What is it about dive bars, those unpretentious neighborhood gin joints, that have a way of capturing our hearts? A certain amount of appreciation is based on our personal histories with these places. Maybe it's also because we find these bars to be a truer reflection of local culture than the artisanal cocktail lounges that have become ubiquitous to most cities. And perhaps it has something to do with an anthropological fondness for the kinds of "regulars" these bars attract. The best dives have clienteles straight out of John Waters casting sessions: bikers, aging punks, over-painted bar flies, gossiping local know-it-alls and the occasional scary career drinker, not to mention the various degrees of surly bartenders and cocktail waitresses giving everyone a disapproving once over.
In a San Francisco that's changing quicker than ever, dive bars provide a touch of the familiar as we watch the rest of the city become one giant leather banquette serving elderflower infusions. The darkness and aromatic boozy bouquet of your average dive always feels familiar because you could be almost anywhere once you step back outside. While we still have them, veer off the usual drinking path and raise a glass at some of these local favorites. Just remember to bring cash.
3336 24th Street
When a friend recently emailed me to say he'd heard a rumor that my favorite first and last stop in a night of imbibing was closing, I fell off my chair wailing. A jaunt down the street and a quick conference with the bartender revealed that reports of Attic's demise were greatly exaggerated; they're not going anywhere and that's good news for other local dive enthusiasts. (Update: Turns out that bartender was full of it.) Attic has the charming dual distinction of being both the darkest bar on our list (planetarium dark) and also having one of the best mixes of regulars. Arty types, neighborhood old timers, after work crowds, Saturday nighters and the last of the Gen X career hipsterati drink side by side in a utopian boozing vision. The above-the-bar kitsch gets an A+ for decor and the back booths are total makeout destinations (hence the darkness?). If you sit in the big round booth with the carved up table top, see if you can spot my initials. A ghost of boyfriends past gouged both of our initials onto the surface with all the others sometime in my mid-early 20s and it just makes the booth feel that much more like home.