King of Beers
God bless the English. They gave us our language, our independence, and the motivation for regular trips to the dentist. They also gave us the pub, which took a huge evolutionary leap forward in the early ’90s when it morphed into the gastropub. The concept of a comfortable establishment offering good food and craft beer eventually drifted across the pond, and by the late aughts gastropubs were sprouting up everywhere.
Of course, in San Francisco we take our food and drink more seriously than most. So it should come as no surprise that a crop of new gastropub-style places established a beachhead here and promptly raised the bar. I sat down at some of the city’s best to eat, drink, and ponder what makes a San Francisco gastropub so unique.
The Monk's Kettle is like a shrine to esoteric beer. Or maybe it’s a temple. It’s hard to say precisely, although drinking there definitely borders on a religious experience if you’re serious about beer. The bottle list is Biblical in length and there are almost two dozen taps fanned out like a multicolored altar behind the bar. The atmosphere is subdued and the staff move calmly about, like scruffy beer scholars consulting their disciples on the complexities of Imperial Stout and Biere de Garde.
Earlier this year Adam Dulye joined the team as executive chef, and he seems equally intent on broadening horizons. The current menu abounds with epicurean flourishes like toasted spelt and raisin gastrique. Combined with the brightly lit dining room and the angular post-rock playing on the sound system, one definitely gets the impression that The Monk's Kettle experience is meant to be intellectual as much as it is visceral.
I decided to keep it simple, so I went with a burger (with onion jam and aged white cheddar, natch) and a glass of the Reality Czeck Pilsner. I sat at the bar and listened as the bartender sermonized on the various charms and idiosyncrasies of several high-alcohol brews. He went back and forth with two other customers, handing out samples and using terms normally reserved for wine tastings. I sat there eating my burger, engrossed as though I was watching a PBS special. By the end of dinner I felt like I had just finished grad school, and I was now ready to meet the world of craft beer head-on.
I have to admit that my own bias against hippies (and the Upper Haight in general) kept me away from Magnolia for a long time. This was the case despite everything I’d heard about the food, beer, and a stylish renovation. To all those harboring similar prejudices, let me just say this: Get over it. Magnolia is cool.
The source of this cool comes from owner and brewmaster Dave McLean, a smart and ambitious restaurateur who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Jerry Garcia. So it’s fitting that a mind-altering experience in a Grateful Dead parking lot led Dave to rethink his life goals and devote himself to the art of craft brewing.
Magnolia boasts a beautiful, faded aesthetic reminiscent of an old album cover. They brew all of their own beer – including several esoteric cask ales – in a tightly packed brewery crammed into its basement. As we descended into the chilly subterranean space, Dave nonchalantly tossed out complex recipes and riffed on the arcane history of English pub traditions. Then he took me on a claustrophobic tour of the fermenting tanks and grain room, showing me where the beer is made and how it is piped directly into the taps upstairs.
And upstairs is where the real action is. A few years back Dave and his chef revamped the menu, circling back to his original intentions – reconnecting with lost food traditions and the role beer plays in them. This being San Francisco, this also means an emphasis on top-quality local, organic ingredients, and head-to-tail animal preparations that run the gamut from house-made sausages to pork chops, cheeks, ears, and belly. During my visit with Dave, he ordered us a selection of classic English pub fare – devils on horseback, Scotch eggs, and rabbit sausage – and paired them with a bunch of sample-size beers.
Between the beer, food, and meandering conversation, I felt myself mentally drifting to a time that existed way before the current gastropub craze. I started to lose myself in the sensation of foggy nights, classic music, hearty food, and good drink. While gastropubs may be a modern trend, at Magnolia it feels like something that’s been going on forever.
By San Francisco’s exacting culinary standards, The Sycamore can only be loosely defined as a gastropub. In fact, co-owner Liz Ryan says the place was unwittingly given that designation in its first online review. The moniker stuck, but it’s not something they feel beholden to. Her brother Tim puts a finer point on it: “It’s a bar that serves food. It’s not supposed to be fancy.”
The Sycamore has a lived-in, dive-y aesthetic that is equal parts retro punk and nouveaux hipster. There’s a jukebox on the wall and boxes of board games on a shelf above. A narrow hallway runs down the back, leading to a rough-hewn, secretive patio where customers can eat, drink, and soak up the neighborhood sunshine.
The menu reads like some of the dirtiest, sexiest food porn imaginable: Pork Belly Donuts with Maple Makers Mark Glaze, Lamb Burgers with Caramelized Onions and Manchego Cheese, Battered Banana Bread Pudding French Toast. In the immortal, drool-spattered words of Homer Simpson, "Ahhhhrrrrglglgllllll."
But the thing that puts The Sycamore over the top is the roast beef. Liz and Tim hail from a part of Massachusetts just north of Boston that is home to a unique sandwich comprised of thin sliced rare roast beef slathered in sauce and stacked high on the softest, chewiest, most wonderful bun known to man. I’ve never tasted the North Shore original, but I can say this about The Sycamore’s version: If I could marry a sandwich, the roast beef and I would already be on a plane to Vegas.
There are many possible interpretations of the gastropub, but The Tipsy Pig on Chestnut Street has laid a solid claim on being the go-to spot for unbridled revelry. It was absolutely packed when I walked in around 9 p.m. on a recent Saturday. Still, I had gotten a great parking spot and then seats had magically appeared at the bar, so I was content to have a beer, watch the Giants game, and wait patiently for a table.
However, before I could even put a dent in my oversized glass of Blind Pig IPA, the hostess was ready to seat me. Contrary to expectations and some negative Yelp reviews, the staff at The Tipsy Pig seem to have a knack for holding it all together despite the noise, the crowds, and the popularity of the aforementioned oversized beers. According to owner Nate Valentine, that’s the primary MO of The Tipsy Pig: a friendly, comfortable place where food and beer live in harmony.
Forty ounces of premium ale almost always puts me in the mood for something salty, fried, and/or covered in cheese, and the vittles did not disappoint. I finished the “almost famous” smoked bacon mac and cheese before it had a chance to cool and moved straight into the fish ’n’ chips, a pub classic. Vinegar, ketchup, and house-made tartar sauce appeared before I could ask, and my fingers were soon covered in a beautiful, greasy sheen.
The lights started to come down and the music got a little louder. With the game over, the flat-screen TVs were turned off and tables were cleared from the dining room. People began streaming past the bar toward the brick-lined patio in back. I could tell that things were about to kick into high gear and I was tempted to stick around and watch. However, I felt the soporific tug of a food coma coming on, so I stuffed myself into my jacket instead and waddled the half block back to my primo parking spot.
Strong beer and good food go equally well with a sunny day or a foggy night. For the former, check out the back patio at The Sycamore. For the latter, get yourself a cozy booth at Magnolia. For the most authentic English gastropub experience, make a reservation or brave the crowds at The Tipsy Pig. To expand your mind as well as your waistline, set up shop at The Monk's Kettle and drink your way to enlightenment.