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Caught in the Riptide 

Katy St. Clair on the Sunset's David Lynch aura and a cool new bar full of ghosts

Wednesday, Mar 9 2005
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The Sunset is the most David Lynchian area of the city. First, to get there you drive up the Lost Highway that is Market to Portola to Sloat. Midway through, you arrive in the fog of Twin Peaks. Then you've got the zoo (elephants, man), the fancy houses that wind westward (Mulholland Drive), and finally the surreal arrival of the improbable: a vast, empty oceanfront with nary a Sunglass Hut. There is, however, an ice cream place where you can buy a "doggie-cone" for your Alsatian. Spooky.

Since it's so far from anything else, the Sunset is also the Galápagos Islands of the city, existing as its own Irish-immigrant ecosystem for decades. It has its own architecture, its own plant life, and its own peculiar brand of townie: the S.F. redneck. Psychics say the place is crawling with ghosties, and, like in a John Carpenter movie, weird things happen in that fog.

One thing about the Sunset that's not a mystery, though, is that it has the least concentration of bars and clubs this side of the Mississip', and those that are there have been there for years and years, run by the same grizzled Pall Mall smokers with anchor tattoos who don't want to admit that DiMaggio is dead.

But six months ago something really weird happened. Two citified fellas from the Mission took over a bar on Taraval and 47th Avenue. It had previously been the Oarhouse, then the Sandbar. They gutted the place, cleaned up all the mold and rat shit, fixed the fireplace, hired all of their favorite Mission bartenders, changed the name to the Riptide, and declared themselves open for business. Youngsters in the neighborhood -- which in this case meant anyone under 60 -- were psyched to have a cool place to go see bands or just have a beer. "Things have just been going great," says co-owner and Red Meat drummer Les James. "The weekends are jumpin'."

But any bar owner knows that your bread and butter is the regulars (read: alcoholics), and the Riptide got off on the wrong foot by pissing off some of its core constituents. For the first time ever, the bar would open at 4 p.m., not 8 a.m. Whoa, Nellie. Some are boycotting the place entirely, instead heading over to Pittsburgh's Pub on Judah Street. Others are grudgingly wandering in for a cursory look-see now and again but doing most of their drinking at home. By most accounts, the old clientele was a ruffian lot of bawdy Barbary brawlers and braggarts, lowering their inhibitions and lifting skirts with each shot of Jack. Dang, I'm actually sorry I missed them.

I walked in on a Wednesday night, the evening that the Riptide plays movies on its big screen and bartender Lars Nylander -- of Skankin' Pickle and the Impalers fame -- makes mai tais. On most other nights you can play the jukebox or see a band, but tonight was movie night and the Clash's Rude Boy was showing, followed by the Shane MacGowan documentary If I Should Fall From Grace, which if I played my cards right I could miss entirely by skipping out early. What can I say, I'm a stickler for good dentalwork.

The tavern is big, with a bar in the center and stools and tall tables hugging the pine walls. The Riptide definitely has a beach feel to it, even though there isn't a ship wheel or shellacked swordfish to be seen.

It wasn't long after ordering my drinkee that I felt it, the ghost. It happened when I walked into the room to the right of the bar, the area you have to pass through to get to the bathroom. The room's not creepy at all, and I actually wanted to linger there. Its cobblestone floor reminded me of changing out of my swimsuit at Will Rogers beach, as the mixture of sand and concrete always does. OK, so maybe it wasn't a ghost, it could've been a draft from the air vents, but in this room I felt, well, like tap-dancing. Strange that such a thing has never hit me before, but I felt like tap-dancing by myself in the bathroom. (In truth, I have always carried tacks in my purse for just such an occasion.) I did a little soft-shoe into a Tallahassee slipknot, finishing off with a Bojangles bug stomper. Then I washed my hands.

Back at the bar the Clash was performing "White Riot" and one of the old regulars had meandered in, soused as a mayfly in a vat of rye. He had the distinct look of a geriatric surfer, save for the baseball hat and Wrangler jeans. I could definitely see this guy starting shit, and everyone made haste to stay on his good side.

Les and I continued our conversation. It turns out that the area to the right of the bar, that jazzy li'l spot that compelled me to do a private jig, used to be a cobbler's shop. OK, that explains the strange foot energy I felt. After the shoe repair place closed, it became a fisherman's shop called the Master Bait. That explains my dance-y onanism.

"So let me get this straight," I said. "This place used to be called the Oarhouse, and next door was the Master Bait?"

"Yep," he said.

Awesome. Now that's what you call historical ambience.

The Riptide hopes to open earlier on the weekends, which would be great because you could eat barbecue and drink beer and then tap-dance two blocks to the beach and ride your dune buggy, then come back again for more. It almost makes me want to move to the Sunset.

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Katy St. Clair

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