The Weeknighter: The Church Key
Weekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That's why each week Stuart Schuffman will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, giving you the lowdown on how and where to do your weeknight right. From the most creative cocktails to the best happy hours, Stuart's taking you along on his weeknight adventures into the heart of the City's nightlife. So, who wants a drink?
For those who don’t know, a church key is another name for a handheld bottle opener; the kind, more often than not, used to open a beer. There’s lots of discussion of how this term came about but the one that I like the best (and that I’m kinda making up right now) is that it’s the key that gets you a little closer to heaven. There are few things in the world more divine than a really good beer and anyone who’s ever set foot in The Church Key in North Beach knows exactly what I mean.
The Church Key is a small bar with big beer list. Bottles hailing from places as disparate as Belgium, Brazil, Japan, and England line it’s pages while some of the finest beers from nearer locals are dispensed from the taps. The draught beer isn’t exclusively from California, or even the United States, but if a small brewer makes good beer and sells it in kegs, there’s a damn good chance the Church Key will get it. I’ve seen grown men squeal with glee when recognizing a beer on the list they thought was only quaffable in some foreign land. In almost any other circumstance such squawking would be frowned upon but at The Church Key it’s the cry of a true aficionado, a brother or sister in arms.
I, on the other hand, am an absolute chump when it comes to the Brotherhood of the Brew*. Sure I like good beer, and I even know a little bit about it, but often times I’m just as fine with some cheap, mass produced American schwill as I am with the good stuff. What makes The Church Key such a fine place is that they’ve taken people like me into account. Not only are the knowledgeable bartenders truly interested in educating patrons and turning them on to a great pint, they also stock a cheap domestic beer for the one bozo in every group who refuses enlightenment and insists on drinking things like Olympia, Miller High Life, or Pabst Blue Ribbon. Last time I was in the Church Key, that bozo was most certainly me. Granted it was ten hours into Santa Con and anything with any real alcoholic content probably would’ve killed me.
I’ve spent a lot of time at the Church Key, and on nights that thankfully weren’t Santa Con. Not only did I have my 28th birthday there, but I was in attendance when the bar first opened. Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with the owner, Jason King, since junior high. But before you start wagging you finger and muttering words like cronyism know this: if I didn’t like The Church Key, I wouldn’t bother writing about it. Luckily I love the place and I do so not because of a big beer list or because a friend owns the bar. I love the Church Key because of the community it draws there. I don’t think I’ve ever walked out of that bar without having made a new friend (or without buying some of Ryan Farr’s amazing chicharrones). The bar’s lack of pretention and the patrons’ willingness to try new beers lends itself to becoming pals with the person on the stool next to you, and letting each other sample whatever brew you’ve decided to purchase. And if that’s not enough, at least stop in to check out the wallpaper, it’s absolutely brilliant.
Insider’s Tip: Other than munchies like chicharrones, The Church Key is only serving cheese boards for food at the moment. But this Spring they will be bringing on a chef to make charcuterie platters as well.
*Sisterhood too, but it lacks the lovely alliteration.
Stuart Schuffman has been called "an Underground legend" by the SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero" by the SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap" by Time Out New York. He is also the host for the IFC travel show Young, Broke & Beautiful. Follow him @BrokeAssStuart.