If you find yourself alone in a dark bar on a Sunday afternoon, you're probably an alcoholic. But if you're sitting on a patio, soaking up the sun with a cocktail in hand — you're a bon vivant. Lately, the state of the world has given us plenty of reasons to drink, but we at Summer in the City don't want you cooped up in a dank hole, frustratingly debating the Kashmir situation with some midday lush who thinks you're talking about sweaters.There's something almost wholesome about sitting around a picnic table in dappled sunlight with your friends, drinking specials, eating barbecue, and listening to music. The pick-up vibe isn't really there, and you can actually have a conversation. Smokers can ignore the prohibition and light up. Even on the chilliest night, a patio provides a place to both sip and smoke, avoiding the addiction relay race from barstool to sidewalk.
Here are our choices for the best places to toss a few back alfresco, without being obligated to buy food during those precious 25 days or so that make up our summer.
First, a nod to the classics — San Francisco's mainstays of the backyard beverage. Pier 23's waterfront location has a great mix of sailors, musicians, locals, and tourists unimpressed by the Wharf. You could do a lot worse than a late-Sunday-afternoon funk band and a round of ciders. Zeitgeist has a huge biergarten where bike messengers and assorted hipsters reminiscent of the Armadillo crowd suck back inexpensive beers and full-salad Bloody Marys. For those not yet spun, but still spinning, Friday and Saturday nights are granted an extension into the next afternoon at The EndUp. The dichotomy of DJ music and soothing waterfall pale in comparison to those who've been home to change and those who clearly haven't. El Rio is the granddaddy of groovy dives. Fun, versatile, and racially and sexually diverse, the place has a sprawling back patio and deck and makes room for all kinds — from Corona pounders to sneak-a-tokers. On Saturdays at 3 p.m., pay a $7 cover for a band showcase or DJ. There are salsa lessons and “omnivore barbecue” on Sundays for $8.
China Basin is poised to explode once the UCSF extension gets underway. Enjoy it now at Jelly's, which has pier seating with brunch and drinks until 3 p.m., reopening at 4 p.m. for music and dancing. The Ramp is a comfortable bayside watering hole that feels as if it belongs in a summer resort town. The sprawling Kelly's Mission Rock is great anytime for large groups or just a few friends on a peaceful weekday afternoon.
Before a game at PacBell, kick-start the event at Primo Patio. This Caribbean-style joint is primarily a brunch and lunch spot, but it's open for pre-game ceremonies when the Giants are playing. Too many pitchers of Buli-Buli, a delicious Cuban beverage made of beer, lime, and sugar, and you might not make it to see Robb Nen close the ninth. Java House's patio is actually the Embarcadero. It is a great place to heckle a passing fan of the opposition, as you remind yourself that baseball, at its best, is a lowbrow pastime. Grab a bottle of beer and a cheap cheeseburger, and laugh about the fools crammed in at MoMo's.
Potrero Hill boasts the highest density of outside imbibition, perhaps because it has the great combo of weather and weekend parking. The Bottom of the Hill's back patio is not only a welcome respite from a way-too-loud band, but the $7 Sunday afternoon all-you-can-eat barbecue is well worth the cover. You don't have to order food at the former speakeasy Connecticut Yankee, but you should. It's not just pub grub, but quality vittles in proper portions, such as the Cajun gumbo or French onion soup gratinée. Heaters keep you warm in the evenings. Il Pirata is an underappreciated, friendly neighborhood bar with an overgrown backyard, and on any given day your crew can own the place. Inside there's sports without the sports bar feel. The best newcomer to the alfresco drinking scene this year belongs to Parkside. The staff is fun, plus there are free barbecued oysters on Sundays at 5 p.m., rockabilly music, and soon-to-come movie nights featuring horror and cult films. Some people belong at Foreign Cinema. The rest of us belong here.
Drinking alfresco doesn't always mean getting hammered with your buddies. Belden Place offers an entire side street of restaurants and cafes perfect for bringing your lover, your parents, or out-of-town respectables. If they're not busy with a dinner crowd, most places are happy to sell you a bottle of wine. This and the waiters' accents at Plouf, Tiramisu, and Café Bastille make you feel très Euro. Just up Bush Street, drink like a fish out of water at The Irish Bank, the funkiest, least pretentious bar downtown.
Get all your soccer needs met at The Mad Dog in the Fog. You never know when you'll be shoulder-to-shoulder with a celebratory group of Arsenal fans or a surly crew of Aussie rugby players. In a world of inauthentic pre-fab pubs, the Mad Dog is the real deal, at all hours during the World Cup.
North Beach is sorely lacking in back patios to just drink without ordering food. But down Columbus a piece is Kennedy's, with the best Happy Hour drink specials — around $2 for a Guinness and $5 for Pabst Blue Ribbon pitchers.
The Senegalese Bissap is perfect for a hot night and a cold specialty cocktail. Their tasty and refreshing homemade juices go into such concoctions as tamarind margaritas and the ginger rum punch. Also in the Mission is Atlas, one of the few cafés with a healthy drinking scene. It almost exudes evolution with a dog-friendly policy and bluegrass on Thursday nights.
We had no idea that the dark pit of Lucky 13 had a backyard. But Plato's allegory of the cave could end no better than releasing the unfortunates from their shackles and dragging them outside to the Saturday afternoon barbecue, with free food and $2 pints from the sponsoring brewery.
Pac Heights/Western Addition isn't exactly party central. But sometimes you've got to meet up before a show at The Fillmore. Pride of the Mediterranean has a front patio where you can kick it with some beers, maybe a falafel deluxe, and a hydra of a hookah. You can envision that you're going to see Ravi Shankar instead of The White Stripes.
Also worth checking out are Lou's 47 for live blues starting at noon on Saturdays, The Deck in the Castro, Jack's Cannery, Fritz in Hayes Valley, The Eagle for grilled wieners and leather daddies, and the little-known back patio of the Gold Cane.
There's no reason to have to hide out in the corner of a dark bar when you have options like these. Whether it's a fine Cabernet with your significant other, beer with your buds, or a pitcher of margaritas with the gang, do it in the sunshine.
Dan Dion is a writer and photographer in North Beach.