Four Awesome Dive Bars in San Francisco
I have a love of dive bars. For me, ‘dive bar’, is a term of endearment; in fact, the divier the better. But, what is a dive bar? You know those swanky clubs with the velvet loops? Doormen dressed in zoot suits and little umbrellas and trinkets adrift in your vibrantly colored, overpriced cocktails? The ones with names like, Brass Monkey, Dry White Mother or Satan’s Whiskers? Well, you won’t find any of these things at a dive bar. Good dive bars aren’t chic or elegant; they aren’t showy or ostentatious. Handwritten signs adorn their walls, beer stains their carpets, cigarette burns ring their bar and the bathroom key will usually be attached to a car battery; one that you will have to lug down the alley to a uni-sex, single, closet sized stall. Yes, a good dive bar ain’t necessarily pretty, but they have a certain pedigree that the posh clubs rarely attain; great bartenders, cheap drinks and good conversation. They’ve been marinating in their own olives for too long to remember. If you don’t find these things appealing, then dive bars aren’t for you.
So, without further ado, here are four awesome dive bars I have discovered and rediscovered time and time again in San Francisco. Let me know yours!
Hotel Utah: For the lover of live indie music and great bang for your drinking buck, this bar is the bee’s knees; which is a strange saying meaning the best.
This is one of our favorite dive bars. Located at the corner of 4th & Bryant, in an area in transition that got lost somewhere on the slide of gentrification. This bar is worth riding the rails of the crazy train, aka, any bus that goes to this area And yes gentrification is a loaded word, a euphemism at best; like calling porn, adult entertainment and prisons correctional facilities. But the location is part of the reason Hotel Utah works so well.
The area itself is perhaps 1000 square feet of usable space; and this is one establishment that capitalizes on every inch of that space. There is a long wooden bar, from end to end, with enough room for patrons to line up—one deep. No matter the day of week, there is a line leading from that one deep, out the door and snaking around the block. The drinks are good, the bartenders great.
What sets this bar apart from others is that it has a ‘listening room’, where live music is performed. As a guest, you grab your food and brew at the lively bar, but once you enter the ‘listening room’ and pull the tattered curtain behind you, the whole vibe changes and you listen to musicians presenting their art and selling their songs. On the occasions we have come here—(and there have been many)–there has been no table service in this area, which is a great thing. The audience is quiet, respectful and engaged during the performance; an unwritten code that is enforced by common courtesy.
The ‘listening room’, is dimly lit and curtained. Walls plastered in stickers from performers past, present and future, reminds me of a surf shack or skateboarders shop. In the bar there is a picture of a smiling dog and a bust of King Tut with antlers. There is also a small upstairs section, perched nearly on top of the mini stage. This is a great place, like a tree house, carved in the semblance of a ship hull! It’s also about the same size, which is not very big. Note: It’s very un-cool to chat while sitting in this section, because the sound pours right on the heads of the performers.
The ‘sound guy’, dreadlocks dangling down his back, performs double duty as cook, busser, dishwasher and bar back. He is a demon of multi-tasking, and seems to actually care about every part of the bar.
Awesome fries, burgers and sandwiches, soups and salads, and great comfort dishes to absorb the alcohol; a place replete with old stories and a history colored with thieves, gambling and murder; live music seven nights a week, Hotel Utah is a place not to be missed.
Hobson’s Choice: Hobson’s Choice is located in the Haight/Ashbury District, right on the corner of Haight & Clayton. Hobson’s Choice is a Victorian Rum House, and although there is nothing immediately Victorian about it, it is spectacular. Allegedly, they have the largest selection of this elixir of the Gods of any bar in the country, and I believe it! I started counting, but when I reached #110 and was only on the letter ‘M’, I decided to just accept the truth of the statement and have some rum. The rums are assorted by country of origin, and change weekly.
In the true tradition of the dive bar, they don’t scrimp on the alcohol. During their Happy Hour, which runs from 5p.m.-7p.m., Monday through Friday, they have $3.00 rum punch drinks, served up in pint sized glasses. A new addition is that they now serve food and bar treats from the Asquew Grill, also on Haight Street.
Venture upstairs. Here you will find shabby, frayed couches, oversized chairs, chandeliers, dining room tables, and a television. The room itself is cozy with lots of windows and walls that have been painted and patched a few too many times. It’s a mish-mash of eclectic vibes and aromas from decades past. Hobson’s Choice is a must see and must drink in the Haight.
The Bitter End: This bar is cavernous in the most magical sense. It’s huge! Two floors of funkiness. Located in the inner Richmond, at 5th & Clement, this bar is truly a leader in its class—of dive bars that is.
To start with the most important factor of any bar, dive or otherwise; the drinks! Here, the drinks are fast, cheap, good and the well liquors are premium. They serve food beginning at 5p.m. and the menu ranges from pub grub and beyond. I ate the curry chicken fries, and have been jonesing for them ever since. Freshly prepared French fries, smothered in gravy like curry sauce and small bits of chicken laced throughout. On the other end of the spectrum, my boyfriend had salmon and steamed veggies.
The décor is the best of what dive bars represents; a medieval knight hanging from the ceiling, dust bunnies trailing from his mask, deer heads with Medusa like snakes coming out, televisions, pool tables, a juke box and walls buried under kitschy memorabilia and a collection of taxidermied things.This bar is well worth the journey.
540 Club: This bar in the inner Richmond district at 7th & Clement. Here you can sit outside in a tattered and torn black banquet chair and enjoy one of the best Bloody Mary’s, made from scratch, on the non-descript patio, I have noticed that the price ranges from $5.00 to $7.00 for said Bloody Mary, depending on the bartender; but I have also noticed that they are always worth every penny.
This bar is all about the drinks; 12 beers on draft, $1.00 beers, $2.00 cocktails, no food, lots of smoking and cranky bartenders. The last according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian Best Bartender Award, which says, “All for one and one for all, the entire staff of the 540 Club is awarded the Crankiest Bartender Award! Tread lightly when approaching these easily irritated and always annoyed bartenders. They may be smiling, attentive and giving you great service and sincerely happy-but don’t let that fool you!” As for me, I dig this place. Grab a Bloody Mary, sit on the patio and watch drivers navigate the narrow streets, smell fish markets preparing for business and thank God I live in San Francisco.