San Francisco has gained a rep as one of the country’s most progressive drinking towns, with genre-defining cocktail joints (Bar Agricole, Trick Dog) rubbing shoulders with bars devoted to the region’s bounty of wineries and craft breweries.
But beyond the restaurants serving “figs on a plate” and tech-world douchebags asking their Google Glass to locate the nearest “Prohibition-style speakeasy,” San Fran still has a grittier underbelly waiting for those who prefer boilermakers and heavy metal to Manhattans and jazz.
“There are two types of dives in San Francisco,” explains Dane Barca, bartender at the rum-focused Smuggler’s Cove on Gough Street. “There are ‘punk-rock’ or ‘metal’ bars, like The Knockout and Zeitgeist, where you can find aggressive music, surly bartenders, a decent beer selection, and a cheap beer-and-shot option. Then there are neighborhood bars, like Dovre Club, which are more traditional dives where all the 56-year-old alcoholics hang out.”
In a city where a shot of Fernet is often referred to as the “bartender’s handshake,” it’s no surprise that Bay Area bartenders like to get weird when they’re off the clock.
We asked nine of San Francisco’s top barkeeps which dives they go to when they need a proper, no-nonsense session. After-hours (or on their day off), you might find them at these watering holes, shooting pool and feeding crumpled singles into the jukebox.
Bogue says: “Pittsburgh’s Pub is a hole-in-the-wall a block away from Ocean Beach. When I want to separate myself from the wine culture here in SF, it’s the perfect getaway. Cheap drinks, friendly bartenders, dart boards, pool tables, and a great jukebox all make this an ideal place to disappear. The pièce de résistance is definitely the snack selection, which is reminiscent of your elementary-school vending machine. After talking wine and food all day, I’m ready to pair a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos with a PBR.” (Photo: Asta Karalis, Yelp/Adam S.)
Bartender at Smuggler’s Cove
Favorite dive bar: The Knockout (3223 Mission St; 415-550-6994, theknockoutsf.com)
Barca says: “The name says it all. Reading the one-star reviews from patronizing snoots saying that The Knockout isn’t actually a dive bar is like reading the diary entries of The Little Hipster That Couldn’t. In fact, folks who write online reviews are probably not the most reliable connoisseurs of a dive. But the reviews are gems: 1) “clearly a place owned and operated by assholes looking for a fight”; 2) “don’t give your money to these people. It’s just telling them that it’s okay to be douche bags”; and 3) “I want to tear this place down and turn it into a wi-fi hotspot; their heavy metal playlist was absolutely horrifying and most of the patrons here are major degenerates.” Those reviewers are precisely the folks this degenerate doesn’t want to see when I am growling into my beer. The bar has everything—including good music, cheap booze, loose morals, and tacos next door—and it’s proudly installed and serviced many of my finer hangovers.” (Photo: Scott Fong, Foursquare/Donald B)
Bar manager at Blackbird
Favorite dive bar: Vesuvio Café (255 Columbus Ave; 415-362-3370, vesuvio.com)
Grippo says: “Sometimes you want to go somewhere and not be seen. Vesuvio is the perfect bar if you want to blend in. It’s one of the oldest bars in San Francisco and Jack Kerouac used to drink there.” (Photo: Matt Grippo, Foursquare/Matt)
Sommelier at Coi
Mendoza says: “The Blarney Stone is my favorite dive because they have shuffle board; it always smells like cleaning solution; you can usually find a seat; it has a great juke box; and they are always showing a game or bad movie. Also, they like Fernet and it’s only two blocks from my house.” (Photo: Tienlon Ho, Foursquare/Tina C.)
Bar manager at Locanda
Favorite dive bar: Zeitgeist (199 Valencia St; 415-255-7505, zeitgeistsf.com)
Bishop says: “It’s not a classic dive bar in the sense that it’s dingy and dark (the best part of Zeitgeist is the outdoor area), but it’s got all the dive-bar fixings: it’s a no-nonsense, cash-only bar with pool tables, a grill for sausages, and burgers and grilled cheese on the menu. I love that there’s typically a mixed bag of people hanging out and drinking.” (Photo: Made PR, Foursquare/Todd H.)
Wine director at Bar Tartine
Favorite dive bar: The Abbey Tavern (4100 Geary Blvd; 415-221-7767, abbeytavern-sf.com)
Ireland says: “Ireland’s 32 is a typical Irish bar, Zeitgeist is a typical dive, and The Abbey is a combination of both: an Irish dive bar. I first noticed it making my way home after a dinner with friends; on the side of the building is a massive Celtic FC mural. Inside there’s the obligatory pool table, and quiet booths removed from the main bar area. If there’s a European soccer game on, you can catch it here along with a properly pulled Guinness. As a bonus, there’s five different kinds of Jameson and a foosball table, which I’m happy to school you on.” (Photo: The Chronicle, Foursquare/Adam S.)
Bar manager at The Progress
Favorite dive bar: The Lone Palm (3394 22nd St; 415-648-0109, Facebook/The-Lone-Palm)
Hamann says: “I wouldn’t necessarily consider Lone Palm a ‘dive’ bar—I mean, it has white linen tablecloths and the bartenders put in work. But it isn’t a cocktail bar or restaurant, and it has an edge and lacks pretension. Plus, there’s plenty of affordable things to shoot or sip on, and good people on both sides of the bar. I’m not a San Francisco native, but this bar feels like home to me. I’ve spent countless nights getting into trouble there with the best of friends and newly acquired ones. Shots, beers, and good company with white tablecloths…what more could you ask for?” (Photo: Stuart Brioza, Facebook/LonePalm)
Co-wine director at Flour + Water
Favorite dive bar: Lucky 13 (2140 Market St; 415-487-1313, Facebook/Lucky13)
Tomko says: “Since we started working on our new projects at The Swedish American Hall, the team and I have spent a great deal of time in Duboce Triangle, and after some late days, we usually end up at Lucky 13. You can’t beat a $3 PBR.” (Photo: Asta Karalis, Yelp/Daniel W.)
Bar director/partner at Maven
Bolton says: “Molotov’s is located next door to Maven in the Lower Haight. It’s an old punk-rock bar that has everything you need, from pool tables to pinball, shots of chartreuse for $7, and a surly staff with hearts of gold. You may find yourself saddled up next to a neighborhood dog in one of the well-worn booths. Plus, if one of my bartenders forgot to do something but they’ve already clocked out, I can usually just walk over and find them there. It’s an added bonus.” (Photo: Maven, Yelp/ Chris C.)