Tall Tales

Our bar-hopping critic takes a walk on the Wild Side West, and to other Bernal Heights hangouts

The bars in Bernal Heights have that small-town, homespun feel. Moki's isn't one of them, but it's a neighborhood icon with mighty fine sushi -- and it's also the place to go before you stroll down Cortland Avenue to Wild Side West. It may be impossible not to love the place immediately: The red ceiling matches the pool table, the chandeliers are draped with Mardi Gras beads, and just about every inch of free space is occupied by some charming thing -- baby Nikes, trophies, a leering tiki mask, nude paintings. And all of this is nothing compared to the garden out back.

"This is old San Francisco, man," says Zoe, disappearing with a friend down a darkened pathway that leads to picnic benches, bird feeders, lamps, statues, and a billion other accumulations (a modest estimate) tucked among the exquisitely manicured foliage. The quiet is absolute at 9:30 on a Saturday night -- no wind to ruffle the wind chimes, no rumbling traffic to trouble the mind. Roberta, a regular, steps out for a smoke, her lilting Irish accent as soothing as could be. Funny thing is, she's American. "Well, my roots are Irish," she says. "What happens is, I come to the Wild Side and the roots come out. It makes me feel at home or something."

Wild Side West is one of those mixed neighborhood lesbian bars. You'll find more women than men and more locals than not, and everyone seems to tolerate everyone, except John, who says the bar is fine, but "there are too many reporters."

Of course, he's mistaken: After all, no real reporter would allow Brian the bartender across the street at Charlie's Clubto claim that the place is "three fucking thousand years old."

"It's the oldest bar in history," Brian says. "Buddha used to hang out here." The cab fare to India must have been a bitch.

Meanwhile, tonight's crowd is limited to a quartet of barflies, who've arrayed themselves along the cushioned armrest under a ceiling plastered with the jackets of just about every LP ever produced. It's a place where you can talk about the neighborhood with folks like Michael, who explains, "Well, the thing I like about Cortland is the family. The way people walk their dogs, the way people are concerned about each other's welfare. Being a third-generation San Franciscan, I appreciate that."

Michael also appreciates literature. "You ever read Steinbeck?" he asks. "How about "To Build a Fire'? You get cold about halfway through."

He's right on all counts. Jack London's superb short story does get under your skin, and people here are concerned about each other: As a woman walks her dog past Skip's Tavern down the street, a man says, "Hey Adrienne, how's your brother?" Inside, everyone's getting a dose of Spoonful of Blues, whose lead singer, Irish, could heat up the coldest Arctic night with her divalike aura. Skip's is what you might call a memorabilia/jam session bar: One wall is laden with Marilyn Monroe photos, and a second Michael (of the OG Rhythm & Blues Band) says, "I'm about to do my little bit of thing," then straps on a guitar, steps onstage, and does it.

Then there's a certain fellow who goes off on one of those ... tangents. By the time it's over, he's plugged the Sunday jam sessions at Skip's, disparaged the lack of plot in modern filmmaking, extolled the virtues of karaoke, and quoted Dickens, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

"Let me hear you conjugate a verb," he demands.

In other words, older people can be funny when they drink. But who is this guy?

"My name is ..."

He smiles.

"Call me Ishmael."

 
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