I fantasize about a massive, pristine convenience. Brilliant gold taps, virginal white marble, a seat carved from ebony, a cistern full of Chanel No. 5, and a flunky handing me pieces of raw silk toilet roll ….
— Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor)
So we're home late one night watching this classic scene from the video Trainspotting. You know, the one where Renton's really gotta go, and he's forced to use the most god-awful toilet in Scotland. We consider Renton's predicament with detached horror, while simultaneously thinking about SF Weekly's annual “Best of” issue. And suddenly, we have an A-ha! moment. Best restroom! Why doesn't the Weekly have a category for best restroom?! What a glaring omission! But while brainstorming all the bathroom possibilities in the city, we realize it would be difficult narrowing the list to just one. And there is another, more vexing problem: How could we cite the best restrooms without also mentioning the worst? In the end, we decide that the concept has to be its own piece.
So, without further ado, we're proud to present SF Weekly's exclusive “Best and Worst Restrooms in San Francisco.” Our list is in no particular order; however, we've alternated the good and bad so that readers don't become too nauseated. For purposes of this study, hotel lobby restrooms have been excluded due to their generally superior quality. For the opposite reason, public transit restrooms have been excluded.
Taqueria Can-Cun (2288 Mission at 19th Street)
We hadn't been to the Can-Cun commode in years for one simple reason: fear. But our journalistic integrity demanded that we pay another visit. Upon arrival, we're relieved (no pun intended) to find the thing's occupied. We wait in the fluorescently lit hall and listen to the occupant's exotic bodily noises and incessant hacking. Someone's dying in there. After 15 minutes, a kindly Can-Cun employee notices our dilemma and allows us entry into the “Employees Only” bathroom. We bravely enter.
This is not a bathroom, people; it's a dungeon. The walls are of primitive stone and mortar, and there's a black wrought-iron grate covering what might have been a window in another century. The room is filled with junk: cardboard boxes, a mop sitting in toxic mop water, and a black plastic bag covering a large object we assume is a dead body. There's menacing graffiti, a puddle of urine, and God knows what else splattered on the floor.
Speaking into our mini-tape recorder in this crime scene makes us feel like an investigator on CSI: San Francisco. Omigod! What is that? In the corner of the dungeon is the largest cockroach we've ever seen. Most certainly a NYC breed. He's stuck on his back, legs kicking in the air, clearly in distress. He doesn't look like he's gonna make it. And we thought cockroaches were indestructible.
RNM Restaurant (598 Haight at Steiner)
We explored some of the fancier dining establishments around town, but were consistently underwhelmed. Given the prices at some of these joints, we expected something really earth-shattering. Something along the lines of the “Sonovac Zero Gravity Toilet” from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The bathroom at RNM doesn't have a Space Age toilet, but it's still damn nice. It rated exceptionally high on 21 out of 22 criteria on our ratings chart. (If you must know, it was missing a hook on the door for your jacket/purse.) Plus, it's got ambience up the wazoo. There's a vase of fresh flowers on the stainless-steel counter. Next to that is a glowing, basketball-size orb, which gives you this handsome yet devilish underlit effect when you check yourself in the mirror. (Sort of Kubrick-esque, actually.) Soothing music is piped in via little speakers in the ceiling. And the bathroom is wonderfully odorless. How do they pull this off? Is it the flowers? The orb? Or maybe that toilet really is a Sonovac?
Zeitgeist (199 Valencia at Duboce)
We'd like to acknowledge an obvious but important fact of life. A bad restroom is harder on a woman than on a man. If you've ever wondered why women have such strong legs, it's because they've spent their entire lives nervously hovering over bad toilets. (Yes, we believe “hover” is the right word.)
After exploring the bathroom at Zeitgeist, we became even more concerned about the plight of women in our city. It's not pretty in there. Zeitgeist's has to be the busiest bathroom on our entire list; there's always a huge line going way out to where they barbecue that buffalo or goat or whatever. Plus, the Zeitgeist bathroom is unisex, so women, unfortunately, get the worst of both worlds.
But in our relentless restroom research, we found a little trick that might help our female friends. Women can pee standing up. Yes, it's true. You can do it just like the boys, and without devices either. Go to www.restrooms.org/standing.html to learn the trick. And be warned: This is required reading before visiting Zeitgeist.
Home Restaurant (2100 Market at Church)
You'd never guess it from such a modest restaurant, but Home's bathroom is super impressive. As you enter the spacious unisex chamber, you feel instantly at peace. Is it the handsome lighting, or the pleasant odor? Is it the charming candles, or the gorgeous wall-length mirror? Maybe it's the endless stream of free-range toilet paper — TP that doesn't seize and tear every time you try to take some. No, at Home it's all about the sink. The chic rectangular washbasin is about 4 feet long, angling gently down the length of the room. And it's got water pressure to die for. The stream is so lovely and fierce it made us wonder if there shouldn't be laws banning such indulgences. Although maybe the more troubling question is why the bathroom at Home is nicer than the restaurant itself.
The Top Bar & Night Club (424 Haight at Webster)
On a particularly grim night of our expedition, we visited about a dozen bars on the 15-block stretch of Haight Street. The bathrooms in the Upper Haight are staggeringly vile. The ones in the Lower Haight are worse. We started at Stanyan Street and worked our way down — way down — to Webster. Each disgusting bathroom we visited was somehow worse than the one before.
