Best of 2019: Bars & Clubs

Photo by Joe Kukura

MOST OUTSTANDING QUEER BAR

Jolene’s

2700 16th St., jolenessf.com

“You are safe here,” the pink triangle neon sign says, but it would be more accurate to say that “You are having a really great time here.” In opening a large bar, venue, and restaurant — with top-tier coffee! — on 16th and Harrison streets, Jolene Linsangan and her colleagues did something that should be much more normal-sounding than it is: They established a lesbian bar in a city that had gone years without one. Having upgraded UHaul, S.F.’s main party for women who like women and the women who love them, to an every-Friday affair, they made space for an underlooked demographic while also opening a club that’s about as inclusive as it gets. Congratulations, Jolene’s — but also, thank you!

BEST INDIANA JONES VIBES

Last Rites

718 14th St., lastritesbar.com

It’s probably safe to say that San Francisco has enough tiki bars. The announcement of Last Rites — a tiki bar from the folks behind Horsefeather — initially seemed like overkill for a city that already has Pagan Idol, Smuggler’s Cove, and Trad’r Sam (if you dare). Instead, the inventive interior decor conjures the jungles of an Indiana Jones escapade, from the airplane seats that line the bar to the actual airplane fuselage incorporated into the back of the space. Dense foliage and oversized skulls add to what the partners behind Last Rites have termed “Polynesian Noir.” While that term feels dangerously close to appropriation territory, there’s no denying the thrill of stepping inside this small slice of the tropics in the Mission.

MOST SUBJECTIVE SPIN-TO-REWARD RATIO

The Wheel at Soda Popinski’s

1548 California St., sodapopinskisf.com

Spinning a wheel to determine your next beverage is a game for the young, and for $12, Soda Popinski’s lets you take your drinking life in your hands. It’s possible that some may view landing on the spaces for a Hand Grenade, four shots of the bartender’s choice, or a Cement Mixer as a victory, but those adventurous souls are possibly insane. Other options on the wheel (which gets updated from time to time) include a Russian Ice Tea, a Bear Fight, and the elusive bottle of champagne. If the concept of combining novelty and alcohol doesn’t make your liver shudder in fear, pony up at Soda Popinski’s and meet your fate.

BEST BAR THAT CONSTANTLY INVENTS NEW CURRENT-EVENT INSPIRED COCKTAILS

DNA Lounge

375 11th St., dnalounge.com

You’ll only find cocktails named R. Kelly’s Tears or the Papa Smurf Cocksucker at the DNA Lounge, whose seven — count ’em! — seven bars invent original cocktails with names taken straight from the headlines or the material being performed that night on stage. The home of Bootie SF, Hubba Hubba Revue, and Mortified started naming cocktails after internet memes during the “Shut up Woman! Get on My Horse!” craze of 2009, and they’ve since started mixing political-themed cocktails like the Self Vaxxer or Sing This Collusion To Me. The Valar Starbuckus was recently added after a famous prop accident on a popular zombies-and-dragons TV program.

BEST BAT SIGNAL

Cold Drinks Bar

644 Broadway, chinalivesf.com

The concept of solving a puzzle to access alcohol has likely jumped the shark at this point. There was a time when knowing the password to the Library Room at Bourbon & Branch would impress your friends — now, you’re lucky to get an eye roll. In contrast, the “gimmick” at Cold Drinks, the “Shanghai dystopian” bar upstairs from George Chen’s sprawling China Live, is so simple that it manages never to wear out its welcome. Treat yourself to a delicious meal of charred Chinese broccoli and sheng jian bao downstairs, then simply look for the painted bats that guide you up a staircase. At the end of your quick journey is a lavishly decorated scotch lounge and just rewards for a momentary treasure hunt.

BEST BOOZY BINGO NIGHT

Bingo Bongo Saturday at the Riptide

3639 Taraval St., riptidesf.com

Everyone at the Outer-most Sunset dive the Riptide gets Jello shots and comes together as a bingo family whenever “O-69” gets called at Bingo Bongo Saturday. It’s free to play from 6 to 8 p.m., when Jean the Bingo Queen and Dr. Bird start awarding prizes to winners in regular bingo, Four Corners, and the aptly named Blackout Round. Most importantly, the Grand Prize winner gets a free $50 bar tab, although in the event of a tie, the victor is determined in a winner-take-all dance-off contest.

