All bars are great. Every last one of them, even the nightclubs that advertise on the sides of Muni buses. I have my favorites, of course, and I never miss the ones in hotels or airports. That's why Gordon Biersch on the Embarcadero is my one-stop shop for a bar that seems inspired by both. You have the travelers, who make up 90 percent of the clientele — close your eyes and you can imagine yourself in the lobby of a Holiday Inn. Then you have the building itself, which looks like an airplane hangar and is furnished with industrial-grade restaurant seating that can probably be hosed off at the end of the night.
Gordon Biersch is named for two guys, Dan Gordon and Dean Biersch. According to their press releases, they got started in the Bay Area in the late '80s with a dream and a brewman's certificate from Germany. They became very successful, and now bill themselves as the largest local brewery, making them a pariah for San Franciscans' obsession with all things indie and noncorporate. I'm sure this really bums Gordon and Biersch out when they are off playing polo or refueling their jets. The beer is actually pretty good, despite not being created on a kibbutz in Mendocino. The two also claim to be the inventors of garlic fries, or at least to have popularized them here.
I like this place because when you are at the Ferry Building and in need of a drink, all you have to do is meander down the street. Even the nearsighted can spy the Biersch silo in front of the gigantic building.
The other day I tootled down to the Embarcadero. It was our first sunny day in a long time, and my downtown wanderings pulled me closer and closer to the brightness of the boardwalk. I emerged by the big fountain directly across from the Ferry Building, then crossed the street and entered the edifice to check out the usual suspects: Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread, and whatever high-end, anodized cast-iron cookware companies were in attendance. It was nuts, and every single employee of every single place looked miserable. It is at times like these that I begin to feel self-conscious and embarrassed. "I am not a tourist!" I want to yell at the Top-Sidered hipster slacker working the gelato stand. "I am a journalist, purely collecting data for a hard-hitting yet bullshit column about nothing!"
I have always said that the only thing that separates me from a vegan is my love of cheese. (And also my love of eggs, honey, and meat.) I bought a bushel of cheese at Cowgirl and then gingerly got the hell out of there and back into the sunshine. I headed left and there it was, in all its glory: Gordon Biersch. There would be no surprises there, but there would be plenty of people to chat up — out-of-towners for whom it would be my job to ensure they had the best possible visit. I get a power trip from even the tiniest bit of direction-giving that fuels my hubris for a month. "Which way is Market Street?" they ask. I immediately turn my entire body into a semaphore of information, working with my arms and voice to make sure that they are fully taken care of. From there, satisfied with my good deed, I continue down the street.
"Spare some change?" a bedraggled street urchin asked.
"Get a fucking job," I rejoined.
But back to Biersch. I situated myself along the shrine to flatscreen TVs known as the bar. It wasn't as crowded with people in San Francisco shirts as I had expected. In fact, I found myself next to a gentlemen who was all by himself and not in any way wearing an Escapee from Alcatraz hat. We nodded kindly at one another.
Damn, the garlic fries did look good. I suppose not getting them would be like going to New Orleans and not eating a beignet. My seatmate must've noticed my internal debate, because he said, "They look good, huh?" "Yuppers," I said, adding that you could put garlic on a curling stone and I would eat it.
We made more small talk after that. He was in town for the weekend from Oregon. He had seen Fisherman's Wharf, Coit Tower, and the Mrs. Doubtfire house. He remarked how clean the city buses were. I just stared at him, remembering the time a lady peed on me on the 22-Fillmore.
"Hey," he said, leaning in so that I could tell he was going to ask me a question about San Francisco. Here was another lost soul who needed my sage advice. "Can you tell me where in the city I can find a Wal-Mart?"
I froze. So many directions to go in! Should I just say no, we don't have any? Or should I tell him that is tantamount to asking a Taliban member where the best Afghan titty bars are? A true know-it-all such as myself could also explain exactly why Wal-Mart is the Antichrist and direct him to some good documentaries. I was taking so long to figure out my response that he added, "Just the closest one, if you know it."
"You'd have to drive a long time to see a Wal-Mart in this neck of the woods," I told him, taking the middle ground. "Wal-Mart is the Gordon Biersch of power retailing — big, corporate, and not to be trusted around here."
He looked puzzled. It was like he was in a horror movie, and had just gotten into town. He had stopped at the local tavern and told me he was staying at the Old Abandoned Johnson Farm. The music stops, and everyone turns and looks at him with foreboding.
"They are the only place that carries my medication," he admitted, and I suddenly felt sort of bad for the guy. I told him I thought there was one in the East Bay. "Google it," I said (the universal answer for everything).
My fries were finally plonked in front of me, and they were as good as I had hoped. More and more people began piling in, which maybe was because there had been some sort of local sporting event. Either that or this was the last stop on the Bay Quackers tour. I paid and left and began the long tootle back to downtown. I passed myriad people with maps, all looking up into the sky, as they tend to do. Having exhausted all of my chitchat and assistance at Biersch, I had already decided what I would say if anyone needed help: Google it.
No one asked.