Darger Bar: A Realm of the Unreal

The former Dear Mom channels an elusive insider artist.

The most ridiculous name for a bar in recent San Francisco history was probably The Unresolved Love Life of Evelyn Lee, a dive on Potrero Avenue that hung on to the sign from its prior incarnation as Mission Hill Bar. (I doubt even the proprietors referred to their watering hole by its full seven-word title more than once or twice.)

Well, those proprietors, who were also behind nearby Dear Mom — as well as Thieves, Whiskey Thieves, and Blind Cat, which was once Dirty Thieves — are back. Dear Mom had a five-year-run of asking passersby if they’d written their maternal parent that day, but in a gruff gambit to keep things fresh and affordable, Dear Mom has slimmed down its kitchen service and become Darger Bar. As owner Paul Bavaro told Hoodline last year, he doesn’t want to serve yet another $15 burger, but the underlying economics were eating into his ability to make a principled stand. So a top-to-bottom refresh was in order — but in the end, there’s still a burger, priced at $13.

The new name is an explicit nod to Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor outsider artist best known from the 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, which looked at the 15,000-page book he’d been slowly creating for most of his adult life. A massive epic called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, it’s an allegory of good and evil with heroines called the Vivian Girls that roughly parallels the American Civil War. And it’s an even more cumbersome title than anything pertaining to the sexcapades of some hapless lady named Evelyn.

In any event, Darger Bar is the same gigantic space on Harrison and 16th streets that Dear Mom was, but with a delightful $10 cocktail called The Vivian. Made from Captain Morgan, pomegranate juice, lime, and simple syrup, and garnished with two edible flowers, it’s one of those sweet-adjacent drinks that makes an inveterate bourbon swiller rethink his or her opposition to sweetness. Or go for the Blengin, a mix of Tanqueray gin, honey, cranberry, and fresh lemon that’s named for a mythical animal Darger made up. If you’d prefer a beer, there are plenty in the $7 range on tap, from Evil Cousin IPA to Radeberger Pilsner to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and bottles and cans running from humble PBR and Olympia to Dogfish Namaste Witbier.

However much the kitchen may have (theoretically) been toned down, it’s putting out a pretty impressive quantity of food, including a chicken pancetta sandwich, 10 chicken wings for $14, three fish tacos for an impressive $9, garlic fries, and various flatbreads. Not everything’s breaded and fried, either. There’s a summer citrus salad dressed with apple cider vinegar for $11.

It’s still a dive, though — and that’s meant as a compliment. There’s foosball and South Park pinball, a wall-mounted plaque commemorating a jerk patron who was banned for life “for egregious acts of drunkenness and being a general asshole,” and a barrel-filled back room with gold ribbon hanging from the ceiling.

It’s not easy see Henry Darger’s stuff up close. His most obvious influence was the late-18th-century British Romantic poet and printmaker William Blake, whose talent was also largely unknown during his lifetime — and who just so happens to have his first exhibition space in many decades right here in San Francisco. On Friday, Sept. 8, the William Blake Gallery hosts the opening party for “Dreams & Visions,” a show built around several mystical plates from Songs of Experience colored by Blake himself. But if wine and cheese and hushed smalltalk aren’t for you, there’s charcuterie and flatscreen TVs and $10 cocktails right here.

Darger Bar, 2700 16th St., 415-644-8445.

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