BEST LATE-NIGHT MONDAY HAPPY HOUR

Ass-End Happy Hour, Bender’s Bar & Grill

806 South Van Ness Ave., bendersbar.com

It sucks to miss the happy hour cut-off when you can’t make it to the bar by 7 p.m., but you’re  never too late for happy hour on the ass end of a Monday night at Bender’s. Ass-End Happy Hour is every Monday night from 11 p.m. till 2 a.m., with $4 well drinks and $1 off all draft beers. And at the now-16-year-old Bender’s, you can still enjoy one of San Francisco’s only remaining real, old-time jukeboxes that spins everything from Black Sabbath to Roy Orbison to The Raveonettes.

BEST CAN-OF-BEER-AND-SHOT-OF-WHISKEY DEAL

$5 Busch-and-Dickel Whiskey Shot at the Tempest

431 Natoma St., pourguys.com/tempest-bar

A PBR-and-a-shot deal is not uncommon at San Francisco dives, and the no-frills Tempest Bar may have the cheapest version in town with their $6 Pabst and Jim Beam. But the Tempest has an even cheaper option when you head for the mountains with the $5 Busch and Dickel shot, featuring two beverages you have probably not stooped to drinking in years. The staff is not as quick to serve you if you’re not a regular, though, so do take that into account if you’re looking to catch a game during peak crowd hours.

BEST BAR SAVED* FROM CONDO CONVERSION

Elbo Room

647 Valencia St., elbo.com

After years of a will-they, won’t-they the Elbo Room closed at the start of 2019. But instead of the painful prospect that the Valencia Street bar would be replaced by condos — as had been the party line for years — its successors said it would remain mostly as is. The new building owners, including Steve Schefsky of Playland Bar on Polk Street, promise to SF Weekly in December that Elbo Room would reopen a few weeks after its closure didn’t quite pan out. But five months later, people spotted some severe-looking construction and the owners announced it would instead be called the Valencia Room — and it had shows booked in the weeks ahead. Hurray! (We think.)

Image: Kevin Christopher Burke/Flickr

 

BEST BREWERY TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT WORKERS’ RIGHTS

Anchor Brewing

1705 Mariposa St., anchorbrewing.com

Don’t take The Good Place’s theory on it: Modern civilization has made every last consumer decision an affirmation of exploitation by those at the top. But there are times when we know for sure which companies deserve our patronage. It didn’t come easy for Anchor Brewing, whose workers sought wages and benefits that would allow them to survive in San Francisco. A March vote to become the first known unionized craft-brewing workforce means workers have more leverage over their economic situation — much to the dismay of Sapporo, the Japanese giant that bought the brewery in 2017. But Anchor Steam has tasted that much more satisfying since then.

BEST GENTRIFICATION-PROOF BAR

Club Waziema

543 Divisadero St., clubwaziema.com

In the past 10 years, Divisadero Street has lost Mojo Bicycle Cafe, Health Haven Market, Helen’s Wigs, and its dollar store — among many others. With the addition of renowned restaurant Che Fico, luxury leather shop Tanner Goods, and the massive gamer paradise Emporium, the corridor has transformed into a chic nightlife destination far out of the price range of many nearby residents. But one business has ridden out the wave of gentrification without changing a thing. Club Waziema still has its glittery popcorn ceiling, furry Victorian wallpaper, and beers that cost $5. The service is slow, the tables are a little sticky, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a local sour brewed in wine barrels on tap, but on a street where $13 cocktails are now the norm, it continues to be a true breath of fresh air.

BEST GIN-AND-TONIC IMPROVEMENT UNDER ONE ROOF

Dalva to Hideout

3121 16th St., dalvasf.com

Gin and tonics are one of the easiest highballs to make. But they can come out as a delicious craft drink or tasting like rubbing alcohol. While it’s a classic Mission spot for sure, Dalva on 16th and Valencia may serve you the gin-heavy, tougher-to-swallow kind. But for a few dollars more, its second bar in the backroom. Hideout, makes a memorable, refreshing Gin and Celery Tonic using bitters that you may order multiple of in a short amount of time. It’s best ordered on a weeknight to enjoy in a crowd-free version of the dark and candlelit tavern with its mounted squirrels and other taxidermy.

BEST ACTUAL IRISH PUB

Parkside Tavern

1940 Taraval St., parksidetavernsf.com

Not to be mistaken for North Beach’s upscale Park Tavern, this Sunset District pub doesn’t lean too hard on the Erin Go Bragh kitsch. That alone makes it more trustworthy than many of the city’s Irish bars that feel like it’s St. Patrick’s Day every day of the year. Parkside Tavern on Taraval Street takes pride in serving the neighborhood’s “diverse clientele,” which includes Irish folks and Asian American families alike — all bonding over Irish beer and Warriors games. The cocktail options, from its Beachside Basil to Dark Dubliner, are enticing, but the food — from oyster shooters and chicken curry to cottage pie and bangers and mash — makes the restaurant a destination in its own right. See how subtle the Irish influence is?

