And, we’re back! This is part two of our SF Sports Bar Bracket Madness—be sure to check out Day One to catch up on the action. Let’s review: in an act of utter selflessness, I spent the last week visiting spots all over the city to evaluate the premises and watch what was a thrilling NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Then we set up a bracket and let the bars battle it out head-to-head, taking into account number of screens, beers on tap, amenities, bathroom upkeep, and numerous other factors far too complicated to elucidate here. (I drank a lot of beer during this assignment, OK?)
After the first day, only one combatant remained from the original eight: Noe's Bar. Let’s jump into our second day!
If there were any truth to the hoary cliché about location being the only thing that matters in real estate, then Pete's Tavern would win our contest outright. Literally across the street from AT&T Park, this cavernous, multi-floor panopticon of sport utterly explodes from its unimposing exterior. And yet the utilitarians would be miffed: despite almost 20 TVs in the main room, along with two giant projection screens, I was surprised by how difficult it was to see all four games at once. The several private function rooms were more restrained, although they featured a measly two screens each. Luckily only one game went down to the wire, as little Wofford nearly toppled mighty Wisconsin.
Price is Right: Given its prime spot, it was nice to discover that Pete's offers sound food in big portions at very reasonable prices. And they had a whole salad section on the menu!
Shrinking Violets Need Not Apply: The brassy bartenders—all ladies—threw out some solid one-liners while keeping the completely male crowd happy and full.
BABY IN THE BAR ALERT: There was totally a baby in this bar. A real one.
Zeke's Diamond Bar
Just two blocks away from Pete's is Zeke's Diamond Bar, but I was thrilled to make the walk, working off approximately 1/256th of what I had ingested so far. The first thing I notice upon entering Zeke's is the almost insane TV-to-available wall space ratio. Although it’s probably one eighth the size of Pete's, Zeke's nevertheless boasts almost as many screens—18! The older crowd, which I judged to be mostly regulars based on their friendly banter with the hospitable staff, drank and marveled at yesterday’s excitement as we half-watched several mediocre games. The breakfast menu was a little lacking but the employees knew it and suggested several local spots for takeout during the break in play.
Grub, With a Twist: Along with all your familiar sports bar faves, Zeke's offers an appetizing Asian menu concocted by its predominantly Thai staff.
Drink Up: My Bloody Mary didn’t skimp on the alcohol, but I prefer spicier pours. Stick to one of the 11 beers on tap.
It's your classic Cinderella story, as the combination of Zeke's friendliness, unique menu, and refusal to skimp on screens overcomes the seemingly unbeatable juggernaut that is Pete's.
Speaking of location, you would be hard-pressed to top the artfully named Chug Pub, which is directly across Lincoln Way from Golden Gate Park. This long, skinny space features nine screens of different sizes but—shockingly—no package to see all three games at once. This oversight made it difficult to stay for long, although the charming bartender and her eclectic mix of indie rock and punk tunes helped. The group next to us was not nearly as bothered, ordering up one of the bar’s justly famous three-liter “chug towers,” which comes with a free order of fries.
19th Hole: Those brave souls climbing the chug tower were fresh off of a morning round of golf at the nearby public course. Not a bad idea!
Options: Sorry to harp on this chug tower thing, but with 15 beers on tap, anyone can find something they want to drink by the honking crapload.
Given its shocking lack of the games package, Chug Pub lost convincingly to The Blue Light Café, which also features more varied food.
International Sports Club
During the day, the exterior of the International Sports Club might give you pause, with its peeling paint and ancient neon sign. But fear not! Inside, this place combines the appeal of a dive bar with the efficiency of a well-run sports bar. The small size of the place means you can see all four of its screens from almost anywhere, even while playing on the two pool tables. Similarly, the scant six beers on tap are supplemented by a daily $8 beer and shot special that runs the gamut of odd couples from High Life and Jameson to Coors Light and Fernet. It turned out that I needed the booze, as Baylor’s collapse to Duke severely endangered my first place standing in my bracket pool.
Happiest Hour: The International Sports Club’s happy hour, which runs from 4–7 p.m. every day of the week, features all well drinks and drafts for only $2.50!
Hey DJ: The friendly and fun bartender was happy to let me chime in on her jukebox selections, which were paid for out of the register.
A UN for Tummies: Although the International doesn’t offer food, its North Beach location lets it live up to its name, as the bartender had numerous suggestions for takeout/delivery from every cuisine imaginable.
The Taco Shop at Underdog’s
Just around the corner from Chug Pub in the Sunset is The Taco Shop at Underdog’s, which is certainly the first surf-themed Mexican sports bar that I’ve ever visited (or even contemplated, really). It’s mind-bending specificity aside, the Taco Shop is actually a bright, welcoming space with a lively crowd and great sight lines for its 16 TVs. The food was a solid selection of tacos and burritos prepared American-style, although what they lacked in authenticity was made up for in their affordability. All this fell to the background though, as I joined an actual alumnus of the upstart University of Northern Iowa in freaking out as his team took down Kansas, thought to be the best team in the whole tournament. Go Panthers!
