How Zeitgeist Helped Me Understand the 'New Normal'

My longest San Francisco relationship is with a bar. For the last 18 years, Zeitgeist and I have, in the wise words of Billy Paul, had A Thing Going On. Our connection goes beyond the strength and unfathomable deliciousness of the margaritas. It goes beyond my love for a greasy grilled cheese on a sunny Saturday. And it has even survived the unforgivable decision to take the best fried potatoes in the Mission off the menu.

In the last three months of COVID-related closures, it is Zeitgeist's that I've found the hardest to stomach. (At one point last month, I even contacted a bartender to see if he could push for a margarita take-out system like the one Thee Parkside has been running.) Needless to say, when Zeitgeist finally opened back up—for three hours on Friday, June 12—I was one of the first in line. But what greeted me was jarring to say the least.

The process of getting a drink in Zeitgeist currently looks like this:

  • Patrons enter through the back door, directly into the yard. The inside is not currently accessible to anyone but staff.
  • Once inside the yard, the line follows a winding path of appropriately distanced markers, leading to an outside desk in front of what is usually the bicycle rack (No bikes are permitted at this time).
  • In order to purchase any beverage, you must also purchase food, since Zeitgeist is currently operating as a restaurant.
  • After you place your order, it's electronically transferred to both the bar and kitchen staff.
  • For the first time ever, you can now pay with a credit card.
  • Tables (maximum: six people) are separated by large glass doors, with smaller benches (maximum: three people) perched at the end of each row.
    The Zeitgeist back yard with COVID precautions.
    The Zeitgeist back yard with COVID precautions. | Rae Alexandra / KQED
  • Prominent, laminated instructions for patrons are posted at each table, along with warnings about the consequences of stickers, tagging and other things the world has come to expect inside Zeitgeist.
  • Due to the long line to get in, it is not possible to place more than one order per visit. (At least it wasn't when I went.) Patrons are encouraged to stay for one hour only, due to demand and limited space, but you have the option of buying to-go.
  • Before two people could sit at the same table as me and my companion, our permission was politely asked by a member of staff. As soon as that couple departed, the staff member rushed back to disinfect the table and benches.

It was all unceasingly, extraordinarily unnatural.

Zeitgeist's rules and regulations in the time of COVID-19.
Zeitgeist's rules and regulations in the time of COVID-19. | Rae Alexandra / KQED

"I don't like it," my friend said to me before we'd even sat down.

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"Nobody likes it," I replied. "But it's better than nothing. They're just trying to keep us safe."

And it was then that the darkest reality of the "new normal" hit me. It hit me more than three months of sheltering in place; more than working from home; and more than hanging out with only two other humans for almost 100 days. Our current predicament is so dire that it has turned Zeitgeist—Zeitgeist!—into a place that genuinely and thoroughly cares about our safety.

This is most definitely not why I fell in love with Zeitgeist. I fell in love with the bar because when I first moved to San Francisco in 2002, the noisy black box on the corner of Valencia and Duboce was unlike anything in my native UK. It was a punk rock haven ideally suited to the day-drinking my more disreputable friends and I favored. And its air of unencumbered mayhem endured even in daylight.

I fell in love with Zeitgeist because, for regulars at least, it always felt like a dysfunctional family. For the weekend crowd, the idea persists that Zeitgeist bartenders are the surliest in the city. (The tag "Rude Bartenders" continues to appear on its Facebook page). And while that's not without just cause—I once saw a bartender yell at a woman to "Get the f--k out if you can't f--king read!" because she had the audacity to ask if they served Blue Moon—regular clientele have always enjoyed an easy banter with the staff.

In 2009, I had a brief stint working at Zeitgeist to supplement my freelance writing income. I was a "yard dog"—a role that appears, based on my recent visits, to no longer exist.  My shifts were long, boring and almost unbearably cold. During that same year, I had an even briefer stint living upstairs in Zeitgeist's "hotel." I can confirm that my room was tiny, came with zero kitchen facilities and shook whenever a truck rumbled past on the freeway. But still the noise from the yard downstairs always soothed me.

Changes at Zeitgeist are frequently greeted with sadness by those most attached to it. In March 2010, when the kitchen's beloved smoker got retired—one can only guess at how many burgers came out of that thing over the years—staff members were so bereft, they took turns posing for photos with it.

Zeitgeist staff bidding farewell to the beloved smoker, March 2010.
Zeitgeist staff bidding farewell to the beloved smoker, March 2010. | Courtesy of Jef Hoskins

Changes have been pretty relentless ever since. First there came a rule about not smoking on the back porch. Then came clean and flushable bathrooms in the yard instead of the Porta Potties. Then, it was a fancy new bar set up with more taps and back windows so that people could order from the porch. Then came that stupid electronic screen above the kitchen, so people knew when their food was ready. (Whatever happened to just yelling?) Did I mention they took the best fried potatoes in the Mission off the menu? (#NeverForget)

Sure all of these things sound, in theory, like improvements. But, for a lot of us, the new shine on Zeitgeist has erased a lot of the grime we loved it so much for in the first place.

But I will always return. Because the juke box never changes. The drinks are still some of the best (read: strongest) in the city. And because—despite a mass exodus of longterm staff last year—there are still always familiar faces.

Zeitgeist's new normal is shocking, even after months of other COVID-related surrealities. And it scares me to think how long socializing is going to look this regimented, even in places known for being freewheeling dives. But alarmed as I was by the alien nature of Zeitgeist's new set-up, one new item on the menu let me know that the bar I've loved for so long is still hiding under all those new regulations: a 32-ounce margarita, equivalent to two regular sized ones, served in a mason jar. Because, in the end, Zeitgeist still knows that its margaritas are the best in the city. It still knows that one is never enough. And it's still, despite everything, doing its very best under terrible circumstances to do what it's always done best: get you good and drunk. For that, I am grateful.

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