Night Crawler

One lazy afternoon in 1989, Steve Sparks, an Englishman from Birmingham, sat around half-drunk with his British partner, Roger Howell, as they tried to think of a name for their pub.

"In England, pubs all have animal names," Sparks says, referring to spots like the Slug and Lettuce or the Green Dragon. "When I came up with 'dog,' the name came in a flash: A mad dog is an Englishman. Noel Coward wrote, 'Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,' and Joe Cocker had a song called 'Mad Dog in the Midday Sun,' but we're in San Francisco so it had to be Mad Dog in the Fog. It was probably one of the best ideas we've ever had."

Besides that clever moniker, Sparks and Howell had some other good notions: to move into one of the most spacious, well-lit spaces in the up-and-coming Lower Haight, serve a large selection of beers on tap, offer cheap pub grub, and, above all, create an environment that feels like home.

"A lot of people use the Mad Dog like it's their living room," says Terry, a New York transplant who jokingly claims she was weaned here. "It's very comfortable. It's not a pickup scene. It's not cliquey." From across the room, a bar acquaintance raises his pint in a toast.

Despite beautiful weather Sunday afternoon, the Mad Dog, notable for its dark green exterior and somewhat horrific taste in dogs-playing-poker art, does steady business. The pub is divided into three parts: the front room, complete with picture window and a gruesome bull-dog mural; the beer garden, where pint lovers determined not to miss the daylight hours gather; and a main room, which sports a slew of tables and dart boards. Regulars fill the stools along the bar.

Jason, a 26-year-old Irishman, has given up drink, but not the Dog. "How long have you been coming here?" I ask. "Five years," he sneers, "and I don't know why. Pure laziness, I imagine." Despite his reluctance to admit fondness for his haunt, it is the first stop he makes when Adam, his best friend from back home, comes to town.

For Adam, as for many foreigners, the Mad Dog is a comfortable introduction to San Francisco. Even though the pub is English-run and -decorated -- down to the map of the London Underground and an "English Spoken Here" sign -- the clientele is not exclusively British. "The Mad Dog is full of travelers," says Karen, a Swede who after years of roaming has finally made San Francisco her home. "It has a very European feel. Even before I moved here, when I was visiting, I felt very comfortable and safe."

"I'll see at least a dozen passports on an average night at the front door," says Ben, a three-year veteran of the Mad Dog. "Mark -- don't worry, he'll be back," he says motioning to an empty seat at the bar, "he heard about the Dog when he was still in Australia. It's a small world. Word gets around."

Co-owner Howell, who recently broke his nose playing on the Mad Dog in the Fog soccer team, is quick to explain the spot's cult status abroad. "The Dog is known in the English football circles. And," he adds somewhat reluctantly, "we're featured in most of the guidebooks -- generally the cheaper ones."

With the ethnic diversity that the Dog draws-- a Scot playing darts with a Jamaican, a Brit serving an Irishman beer -- a bit of strain seems inevitable, but Tim Huthert, a Londoner who has managed the spot for six years, disagrees. "We're all here for the same reason," he says. "Sure, we take the piss out of each other now and again, but there's never any real animosity behind it. We all left that at home. Coming to the States can leave you feeling a bit like a fish out of water. At the Mad Dog, there is a common bond." Karen remarks that she's only seen one fight in five years, which, as any national can tell you, would be unheard of in England, Ireland, or Australia.

The Mad Dog has grown so popular in recent years that the family of regulars has given up weekends as "amateur nights." Instead, they gravitate to the Monday and Thursday evening "Mad Dog Pub Quiz." With one-time patron Peter Malone hosting, customers sporting team names like Nine Pints of Cider and a Packet of Crisps compete for cash and beer prizes. The 10 rounds of trivia questions are difficult and made all the more so by Malone's thick Irish accent, which becomes ever denser as the night and the Guinness progress. Even on Monday, it's packed. Bar owners can't ask for much more than that.

By Silke Tudor

 
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