Sports bars have a lot of advantages: They’re casual, the food is usually cheap and surprisingly good — if you don’t care what happens to your stomach in the next eight hours — and the atmosphere is fun.
But there’s a downside to sports bars: Sports.
Sports bring out the worst in sports bars. They get packed like an airport on Thanksgiving, the staff gets overworked and stressed like a hospital on Thanksgiving, and everybody stops talking to each other so that they can watch TV, unless they end up in heated arguments about incredibly stupid minutia, like your family on Thanksgiving.
Which is why I never go home for Thanksgiving, and never go to sports bars when there’s a big game.
Giordano Bros., on 16th off Valencia (in the former Ti Couz site), is one of the city’s great sports bars — so long as there’s no sports to watch. The six … wait, seven … no, eight TVs that I could see in the two-room space from my vantage point at the bar were turned to a combination of baseball highlights and golf, a mix that is exactly as improbable as it is mind-bendingly dull. You couldn’t actually look at the TVs without flinching, which defeated their point in a way that the San Francisco art scene has been trying to achieve for 60 years.
“Joey!” I said to the bartender as I sat down. “What is going on with the screens?”
“There’s nothing on,” Joey explained. “There’s nothing! We had rugby on earlier.”
“Is that how I know an American sports bar is desperate?” I asked. “If the TV has rugby on it?”
“Welllllllllll,” he clearly wanted to say yes, but there was an extenuating factor. “The rugby World Cup is actually here, in town.”
“So you had that on, because it was local?”
“Was anybody watching it?”
“No.” He shrugged. “What can I get you?”
Joey is the reason I had come. He is, in my longstanding opinion, the single greatest bartender in the city, a man whose career as a creator of miracle cocktails I have been following for years. I lost track of him for a while, after tragedy struck his life and he went wandering around Italy for a while, but after he came back I eventually tracked him down here. Joey can work a crowd like a politician on the Fourth of July, never forgetting a story or a name, which makes him a natural for a place like this. But it has pained me every time I’ve seen him, because this isn’t a cocktail bar, it’s a beer bar with cocktails that you suspect are somebody’s idea of a joke.
You never tell a man who seems happy at work that he’s wasting his talents, but, goddamn it, ordering a cocktail from Joey here is like watching Leonardo da Vinci do macaroni art.
I looked at the cocktail menu. I could order a pickleback — I understand the pickle juice is made on site — or I could order a root beer float that the menu ambiguously describes as “boozy,” or I could … oh, what the hell …
“What flavor is the Hillbilly Hi-Ball today?” I asked.
“Blackberry,” he said apologetically. Then recovered. “But it’s really good.”
The Hillbilly Hi-Ball is flavored vodka mixed with sweet tea. And, okay, honestly. This is a pretty funny drink menu, once you realize that nobody in their right mind would order off it.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
While he was making it, a boisterous group of five people came in and sat at the bar. They were loud, wearing ball caps and ready to party.
“Here you go,” Joey said, putting my blackberry-vodka-flavored tea in front of me and moving on to take the temperature of this new crowd.
I braced myself for the newcomers to treat me to a series of aggressive drunken arguments about baseball or golf (or rugby). Instead, they jumped into an aggressive drunken celebration of their friend’s triumphant turn in a regional theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
“The woman playing Blanche, she was so good!” one of them shouted, pounding his fist on the bar. “I hated her and hated her … And that’s what she was supposed to do!“
“But you!” Another one said to his friend, pointing in a way that suggested these might be fighting words. “You were so good at emphasizing the white-trash redneck milieu!” He took a deep breath, then made a confession. “Your performance was so good, you got me laid that night! You really did!”
They all raised their glasses to salute this enormous accomplishment. On one of the TVs, the network had gone from covering golf to The Tour de France. This was somehow worse.
Joey stepped back over to me. “How’s that Hillbilly Hi-Ball?” he asked with a smirk.
I tried to think of a polite way to say that I once knew discriminating high school students who wouldn’t drink this if it were passed to them behind the bleachers at a pep rally.
Instead I put on a thick, terrible, French accent. “Eet ees, how do you say …”
“It tastes like shit but it gets the job done,” Joey finished.
“Yes, yes!” I said, excited that he’d found the perfect phrase with which to capture the moment.
Joey grinned and walked over to the new group, giving them the remote so that they could search through the TV in front of them for something better. It turned out they weren’t actually interested in sports at all: They were trying to find Shark Week.
But the Shark Week program turned out to be Ronda Rousey learning how to dive so that she could potentially fight a shark later in a future episode, and after a moment’s hushed conversation the group decided that they just weren’t going to watch that. Even “Shark Week” has limits on how far it can push stunt programming.
“You want anything else?” Joey asked.
There’s only one answer to that question at this point. “I’ve gotta have a sandwich,” I said, or more like admitted. Giordano Bros. does these amazing Pittsburgh-style sandwiches with the french fries and the coleslaw right in the sandwich. He asked me if I wanted another cocktail with that, and I ordered a beer instead. This joke had been taken far enough.
“I’m getting out of here,” Joey told me as he brought the bottle over.
I held my breath. I’ve been waiting for him to say that for almost two years. “Yeah?”
“Yeah, I’ll miss this place, but I can’t do this anymore.” He didn’t mean slinging beers, which he loves; he meant the late nights and maniacal crowds and packed houses full of rowdies … all the things that sports bring to sports bars.
“Are you going back to making amazing cocktails?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said, in a way that brought hope to my heart. “We’ll see what I can find.”
I feel guilty about being so happy about this. Giordano Bros. is a great example of what a sports bar should be: Even when nothing’s happening, it’s high-energy and fun and cheap-for-San Francisco. I’ll come back the next time there are absolutely no sports worth watching. But dammit, I believe that people with great gifts are called upon to use them.
Around me, the bar momentarily thrilled at the discovery that it was now time for “#SharkAfterDark” on the TV, then groaned as they discovered that it is a talk show, without any actual shark footage.
Hype is easy. Living up to it is hard.