Neighborhood Place-Making Essentials: The Neighborhood Bar - Part 1

Building Genuine Neighborhoods (and Real Cities)

An occasional blog about things that make a difference …

I’ve spent more hours of my San Francisco life in the neighborhood bars/cafés of North Beach and SOMA than anywhere. I’m sure no place can be a genuine Neighborhood without an honest-to-god Neighborhood Bar.

My inner planner/analyst requires a definition to address a topic, so this is it: a neighborhood bar/café is a modest storefront business offering beer/wine at least, if not a full bar, with a distinct personality and a core clientele of regulars from the local community and beyond, who ‘hang’ and socialize there and that has been that way for at least five years –  usually much longer.

Let’s break this down.

  • Modest Storefront Business – it’s visibly located on a local sidewalk, readily accessible to everyone (most customers walk to it), often with tables outside, human-scaled and not too big, with a small staff.
  • Beer/Wine or Full Bar – coffee, juices, sandwiches, pastries, light meals, etc. are all ok too, but not enough. There is a good reason humanity has been brewing spirits for 10,000 years
  • Distinct Personality – this is the sine qua non. It can’t be a chain or packaged theme place. The business owner(s) set the tone whether they work there or just hire a manager and staff. Because it’s the personalities and collective attitude of the servers and people behind the bar who define the everyday character of the place, make it feel like some kind of extended family or community, and keep it that way consistently for years. The décor can be most anything – funky dive-bar style or a pub or coffeehouse-ish, or whatever. Any entertainment, music, TV’s, etc., befit its personality.
  • Core Clientele of regulars – this is the other half of its Distinct Personality, mirroring the staff at least somehow in attitude if not exactly demographically. The workers know their regulars first names and vice-versa, and there is always a welcome.
  • ‘Hang’ and Socialize -  this is the essence of Neighborhood life. Friends interact with friends. People get acquainted. Social networks overlap. Ballgames are cheered. Business gets done. Dates are made. Couples flirt. Or you just sit by the window with a laptop or iPad or book or magazine, catch up, slow down, watch the world pass by, or simply think about life.
  • Five+ Years – it takes some time. I wanted to write ten years, but with San Francisco changing so fast now i had to optimistically shorten it.

And this accelerated, very visible pace of City change is why this topic is on my mind now. Because i’m watching some Neighborhood Bars i’ve known well over the decades now disappear. 

Last year SOMA lost two.

Dave's Bar - RIP 2016

Dave's Bar (photo from Tablehopper by Andy K)

Dave's Bar (photo from Tablehopper by Andy K)

Dave’s Bar on Third Street near Market had been the last grey-collar worker kind of place left around Yerba Buena – local hotel and restaurant workers, building maintenance workers, retail workers, along with whoever else – including a fair number of POC. There used to more bars like this in the FiDi, like House of Shields before it went up-market in the 1990s. The décor was ‘clean dive-bar,’ but its personality was really defined by the down-to-earth middle-aged women behind the bar who ran the place with sassy authority every day. 

But as is often inevitably the case, owner Dave reached retirement age recently and so it was time for him to sell the business last year. Now it’s named the Lark Bar. It looks pretty much the same, spiffier, more café-ish now, and the food menu has been expanded. But the sassy ladies have been replaced with generic 30-something bar people, and the grey-collar folks have been supplanted by a younger clientele (dare i say techies?), white-collar and mostly white-skinned.

Zeke’s - RIP 2016

Zeke’s at the corner of Third Street and Brannan Street was the final installment of a truly great San Francisco legacy – going back to the legendary Jerry & Johnny’s, the premier journalist bar of San Francisco’s golden newspaper era.

Zeke's (photo from SFBarKast)

Zeke's (photo from SFBarKast)

Up to 1959 there will still four City dailies – the Chronicle, the mighty Examiner, the News, and the Call-Bulletin – all with offices clustered near Third and Mission Streets. Their hard-drinking writers, editors, printers, truck drivers, and everyone else supported several local joints – the sawdust-on-the-floor M&M (sold in the 1990s, now the Chieftain Irish Pub), Breen’s at Jessie Street (similar to the timeless Tommy’s Joynt on Van Ness Avenue, demolished by the Redevelopment Agency in 1979), the Tempest (still going, see below), and the classiest, Jerry & Johnny’s, located where the St. Regis Hotel stands today. i was lucky to see them all the first few years i worked at TODCO right around the corner on Jessie Street, starting 1978.

J & J’s was a deep narrow place, with a long bar, bartenders in starched white shirts with bow ties, and a fabulous collection of famous news cartoonists’ drawings and autographed sports, theater, music, and movie celebrity photographs going back to the Roaring ‘20’s on the opposite wall. It too was demolished by the Redevelopment Agency in 1979 for the Yerba Buena Project, and Johnny had long since passed on by then anyway. But Jerry took his business relocation payment and bought the Third and Brannan building, naming his new place simply “Jerry’s” with a tall neon sign outside.

The blue-collar workers of SOMA’s industrial workshops and warehouses were already dwindling in numbers by then, but Jerry’s was one last spot, especially after Bouncer’s Bar further east on Brannan – a long-time longshoreman’s bar – was also closed by the Redevelopment Agency for its South Beach Project in the 1980s. When Jerry reached retirement age in the 1990s, he sold the bar to Zeke who renamed it accordingly, and replaced Jerry’s sign with his own. It too might have faded into history, except …

Along came the Giants and Pac Bell Park two blocks away in 2000! And so Zeke’s was reborn as the local Neighborhood sports bar, adding Giants fans like myself to its local regulars. At some point, Zeke turned over daily operations to a Vietnamese/Chinese family group, with dad/uncle cooking good Diamond Burgers in the kitchen and several sassy moms/daughters/nieces handling the bar. It was jammed on game days, but the rest of the year it was just locals of all descriptions, the closest thing to a “Cheers” kind of bar i’ve seen, with a wide range of SOMA folks as regulars.

The evening the Giants finally – after 51 long years! – won their first World Series Championship, i watched Zeke, who was at his jam-packed bar that night – pour two bottles of champagne over his head in celebration. That’s the way!

Tragically, the same month his lease was up for renewal last year, Zeke dropped dead from a heart attack while on vacation overseas, and no one could sign the renewal until too late. So now Zeke’s and its classic sign are gone. Instead now this corner bar is named the Tap Room. Zeke’s Vietnamese family staff has been replaced by generic 30-something bar tenders, the burgers cost more and aren’t as good. But the bar is still busy with Giants fans on game days of course, and a blander local clientele (dare i say techies?) otherwise the rest of the time. That “Cheers” feeling is just a memory.

(Any additional info is much appreciated, please add in the comments)

COMING NEXT IN PARTS 2 AND 3: What Remains and the 21st Century Neighborhood Bar