Bathroom Check: The men’s room got extra credit for posting the sports section and a selection of pin-ups over the urinals.
Heck Yeah: There’s fun to be had at The Taco Shop apart from sports, with a Super Shot basketball game, two (!) tabletop Pac-Mans, and an Asteroids machine.
In a double OT battle similar to some of the thrillers offered by this year's tournament, the impressive Taco Shop is nevertheless eliminated by the International Sports Club for its genuine atmosphere and impressive thrift.
It was late morning when I dropped by the Horseshoe Tavern, which, understandably, looked—and smelled—like the previous night’s St. Patty’s soiree had been a doozy. The small space was basically empty, but a seat at the bar offered great views of three of the six screens. The venue seems like it would be rowdy when full, but it is also a dependable place to find an empty pool table during a lunch break. The few regulars seemed far more interested in their drinks than the round of 64 games, but the staff was fired up.
Bottoms Up: 15 beers on tap, but no food, although the bartender mentioned that you’re welcome to bring it in from nearby restaurants.
Even though I enjoyed the morning-after vibe at the Horseshoe Tavern, The Republic did what #1 seeds are supposed to do and beat out its smaller counterpart with impeccable service and delicious grub.
That means after the first round, the four bars looking to cut down the nets are The Republic, The Blue Light Café, the International Sports Club, and Zeke's Diamond Bar.
In a match up of very similar styles, Zeke's beats out the International Sports Club due to its having many more TVs and food on the premises. But don't sleep on Zeke's if you're headed to or from a ball game.
The Blue Light Café
Busy Union Street in the Marina is filled with bars, including the Bus Stop that I covered yesterday, but none is quite like The Blue Light Café. The open, airy space was in decided contrast to the calculated gloom one expects from a sports bar, although I had no trouble following four games on the 18 screens. Best of all, the staff carefully switched between the audio of the most exciting games, allowing us to fully enjoy the action. They also mixed some pretty mean drinks, offering much-needed advice to someone (me) fried from a full-day’s "work" drinking and cheering. After Wake Forest edged Texas on two impossibly missed free throws, I headed home, so grateful that I had been able to watch one of the best opening days of basketball anyone could remember.
Choose Carefully: Stick with the meatloaf or the spicy chicken nachos—the best deal in the house.
Hey Ladies: Maybe it was just the neighborhood, as the Bus Stop was similar, but there were many more women at The Blue Light than at some of the other bars I visited, including some very vocal UNLV alums. Sorry about the loss, Lady Rebs!
At this point in the tournament, bars don't as much actively lose as they just can't quite beat out their opponents. That's certainly the case for The Blue Light, which is edged by The Republic's impressively consistent menu.
And so let’s turn to The Republic, the new, high-end “All-American” pub from the minds behind the Marina’s wine bar BIN 38. This place offers locally-sourced grub, comfy couches, and 20 beers on tap, almost all of which come from breweries within 150 miles of the city. With 12 screens—one of which measures in at 82”—spread around the open space, this might not be the best spot to watch more than three games at once. But the friendly, exceedingly patient staff was very accommodating to my frequent toggle requests as Murray State took down Vanderbilt on a buzzer beater. What’s more, there are three appealing salads of local veggies on the multi-varied menu.
Fine, But Not Fancy: The delectable “house burger” served with white-truffle aioli blows away mediocre sports bar fare, while the voluminous list of American craft bourbons and whiskeys offer numerous options for either toasting or wallowing.
Naughty and Nice: Clean bathrooms get extra credit for featuring cheesecake shots of 1930s-era Ziegfeld Girls.
Pro Tip: Ask for Jackie, a favorite bartender prone to creating popular “secret shots” like the recently exposed “Saffron Cisco Martini.”
Which brings us to this division’s final, pitting Cinderella Zeke's against the established program that is The Republic. And the slipper's off! The Republic wins out, overcoming Zeke's quixotic charm with its own smoothly efficient style.
After my ten-day odyssey, I was bleary-eyed, decidedly fatter, and utterly, gloriously happy. I had seen amazing basketball in some of the best venues San Francisco has to offer and met a remarkable cast of characters. (What if “Georgetown” and Ted hung out? And then started a detective agency?) That said, the whole conceit of this adventure was that one establishment must win out, just like a single team will ultimately prevail at the end of the basketball tournament. Who would it be? The Republic’s genteel atmosphere and suave menu? Or Noe's effortless welcome and cheap beer? In the end, I had to look back to what I said I really wanted from a sports bar. The homey feel that makes me excited to go there to share my passion for the biggest games.
And so the winner was clear: Noe's Bar! With food that comes close to The Republic's awesome fare, better sight lines, and a wonderfully happy feel, the little bar that could triumphs over its very worthy opponent. Congrats to all!
What do you think, did I get it right? Go explore the bars yourself and post your comments below.