Photo by Joe Kukura

 

BEST NEON SIGN

Doc’s Clock

2417 Mission St., docsclock.com

When the dive bar moved 800 feet north to 2417 Mission St. in 2017, the question of its iconic, half-a-century old marquee sign remained unsettled. Neon signs have delicate tubing that flows with gas, illuminated through a complicated electric set-up that involves transformers. Moving them can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. But enough people rallied behind the beloved sign reading “DOC’S CLOCK COCKTAIL TIME” to raise nearly $15,000, and the sign has been lit up at its new home since September 2018. Some adjustments were made, but the electric blue cocktail glass sits on the side, in all its neon glory. 

WITTIEST COCKTAIL

Bon Voyage’s Rancho Mirage

584 Valencia St., bonvoyagebar.com

Seasoned Palm Springs visitors know that when you hit Interstate 10 to drive home, you can stop in Cabazon — the town with the giant roadside dinosaurs — for a cooling, creamy date shake at Hadley’s. So in opening Bon Voyage, their follow-up to the storied Trick Dog, the Bon Vivants wanted to pay homage to a very specific type of date shake. Co-owner Josh Harris’ father grew up on a date farm in the Coachella Valley, and so he created the Rancho Mirage out of scotch, rum, and dates, plus an Armenian spice blend they concocted. Blended and served over crushed ice, it’s a refreshing and clever love letter to Dad.

BEST NEW NEIGHBORHOOD BAR

Fool’s Errand

639A Divisadero St., foolserrandsf.com

Third time’s the charm for John Dampeer, who had difficulty with foot traffic at Noe Valley’s Hamlet and Caskhouse before opening Fool’s Errand in the former Cafe Mojo on Divis. It’s more of a bar with good food than a restaurant with quality drinks, and the European-heavy wine list attracts patrons who spill out onto the sidewalk bursting with merriment. (There’s a parklet, too, and free popcorn at happy hour.) The beer side of the board includes plenty of heavy-hitters on draft along with innovative sours and ciders by the bottle. Want some cheese and charcuterie with that? You got it. The ingredients for success are right there, and to put it very simply, Fool’s Errand is what we want in a neighborhood bar.

CUTEST WINE BAR

Indian Paradox

258 Divisadero St., indianparadoxsf.com

The “disco fry eggs” at Kavitha Raghavan’s humor-filled, pan-Indian Divisadero wine bar are just one of the reasons to dash over there on a weekend to beat other people to one of the few tables. They trace back to a street-vendor practice of cooking eggs with one hand while buttering bread with the other, and they taste like a divine Egg McMuffin. Indian Paradox’s decor is full of brightly hued fabrics and eyes that may be giving you a come-hither stare or warding off evil spirits, and it owes its name to the conundrum that India’s street food goes very well with wine even as large parts of the country prohibit alcohol consumption. “Chaat happens,” as the sign says. Yes: sometimes with a glass of Lucien Albrect’s Brut Rosé Cremant d’Alsace.

MOST ECOLOGICALLY RESPONSIBLE VENUE

The Midway

900 Marin St., themidwaysf.com

Experiencing live music for hours on end takes plenty of hydration, leaving the floors littered with plastic bottles by the time the lights come on. California’s municipalities are starting to tackle this issue, but Dogpatch art, food, and music venue The Midway is ahead of the curve. It permits concert-goers to bring bottles that they may refill, as opposed to places that don’t allow outside liquids. Plus, it started selling refillable aluminum bottles for $6 instead of single-use plastic water bottles for $4. They’ve reduced bottle consumption by two-thirds, and plan to expand the ban to other Non Plus Ultra venues like the San Francisco Mint.

BEST REASON TO HANG OUT IN INGLESIDE

Ocean Ale House

1314 Ocean Ave., oceanalehouse.com

If residents of more happening neighborhoods in town consider the Ingleside not worth the trek, that’s their loss. Ocean Ale House, on Ocean Avenue about half a mile from the Balboa Park BART station, offers craft brews and live music in front of Eli Lippert’s dazzling seascape mural a good distance from Mission crowds. Regulars come for the trivia nights and the jam sessions and stay for the rotating beer selections from smaller name but underrated brewers like San Francisco’s Witbier. (They’re written on a surfboard on one wall.) The first location of the Gap was nearby, and Ingleside has retained a quasi-undiscovered feel that locals appear to appreciate very much.

 

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