What About the Dive Bars?

SF's watering holes face an existential threat.

With its brick walls and taxidermied ungulates, the parklet that Bob Wait built outside The Page on Divisadero Street was, in his words, “a $20,000 gamble.” 

Along with the newfound ability to walk down the street sipping a margarita without fear of getting SWATted, San Francisco’s parklet program is perhaps the best development in what has otherwise been an unplunge-able toilet of a year for the city’s bars and restaurants. In the Page’s case, the outdoor space lent new emphasis to the term “neighborhood bar,” since Wait’s construction crew and suppliers were all local. 

“Once the city reopens, we’re obviously hoping we’re allowed to continue to serve outside, and without a food mandate,” Wait says, calling that wrinkle an “odd linkage of food with morality.” 

With the bar running at about 40 percent of its typical revenue during the fall, the parklet was a way to survive. But Wait wanted something more, something the neighborhood could be proud of — even if the program governing parklets is set to expire on New Year’s Eve. Long interested in outdoor service, Wait hopes the crisis may force the city to recognize what’s been here all along.

“How many cities would kill for not only the economic vitality they represent, but the creative citizens behind them?” he says. “Why shouldn’t an adult in 2021 be able to enjoy a martini sitting at a table on our sidewalk? Why shouldn’t a bar be able to fill up a take-home growler with an awesome regional draught beer? As I say, up until the pandemic, such a thing was illegal, inconceivable — and even now, it is only legal if you chuck down a huge burrito with it.”

Bars like The Page, Wait says, have become fewer and fewer since he moved here 30 years ago. 

“Perhaps it’s all part of a natural, inexorable process of turnover that’s been going on in this city for 200 years,” he says, “but I’m not sure what replaces that character when small, owner-operated bars disappear.” 

The Page on Divisadero Street.

In determining how to respond to COVID, a bar’s history can weigh heavily on its ownership. The Page replicated its interior curbside, but the 17-member collective that owns famed SoMa queer bar The Stud chose to pre-emptively shut down months before the expiration of their lease.

“We spent months trying to figure out how to do a live, in-person, socially distanced drag show and it hit a point where we said, ‘This is not going to happen. There’s no way we can integrate all the city departments and restrictions and permits in order to do it safely,” says Rachel Ryan, a member of the collective, noting the Catch-22 of the bar having a mobile liquor license it can’t use because the State Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) isn’t issuing catering permits.

The bar will return, Ryan insists, and for now she’s been selling Stud merch at holiday pop-ups and Shared Spaces events. The Stud also has an active Patreon that’s connected to its podcast on the queer history of San Francisco and to a monthly drag show called Drag Alive.

“We are still scheming to see everybody’s cute, masked faces in 2021,” she says. “Closing is what will make it possible for us to come back.”

CLOSING TIME

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography with the “I know it when I see it” rule, and dive bars are much the same. They’re often old, usually dark, and covered in decades worth of tchotchkes, some of them cryptic to even the longest-term patrons. They’re pro-union, pro-Giants, and pro-cop. They open early, cater to working-class people and their admirers, pour shots and beer and awful wine, decorate for the holidays, play non-mainstream music, serve comfort food if they have a kitchen, and generally look as though they’re getting by on the measured affection of gruff people who love to argue with strangers and who can drink more than you ever will. 

They were also disappearing before the pandemic. But now, weeks into a post-Thanksgiving surge in which as many as 50,000 Californians are testing positive for coronavirus daily, the Bay Area is under a lockdown nearly as severe as the first, with outdoor dining suspended until at least January. April’s camaraderie has given way to demands for hard data to back up these policy choices, and high-ranking public officials’ meals at the three-Michelin-starred French Laundry have caused hairline cracks to appear in what once looked like genuine solidarity.

From politicized science at the CDC to UC Berkeley closing its dorms over the holidays while telling its students not to travel, from contradictory court rulings on travel to SFMTA calling outdoor dining a “vital lifeline” that’s nonetheless “temporarily paused,” governmental guidance has been riddled with contradictions at all levels. Consequently, S.F. supervisors are demanding clarity, unemployed restaurant workers have rallied outside City Hall, and both Chinatown and Japantown face extinction.

Against this near chaos, well-connected restaurants hoover up the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, reducing mom-and-pop operations to fight for scraps. All the while, the hand-wringing over just what San Francisco will look like in six or 12 months mostly skims over the matter of neighborhood bars and dives. As more than one dive owner said, not many people are opening new ones. Aesthetically, they’re wholly unlike the antiseptic, white-subway-tile places that open in their stead, but as local hangouts, they’re irreplaceable. Indeed, without them, San Francisco would be a fundamentally altered city. And in many instances, they’re barely hanging on.

