April 7, 2011

San Francisco Pub Crawl: 3 Bars and a Taco Joint

    Foodie Heaven, Gateway to the Wine Country, Cultural Mecca — San Francisco is all this and more. It's a great town for taking in beautiful views, going for long walks in Golden Gate Park, or attending a conference or business meeting. You can spend all day negotiating with clients, but once you step outside for a break, it feels like vacation time.
    Usually, even the most packed business trip or holiday lets you enjoy some free time in the evening. You could take advantage of the many theater, music, and dance options (some of the best in the country), go to a movie (which you could do at home), or hang out in your room and order room service. Yeah, right.
    But what if you are in the mood to explore? Maybe even to have a little fun. Where do you go that isn't the typical tourist trap?
It's in the Neighborhoods
    Head out for one of the villages. San Francisco is a city of small towns within its own city limits. Tourists have heard of some of these villages — Chinatown, North Beach, The Castro, the Haight, Fisherman's Wharf — but many are a mystery to the average visitor. Each has its own flavor and cultural identity (sometimes a blend of several), attractions, restaurants, shops, and homes.
    Some are easily accessible; all have their charms. Hayes Valley encompasses the area surrounding the War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. It's trendy, the restaurants geared toward pre- and post-theater drinks and dining and boutique shopping.
    Ninth Avenue and Irving Street in the Inner Sunset is near the museums in Golden Gate Park, the University of San Francisco Medical Center, and a quickish hop to San Francisco State. Restaurants and bars tend toward the casual; the food, tends toward the very good.

    Because of its bedrock foundation and distance from the city core, Bernal Heights boasts buildings and construction dating before the 1906 earthquake and fire. A stronghold of artists, the neighborhood also is attractive to young families, dog owners, and the lesbian community. Home to sophisticated restaurants and trendy boutiques, Cortland Avenue (the main drag) also has practical shops like dry cleaners, corner markets, and relaxed cafés.
    Locals often will go to a particular neighborhood for an event, a meeting, to visit friends, shopping, any number of things. After doing whatever they initially came to do, it's time for drinks, dinner, strolling around, just general hanging out. One great way to enjoy San Francisco like a local is to pick a neighborhood and go exploring.
    The following neighborhood is only a short cab or bus ride from the Union Square and Financial District offices and hotels. Wear comfortable shoes, dress in layers, and grab an umbrella if it looks like rain. It's time to head out for a typical San Francisco evening.

Polk Street:  Nob Hill/Russian Hill
    Polk Street is a fairly long street, originating at Market Street at its southern section and culminating at the Bay, adjacent to Ghirardelli Square. Historically considered to be San Francisco's original gay neighborhood (predating Castro Street), Polk Street has evolved into an eclectic gender and cultural mix with plenty of interesting shops, restaurants, and bars.
    Although parts of Polk Street closer to Market are considered a bit rough, this mini pub crawl concentrates on the section between Sacramento and Union Streets in the shadow of Nob Hill and Russian Hill, two of San Francisco's nicer close-in neighborhoods.

Big Foot Lodge, 1750 Polk Street (between Clay & Washington Streets), (415) 440-2355, www.bigfootlodge.com (iDine member)

The Sasquatch
    Straight off — this is one of the friendliest bars I have been to in ages! We showed up during the 3–7 Happy Hour (well drinks $4 and $1 off other drinks) and sat down at the very long bar, right next to good ol' Big Foot himself. It was our first time there, and we weren't too sure what to have. Our bartender Spencer asked us what liquors and flavors we liked and brought me something I never would have ordered on my own — a Moscow Mule. Using fresh lime juice instead of lime syrup, the refreshing drink struck a good balance of the vodka, ginger ale, and lime flavors. My drinking partner went for a scotch-and-soda as his first round.
    For our second drink, we both decided to have one of the house specialties. I chose a totally girlie drink, the Creamsicle, and he went for the Sasquatch, in honor of the Big Foot theme. The Sasquatch combines the flavors of Wild Turkey and ginger brandy (not usually seen in specialty stores, never mind bars). It was a hit, but strong. 
    The Creamsicle is one of those drinks that usually comes out super-sweet because the house uses a sweet orange soda in the mix. At Big Foot, though, the orange soda is replaced by an orange liqueur and orange juice. The flavor is a creamy, slightly bitter orange — much more satisfying and perhaps the best Creamsicle I have ever tasted. These are fun drinks, but no alcohol was spared. Tread carefully.
    Bottom line — We will be back next time we want to get our drink on.

Rex, 2323 Polk Street, (between Green & Union Streets), (415) 441-2244, www.rex-cafe.com (iDine member)

Irish Coffee
    After Big Foot Lodge, we decided to take a walk before we settled on what to do next. We strolled down Polk Street a few blocks to Rex, a clubby wood-paneled restaurant with an attractive oval bar in the center of the room. While only there for drinks, we were aware of some terrific-looking food wandering by. Need to come back and check that out.
    It was a cool, showery night so we chose to have Irish Coffees — the quintessential San Francisco drink. The components were all there: Jameson Irish Whiskey, hot coffee, a bit of sugar, and whipped cream. The coffee, though, could have been fresher; the whipped cream came from a can, not freshly whipped. Other drinks looked good, however, and the wines-by-the-glass menu had some good selections.
    Like the other places we went to along Polk Street, Rex is friendly and comfortable. From the appreciative noises at the tables near us, the food seems to be a big plus. We liked the staff, customers, and the atmosphere so much that we would go back again.

Nick's Crispy Tacos, 1500 Broadway (between Polk Street & Van Ness), (415) 409-8226
    It's always a good idea to grab something to eat when you are on a pub crawl. Polk Street has everything from the Michelin-starred La Folie to the more plebian Escape from New York (NY-style pizza by the slice). One of our new favorites is Nick's Crispy Tacos.
    Nick's menu consists of what you would expect: tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos, but with a Bay Area foodie twist. All items on the menu are created using Niman Ranch meats, Fulton Valley Farms free range poultry, fresh line caught seafood, and locally grown organic produce. A little bit of healthy to soak up the alcohol.
    My dining partner and I had a selection of tacos (Carnitas, Grilled Chicken & Carne Asada) with a side of Chips with fresh Pico de Gallo. Each taco variety had its own set of garnishes; we added a bit of guacamole and cheese. Pretty tasty stuff. For drinks, we had Strawberry Agua Fresca — yummmm! (I hear from friends, however, that the margaritas aren't as good as the food.)
    The place is big with a lot of seating. It used to be a series of clubs, most notably Henry Africa, a 1970s club said to be the first "fern bar."  Today, the place is a bit run down with dark red walls, dusty crystal chandeliers, and serviceable tables and chairs to augment the plush booth seating. It fills up quickly, and there is usually a line. Tuesday nights are hugely busy, as it is bargain night, but the food is worth the wait.

Shanghai Kelly's, 2064 Polk Street @ Broadway, (415) 771-3300
    Catty corner from Nick's is one of my favorite local bars. In this location since 1985, Shanghai Kelly's is a small, narrow casual bar. Well, OK, it's a bit of a dive — but in the nicest way. Drinks are strong and fairly priced, the clientele noisy and friendly, and there's always some kind of game on. Seriously. Always.
    Very much a neighborhood hangout, half the place knows one another, but welcomes strangers. Because of its size, it can get crowded on Friday and Saturday nights and during important sports events. Go in the afternoons or on a non-weekend night just to soak in the atmosphere or to end the evening with some new friends. Ask one of the friendly bartenders to call a cab for you when you are ready to call it a night.

Originally published by Dishkebab
April 6, 2011

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