There are many dogs underfoot as I order two Deschutes IPAs, which is great for two reasons. First, they’re friendly and cute — mutts, all of them — but they also make great distractions when a very intoxicated person won’t stop comparing his hair with my hair and my boyfriend’s mostly bald head. Drunk chatterboxes who don’t quite grasp social cues are usually bearable, but it’s still only about 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and I’m way behind this guy in terms of beer consumption. So I pet whatever four-legged friend comes my way.
Any one of them could be the mascot for this bar, the reborn Riptide, which is in soft reopening mode. It’s been a year and a month since anyone’s been here, because on the morning of Aug. 18, 2015, a two-alarm fire tore through the Great Highway Market on Taraval Street between 46th and 47th avenues and spread next door, incinerating much of The Riptide’s interior — including the caribou head that had been mounted on the wall. (The replacement, Carrie Boo 2, is already up.) It’s a happy occasion for a bar that anchors its neighborhood’s social scene, so you can’t fault anyone for getting a little tipsy a little early. Even if they do pat your pate.
It has not been easy.
“We’ve had so many hoops and hurdles to jump through,” Riptide assistant manager Jean Fontana say, as she sips Red Bull through a straw. “Opening a bar that’s already here is one thing, but opening a bar from scratch is a whole other mess of ponies.”
In other words, the permitting process was thorny because nothing about the original Riptide was grandfathered in. The entertainment license was the steepest hurdle, with a few noise-averse neighbors rallying against the idea. (The man and woman sitting on the stools to my right point out that the bar has been there since the 1940s, so virtually everyone who lives nearby moved there knowing there was a venue within earshot.)
“But,” Fontana says,”we also have a lot of really awesome neighbors who showed up and helped out. At the main entertainment meeting at City Hall, this cat rolls up in support. No one knew who he was. He was like, ‘I just love your bar. I live in the Mission and I don’t get out there that often, but what you guys have to offer is so important for the community in San Francisco. The music venues are closing.’ ”
“The owners were like, ‘Who’s this guy?'” Fontana adds. “He was just some rad dude who showed up. I was like, ‘Make sure you come back and say hi again. I’ll buy you a drink.’ ”
If you’d never been there before, you’d hardly know anything happened. Management decided to start with a soft opening to take it easy on the equipment, but the only sign of the blaze is a singed, load-bearing post, blackened like the base of a giant sequoia that survived a forest fire. People are clearly enjoying the homecoming, as the Riptide’s reputation precedes it. Fontana is adamant: This is no ordinary spot.
It’s “the only bar where as a patron, the bartenders were my actual friends,” she says. “There’s something special about this bar that other places don’t have. Especially because everything’s free — except for the drinks. We want to offer a good time for the neighborhoods. It’s an effort to get out here if you don’t live here. It’s like, ‘Come out, we’re great, see how fun we are!’ ”
The Riptide isn’t the only beloved S.F. dive bar to have endured a fire, either. A much-larger conflagration in the Mission in June displaced 58 people, destroyed Cole Hardware and Plaza Azul, and severely damaged the 3300 Club. (When asked for information about that bar’s recovery schedule, owner Theresa Keane was unable to furnish any definitive answers. “My dad started working at the bar in 1956, so you can imagine how difficult this is for us,” she told SF Weekly by email, noting that her family was “devastated.”)
Fontana is sympathetic. At least one 3300 Club bartender is a regular at The Riptide.
“Everybody knows everybody around the bar scene right now,” she says. “Especially dive bars.”
The loyalties don’t just extend from patrons to the bar, either. In an industry marked by high turnover and constant staff poaching, Fontana notes that the employees didn’t vanish, even after more than a year.
“We tried to keep most of the same staff, but obviously some people had to move or found other jobs,” she says.
She herself has worked there for quite a while, at first calling numbers on bingo night and eventually subbing in on the fly for someone who’d hurt themselves.
“One day, someone sprained their ankle, and they were like, ‘Well, Jean, you know the bar, you want to just bartend?’ That’s kind of how I got here. Everyone says I Showgirl‘ed my way in and pushed someone down the stairs, but I’ve been here bout five or six years.”
It’s a busy shift, and I’m reluctant to take up too much of her time. I thank her and extend my hand, but she’s having none of it.
“You guys want another beer?” she asks. “You’re all the way out here, you might as well.”
The Riptide 3639 Taraval St. 415-681-8433 or riptidesf.com