Yelp. We all use it. The site is often the first thing that comes up when you google the name of a business, complete with a handy map, pretty pictures, and a neat five-star rating system with comments that tell you just what to expect. The best part about it is that everything has a Yelp review. You don't have to take a risk when trying a new place, because dozens of people have already checked it out for you. Yelp can make or break a business, with its armies of capricious reviewers trashing or exalting it in a hive-minded frenzy. Yelpers pretty much have food in the city on lock. From fancy sit-down restaurants to the guy who sells weed truffles in Dolores Park, almost every place to get food in San Francisco has been Yelped – some have been reviewed thousands of times.
After eating, it seems a Yelper's favorite pastime is drinking, with nearly every bar and liquor store in the city thoroughly scrutinized by legions of armchair critics. Bay Area Yelpers have covered everything from prisons to public toilets – there are parking garages with over a hundred reviews. No bar or liquor store could possibly be without a review on Yelp, right? I set out to see if I could find just such a place.
My search began in the Bayview – one of the largest, least Yelped neighborhoods in the city. It's also one of the last working-class black neighborhoods in San Francisco, featuring scores of locally owned businesses peppering the long stretch of Third Street. Though not many Yelpers may live in the Bayview, it's easy to visit thanks to the T-line, whose shiny new Santa Clara VTA-esque platforms stand as a symbol of urban renewal, or the vanguard of gentrification, depending on who you ask.
Walking down Third, I passed by some kids play-fighting in the street. "Hands up, chin down," I told them, remembering some pearl of drunk-uncle wisdom I once received. "Hey, I got those same gloves!" one of them shouted, pointing at my Walgreens glow-in-the-dark Frankenstein gloves. He pulled his out of his pocket, put them on, and I high-fived him, inexplicably pleased with myself to have the fashion sense of a video-game-addled nine-year-old.
I arrived at my first un-Yelped destination – The Jazz Room. The outside of the place looked like something you'd see in a drunken montage from an old movie, its sign swirling among ghostly images of floating cocktails. When I walked in I felt like I could have been in any other dive bar in San Francisco – aside from the fact that all the patrons were over 40 and black. The bartender, a short, middle-aged Asian woman named Amy, eyed me suspiciously as I sat down and ordered a gin and tonic.
"Lemme see your ID."
"Ma'am you flatter me," I replied, as I slid my driver’s license across the bar with my best George Clooney wink, accentuating my considerable crow's-feet.
"She just wanna know how old you are so she can flirt with you!" the lady sitting next to me cackled, stirring what was probably not her first tequila sunrise of the day.
A man down at the other end of the bar wearing a black leather Crocodile Dundee hat got up, pulled a cigarette from his pocket, and walked to the front door. Looking out into the cold and rainy Tuesday afternoon, he called back, "It's like the Colma cemetery out there, man. It's like Night of the Living Dead . Where is everybody?"
"They all locked up!" Amy joked. Reconsidering his smoke, the guy made his way back to his seat with a chuckle. "Lil girl, could you get me another beer?"
Nobody I talked to in the bar had heard of Yelp. When I told Amy that Yelpers hadn't heard of The Jazz Room either, she pulled out an old promotional map for the Third Street Light Rail Project.
"See? We all the way down here!" She pointed down toward the bottom of the map. Not that it affected business – The Jazz Room didn't seem to be doing too bad for pre-happy hour on a Tuesday. It doesn't need to cater to the Yelp crowd – this is a locals’ joint. And, you couldn't get more local: the woman next to me drinking tequila sunrises lives upstairs.
"I'll go upstairs and get your money for the tab in a minute," she called out to Amy, who just laughed and shook her head, "Yeah, yeah."
I sat and watched the Lakers-Suns game for a while, nursing my beer and chatting with the guy two seats down. I made a crack about how Steve Nash and Grant Hill went to Arizona to retire, just like all the other old people. "Hey, careful, young man!" he chuckled. For someone who goes to college with kids who've only lived through one Bush administration, and grew up sexting each other on FaceSpace.com, it was nice to hang out in a place where I get called "young man."
Though everyone in the The Jazz Room seemed to know each other, they were welcoming to a young interloper such as myself. "Come back, bring your friends!" Amy told me with a warm smile, "We got karaoke on Wednesday, a band on Thursday, and a DJ on Saturday."
