Is the San Francisco Dive Bar Dead?

Is the San Francisco Dive Bar Dead?


When word got out last week that the Castro's Lucky 13 (and its free barbecue on Saturdays) may soon close its doors to make way for even more ritzy new condos, we all hurried to the Internets to shout about how gentrification is killing our local dive bars. Of course, Lucky 13 would just be the latest in a long string of shuttered SF joints—R.I.P. Esta Noche, Marlena’s, and Lexington ClubThings are getting serious. Gentrification is certainly to blame, but is it the whole story?

Like most of you, I am guilty of taking pleasure in the decadent absurdity of the $15 cocktail. But in truth, nothing beats the joy of sliding onto my favorite, cracked bar stool, waving to the bartender who knows my name, and knowing that my drink options are limited to domestic beer, a two-ingredient mixed drink, and/or a shot of fernet. If only everything else were so easy to navigate.

When I moved back to San Francisco at the tender age of 23 and earned a tender minimum wage, every night was dive bar night. The beer was cheap, the peanuts were free, and the city was full of possibilities—potential friends, new neighborhoods to explore, new rooftops to sit upon, and hangovers that rose with the sun. I belted out off-key '80s songs at the Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge, embarrassed myself at the pool table at Mission Bar, and the greasy food, endless beer options, and zero pretense made any day a good day to hang out at Tempest. Dive bars weren’t just an affordable option, they were home to my people, quenching my need to find a community. 

Now, those same bars are going by the wayside, and local reactions are manifold, from calm acceptance to utter despair. What is it about these dive bars closing that incites such furious loyalty from some and barely guarded contempt from others? It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that the dive bar wars are but the latest bastion of conflict in this city's eternal culture war: Some say change is unavoidable in such a growing, sought-after town; still others insist we are losing the very essence of SF that makes it a beacon for artist and creators.

Since the city's founding, we've had an old-guard faction to blame the incoming generation for upsetting the status quo (which Mary Jo Bowling wrote beautifully about here): The establishment were scandalized by the dirty hippies of the '60s, just as many natives here now rail against the encroaching tech force. To pretend that we’re all going to arrive at a consensus and get along is to ignore SF’s core—we are built on a fault line where political unrest meets protest. We’re never content to leave things as they are, but we also hate to change. 

So where do we go from here? It's satisfying to shoot from the hip and spray social media with angry commentary, but it's far from the only option. For every decades-old establishment closing its doors, there are three new craft cocktail joints polishing their Edison bulbs for grand opening. As long as commercial real estate remains a cutthroat battleground, this flux is here to stay. Here's what we do about it.

If you’re a die-hard dive bar lover, it’s time to take down the barriers and share the love with newcomers. Because unless you were born upstairs in the office, you have no birthright to this bar—you were once a newcomer as well. The next time some rando in a suit is sitting on your favorite stool, don’t spend the next hour sharing rage-filled looks with the bartender. Instead, buy Mr. Suit a drink and ask what he thinks of the place. It may well be the money in his pockets that helps keep your beloved bar alive.

Or, if you happen to be the suit who hasn't had a can of PBR since college, it's worth ducking into Lucky 13 to see what the fuss is about. Just take a deep breath and respectfully observe. Don’t throw a fit if they don’t carry your precious bourbon—after all, you wouldn’t step inside an Indian restaurant and order a croque monsieur. Keep an open mind, chat up the bartenders and the owners, and if you have fun (you know you will), go back and show your support to these local businesses when it counts. 

After all, nothing gold can stay.

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