San Francisco’s reputation as one of the gayest places in North America rests primarily on one neighborhood: the Castro. But there are gay bars across a wide swath of this gay city.
At least for now. Like the fast-disappearing bookstore, the institution of the gay bar is in peril, a victim of the acceptance of LGBT people in mainstream society as well as of the easy availability of online hookups.
With the closure of the Deco Lounge, San Francisco waved good-bye to a fourth gay bar in two years. As gay rights win, gay culture sometimes loses – and often, these spaces go unremembered, written off as frivolous or incidental to the “real” fights.
Folsom Street has lost its dens of iniquity and people have lamented the Castro’s homogeneity for decades, but across San Francisco, the neighborhood dives live on – albeit, perhaps tenuously. While they all share a welcoming atmosphere you won’t easily find in a club, each retains its charms and quirks. So go get a beer!
The most unpretentious curio around.
Neighborhood: the Tenderloin
Love it or hate it – and you should love it. In this crusty corner of the T.L. stands a replica of the Titanic’s prow, and beneath it is the Gangway, a nautical-themed dive with porthole window mirrors that’s been around since raids were a possibility and the joint was full of merchant marines.
Gleaning accurate information on gay bars before approximately 1965 is like studying Precambrian fossils. Nobody has the full picture, but like a horseshoe crab or coelacanth, Gangway comes closest.
Sure, there are patrons falling asleep in front of their martini glasses, but to linger beyond happy hour promises that singular pleasure of a spontaneous community forming out of total strangers until the night becomes, properly, a Party. Want to see Korean War vets visibly grooving along to “Thriller”? Care to observe a savant recite the birthday of every famous person on the TV? It’s impossible to stay at the Gangway for more than a shot and not make a new friend.
Cocktails meet the Cockettes.
Neighborhood: the Haight
“Do you have a glitter pen I could borrow to make a sign?”
When, to accommodate this request, the bartender produces several with little effort, you know you’re in the Haight’s only LGBT watering hole. In contrast to the area’s street culture, Trax is pleasantly subdued, with a broad mix of folks, from tattooed dykes to middle-aged guys in corduroy hats they made themselves – and it’s heavy on the regulars.
Trax is very red. You might even call it a fantasia en rouge: from the bar itself to the lighting to the felt on the pool table to the stools that all fill up before the booths do. Bathe in the redness or sit window side to gawk at the gawkers who come to marvel at the Haight.
Is this a Saturday night bar? No, but $2 beers on Tuesdays beckon. Plus, Trax opens at 10 a.m. on game days, so you can watch football like they do in real America.
Folsom Street redux.
Neighborhood: the Mission
Although a fairly recent addition to a club of watering holes that have been around for decades, Truck quickly acquired its own mystique: “Did that really happen?” “Is it really that raunchy?” “Don’t they serve food?”
This gastro-dive in an otherwise unremarkable quadrant of the Mission does in fact serve burgers, fries, and the like, with pop-ups on Wednesdays. Truck Stop Café, from Jake Godby of Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream fame, periodically recreates the last meals of notorious Death Row inmates – with some duck fat Chex Mix thrown in.
It gets a little beefy in here, with mass outbreaks of shirtless-ness, but the vibe is unerringly friendly. Rainy night two-for-one drink specials might be the most ingenious marketing ploy since somebody thought to sell Uniroyal tires by pairing them with giant Fiberglass blondes.
One of the last trough urinals standing.
Neighborhood: Polk Street
Polk Gulch was the epicenter of the hustler universe until all that disappeared. People tried to bowdlerize it into “Polk Village,” but that never took off, so the name and history vanished – such that Yelp, for instance, lists the Cinch’s location as Nob Hill.
But it’s still Polk Street. While having more than a dozen beers on tap might jeopardize its dive status, the Cinch establishes its cred with the bizarre nudes on the walls, including an image of a lion topping a man.
Second and fourth Sunday afternoons mean “Shot in the City,” a beer bust with a photo booth where all the pics wind up on Facebook and everyone marvels at how sexy you look and wishes they’d been there to make out with you.
Wild Side West
You could probably bring your parents.
