Years ago in Antwerp I stumbled across the perfectly named gay bar: "Homo Erectus." Not even Oscar Wilde could do better, and according to glory hole graffiti preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, he tried.
I didn't go inside, both because I'm not the target audience and because the name was so perfect that I couldn't imagine the club living up to it. Some hype is just too high to clear, even with a stiff pole.
Durty Nelly's, an Irish bar at the inner edge of San Francisco's Outer Sunset, has the same curse. The name inspires the imagination like a vulgar Sermon on the Mount. It gives the weary traveler hope that the other legends of the Outer Sunset ... the pizza place without a name, the late-night Korean restaurant in a converted residential garage ... are also real.
Alas, Durty Nelly's is not a den of iniquity for the Irish mob or the fountain of youth with a stripper pole: Step inside and it's nothing but a very good neighborhood bar. Durty Nelly's strength is that it never tries to be anything else. It's one of the only intentionally humble bars in San Francisco, a city where "humility" is counted among the seven deadly sins.
There's nothing faux about Durty Nelly's Irish heritage: From the bartenders to the customers, it boasts a wonderful array of Irish accents, while also nurturing a diverse crowd. On a good night there are probably more Asians in this 600-square-foot room than in all of County Kildare, but the Gaelic lilt never subsides.
The bar is "cozy" without being snug. The specials are written on a blackboard, the windows have curtains and flower boxes. It boasts five TVs, but they somehow manage to remain inconspicuous, which is even better than no TVs. The regulars are friendly and welcoming, if a little protective. "You from around here?" is the first question you get asked. Durty Nelly's has mastered the art of being a neighborhood bar first and last, and what more do you want?
A real beer list, to start. The beer selection at Durty Nelly's is so un-ambitious as to be un-imaginative. Heineken, Sam Adams, Blue Moon, yawn. "You got Miller Genuine?" a patron asks the bartender in a beautiful Irish brogue, and my heart breaks a little. Honest-to-god, what gives Irish bars the idea that pouring a mean pint of Guinness is enough?
The whiskey selection is equally small and bland — surprising given that, according to Irish legend "Durty Nelly" is the woman who introduced Ireland to its own signature form of moonshine, "poteen" (also called "craythur," "itself," "Finnegan's Wake-Up," and "Merciful Jesus What Have I Put in my Mouth?"). Come on, people: Macallan 12 Year is a great start, but it is just a start — not a laurel you can rest on. If the original Durty Nelly has any sense of shame — and I hope she doesn't — she's hanging her head in it.
All this makes Durty Nelly's a bar for people who like bars rather than a bar for people who like drinks. You don't come for the selection of bottles; you come for the selection of people. You come for the fact that it's easy to sit in among the regulars and chat, and that people dance to the music with absolutely no self-consciousness.
Why is it that there are so few good, unpretentious neighborhood bars in this city? My hypothesis: San Francisco is still a Gold Rush town, full of people who believe that they're just one find, one step, one invention, one tweet, one deal, one election, one yoga pose, away from their utopia. They put everything they are into their dreams, which is admirable, and leads to amazing things in the aggregate — but individual dreams don't last, and most are just incoherent.
The best neighborhood bars could strive to be more, but choose not to; they're just happy to be here. They're comfortable in their own skin, which is the basis for humility, a trait that just doesn't play among people yearning to strike gold.
Durty Nelly's is a humble bar, one that's not striving for anything, despite everything that it has to brag about. It's easy to forget in San Francisco, a city where the cutting edge isn't sharp enough, that comfortable bars are not only possible, but a damn good time. There will always be someplace to find great mixology. Simple fun is harder to order up and easier to ruin. Camaraderie is almost impossible to serve fresh if you're trying to impress.
It turns out humility really is a virtue. "Durty Nelly's" is the wrong name for the right bar.