Into the Darkness

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I’ll be honest: When I think about a fun night out, Crocker Amazon isn’t the first destination that comes to mind. For your average city dweller, it doesn’t come in second, third, or even last. “Crocker who?” friends said when I mentioned I had plans to visit this sliver of a district, tucked away to the south of the Excelsior. Largely residential and right at the border of Daly City, it’s not hard to understand why the area could get overlooked.

But if you take a stroll down Mission, past the fast food joints and smoke shops, and venture onto Geneva Avenue, you’ll see something promising starting to emerge. “The Broken Record started it,” Andrea Ferrucci tells me as she pulls down the barstools for the day. Together with her partner Sean Ingram, she is coproprietor of The Dark Horse Inn, a craft beer bar that’s under a year old.

Andrea’s referring to the establishment a few blocks over, a whiskey bar and soul food concern that opened five years ago, in what at the time was a true food-and-drink wasteland. People who have never set foot in Crocker Amazon know about The Broken Record, thanks to it being spotlighted on Food Network. Excitement shows through Andrea’s nonchalance as she details newer developments, like Live Sushi’s new location on Mission and community efforts to clean up the Geneva Corridor.

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Andrea sets up the bar as she explains how The Dark Horse came to be. In a previous life, Andrea had worked in administration for an architecture firm and Sean had been by turns a cook, bar back, and postal worker. Fate and a love of sports brought them together when they joined the same softball team. But there was a problem: “We couldn’t find a place in San Francisco where we could get good beer, a good burger, and watch the game.”

The couple spent three years hunting before they found 942 Geneva, the narrow brick building formerly home to Geneva Pizza. With the help of friends and family working around the clock to paint, clean, and do carpentry, the space was converted in a month. The result is a homespun, no-frills look: tables made from salvaged doors, vintage beer tins, and growlers lining the walls. “We wanted everything to be personal,” says Andrea – a goal she’s succeeded at. A visit to the bathroom, dominated by an oil painting of Napoleon astride a rearing horse, provides an instant understanding of this couple’s sense of humor.

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The beer selection is largely local and – aside from the Pabst and Bud the desperate domestic drinker can purchase by the bottle – all craft. The bar’s nine taps change constantly and run the gamut from dark and hearty brews like Heretic’s Shallow Grave Porter to light and refreshing selections like Sudwerk’s Hefeweizen to such heavily hopped concoctions as Pac Brew Lab’s Squid Ink IPA and Bear Republic’s Hop Rod Rye. “We try to have something for everyone,” Andrea tells me, smiling. “Though if Sean had his way we’d have nine IPAs.” They also serve wine from family-owned vineyards and have a growing collection of bottled beers that they’ve recently acquired the right to sell out the door to patrons who want to bring their post-dinner drinks home.

As Andrea and I chat, Sean can be heard prepping in the kitchen. He’s the back-of-house smarts of this team of two, and he’s put together a menu of epic length for a bar, including six kinds of burgers, eight sandwiches, and an array of appetizers. All the dishes were developed in the couple’s Noe Valley kitchen, based simply on what made them happy and tasted good. The meatballs in the meatball grinder, for instance, are a recipe inherited from Andrea’s grandmother.

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There’s nothing about what Andrea and Sean are doing that’s fancy, a deliberate choice that earned the bar its name. “We weren’t about to open in the Mission,” says Andrea. “We aren’t high concept. We don’t have a big name attached to us. Our beers are the same way – ones that aren’t on tap everywhere. We’re a neighborhood bar.”

Despite the disclaimer, the more time I spend in The Dark Horse and wandering the surrounding area, the more I suspect this pair may be visionaries of a different order.

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I’ve visited The Dark Horse twice at non-peak hours before I head there on a Friday night. I’m told they do solid business on the weekends but as I lock my bike up outside around 8, I’m not worried about getting a spot at the bar. As Andrea points out, this isn’t Valencia Street, and The Dark Horse is hardly Beretta.

The wave of contented chatter hits me as I open the door: Every seat in the place is full. A modest group of people wait for tables by the jukebox – a few have made themselves at home atop spare kegs.

I make my way to the bar, wondering if a keg is destined to become my seat for the night. Andrea’s piqued my interest with talk of one-off bottles, so when the bartender comes my way I order a TBA, a collaboration by Stone, Bear Republic, and Fat Head’s that I’ve never encountered before.

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As I take a sip, the girl to my left slides her stool over. The guy to my right does the same. “How is it?” they both want to know.

Rich and hoppy with a nice undercurrent of sweetness, TBA is an imaginative, West Coast–style take on a brown ale. “Delicious,” I tell them. With that, the girl introduces herself, the guy beyond her chimes in, and I forget I have any purpose here larger than drinking tasty beer and shooting the shit.

Natalie, my new acquaintance, lives down the street and was born and raised in the Excelsior. She’s been coming to The Dark Horse since it opened. Scott, a member of Andrea and Sean’s softball team and their only employee, waits on her with a blend of affection and irritation that borders on familial. She feigns indecision before ordering what I’m drinking.

I ask Natalie if the neighborhood’s changed much since she was a kid. She says yes, though not at the rate much of the city has. Young families are moving in because the price is right, and indeed, there are more than a few families in the bar tonight. “But I feel like it’s changing for the people that live here.” She’s introduced her parents to The Dark Horse. “Now they’re calling me asking to meet them here.”

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The stools to my right open up, and I witness an amazing phenomenon. Nobody lunges for them. Instead – ready for this? – people work it out pleasantly among themselves. I just have time to check that I haven’t slipped into an alternate universe before a couple sits and starts up a conversation. They’ve been married 27 years and live on Mission and Excelsior. Later, they’re heading to a karaoke birthday at Pissed Off Pete’s, but first they’re here for dinner and drinks because they heard The Dark Horse has a better burger than The Broken Record.

Natalie joins in and soon the three of them are off on a train of associations so quick-moving I only half follow, filled with the names of high schools, street corners, and families. We take in some of the Giants game. Natalie orders a burger and offers to split it with me; I grab another drink.

I snag some fries off my new friend’s plate, already scheming up reasons to come back here. There’s a pool hall around the corner that I’ve been told is a great time, and McLaren Park, with its many winding trails, is a stone’s throw away. I’m not alone; the guy drinking Racer 5s to Natalie’s left tells me he made a deal with his girlfriend that he’d help her move if they could come to The Dark Horse afterwards.

But the married couple offers the most ambitious solution. They have a semi-regular Saturday tradition of heading to Zeitgeist at around 10 a.m. After a few, they amble back toward home, stopping at The Phoenix, The Napper Tandy, El Rio, St. Mary’s, and Pissed Off Pete’s along the way. “It’s a great walk,” the husband tells me. “The only thing I don’t like is that sometimes I don’t remember parts of it.”

I nod. We’ve reached an understanding, he and I. I don’t have to ask whether The Dark Horse is getting added to the lineup; the way he’s tucking in to his burger says it all.

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The Dark Horse is easily accessible by BART and Muni, and has decent street parking. It opens at 1 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon on Saturday, and 11 on Sunday (brunch served until 2 p.m.). Last call is just before 10 on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and midnight Thursday through Saturday. Check the website for the live music lineup on Wednesday nights, and BeerMenus.com for what’s on tap.

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Published on August 27, 2012, 2012

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