Think Bay Area Nightlife Ends Early? That Could Be About to Change

8 min
Will nightlife get an extension with Sen. Scott Wiener's new bill? (Sin Dinero/iStock)

Ever had your late-night revels ended abruptly by the bartender announcing last call just before 2 a.m. here in the Bay Area?

If this strikes a chord, you’re not alone:

California’s 2 a.m. last call frustrates a lot of people. KQED listener Tara Downey even gets a little embarrassed by it when out-of-town friends visit.

“I have friends that live in New York, and so when they come back here it's a little bit of a shock to them,” she explains. “They're kind of like ‘OK, where do we go next?’ And … there's not really an answer for that. We go home.”

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Now she wants to know why last call is so early in San Francisco compared to other big cities.

Bay Curious listener Tara Downey, who asked us: "Why does nightlife in San Francisco end so early compared with other big cities around the world?" (Carly Severn / KQED)

Of course, the idea that California nightlife ends early depends on your definition of early. After all, we’ve got the same last call as Minnesota, Montana and New Mexico, and we can party one hour later than states like Maine, Delaware and Rhode Island. We’ve even got a whole two hours on most of Mississippi.

Then there’s New York City, with a 4 a.m. last call, and people in Indiana and West Virginia can have their last drink at 3 a.m., while Las Vegas and New Orleans are 24-hour drinking towns.

Our 2 a.m. last call has been in place since 1913. But what Tara didn’t know is that all this might change very soon.

California state Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco and northern San Mateo County, is the author of the "Last Call" State Bill 58 (SB 58), which proposes extending California’s closing times to 4 a.m.

California state Sen. Scott Wiener, the author of SB 58, which proposes extending last call to 4 a.m. (Carly Severn / KQED)

Wiener’s bill suggests a pilot program of 10 cities, including Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Long Beach, Coachella, Cathedral City, Fresno and Palm Springs. Under the plan, cities would get the ability to choose last call — neighborhood by neighborhood. “Whether you're in downtown L.A. or a small farm town, we're trying to create more local flexibility around nightlife,” he says.

Why Extend Last Call? 

To Wiener, nightlife is critical to our culture. To hear him tell it, SB 58 almost sounds like a battle for a city’s soul: An enabling of more music, more dancing and more creative expression.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, nothing good happens after midnight, let alone after 1 a.m.,’” says Wiener. “And it's a nice joke to make, but it is actually a joke. It's false.. a lot of beautiful things happen.”

Not to mention, the Bay Area is an internationally renowned hub of LGBTQ culture.

“For the LGBT community, our bars and nightclubs are not just a place to go out. It's about building community. And for so many of us — myself included — we found our community in the nightclubs, in the bars. And in so many parts of this country sometimes that's like the only place you can go and really just be with your community, in a safe space," Wiener says.

Nightlife is also an economic driver. In San Francisco alone, the nightlife industry includes over 3,500 businesses that create more than 60,000 jobs here, according to the city’s own numbers.

Late-Night Critics

This is Wiener’s third try at extending California’s nightlife.

In 2018, when he last introduced a similar bill, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it with the words: “I believe we have enough mischief from midnight to 2 without adding two more hours of mayhem.”

Brown added that he was worried about the link between more drinking hours and more DUIs. Groups like the California Alcohol Policy Alliance (CAPA) later described Brown’s 2018 veto as “a great victory for the health and well-being of all Californians”

While everyone can agree that drunken driving is bad, some dispute how many more DUIs would actually be caused by a later last call.

Short-term studies conducted in New York  and Minnesota have drawn connections between closing times and DUI frequency, but the authors of the latter acknowledged the likely influence of additional policing. Less controversial studies, like those cited by CAPA,  examined the effects of closing times over multiple years and also found a correlation. However, critics contest that those were all conducted in other countries, like Australia and Norway, and may not be as relevant in places like San Francisco.

“If you say ‘No, we're going to restrict nightlife’, you just start seeing illegal nightlife,” says Wiener. “People are still going to have parties. They're just going to do it in a way that's less safe.”

Safety questions aside: Is the Bay Area really ready for an extra two hours of nightlife?

Are You Ready For This?

David Ruiz is a bartender and owner of several bars in San Francisco, including Junior. He says that while clubs will probably welcome those two extra party hours, he doesn’t see a great demand for a later last call among his cocktail clientele.

David Ruiz, bartender and bar owner in San Francisco (Carly Severn / KQED)

“On occasion we have to shuffle some people out [at 2 a.m.],” he says. “But I would say people aren't 'going hard' to last call.”

When you consider the long working hours for many industries, the long commutes necessitated by steep city rental markets and the cost of alcoholic drinks in the Bay Area, you may ask yourself: Why would people want to stay out?

In Ruiz’s experience, San Francisco drinkers are increasingly more concerned with sampling new craft beers, or savoring certain spirits in their own sweet time than lining up the shots.

“I feel like the whole just-getting-really-wasted vibe is kind of on its way out,” he says, pointing to what he sees as an increasingly health-conscious culture in the Bay Area.

People here, he says, are also surrounded by tempting outdoor opportunities -- like camping and river rafting -- and “awesome weekend trips which, again, affects that nightlife culture on the weekends.”

Individual demand aside, Ruiz notes, it’s important to remember that a place like New York has evolved over the years to be set up for late-night living beyond drinking in a way that the Bay Area has not. For example: Restaurants in the Bay Area often close before last call and outside of special occasions like New Year's Eve, BART trains stop running at midnight.

Perhaps the expansion of late-night culture has to go beyond just letting bars stay open. Night owls need more options and increased safety. “Removing that negative stigma [of nightlife], I think, would be a plus — whether or not it's good for business,” says Ruiz.

Next Steps For Late Night

Before we can find out if those extra party hours are even wanted by Californians, Wiener’s bill has to get past California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, this fall.

Some speculate that Newsom is more likely to approve the bill because of his history in the hospitality business as the former owner of PlumpJack, the multimillion-dollar winery and hotel business that he placed in a blind trust when he became governor.

But remember: Even if SB 58 is approved, the extension of bar hours in California wouldn’t be happening until 2022. For the next few years, at least, 2 a.m. is here to stay.

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