The Columbus Cafe, during happier days.

Will DeVault is one of three former Columbus Cafe bartenders who took the 80-year-old bar over earlier this year. Their beginning was hardly auspicious: The paperwork went through the day after the Super Bowl, causing them to miss one of the biggest moneymaking nights of the year, and then COVID brought everything to a halt just before St. Patrick’s Day.

“We were open for about a month,” DeVault says. “It wasn’t looking good, to be honest. It just gave us a lot of time to refurbish the bar.”

Fortunately, Columbus is situated on the restaurant-heavy block of Green Street that drew throngs thick enough to make drivers think twice. On weekend nights this summer, it was popping — not quite Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, but hipper than Kansas City’s open-container-friendly Power & Light District and less collegiate than Sixth Street in Austin. (At present, during lockdown, the bar relies in large part on referrals of a sort, from people ordering food to-go elsewhere and stopping by Columbus for a specific drink to wash it down.)

“It is strange for us, being able to actually serve people outside. It’s antithetical to what we’ve experienced forever,” says DeVault, who came up working the door. “Beforehand, if people took a drink outside, it was a big deal and we had to stop that and we could get in big trouble.”

His biggest criticism of the new rules is not that they’re arbitrary — “I believe it’s in the city’s interest for us to do well,” he says — that they have not been communicated effectively and change too often. Sometimes, Columbus learned about the changes by hearing them on the radio.

The city “can send inspectors to see if we’re doing things right, but they can’t give us really direct information or let us know immediately what to do and how to do it,” he says. “We get emails from different departments: Public Health, the City of San Francisco, the state ABC laws, the health department, the fire department. It’s pretty confusing and stressful.”

They’re doing their best, he adds, paying for all the certifications, but “it’s difficult to know to whom we have to look for those protocols.”

After months of adjustment, DeVault (and other nightlife pros) says most patrons follow the rules or immediately correct any slip-ups. In spite of its strip clubs and bohemian reputation, North Beach does not seem to have drawn extra scrutiny, and Columbus Cafe is fortunate in that the neighborhood’s bar community is tight. Beyond the pre-existing North Beach Business Association, the area’s bars have banded together to look out for one another, meeting weekly and creating “For the Love of North Beach” posters that explain the COVID regulations to patrons in less thou-shalt-not terms than the official signage.

“If one of our businesses in the immediate neighborhood is doing things that draw attention to our neighborhood, or isn’t COVID-safe, it reflects poorly [on everyone],” DeVault says. 

As things stand, he’s frank that Columbus Cafe can last another month without any assistance, but during this hiatus he and his partners have spruced up the main bar as well as the downstairs room. If, post-COVID, they’re allowed to reopen with the parklet, that could help them make up for what they’ve lost in a few years.

“For me, it’s do or die,” DeVault says. “I’m not giving up until I’m forced to. I’m committed to making this bar work.”

PUBLIC HOUSES

Teague Kernan, who owns North Beach live music venue Tupelo as well as wine bar Bella Cora, echoes DeVault’s point about how staying open is in the city’s best interests. The neighborhood has worked hard to maintain its cafe culture and Old Europe feel, but it’s also seen a rising number of vacancies, and blight begets blight. Even incremental changes to the streetscape that encourage outdoor dining can generate trade-offs.

“I started a nonprofit called North Beach Pedestrian Project,” Kernan says. “I’ve gone around several times to map out what makes sense. If you close the streets to vehicle traffic, some have to turn one-way, and you have to address retail that might suffer negatively — like a dry-cleaner that requires at least a pick-up and drop-off location.” 

The situation is somewhat counterintuitive, he says, in that to preserve North Beach, North Beach will have to change, and many businesses that have been around for generations have resisted. Perpetuating the status quo will all but ensure a cascading series of empty storefronts, with neighborhood bars among the most vulnerable.

“Whether it’s the health department ordinances or the way the city’s addressing taking action or not taking action, it’s kind of leaving the neighborhood bar out of this equation,” he says. “That’s a shame, because there’s a huge demographic in San Francisco that’s there. It’s the same as the English pubs: This is where people come to congregate, where stories are shared. It’s a really valuable resource [during COVID] just in terms of an emotional level, being able to talk to other people who are going through the same thing. Bars have always been places of therapy.” 

From an urbanist perspective, they’re also a valuable night-time use of the street, sources of light and safety. Anyone can run down to the corner to buy booze, Kernan says, but most people are willing to pay more for the social interaction. A neighborhood bar’s role as an everybody-knows-your-name locale that exceeds its strict purpose as a business, filtering into the fabric of the city in random and wonderful ways. 

