The bar that would become Doc’s Clock opened in the Mission in 1951. When the owners let it go, the story goes, they sold it at a discount to the one woman who promised that, no matter what happened, she would keep it a dive.
The bar has had to move since then, but it’s still in the Mission, and that promise still holds.
I almost never went to the old Doc’s Clock, which was only about two blocks over on Mission and 22nd. But, from what I recall, the new location on Mission and 20th is a fairly faithful recreation of the prior one.
We went in because it was dark. Honestly, that’s the only reason: We wanted to go to a bar, but all the Mission Street bars we passed were well-lit and genteel, too much like boutiques. Some conversations are not genteel, which is why you want booze.
“Hey,” Michelle said, stopping and pointing. “That’s dark.” And it was. So even before she said “Isn’t it also a Mission landmark?” we were going in.
Doc’s Clock has your basic “long hallway” layout: a long bar with a few tables down just past it. There are a couple of arcade games and a pinball machine, neither of which I ever saw anyone play. It had a big TV, set to FX, which I never saw anyone watch. Down by the tables, just past the bar, there is a very long miniature shuffleboard table against the wall, which I never saw anyone play. I’m not saying that never happens; when people get drunk enough they’ll try whatever games are handy. I’m just saying that the drinking comes first, and a certain threshold must be crossed before anyone’s going to say “Oo! Shuffleboard!”
Doc’s Clock’s drink menu has all the class and decorum of prom after-party that the host asked his creepy uncle to supply at the last minute. It consists of a series of lists hung on the wall behind the bar, with names like “Crap on Tap,” “Bottles and Cans,” “Doc’s Clocktails” and “Drinks to Save the World.” Their official “Cocktail Menu,” which is also helpfully listed on their website, reads as follows:
- Other shit
The point here is that, at a dive bar of this caliber, you don’t actually much care what you’re drinking – you only care how much it costs. And Doc’s Clock has you taken care of. PBR is $3 on weeknights and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; beers otherwise average around $5. Cocktails tap out at $10, with most hovering at $7 or $8.
The drinks themselves, at these prices, are exactly what you’d expect. I ordered a “Ghost of the Mountain” (Snow Leopard Vodka, Sunny D, splash of Campari), which is actually worse than anything I ever drank at a high school party. But it’s not like they promised more. Any lawyer who’d been drinking would tell me it clearly falls under “other shit,” with precedent established by the Supreme Court case of Jim Beam vs. Your Mom.
I ordered a Slane Irish Whiskey and Ginger as my second drink. It was much better, and $6. Keep it simple.
The other point, and this is what makes Doc’s Clock a truly first-rate dive bar, is that it really doesn’t give damn. From the bartenders to the patrons to the drinkers lingering outside on the street, no one here is trying to impress anyone. The very idea is absurd: They do not care what you think. I didn’t get the sense, sitting at the bar, that anyone here had given up exactly, but they definitely didn’t come here to try.
Even better than that, though, with almost 70 years of dive bar history under its belt, Doc’s Clock has reached that magical point where it can have a sense of humor about not giving a damn. This is much harder than it looks, because bars that try to be funny actually do end up giving a damn. For a dive bar to pull off what Doc’s Clock does, it has to be funny without caring if you laugh.
Perhaps the pinnacle of this is “Barbie Mutilation Night,” Doc Clock’s Halloween tradition, in which every participant gets a willing “victim” to turn into an image of horror, with proceeds going to charity. I mean, that’s totally wrong and utterly hilarious. I was so impressed, and nobody cared how I felt at all. Perfect.
As I drank, someone on my left was complaining about the Burning Man ticket lottery that just happened, and how badly it had gone and how impossible it was to get tickets. On my right, the bartender was talking to patrons about trying to beat San Francisco’s public school lottery, and how impossible it is to get your kids into the school you want.
One of the patrons, a tall young woman wearing a backpack, was incensed. “How can it be so hard!” And for a moment I didn’t know which conversation she was in. “There’s no kids left!” she said, ostensibly clearing that up. “Where’s the competition!” She thought about it for a moment. “I think they’re making this up just to get the parents to think there’s a competition,” she concluded. Which is a surprisingly plausible sounding theory.
“What are you going to do?” she asked the bartender.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” the woman to my left said, talking about Burning Man.
We all want something, I guess. Down at the far end of the bar, someone had brought in pizza and all their friends were eating it. Nobody batted an eye. Fuck yeah. Michelle and I settled in to have a real talk.