The continuing gentrification of San Francisco recently claimed another victim, one that’s near and dear to my heart: The Elbo Room, a longtime dive bar and music venue on Valencia Street in the Mission, will be closing, as the owners are converting the building into condos. I had my 25th birthday at the delightfully grungy bar, which I’ve always considered one of my all-time favorites. On the occasion of the Elbo’s closing—and after having this topic come up during my recent trip to New Orleans—I thought I’d compile the list (you know how I love lists) of my all-time favorite bars.
What criteria did I use to make this ranking? An entirely subjective one. To me, what makes a bar great is the stories you have from there. It can be a memory, a person you met, a crazy hook-up, or just a moment in time when you felt things click together and be, however fleetingly, beautiful. My list—which, ironically, ended up not including the Elbo Room—won’t be the same as anyone else’s, and that’s kind of the point. So here are the bars where I’ve had the craziest nights and felt most at home. Here are their stories.
10. The Page, San Francisco
On the corner of Divisadero and Page, at the border of the Lower Haight and NOPA, stands perhaps San Francisco’s best neighborhood bar. It’s a split level joint, with the bar and booths up front, a pool table in the middle, and then some stairs that take you down to a lower level with another pool table. The jukebox is great—someone’s ALWAYS blasting Zeppelin—and the bartenders are the right mix of friendly and gritty. And this place seriously knows its whiskey: when I lived in the neighborhood, they still carried Pappy Van Winkle, aka the greatest alcohol in the universe. Once I found out they had Pappy, it didn’t stay in stock for long.
9. Paradise Cafe, Santa Barbara
While it’s not only a bar—the Paradise has a lovely cafe restaurant with outdoor seating for those perfect Santa Barbara days—when my college buddies and I talk about “the Paradise,” we’re talking about the bar, which is inside and downstairs, separate from the majority of the dining space. The smoked glass, the stuffed marlin on the wall, the Art Deco details, even the Aztec mural on the wall, make the Paradise feel plucked from an old LA noir film (or, as I have always said, make it look like the hotel lobby from Key Largo). It’s the coolest place in Santa Barbara, and along with Sands Beach, the one place I always visit when I have the rare opportunity to travel through SB.
8. The Toronado, San Francisco
The godfather of San Francisco beer bars, this small Lower Haight spot is a true dive with a punk rock aesthetic that also happens to boast a list of about 30 to 40 beers—some Belgian and German, but mostly California microbrews. The Toronado opened in the early ’90s, long before craft brewing became a fad, and its owners are held in almost worshipful esteem by the rest of the Northern California beer community. When you need something to soak up all those microbrews, the original Rosamunde sausages is right next door, and the legendary Tamale Lady often came through late at night (before she got shut down). Oh, and it’s also home to the surliest collection of bartenders you’ll ever met: I’ve seen a bartender literally pick up a drunk guy and throw him out of the bar, and I once saw a different bartender take a credit card that a customer had handed him and fling it out the window (needless to say, cash only). I consider it a badge of honor that the staff would sometimes buy me back rounds. (I went there a lot when I lived in the hood.)
7. The Latin American Club, San Francisco
Most people would probably scratch this off as just another Mission dive full of hipsters, and one with a sadly ironic name, since you don’t really see any Latinos in the place. But, what can I tell you, I’ve always loved the bar. From the piñatas that hang from the ceiling, to the bathroom line where a friend of mine once hilariously made out with two girls at the same time, to the music—always Exile on Main Street or The Velvet Underground and Nico in my memory—this place has always felt like home to me. It’s also the rare bar where I have stories of actual success with women—although the credit for that mostly goes to the pint-sized, poisonously strong margaritas, perhaps the most notorious cocktails in all of San Francisco.
6. Kennedy’s, San Francisco
Where do I start with this North Beach institution? It’s an Irish bar/Indian restaurant, with multiple pool tables, lots of room to sit, and a great beer selection. It’s open late, and pretty much anything goes. An old crackhead once called me a “cracka-ass mothfucka” there. Every time my buddy Sam or I go there, we make sure to text each other that we’re at KENNEDY’S!!!
But let’s get to the best story. One time I was housesitting for friends who lived a couple of blocks away, and I was in Kennedy’s with a few friends late on a Saturday night, and a pretty impressively hot chick—named, I am not kidding, Angel—walked up to me and started running her finger up and down my chest. I chatted with her for a few minutes, and then she told me I was blowing it, implied that I might be gay, and walked out. (Still got it, y’all!) A few minutes later, the cops showed up. It turned out that right after she walked out, she pulled a knife on a guy in front of the bar. This didn’t really faze me, because by that time I had moved on to competing with my two buddies for the affections of a girl who was there, with her brother, from Virginia. They came back to the house for a few more drinks with us, and one of the guys, bless his heart, tried to get the brother distracted/drunk enough that one of us would have a better chance with the girl, but there were no dice. To this day, I don’t know what that girl’s name was, but she’ll always be Sweet Virginia to me.