Neighborhood: Bernal Heights
San Francisco’s hilltop urban village has a reputation as a lesbian aerie, a distinction cemented by Cortland Avenue’s Wild Side West. While definitely a home for women-loving women, this 50-year-old institution could perhaps best be described as “plurality lesbian,” because these days, it’s for everyone.
Although the bar and the neighborhood feel spiritually inseparable, bartender Beth Kenny noted that when this location opened in 1977, locals threw toilets through the windows. The original owners repurposed them into planters but boarded up the front, “which is why there are no street-facing windows today.”
Exuding comfort, the décor looks like your eccentric aunt’s living room. (You know, the one who made you watch Nashville and taught you to inhale.) Cozy inside and breezy out back, Wild Side West is ideal for a hot toddy on a dreary evening or a blueberry mojito in the summer.
Aunt Charlie’s Lounge
Where the ones who only come out at night come.
Neighborhood: the Tenderloin
Insanely cheap, strong drinks abound in this oubliette of naughtiness, carpeted like an unlicensed casino and narrow enough to graze the bar while palming the opposite wall. Aunt Charlie's is the home of the Hot Boxxx Girls, drag performers of all ages who own it for two solid hours Friday and Saturday nights.
Thursdays bring the Tubesteak Connection, a recreation of a vintage 1978 discotheque hosted by DJ Bus Station John. “It’s a refuge for people who don’t fit into the mainstream or couldn’t if they tried – and, more often than not, don’t care to try,” he says. His unrivaled catalog of obscure four-on-the-floor gems lures a ridiculously diverse crowd; over nine years, “we’ve seen everyone from John Waters to an Episcopal archbishop.”
But be warned: Bus Station John will admonish you if he spots a soft blue glow. “Get your face out of your phone and make out already. I mean, that’s why we leave the house, right?”
Where Quentin Crisp would totally have gone.
Neighborhood: Hayes Valley
Hayes Valley used to be a crack den with a bonus overpass thrown in. Now it’s full of boutiques where the prices have commas in them, but Marlena’s has been (thankfully!) a fixture for 23 years.
Best known for its no-cover drag shows on Saturdays and 1,400-strong collection of Santa dolls every December, it’s run by a former Empress of the Imperial Court (a sort of drag Vatican). These are old-school queens for whom female impersonation is paramount and RuPaul’s an arriviste. That’s not to say you’ll find attitude here, because at 73 Marlena is one of the most gregarious people you’ll ever meet. (Unfortunately, she’s selling, probably in March. While Marlena's may remain a gay bar, it’s getting a new name and a fresh zhoozh.)
It fills up fast after the opera, symphony, or ballet gets out, because everyone from theater queens to lusty stagehands dashes straight to Marlena’s.
Full-spectrum hanky code.
Yeah, it’s gone. Sunday beer busts – church for San Francisco’s queer misfits – are no longer. Its closure was like punching San Francisco’s gay community in the collective solar plexus, because if S.F. couldn’t sustain a freak show, what might the future hold?
But the Eagle is coming back, probably in March. The new roof is already up.
Entertainment Commissioner, Harvey Milk Club President, and drag legend Anna Conda fought the good fight, promising that when resurrected, the Eagle will have a fuller schedule – and, of course, that three-hour block on Sundays when you can put away cup after cup of Miller Lite for a good cause.
Given this positive outcome, is Anna Conda optimistic on the future of gay bars? For the most part, yes. “Instead of gaining equality, we’re gaining assimilation,” she says. “With everything, there’s an ebb and flow. But there will always be queer spaces – they allow us to get past our fear of being different.”
Do It Yourself
Put Grindr down and head to the Gangway (841 Larkin). Turn off Scruff and trek to Trax (1437 Haight). Pick up a trick at Truck (1900 Folsom). Inspect every inch of the Cinch (1723 Polk). Dip yourself in honey and throw yourself to the lesbians at the Wild Side West (424 Cortland). Fork over a few singles to a sexagenarian at Aunt Charlie's (133 Turk). Chat up your friendly Empress at Marlena's (488 Hayes). And fraternize with freaks at the Eagle (398 12th St.).