Don't Fear the Dark

Bouncer finds friends in Pittsburgh's Pub

People are fond of making top 10 lists, so let me introduce a new category: Top 10 Bars in San Francisco You Are Afraid to Go Into. Don't expect me to make this list for you; I lost my fear of dark holes a long time ago. Still, I remember what it's like to see a place from the street and find yourself strangely drawn to it, yet be apprehensive about entering. What you are afraid of, you know not, but it's probably something involving some bikers, a pool cue, and the Nuge.

At base, my fear was usually of the garden-variety rejection type: I would enter, the music would stop, everyone would turn and look at me, and the bartender would start menacingly towel-drying the beer glasses. Not even "Tequila" on the jukebox could save me.

The reality, I have found, is that when you walk into these dives, people are too caught up in their eighth boilermaker to notice, and the bartender is happy just as long as you came to drink. Heck, most of the time — not all the time, but most of the time — the bartender is glad to see a new face, since he has been pouring for the same gang of inebriates for 30 years. Also (and this is in my case) I have a vagina, which sets me apart from about 99 percent of the clientele, making me a welcome distraction.

So fear not, fellow vagina-bearers: Walk proudly into A Summer Place, Cotter's Corner, or this week's Bouncer pick, Pittsburgh's Pub. This is it, folks, the last great true dive bar in San Francisco, conveniently located two blocks from Ocean Beach so that you can fill your pockets with stones and go drown yourself after the gin sets in.

Pittsburgh's has all the trappings of a fine dive. It has an uninviting exterior, complete with dark paint and few windows; it opens at 6 a.m.; and it is on an out-of-the-way corner that gets almost zero foot traffic. Its only real amenity is that it rests at the spot where the N-Judah dead-ends, but even getting there by Muni requires some forethought and about 40 minutes — two things boozy yuppies do not have. The result is a locals-only gem, unbesmirched by ironic hipsters.

I have passed by it many times and seen fellas out front, sitting on dining-hall chairs and smoking. The entranceway is dark, so you can't really get a gander at what is happening inside.

Last week I finally stepped over the threshold, and there it was: a Steelers-themed tavern complete with pool table and sports on the tee-vee. Three regulars were holed up at the end of the bar; it was 11 a.m. on a Monday. One guy looked like Willie Nelson, another like Waylon Jennings, and the third like Jackie Earle Haley — it was the Highwaymen meet Breaking Away. I ordered a drink and let my eyes adjust to the entirety: It was good. The men were embroiled in a discussion about something I figured must be fishing or football. "I caught it," Haley said, "and I thought it was gonna take me." They swapped tales for a while before I figured out that they were talking about surfing, of all things — only a dive near Ocean Beach can have this claim to fame. The bartender instinctively refilled one of the men's glasses with Jameson; the dude didn't even need to ask.

Then another man walked in, a bit bent with age. His gray hair was in a Prince Valiant cut, and his eyes were rheumy. He sat next to me, and when he smiled at me his face lit up. I asked him if he had been coming here for a long time, and he said yes. "Is this your first time?" he asked me, and I nodded. "Hopefully it won't be your last," he beamed. So much for being rejected. This place couldn't have been more inviting.

"Where are you from?" the bartender asked, and when I said Illinois, he began to talk about Chicago, as most people do. (In my experience, no one waxes on about Rockford, or Peoria, or Kankakee.) Soon everyone was discussing Illinois, which has the honor of being closer to Pittsburgh than San Francisco is. The bartender said he was best man at the wedding of the guy who looked like Willie Nelson. That's another thing about old-school bars in S.F. — they are composed of makeshift families.

I did what I always do in these situations, which is to decide right then and there that this is my new favorite bar, and that I will return several times a week. Unfortunately, I rarely follow through. But in this case, maybe.

When I left, the bartender called me "dearie" and said that he hoped I came back. "You bet," I said. And at the time, I meant it. I really did. The moral of this story is: Feel the fear and do it anyway, gentle reader.

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