I enjoyed my first (legal) drink at Vesuvio, tasted my first (legal) absinthe at Beretta, and made out with more fools than I care to mention in the big red booths in the back of Li Po Lounge. I think I was legal then, but who can say? I’ve done things (read: people) while drunk that I’d rather forget. Hell, I almost made out with Bobby (RIP) from C. Bobby’s Owl Tree (RIP) when high off $3 Manhattans and show tunes. If that’s not hard core, I don’t know what is.
San Francisco drinking and me, we go way back, but I’ve never embarked on a journey like The San Francisco Bar Experiment. This is one woman’s mission to drink at every bar in San Francisco proper. And not just to drink, but to experience and then write about it on her website. Inspired by this ambitious project, I decide to meet Heather Cummings, the woman behind the blog, to find out more about the project and to get her list of favorite spots. Heather visits between two and five bars a week so I figured I could visit about that many in one night. Let the the drunk Olympics begin! That’s like the real Olympics but with no sports, unless you count one night stands. That’s basically gymnastics, right?
I meet Heather in front of Rickhouse in the Financial District. She’s as adorable as she is punctual and so we’re off to a good start. Actually, not so much, because even though Rickhouse advertises that it opens at noon, it’s 4 p.m. and the place is locked up like a whorehouse on Sunday.
Luckily, my fancy phone calls up a list of nearby bars and we’re off to The Occidental Cigar Club.
The Occidental Cigar Club is straight old school San Francisco; friendly bartenders serving up stiff drinks, smokes if you got ‘em (or can afford ‘em, Jesus h! Smoking is expensive!), and a game of liars dice to the left. I feel at ease.
Over drinks, Heather tells me about herself. She was a bartender at the recently departed House of Shields, and so along with her quest to find the best bars in all the land, she knows a little more about booze than the average schmo. She has rules for the SF Bar Experiment, too. For example, hotel bars or bars in restaurants don’t count, and she tries to forgo beer and wine bars, but does make some exceptions. Also, she refuses to pay covers. Respect. I quiz her on her favorite places to imbibe around the city, and find out more than I would expect. Facts like where were you most likely to spot our shiny ass mayor on weekday evenings when he was single? The bar at Chevy’s on Third Street. Apparently he was a big fan of mile-high margaritas and endless chips. Who knew we had so much in common!
Heather says that the absolute coolest bar she’s visited thus far on her quest is The Black Horse London Pub on Union Street. With only about eight seats in the place, this Marina establishment is the smallest bar on the West Coast. She cautioned me to arrive early and be ready to drink beer, because that’s all they serve. I get there right after they open on a Thursday, and am greeted by a couple of smiley old timers and a rather dapper bartender, James. Heather wasn’t lying about the beer, in fact your selection of brew sits in an old claw foot bath tub. Hot damn! I choose a Chimay and cozy up to a man playing dice. His name is William and he teaches me to play a game of 1, 4, 24, which involves rolling dice and me losing money. Whatever, I am drunk and the money flows from my pockets like so much Pisco punch through Rudyard Kipling.
I usually feel claustrophobic when confined to tight spaces but there is something about the Black Horse –- the harmless flirtatiousness of the crowd, the jovial spirit in the air, and the Belgian beer coursing through my veins. It never hurts being the only lady in the bar. It’s kinda nice to have salty old sea captain types awkwardly hitting on you all night, telling you that you look like their dead wives and shit. The younger generation could learn a thing or two from these fine old drunks. After my first round, I don’t pay for a drink, even though I nearly lose my pants in a game of dice. Time to catch the 45 to BART!
The next stop on my drinking myself sober tour is the Brown Jug in the Tenderloin. Heather contends that it’s the best place in San Francisco to really experience an old school SF bar. The Brown Jug is a quintessential dive. You hear a lot of people in San Francisco calling places like the Lone Palm and the Latin America Club dives. No, my friends, those are palaces compared to the Brown Jug. I'm talking sticky floors, a hazy unidentifiable fog of funk in the air, and regulars who haven’t moved from their stools since their will to live died in 1982.
I’m not gonna lie, I was kinda feeling the place. I posted up at the bar and true to Heather’s words, there are a mighty fine selection of microbrews on tap. I ordered a Moose Drool and struck up conversation with the bartender/owner, Mark, who regaled me with stories of working at Studio 54 and freaking Diana Ross. He also had some choice words on how to get out of DUIs. Smart advice for a bar! No pretension, no attitude, it’s kind of an awesome feeling to be in a true dive bar.
Next, I decide to class it up at tiki-inspired Smuggler's Cove, Heather’s pick for the best cocktails in San Francisco.
By now, I am three sheets to the wind and the only way I’m gonna make it is by falling face first into a cab. How does Heather do it? Oh, that’s right, by only visiting one bar a night. That way she can really get a feel for a place and not just down a shot and let it fade into the oblivion of a night of wasted shenanigans. Smart woman. Oh well, nuts to advice, I get to Smuggler's Cove and struggle to make it to the bar.
Although I hear that on busier nights they have long lines and a bouncer at the door, there is no wait to get in when I arrive. Thank God, I don’t know if I can survive waiting in line with the peons. Actually, I’d probably make friends with everyone and end up braiding other chicks’ hair and dispensing relationship advice. It’s best for all involved that I’m let in immediately.
At this point, I’m seeing through beer goggles, I can still get a good sense of the place. The decor is full tiki bar insanity. The other impressive thing about Smuggler's Cove is the selection of rum, the list runs 200 deep. Smuggler's Cove’s drink menu contains 77 very creative drinks, ranging from grog to punch to shit that’s served in commemorative barrels (I need one!).
I decide on the Dead Reckoning because of the name and well, it had vanilla liqueur and tawny port in it. The drink takes awhile to make but honestly, I need that time to regain composure and act like a human being. When it arrives, it’s so delicious that all my plans to just drink half of it flies out the door. Who knew that having an expert mixologist combining 50 random ingredients could result in ye old party in my mouth? Well, I guess the peeps at the Smuggler's Cove and Heather Cummings do, that’s who.
Turns out, I’m not quite the expert lush I thought I was. (Somewhere in the East Bay, my mom breathes a sigh of relief and hangs up on the producer from Intervention .) But one night in the shoes of the woman behind the San Francisco Bar Experiment has me craving more. I’ve yet to to check out Heather’s most romantic bar (Hotel Biron) and the place with the best old timers (St. Mary's Pub in the Outer Mission is a real life Cheers). On my gravestone, I want it to read, “Laura Beck left her heart (and her keys) in San Francisco.” Probably at a bar.
At The Black Horse, enjoy the small town vibe where Chimay will set you back $7, but you can indulge in PBR for $3 (and $2 at happy hour!). You can slum it at the Brown Jug for around $3-$5 a pop, or get your fancified cocktails on at Smuggler's Cove, where they’ll set you back $10-$12. Pricey but knock-you-on-your-kiester strong. I seriously still can’t feel my feet. Check out Heather’s website for her thoughts on every bar in San Francisco. Or you can visit her on Sunday nights at Koko Cocktails where she does bar trivia, and ask her for tips in person.