My next destination was the Excelsior. I found it hard to believe that a bar on Mission Street had escaped the watchful eye of the Yelp brigade, but here it was. La Oficina is not unlike many other Latin bars in San Francisco, with young female bartenders serving a predominantly male clientele. Yelp reviews of similar bars often describe them as "sketchy," with danger lurking around every corner. Some Yelpers insinuate that the bartenders in these kinds of places are "hookers" – not like the scantily clad orange girls serving Adios Motherfuckers to bros at any number of bars in the Marina. Nah, those girls are "hotties."
Far from sketchy, La Oficina is large and airy, with a well-appointed bar, two flat-screen TVs, and a pool table. Two men were posted up at opposite corners of the bar, slowly sipping their beers and vying for the attention of the cute bartender who was sprinkling salt on a halved lime and sucking on it. I plopped down in the middle so as not to interfere with their respective macks and ordered. I sat sipping my beer and watched a show about Colombian soccer hooligans on the Spanish-language equivalent of A Current Affair as the bartender loaded the jukebox with her favorite Banda hits.
A short, stocky fellow with a sour expression trudged in, sidled up to the bar, and sat down near to me.
"Hola, Chaparro," the bartender said pouring him a shot. He downed it, and she poured him another. The shots didn't seem to lighten his mood, however, and he continued to stare ahead, looking like the world had pissed in his punch bowl.
“Shorty” kind of reminded me of a dude my sister used to work with, who immediately upon finishing his shift would storm down to the nearest bar, order up five shots of whiskey in a row, down them in rapid succession and then proceed to flip the entire bar the bird, sputtering, “Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou.” I guess we all have our ways to unwind after a long day. I decided to leave Shorty alone and chat with the bartender, Angie.
Had she ever heard of Yelp? "No. Tiene un sitio en español?" Well ... no ... I guess they don't have a website in Spanish. Was this an example of how racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic barriers widen the gap between the Yelpers and the Yelp-less, leaving this poor woman's business to languish on the dark side of the digital divide?
"Business is good," Angie assured me. They get a lot more people on the weekends. I noticed a small stage in the back with drums and a keyboard, and asked Angie if bands play here.
"Yes, on Fridays and Saturdays."
"Oh yeah, what kind of music?"
"Latin music," she replied with a smirk, leveling her "as if you would know the difference" stare at me.
For my last stop, I headed over to Ingleside. I was surprised to find Homrun Liquors completely off the Yelp radar, given its location – sandwiched between SFSU and City College – and the fact that it sells booze.
The name is pronounced home run , like what you get when you hit a baseball out of the park, not like some Middle Eastern guy's name, as I originally thought. Inside, a jovial Yemeni man, Mo, informed me that the place has been in business for 84 years. Or maybe he was talking about how old the owner was. His English was better than my Arabic, but considering I only know how to say “happy new year,” that’s not much.
“The owner, his father, and his grandfather, and his great grandfather have this place,” Mo informed me. We engaged in a few minutes of my favorite kind of ESL conversation – friendly, but at cross-purposes. Our dialogue probably read like a Samuel Beckett play. Seemingly obsessed with lineages, Mo told me he had been in San Francisco for many years studying English, just like his father before him – and his grandfather and his great grandfather. I was beginning to wonder if there was something maybe lost in translation.
Mo liked to give his customers the “hook-up”: “Chips 99 cent. They give me 70 cent, I say, 'OK, OK. For you, it's OK.' I give them hook-up.” I was honored when Mo decided to hook me up, too. As he was giving me change for my drink he hesitated, then pulled another quarter out of the register.
“For you, $1.75!” His face darkened as he told me about another man, a store owner who did not reciprocate the hook-up when Mo visited his store. “So cheap,” he said disgustedly.
Mo had never heard of Yelp. "What is this? I don't know," he said furrowing his brow and peering down at the Yelp app on my phone. "If it help business, I like that!" Business at Homrun is slow. Mo took me over to the display for Nuvo, a sparkling pink liqueur in a perfume bottle that has been promoted in countless rap and R&B videos. He takes me to the display with a poster featuring T-Pain sipping it out of a champagne flute.
"Has been here two months – nobody buy it," he murmurs incredulously.
Is there life beyond Yelp? The businesses I visited exist outside the Yelposphere, oblivious to the crowdsourcing and social networking that sustain it. In the end it wasn't clear if it made much of a difference. One thing is clear, though. Everyone should get out of their comfort zones every once in a while and try something new. They might even want to Yelp about it.
Unwind from your hard day at the office at La Oficina in the Excelsior. Then head down to The Jazz Room for a little local Bayview flavor. On your way home, stop by Homrun Liquors for the hook-up in Ingleside.