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?
Supposedly, Calistoga got its name when Samuel Brannan drunkenly called the area the “Calistoga of Sarafornia.” He meant to say the “Saratoga of California,” in reference to both places having hot springs, but his boozy tongue got in the way. We all say and do funny things when we drink, so I imagined the owners of Toronado wanting to name the place “Tornado” but painting the original sign while twisted on strong beer, thus pulling a Sam Brannan, and saying “Fuck it. Toronado it is.”
I don’t actually think that’s how it happened, and truthfully, I don’t care. To quote Shakespeare, “a legendary beer bar by any other name would smell as sweet and hoppy.” And that’s what Toronado is: legendary.
Back in the late 1980s when the United States was largely content drinking beer endorsed by surfboard-riding dogs (I’m looking at you Spuds McKenzie), “Big Daddy” Dave Keene decided to turn Toronado into a mecca for people who actually loved beer. I know it’s hard to imagine now, in a San Francisco where even shitty dive bars carry Lagunitas, but Toronado is almost singlehandedly responsible for turning our citizenry into lovers of good brews. It was the first real beer bar in SF and helped inspire many of the people who are currently creating craft beer on the West Coast.
That said, Toronado doesn’t suffer fools. While so many beer-centric places these days have modeled themselves after stuffy wine bars, Toronado keeps to its roots by offering cold beers chased with a warm glass of “shut the fuck up.” I love that one of the best beer bars in the world plays loud metal and punk and has random dogs running around sniffing each other’s asses. I love that you can go next door to Rosamunde and buy a badass sausage, then head back over to Toronado to finish the beer you left sitting on the bar covered by a coaster. And I love that if you’re acting like a tool, the staff will let you know. Bars aren’t supposed to be places of refinement and dignity, they’re supposed to be refuges where you can sit, have a good beer, and not give a fuck.
While I’d been popping by for the occasional pint for years, it wasn’t until I shot the Swagger Stagger with my buddy Sayre Piotrkowski that I learned about Toronado’s significance. Sayre is a certified Cicerone, a sommelier for beer, and he took it upon himself to educate me about the magnificence of San Francisco’s craft beer scene. And we filmed it. And I was pretty drunk by the end. But during it I learned, amongst many things, how Toronado has always been an integral part of the craft beer movement.
I actually don’t drink much beer these days because honestly, it makes me bloated. But when I do feel like being turned onto some brilliant new brew, I like knowing that Toronado is there. It’s proof that if you know you’re doing something dope, and you honestly don’t care what other people think, the rest of the world will eventually take notice. Twenty-plus years later, Toronado is still one of the best bars in town. In fact I think I even saw Spuds McKenzie there the other week, alternating between drinking Belgian beer and sniffing other dogs’ butts.