End of the Tunnel

You want Cheers in San Francisco? Head to TK's, the bar where everyone is a friend of George

West Portal is a bit fancier than it used to be, but the bars have maintained a certain uniformity: They're all small, draw local crowds, and are hospitable places where people establish a good rapport with their bartender. These trends are apparent at the Philosopher's Club, where new owners took over in June. The place will soon be renamed West Portal Station, and already the changes are everywhere -- a higher ceiling, a new jukebox, better draft beers, and free Friday night eats.

"The nachos are bumping, bro," says Jim, a young local in a Giants cap, the smell of tortilla chips surrounding him like a cloud. Somer, who works next door, comments on the new vibe: "It used to be more of an angry bar," she says. "There was a lot more yelling and screaming. Now people are more relaxed, just kicking it, hanging out, having a good time." Like most among the youngish crowd of 20 or so, Somer seems to know everyone.

She knows Luisa, who knows Matt, who's chatting up Marcie, whose friend Laurie thinks Chris the bartender/new co-owner is "sweet."

"He's really polite," Laurie says. "He took time with us, told us which chardonnay was the better one." Chardonnay? That's right, the place has gone upscale, or about as upscale as things get west of Twin Peaks. Still, it may never be as fancy as Joxer Daly's down the street, a clean, decidedly non-rowdy Irish pub where Sting rules the jukebox and a nice couple named Dave and Jennifer have stopped in for a fancy-pants after-dinner drink. Seamus, a local Irishman, is also a bit of a fancy boy: fancy beer, fancy watch ...

"It's not a fancy watch!" Seamus objects. Fair enough, but that USA Rugby shirt sure looks hoity-toity. Seamus came to visit Eileen the bartender, and, in the great Irish tradition, has set out a small mountain of tips over the past 3 1/2 hours. The total, about $20, means one of two things: 1) Seamus is quite generous, or 2) Seamus is a lot more hammered than he appears.

Meanwhile, everyone's toasted down at the homey Portals Tavern in honor of longtime regular Gina's moving-away party. She's heading to Hawaii with her husband, whom she met here 12 years ago. "I'm going to miss all these people," she says as friends snap photos and cavort through the room in plastic leis. Jim, another regular, delivers the straight dope on the changes sweeping through the WP.

"Seven years ago, the neighborhood was like a retirement home," he says. "The walker brigade at 10 a.m., stores where you didn't even know what they sold. Now, it's kind of a weird culture, because you have the gentrification, but you also have the identity with old San Francisco."

Like everyone, Jim knows Don the owner/bartender, a gravel-voiced cat who can be seen at his fancy Web site (www.portalstavern.com). Another customer, Mike, recommends TK's (open at 6 a.m.). TK's isn't fancy, but it does have George the bartender, who may be the most popular mixologist in San Francisco.

"We know the bartender, George," say Jon and Ashley, from Santa Cruz. A trio of blondes say they've also come for George. "There's no other reason why we'd be here," one explains.

One sunburned local plugs outer Taraval's notoriously rough Sand Bar("Where the debris meets the sea"), but doesn't mention George. Then comes Jill, a young hottie from the Sunset.

"That's our friend George," she says, going on to reveal the true charm of TK's. "It's kind of like Cheers, where everyone knows your name. Sometimes, you just want to go there."

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