—“On a football Sunday you can barely move!” No food was available, although the staff keeps a thick sheaf of menus for patrons to use.
Old School: Find the awesome plaque that reads "Saloon since 1900" and lists the bar’s previous incarnations. It’s been "The Bus Stop" since switching from "The Transport Club" in 1960.
Sisters Doing For Themselves: If my previous three destinations were 90/10 in favor of fellas, the Bus Stop was noticeably more mixed, closer to 60/40.
It could have been the Championship Game, but the heavyweight fight between The Kezar and Noe's Bar comes down to the final buzzer. The result: an upset! Tiny Noe's unseats the intense atmosphere of the #1 seed with its easy appeal.
Everyone from Noe Valley told me that I had to visit Noe's Bar, a neighborhood stalwart of much repute. Here I settled in to watch some predictable finishes amid a bustling crowd of regulars, enjoying the company far more than the sports. With 10 screens of varying sizes and 13 beers on tap, Noe's had a lot going for it before I noticed their rock-bottom prices ($4 pints/$14 pitchers!). Throw in the fact that you can also order off of the full Italian menu from Basso's next door and I was officially over the disappointing end to the basketball part of the day. The homey feeling even extended to the furniture, which was comfortable enough that I could easily imagine spending a full football Sunday on the premises.
Cheers: It seemed like the bartender actually did know the vast majority of her customers’ names.
In the Mix: Maybe it was just the combination of the basketball crowd and the regulars, but the jukebox was killing it, blaring everything from Sam Cooke to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
So Noe's Bar matches up against the Bus Stop, a part-time sports bar facing down a professional establishment. The Bus Stop is a serious place devoted to watching TV and drinking: exactly what a sports bar should be. Noe's however manages to fulfill those same requirements while also featuring the added value of great atmosphere and killer food. In a surprising move, tiny Noe's takes the day.
What a wild round! Only one establishment remains from the original eight: Noe's Bar. Check back tomorrow for action from the other side of the bracket and the crowning of the city’s best sports bar.
What do you think—did I get it right? Go explore the bars yourself and post your comments below.