DeVault and Kernan have legitimate struggles, but at least their businesses anchor a nightlife district. Just across Columbus Avenue, where North Beach bleeds into Russian Hill, the 50-year-old Hawaii West might as well be on Kaho‘olawe, the Hawai‘ian island that’s off-limits due to unexploded ordnance from World War II. 

“It’s been terrible,” owner Nolan Kellett says. “We’ve been serving food to go, and that’s slow. I’m just trying my best to keep the doors open.”

Kellett’s grandmother bought the bar in the 1950s and later sold it, but his parents bought it back in 1969 and it’s been in the family ever since. Kellett still has his day job as a building inspector, which forces him to travel. No matter what, his days at 729 Vallejo St., are numbered, as the landlord, a dentist, wants to relocate his office to the space.

“The building was sold and I got limited time here,” he says. 

Sup. Aaron Peskin, a supporter, encouraged Kellett to apply for legacy-business status under a program created several years ago to provide rent stabilization to eligible small-businesses that have been around for at least 30 years. He did, but the office later closed for COVID and his application languished, and Kellett found himself frequently out of town.

A quirky tiki bar, Hawaii West serves tropical drinks, spam musubi, and loco moco — but also an Impossible Burger — beside a pool table and a thatched, palapa-style structure. Unlike its flashier brethren from the pre-pandemic tiki-bar revival, you won’t find falernum-filled, $80 oversized drinks for four. (Disclosure: Upon stepping down as editor of SF Weekly, this writer had their going-away party there.)

“All different ranges of people come here, a lot of diversity,” Kellett says. “When my mom and dad were here, we had a lot of Hawai‘ian bands, and it’s been quite an experience. There’s over 4,000 Bay Area businesses that have been closed already and I’m still here and I’m grateful, but just the struggle alone takes a lot out of a person.”

LAST CALL

For Aaron Buhrz, the owner of Beauty Bar in the Mission, survival comes down to who owns your building.

“We’re doing well because we have an understanding landlord,” he says. “If you don’t, you’re screwed. That’s where people are going out of business. I’ve been in business for 22 years with the same landlady now, and she’s going with the flow.”

He’s essentially jogging in place, he says, and a decent day pays PG&E or the garbage bill. (“Decent” is also highly subjective, since Buhrz is operating with no employees and doesn’t pay himself.)

Within one block of Beauty Bar, at the corner of Mission and 19th streets, the entire ecosystem of S.F. bars and restaurants exists in microcosm, from Taqueria Cancun and Pete’s Bar-B-Que to Gracias Madre and Lazy Bear. Most, if not all, are in various states of precarity, and Buhrz’s outlook is a mix of optimism and pessimism.

“We’ve already lost so much, with the dotcom boom and the high rents,” he says. “We’re going to lose everything. Tons of people are asking me if I’m selling my business, suckfish looking for businesses that are struggling: ‘I’ll buy you out for peanuts.’ It’s rough. It’s gonna be really hard on the city.”

His final verdict is of the we’ll-just-have-to-see stripe, although in noting the exodus of highly compensated tech workers, Buhrz repeats a familiar hope that maybe the vacuum will let the artists and weirdos return. The new regulatory regime isn’t helping, though.

“The whole making us serve food is ridiculous,” he says. “I would just pull back on that.” 

The Last Call.

The requirement that patrons eat while the drink has a logic to it: It keeps you from getting overly intoxicated while forcing you to support a struggling business. It has also forced bars that lack kitchens of their own to partner with a restaurant, something that’s easy when there’s a pizzeria across the street. Or maybe it results in a genuine synergy, like Dogpatch bar Third Rail serving Wooly Pig’s Shanghai-braised pork. But bars without a willing restaurant partner in a convenient radius are out of luck.

One such place is Last Call, perhaps the coziest bar in the Castro (and certainly one of the greatest jukeboxes in all of San Francisco). It lies a block outside the perimeter of 18th Street’s Shared Spaces program, the SFMTA’s Sunday afternoon pilot project that closes streets off to traffic entirely. Lacking a kitchen, Last Call can’t even install a parklet because there’s a Ford bicycle rack directly out front. Owner Kevin Harrington says nobody requested the bikes, and only one tenant in the apartments upstairs ever received a notice. Hemmed in, Last Call has been closed since March.

“Technically, I think I could put a few tables out front, but you need at least six feet for people to pass by” for ADA compliance, he says. 

The rules also penalize lean operations. Harrington and his partner worked enough shifts that they only needed one employee, but if they were hypothetically to open now, they would legally need two staffers on at all times — during the limited hours of noon to 8 p.m. They took out a PPP loan but repaid it quickly once they realized that a certain percentage of it had to go toward payroll. 

