At 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, Elixr is packed to the brim. Drinks occasionally spill and people yell in their friends’ ears just to be heard. Suddenly, a voice comes on over the PA system. The room shuffles and settles. It’s time for trivia, and everyone shuts up.
It’s a scene repeated dozens of times throughout San Francisco, generally at bars and generally on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night. Regulars stake out their spots early, first-timers squeeze in wherever, and sometimes pedestrians just stumble in for a chance to win it all – meaning 15 minutes of bragging rights and 30 bucks off their bar tab.
In the Mission District, trivia nights draw large crowds of 20 to 30-somethings wanting to exercise their minds and challenge their peers, all alongside a $12 cocktail.
“There’s a real thirst for trivia in the Mission,” said Sal Calanni, a local stand-up comedian who has hosted trivia every Tuesday night at Elixr for the past seven years.
The questions range from geography to current events and on a rare occasion, the pop quizzes are themed – take for example 90s:The Simpsons trivia at Knockout. They also go from general knowledge – (a) Who wrote The Fall of the House of Usher?– to a very specific level of knowledge – (b) How many states does the Appalachian Trail pass through? – And, no phones allowed.
I hate games, which my editor found out after assigning me to trivia night. No matter, I was still on the story and my question over the weeks visiting Napper Tandy, Shotwell’s, Elixr, The Sycamore and Dr. Teeth’s was why… What’s the attraction of a pop quiz that can last hours? What I found were passionate locals, shy, educated first-timers and extremely enthusiastic hosts who create lively and entertaining environments. School was never this fun.
Emily Feely and Elise Mendelsohn met at Shotwells to visit, but instead got caught up in the game. “It’s pretty good,” said Mendelsohn who comes from DC where trivia is much more competitive. At Shotwell’s she said, “The questions here are really answerable.”
Emily Atkinson and Chris Hanawatt, both hosts that night, would disagree. To Atkinson, co-host and former bartender, Shotwell’s “not so by the book” questions truly sets its night apart.
Yet that is a claim often made by trivia hosts in the Mission. And, it is true as most moderators create their own questions rather than pulling questions from sites such as Quiz Up or Sporcle.
The method of some Mission hosts? Spontaneity or attention to breaking news. A sheet of questions goes out and contestants fill out the answers and then turn them back in before the next round.
At Shotwell’s, rounds are sometimes simultaneous. Their “famous” music round takes place at the same time as their picture round. On a recent Monday night, we had to guess famous Seinfeld guest stars while identifying music being played over the PA system – teamwork helps, but some contestants go it alone. (c) Who played Karen, one of George’s ex-girlfriends? While we tried to figure that one out, The Weeknd’s “The Hills” played in the background.
The Napper Tandy, which hosts its sponsored trivia on Wednesdays, has a TV deja vu round where contestants are given the name of the actor who played the original TV character and then we had to name the actor who played the same character in the movie version or a remake version. (d) Who played Agent 99 in Get Smart from 1965-1970? (e) And who played her in the 2008 remake?
General information questions, weathering on specificity, are front and center every night, no matter the circumstance. At Shotwell’s their East Coast round poses the question: (f) What are the ingredients for a Connecticut lobster roll? And at Elixr: (g) What 1997 single sold 1.5 million copies in the first week?
The possibility of getting more questions right than anyone else in the pub is hardly the draw. What truly makes trivia is the atmosphere.
“A lot of people who don’t know each other talk to each other,” said Hanawatt. “It’s a very community-like atmosphere, it’s not pretentious, people feel encouraged to get involved.”
At the Sycamore, which hosts one of the longest trivia nights Mondays from 7:30-10 p.m., atmosphere clearly keeps the crowd going.
Quizmaster Keith, as he calls himself, has been hosting trivia at the Sycamore for, according to him, “hundreds of years.” His quirky, off-center personality keeps the evening going as he bounces around from the cramped front of the bar to the back patio area.
“They call me Quizmaster Keith because that’s what the chip implanted in my head said!” he says to the crowd hunched over a sheet of questions.
Not all hosts are as outspoken as Quizmaster Keith.
Matt Sterling, the host of Dr. Teeth’s and the Electric Mayhem, Tonic and Bullitt’s trivia nights, is reserved, but has a keen eye for spotting trends among quiz-night goers.
“They roll deep!” said Sterling about the size of groups that come in to play in the Mission.
“It’s the most diverse crowd from any of the other nights that I do this. They are loud, yet, they are responsive. It’s just a hip crowd of hard working kids who are smart and like to have fun,” added Sterling.
Tonight at Dr. Teeth’s, trivia ends in a tie after questions like: (h) How long did it take Ronda Rousey to knock out Bethe Correia on August 1st? – and – (i) What mythological creature combines the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle?
This isn’t the sort of establishment to have two first place winners, so Sterling asks each of the winning teams to send up a volunteer.
The challenge won’t require the participants to use their brains, it will however require them to chug a pint of beer.
The two team volunteers meet at the end of the bar, both tall, heavier set 20-something men, lock eyes, cheers, and chug. Milliseconds later, there is a winner.
Answers to this game: (a) Edgar Allan Poe, (b) 14, (c) Lisa Edelstein (d) Barbara Feldon (e) Anne Hathaway (f) bun, lobster, butter, (g) “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John, (h) 34 seconds, and (i) a gryphon.