A Shot of Love
I love nothing more than drinking in the morning’s clean light. Thus, my only complaint – and that of many others – about Bender's is that it doesn’t open early enough. The bar and grill, located at 19th and South Van Ness, unlocks its gate at 2 p.m. on the weekends and an oh-so-late 4 p.m. on weekdays. The best you can hope for is some early afternoon drinking.
I walk in at 2:15 p.m. on a Saturday and more than a few regulars are already bellied up to the bar. The inside of Bender's feels like the hideout you never had when you were a delinquent teenager. Punk rock and heavy metal posters are pressed against black-painted walls. The tabletops are lacquered, displaying a museum-like collection of fake IDs. There are two pool tables, a jukebox, a pinball machine, and a photo booth.
Bottles of liquor cover the wall behind the bar, an alcoholic rainbow of browns and golds along with exotic splashes of greens and blues. Plastered in between the bottles and glasses are numerous pictures of workers and regulars, like so many dysfunctional family photos – the makings of a hungover, shirtless, bar-dancing, shot-taking family tree.
I order. The bartender, Stephanie Crebo, flashes me a welcoming smile and then continues her conversation with a couple at the end of the bar. She pours my shot and pulls my beer without looking. She drops another shot for herself, turns to me, and we put ’em down.
To my left is Anna Schoenberger, a beautiful woman holding a can of PBR and a white-liner (small shot) of Jäger. Her arms are covered in tattoos: a sushi roll with a heart at the center, a dinosaur, and a video game inspired sleeve – all Pac-Man characters, Atari joysticks, and Tetris.
I turn to her and introduce myself, asking what brings her to Bender's dark interior on such a sunny day.
“I’ve been at Bender's more days than not since moving here from LA over a year and a half ago. I love it. I’ve met most of my friends here. You can park your bike inside,” she says, gesturing to the bike rack at the center of the room. “The mac and cheese with tots on top are incredible, and the staff are nice . This place is my second home. Another way to put it would be: Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t?” Anna smiles and sips her shot. “Of course, I know when to leave.” And with that she does. I do my best to convince myself that it wasn’t me, and order another beer.
Bender's is the brainchild of three men. Two of the three founding owners are Johnny Davis and Liam Martin, who had put in their time at a slew of watering holes throughout the city. Like so many who call San Francisco home, Johnny and Liam aren’t originally from SF. Johnny, a rocker with long hair and tattoos, was born in Texas but raised in the Northwest. Liam, a giant tree-trunk of a man, is from Australia.
When Johnny walks into his bar I ask him if he’d like to take a shot. A grin blasts across his face, “Am I breathing?”
I ask him why he opened Bender's and he says, “I figured I’m going to die behind a bar, it might as well be my own bar.”
The bar opened on September 12, 2003, the day Johnny Cash died, but it wasn’t an easy start. For two and a half years the bar struggled. Then, on June 14, 2006, things got worse: At around a quarter to five in the morning, Bender's burst into flames. Johnny got a phone call from one of his bartenders who told him her friend, who was leaving work late from The Homestead (a bar right down the street), had called to tell her that Bender's was on fire.
“I thought she was joking at first, until I realized that she was in tears, she was crying. So I flew down there. The place was surrounded by fire trucks and everything we owned was in a smoking pile in the middle of the street.”
Adam Cabot, better known as “AC,” walks in, orders a Budweiser, and asks Steph to put the Giants game on. AC is a San Francisco native, born and raised in the Mission, and he laughs when I turn from Johnny to ask him how often he comes in. “Five times a week. I’ve been coming here since they opened the first time.”
Adam’s step dad, Alejandro Zagal, used to be a regular when the bar at the corner of 19th and South Van Ness was a Latino bar called “Imperial.” “He used to be in here so much in the ’70s and ’80s that he had a cot in the back,” AC remembers. He also remembers the fire.
“I was here the morning it burned. Liam called me and said, ‘The fucking bar is burning.’ So I came down. Everyone was out in the street, people from the neighborhood, the bar owners, some staff…there were tears…it was ugly.”
I turn back to Johnny. “Were you positive right away that you were going to reopen?”
“No, absolutely not,” says Johnny. “I woke up the day after the fire and thought to myself ‘I’m fucking unemployed.’”
Despite the money lost in the fire and the damage done to the building, they rebuilt the bar. “It started coming together. Slowly. But friends and family, regulars, folks really pitched in. We swung the doors open, again, on November 14, 2007.”
Johnny takes off to get work done in the back. AC turns to watch the Giants. I order another drink and watch as a couple plays Trivial Pursuit followed by games of backgammon.
It’s later in the afternoon when a mess of metal, wheels, tattoos, and thirsty eyes ride right into the bar. The inside bike rack is instantly full and drinks are quickly ordered. Bike messengers are as much a part of Bender's as the photo booth.
“How do we like Bender's? This is our office man!” Josh Hunt and Chas Farnsworth started their own messenger company just under a year ago: TCB Courier (TCB standing for “taking care of business”), a local day and late-night delivery service based in the Mission. “We deliver everything,” Chas laughs. “One of our guys delivered porno mags to a customer last night.”
Josh, who was born and raised in Texas and moved to San Francisco from Pittsburgh, tells the story of starting TCB, “We decided to go into business for ourselves when the scene downtown started getting grim; we needed a new way to ride our bikes and make money. When we first started out we were just a phone, a bank account, and business cards; we didn’t have anywhere to base our operations. The folks here at Bender's were super cool about it, they let us hang out and be on standby even if we weren’t buying anything, and they still do.”
Chaz and Josh split, but ever the hustlers, they leave me with a handful of TCB business cards.
The man to my left takes a pull off his beer. Robert Solimo has a giant beard. His eyes seem interested in everything and nothing at the same time. His demeanor is relaxed while simultaneously seeming like a coil of metal ready to spring.
Rob moved to San Francisco in 1999 from New Jersey and became a bike messenger in 2001. “About 10 years ago I only had $400 to my name. I found a track bike and said ‘fuck, I’ll take that thing.’ It didn’t have brakes. I had a hell of a time stopping it. Cracked some teeth. Learned a couple life lessons.” He’s been working on two wheels ever since.
On Bender's, Rob doesn’t hold back. “I stop by every night. This is one of the top three bars in the world in my opinion. You know why? Because the folks who run this place treat you the way you should be treated when you go to a bar. It’s that simple.”
“You ever worry about the bar getting too popular?” I ask.
“Never. First, this place is the Statue of Liberty of bars. They welcome everyone. From blue-collar workers to the rock-and-roll scene. But there’s always a balance. If you keep it dirty you keep it clean, you know? You keep it weird. And the owners know that. It’s a balance. It’s like Darwinism. It’s ‘Barwinism.’”
Johnny and I are back at the bar. I’ve now been drinking for five hours.
“You know what we almost called this place?” Johnny asks, not waiting for an answer. “The Wraparound Lounge. We were going to open at 8 a.m. You would’ve loved it.”
The room is now crowded and I remember Anna’s advice about knowing when to leave. I stumble out into the evening light.
Up for some daytime drinking at the best bar in San Francisco? Swing by Bender's on Saturdays around 2 p.m. and settle in for a boozy afternoon (the kitchen opens around 4:30 and Mr. Pickles is right down the street). Daytime drinking not your thing? Stop in after work for Whiskey Wednesdays and enjoy the mayhem. Don’t forget to check out the calendar for great events and shows. Be friendly and TIP YOUR BARTENDERS!