And as far as partnering with a restaurant goes, the only eatery within a reasonable distance is Kasa, an Indian spot that’s closing to become a cannabis dispensary called Element 7.

“I think there’s definitely a bias against standalone bars that don’t have kitchens and stuff,” Harrington says. He’s referring as much to regulations as to corporate philanthropic arms that are loath to extend grants to establishments that serve alcohol. “Honestly, I’m 50-50 about closing. You have to be optimistic, but we’re being realistic. It’s nice that the vaccine is coming in, but it may be September 2021 before everyone gets it. If there’s any glitch, it’s going to validate all these anti-vaxxers’ concerns, and it’ll put a block on everything again. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen, but anything is possible in 2020.”

In other words, it may soon be last call for Last Call. 

HAIR OF THE DOG

As with Prohibition, a disastrous 13-year experiment that came into effect a century ago during the last spasms of a prior pandemic, San Francisco may find that you can only regulate alcohol consumption so far before you start legislating away people’s sense of their own God-given right to live their lives. The spirit of the Barbary Coast never disappeared, and San Francisco is already home to Speakeasy Ales & Lagers as well as mildly insufferable neo-speakeasies like Bourbon & Branch. As if obeying Newtonian mechanics, clandestine places to get a drink are already popping up.

Few bar owners were willing to address the topic of speakeasies at all; the handful that were insisted on total anonymity.

“There’s people watching the Warriors in my bar right now,” one person told us. “They’re separated and wearing masks — nobody wants to get sick. Every bar owner I know has a little something on the side. The hypocritical thing with the governor having a mask-off dinner and forcing us underground? It’s a mess.”

Another individual said they’re part of a Facebook group for bar owners in which a lot of people are angry, both at the city for its byzantine rules and at each other for selectively breaking them. This person notes that occasionally patrons get angry at having to order food with their drinks because they also patronize establishments that let that slide.

“That makes it hard for the ones that follow the rules,” they said. “I think there’s a lot of friction between business owners over that. They’re just trying to survive — but so are we, and we’re scared of being shut down.”

The line between legal and illegal is less distinct than even that. An establishment desperate to stay alive this winter that sets up heaters without proper permitting is arguably in violation of the law. Even when bars are diligent about serving food, the question is still open to Talmudic interpretation: Can two people share an entree? How about six? Does everyone need to order more food with their second round? Outdoor dining is verboten altogether through early January, but not every business that installed a parklet has caution-taped it off or ripped out the benches. If I sit to eat a po’ boy in front of an omakase-tasting-menu joint, who’s actually liable?

CUE’D UP

The best idea that Nancy Chung had during the pandemic was to install an outdoor pool table in her parklet, the first in the city.

“People loved it. They were so stoked!” says Chung, the sole owner of the Wooden Nickel on Folsom Street in the Mission. “People came in saying, ‘Thank you so much! You have no idea how much I needed this.’ It brought a sense of normality.”

Chung wasn’t sure if outdoor billiards is OK — and still isn’t. She called the health department every day for weeks, only to be referred to a liaison elsewhere.

“I kept calling my contact, and her answer was ‘I don’t have an answer. There’s nothing in the guidelines about billiards or anything.’ She said, ‘I’m going to talk to my supervisor and we’ll get back to you.’ This was when gyms were open for outdoor and sports resumed, and I thought billiards was kind of a sport. And if you’re allowing that, what’s the problem with a pool table? She said, ‘I can’t say yes or no.’ ”

A couple of pool sharks outside Wooden Nickel.

Chung took every precaution she could, allowing only small groups, and requiring reservations, masks during games, and email addresses in the event of contact-tracing. She allocated 10 minutes after every game to sanitize the balls, cues, and table, and yet somebody called 311 to complain.

“I was like, ‘Excuse me?’” Chung says. “The first week we brought the pool table out was the first week we broke even since the pandemic. It saved us. It put us on the map. People were like, ‘I didn’t know this place existed.’ Since then, that’s how we were surviving through all of this — and then some fucking asshole called and the city came out, taking pictures and writing a report.”

They didn’t make her close, but the Wooden Nickel’s case is under review. The prospect of reopening in January without the pool table all but guarantees the bar will resume losing money every month even with Chung working seven days a week. Her enthusiasm has not dimmed, although she is frank about her situation.

“This industry is so hard. It was such a broken industry to begin with, and that’s why it couldn’t handle any blows,” she says. “The business model doesn’t work. You need to charge $15 a cocktail and have this cocktail program to draw people in. San Francisco has become that kind of city.

“Businesses can’t stay open for the novelty of it,” Chung adds. “You can’t say ‘I love dive bars!’ and only hang out at the new cool place.”

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