My favorite part of this whole story is, I went back to Kennedy’s the following afternoon to shoot a game of pool, and the girl with the knife, Angel, was chillin’ there like nothing had happened. I don’t think there’s much of a moral to this story, except that I’m a drunken idiot. But it’s one of my favorite random drinking nights ever.
5. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, New Orleans
I’ve only been to New Orleans three times, and to Lafitte’s twice, but both times made quite an impression on me. This shack, which dates back to the early 18th century, is the oldest structure that houses a bar in America. It’s found on Bourbon Street, a few short blocks past the epicenter of the French Quarter’s craziness, and it’s home to some of my fondest New Orleans memories. In particular, a couple of weeks ago, I spent Sunday afternoon at the Superdome watching the Niners beat the Saints, then had an absurdly delicious meal at the Acme Oyster Company, then barhopped my way over to Lafitte’s. There’s a piano in the back of the bar, and my friends and I sat around that piano, which was manned by a woman who seemed nearly as old as the bar itself but who churned out all manner of singalong tunes, from When the Saints Go Marching In to Tiny Dancer, and we pounded down sazeracs and sang along and made friends with everyone else at the bar. It’s easy to get hyperbolic with a drunken memory, but I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say it was one of the funnest nights of my life. When we were recounting the events of the night the following day, I said to my buddy Matt that I was pretty sure Lafitte’s was one of my ten favorite bars of all time. He said it would be on his list as well—and that night had been his first time there.
4. Freddy’s, Brooklyn
Freddy’s is one of the most storied bars in Brooklyn. In its original location, on Dean Street in Prospect Heights, it was renowned as the borough’s best dive bar, and made Esquire‘s list of the 100 best bars in America. But, speaking of gentrification, the building was eminent domained as part of the Atlantic Yards development (so Bruce Ratner could build a basketball stadium and a bunch of expensive condos). Freddy’s fought like hell against the decision, going so far as to put chains around the bar, but “progress” won out.
Here’s the funny thing: I never went to the original Freddy’s. But the bar reopened in South Slope shortly after I moved to Brooklyn, and it became the go-to spot for me and my buddy Luke to meet up and complain about our lack of employment and/or financial solvency during our first year in New York. Freddy’s has a great happy hour, excellent greasy bar food, cool bartenders, weird video art playing on the TVs, and yes, the same bar from the original Freddy’s, complete with chains.
As a bonus, this is the only bar on the list where my band has played a gig.
3. Finnerty’s, New York
I’ve written about Finn’s before, but as far as memories go, it’s hard to top this place: I watched the Giants win the World Series at this place in 2010 and 2014, both times getting a champagne bath as I jumped around deliriously with hundreds of other Giants fans. I’ve spent so much time here, the bartenders (“FinnFam” to the regulars) reserve me a seat for Sunday football.
The bar has become so renowned as New York’s resident Bay Area Sports bar that the 49ers’ website made a documentary about it. If you watch close, I pop up a couple of times during the second half of the doc.
2. Vesuvio, San Francisco
I’ve written about Vesuvio before, but in a nutshell, this former Beat hangout is my favorite place in San Francisco. Every time I’m in the Bay, I make a point to buy a book at City Lights, take it across Kerouac Alley, and go sit upstairs at Vesuvio and read, write, and people-watch the freakshow on Columbus Avenue. And I’ve also got personal history here: I had my 23rd birthday party at Vesuvio, and it happens that I introduced my best friend to his wife that night (after we’d all had about ten car bombs). It’s also the place where my good buddy and fellow blogsmith Juanito (who wrote his own Top 10 Bars his list here) and I meet up for drinks whenever I’m in town.
1. Sunny’s, Brooklyn
As I explained here, Sunny’s is more than just the home of my Saturday night jam; it’s my spiritual home, and perhaps the biggest reason I moved back to New York from California. Though it too faces existential threats, first from Hurricane Sandy and then from the same sort of “progress” that killed the Elbo Room and the original Freddy’s, this ramshackle former longshoreman’s bar, later a nautical-themed artist hangout, stands as a lonely sentinel at the edge of Red Hook, perhaps the last bastion of unselfconscious cool in Brooklyn. It takes some work to get here, but everyone I’ve ever brought through its doors loves it dearly. Sunny’s is the best bar in Brooklyn, New York City, the United States, and the world.
Honorable Mentions: Little Branch (New York), The Warehouse Cafe (Port Costa), Skylark (Brooklyn), The Stork Club (Oakland), The Alley (Oakland), The Dram Shop (Brooklyn), The Kennedy School (Portland), The Lone Palm (San Francisco), Zeitgeist (San Francisco), The Elbo Room (San Francisco), Aub Zam Zam (San Francisco), The 500 Club (San Francisco), The Albatross (Berkeley), Bar The Clinic (Santiago), Earnestine & Hazel’s (Memphis), The Little Shamrock (San Francisco), and the unnamed place in Rosarito, Mexico, where I once drank mezcal out of a water jug that had a huge, dead rattlesnake floating in it.
I sure do love bars.