The Zeitgeist of Dive Bars

In San Francisco is a dive bar perched at the top of the Mission and Valencia districts. When I first moved to San Francisco twenty years ago, these neighborhoods were already changing from an industrial war zone to the first wave of gentrification that hit San Francisco during the first tech boom. Even back then, Zeitgeist was already firmly established as a no nonsense punk rock motorcycle bar. The bartenders were surly, hungover, and weren’t particularly careful of the measurements of the drinks they served. There was a shelf for your helmet, a large garden area where you could smoke pretty much anything, and a bank of squalid portapotties that was only marginally better than pissing against the wall. The staff lived upstairs in the Punk Rock Dormitories, which had been recently converted from a punk rock hostel where beds could go as cheap as $5 a night if you weren’t all that particular about who and what you woke up with.

Photo via ElizaBites

The bar’s motto back then, and that continues to this day, is “Hangovers installed and maintained.” My first drink at Zeitgeist was a pitcher of Long Island Ice Tea. To myself. I wasn’t supposed to have the pitcher to myself. When I asked for my drink (because Long Islands were what I was drinking back then as I apparently had received a full scholarship to the Cirrhosis School of Liver Failure), the bartender asked if I wanted a Large or the “pansy” version. Not knowing what to do, I watched in horror as she stared me down as she filled a pitcher with ice, grabbed two bottles in each hand and started pouring. And pouring. And pouring. It was only when she set down the four bottles and grabbed a fifth that she broke eye contact. She splashed in a bit of sour mix and an even smaller dash of cola and told me the price for my non-pansy drink. That was, by far, the most expensive single “drink” I ever bought myself. When I tipped her on top of that, she, my bartender, cracked the faintest smile I’ve ever seen, nodded, and handed me two pint glasses and said, “go make friends.”

Photo via SFGate

I stepped out the back door into the beer garden and into glorious chaos.

There were punks in studded jackets shoving along the trestle benches, grabbing lit cigarettes from strangers, bikers alternately shouting about that there wasn’t enough metal in the jukebox and showing off their accident scars, and skaters mashed together with the bicyclists and getting equally obliterated as everyone else. A wonderful, kind woman and her grandson hawked freshly made tamales for two bucks and were treated as the bar’s benevolent patron saints of all things magnificent. Smoke from the cigarettes, the not-cigarettes, and the barbeque drifted and mingled with the fog, warming and chilling everyone equally.

Zeitgeist never had private tables. Everyone smashed up against everyone else and chimed in on other people’s conversations and laughed too loud and had deep, intense relationships, one blackout night at a time. Twenty years ago, you could get away with a lot more in the bar than you can now. There was a time when, late at night, some kids may or may not have shot pellet guns at the rats that infest the rusted pickup truck that’s acting as a planter box in the corner. If anything had fallen to the floor in the portapotties, you just left it lying and considered it payment to the biker gods.

The Zeitgeist of my youth doesn’t exist anymore. That frenetic, self-destructive mess needed a lot fewer rules and social grace than what is accepted nowadays. But then again, I’m not the same person as I was back then, either. And that’s a good thing. It would be impossible to live twenty years, as a person or as a bar, and not have experiences that leave their mark. But, as much as things have evolved, the fundamentals of Zeitgeist remain. It is still a place that builds community and chaos in equal measures. It is still a place where hangovers and relationship with strangers are installed and maintained. And it is still a place where you can get a pitcher of Long Island Ice Tea, you have only to ask.

Photo by Jeffrey Turner

Photo by Jeffrey Turner

The Perfect Long Island Ice Tea

  • 1 regular sized pint glass
  • Bottles of blanco tequila, vodka, gin, white rum, triple sec
  • Coke
  • Sour mix
  • Ice

Fill the pint glass with ice. Take the tequila, vodka, gin, and rum (two to a hand) and pour simultaneously into the glass. Aim to have equal amounts of the four liquors. Fill to within one and a half inches of the top of the glass. Add a half second pour (or half an ounce) of triple sec. Pour in one and a half seconds (one and a half ounces) of sour mix. Shake or stir until the sour mix is evenly distributed throughout the booze. Float Coke on top. Stir. Add Coke until you get the color of tea that you want. Add a straw and serve.

Jeff Scattini is Booze League's Bay Area correspondent. He has been writing since he was a child, but back then they just called it lying. He lives, and drinks, in San Francisco with his wife and apartment-sized pets. Contact him at jeff@boozeleague.com or on Twitter @jefreyscattini

Jeff has been a professional writer, bartender, and clown, sometimes all at once. He grew up along California's central coast before disappearing into the wilds of San Francisco. He appeared sporadically in those foggy mists as a featured artist for the Ramshackle Farm art gallery, a founding writer for Mockery Press, and an actor and clown on the Embarcadero and in a number of local theater companies. He tended bar in a range of dive bars before heading East to travel Europe and drink in those sights, and he does mean "drink". After his bank account and his liver required a break, he dropped back into the City and was astonished at how much rents had gone up. 

Jeff currently resides in San Francisco and is the proud protector of two apartment-sized animals and a rent controlled apartment lease.