It's with dreadful irony that the bathroom topping our list is a bar named “The Top.” It's the only place in the city that has a pit toilet. No, wait. We see what appear to be urinals against the wall. But if they are indeed urinals, why doesn't anybody use them?
Well, regardless of whether this is an official pit toilet or not, we can tell you the floor (or alleged floor) is absolutely drenched in urine. To make matters worse, depressions in the floor have created multiple putrid potholes of pee. The smell in here, of course, defies description. The only other item of note about the Top is that the garbage can is always up on the counter by the sink. Which sort of makes sense, because who'd want to ruin a perfectly good garbage can?
Blue Restaurant (2337 Market at Noe)
A few years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about his experience on a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. There's a memorable eight-page section where he describes his cabin's impossibly tiny yet perfect bathroom. This is what the head is like at Blue.
At 3 feet square, it's smaller than your average broom closet. Yet even a claustrophobe would find it charming. There's a tiny sink and a tiny window and a tiny toilet and a tiny … well, you get the picture. Everything's really small, but it's all in there: hand soap, seat protectors (which should be named ass protectors, if you think about it), and plenty of free-range toilet paper. The place is ergonomically perfect, like it was designed by a small Japanese automotive engineer.
But the best thing about Blue's bathroom is gaining access to it. This is one of those bathrooms where you get to march through the kitchen. OK, this is admittedly not all that rare. However, at Blue you walk through the entire kitchen, rubbing shoulders with literally every employee in the joint, from the busboy to the head chef. They all stand at attention and smile, and you feel like shaking everybody's hand, as if you're a head of state on some official visit.
Art's Cafe (747 Irving at Eighth Avenue)
Blue Restaurant is the exception. Most small bathrooms are nasty. And the smallest bathroom in the city also happens to be one of the worst. It's at Art's Cafe in the Inner Sunset, which you should have known because Art's Cafe itself is ridiculously small. But the cafe works because the single row of seats is actually quite comfortable. And you get to sit across from the kitchen, which is very entertaining.
The bathroom, on the other hand, is not. It's a bit of a physical IQ test trying to figure out how to enter the minuscule water closet and close the door without having the door push you back out. (Hint: It's a samba-type maneuver — forward, back, then over the toilet.)
Once inside, we find ourselves wishing we were in a comparatively spacious airplane bathroom. A single naked bulb and a lack of breathable air contribute to the deathly claustrophobic feel. But most disturbing is what's behind the toilet. Instead of a plunger, there's a pair of metal tongs. We decide not to ask.
Mission Police Station (630 Valencia at 17th Street)
Yeah, that's right. The Mission Police Station has a really good bathroom. But if you're expecting some scandalous tale about how we discovered it, forget about it. Besides, it's irrelevant, because these facilities are open to the public. The separate male and female bathrooms are spacious, clean, well lit, and amazingly quiet. They even have extra amenities, such as seat protectors and a half-decent mirror. And if you're one of those people who fear someone barging in on them, this is the best bathroom in the universe. Because you have your own personal cop guarding the door. We shit you not.
To get into the bathroom in the first place, you have to get clearance from the officer in the lobby sitting behind a bulletproof window. Once he decides you're not a threat to national security, he unlocks the steel door with a sophisticated remote-control-type device. And then you're in, as safe and secure as a bar of gold in Fort Knox. Politicians and movie stars don't get such protection.
The Uptown, An Bodhran, and any other bar bathroom that has a trough
Is there anything more horrifying than having to urinate, shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow man, into a fucking trough? When we say trough, we mean trough. Like a long, skinny, knee-level dirty bathtub that pigs eat out of. To make matters worse, certain Neanderthal guys like to toss garbage in there, too, like chewing gum, cigarette butts, and condoms. (And no, adding ice to the trough doesn't do a damn thing.)
We contact a friend, who happens to be the former head of the California Psychological Association, and ask him about our fear of troughs. He tells us of an anxiety disorder called paruresis (DSM IV, Code 300.23), which is essentially a fear of voiding in a public restroom. Has he ever been to a restroom that had a trough? Yes. Does he think that troughs contribute to paruresis? Absolutely. Does he think we can get troughs banned in S.F. on account of the Americans With Disabilities Act? Sadly, no.
Public restroom at the Marina Green (ooh, nice breeze!); Noc Noc (holy graffiti, Batman!); Macy's Union Square, sixth-floor women's room (now we know where the term “the throne” comes from); Hobson's Choice Victorian Punch House (the green fluorescent lighting in the women's room may cause instant seizures); Universal Cafe (fresh flowers); The Attic (they've improved the place by getting rid of the dreaded “puffy toilet seat,” but still); Mecca (a bathroom straight out of Gotham City); The Eagle Tavern (this bar has a trough and a mirror that runs the length of the trough, and this particular mirror is really friggin' low, so unless the Eagle is frequented by midgets we suspect the looking glass has ulterior purposes). [page]
And a sincere thank you …
To the Dial Corp. of Scottsdale, Ariz., for its miraculous Antibacterial Hand Sanitizer, which we used religiously throughout this expedition.