“The Blind Cat” used to be the “Dirty Thieves” tavern, but changed its name in 2011 after the owner lost a bet. Which all scans. But why change it to “The Blind Cat?” Is there a superstition about blind cats being good drinking companions? Is there a nursery rhyme about blind cats that I don’t know about? A prominent San Francisco family that has a blind cat as its symbol? What am I missing?
There’s not even a cat in the bar. Even Eddie Rickenbacker’s, back in the day, actually had a stupidly enormous cat in the bar, but didn’t want to name itself “The Stupidly Enormous Cat” bar. For good reason.
Fortunately there are no cat tchotchkes inside, which I’m grateful for. In fact, there’s still “Dirty Thieves” signage hanging from the walls and, walking in, this immediately strikes one as more of a bar you’d expect from a name like “Dirty Thieves.” It’s nicely divey. A gorgeous if worn long wooden bar stretches across two-thirds of the room, with lots of stools. The only other seats are a couple of booths opposite the bar: This is the sort of place where you’re almost always either sitting at the bar or standing near it. Past the bar, a pool table dominates the rest of the room, with two pinball machines flanking it. The bathroom, I would later discover, is terrifying. The urinal itself actually has painted graffiti on it, which is a level of cultivated bar bathroom abuse I have never seen before. A jukebox plays mostly blues for the entire time I’m there, which was just right.
The beer list and specials — all beer and shot combos — were posted on various boards above the bar. Asking about the cocktail specials got me a rundown of the happy hour discount on well drinks. Which, to be clear, were very cheap.
I asked the bartender, Kara, if there were any cocktails they did especially well, or that she did — could she make me the cocktail that most spoke to her? Her response was an apologetic look. “We’re more of a beer and shots bar,” she said. “We can do cocktails, but not interesting ones.” Which was refreshingly honest.
So I ordered a Jack and Coke and settled in for an evening of absolutely nothing happening. The place was deserted. “Guess it’s not going to be a busy night,” Kara confirmed as she poured. “There’s a Sharks game on. I thought people might come for that. But it’s also a lovely day, and it’s still light out, so …” she shrugged and gave me my drink. Four bucks. Not bad at all.
I was lost in my own thoughts as I sipped, but a moment later she was back.
“Okay,” she said, “I’ve been thinking about your question … it’s got in my head …”
Some people accuse me of pulling an asshole move when I do this — isn’t working behind a bar already hard enough? — but I really like asking bartenders to make me a drink that represents the essence of themselves. At worst, they say “no” and understand immediately that I am a customer who’s more trouble than he’s worth. But when it goes right, it’s an invitation to someone to have a moment of shared creativity and humanity, and it has led to some of the best bar conversations I’ve ever had.
“Yeah,” she said. “What do you like to drink? Do you like sweet? Bitter?”
I shook my head. “I’m asking you to do it right, the way it should be done. And I never complain about a flavor profile when someone does that.”
She scowled. “We just don’t have much here to do something like that with.” A moment’s pause. “But … there is an old tiki drink I like that we have the ingredients for. A jungle bird. Have you had it?”
“It has Campari. So it has a bitter streak, and people either love it or hate it.”
“Let’s do it.”
“Okay.” She started to make it as a long-haired old-timer named Richard came in and sat down a stool away from me. He’s a regular — they looked at each other and beamed. He asked for a special. “Yeah, we’re not out of it yet,” she said, grinning, and they started chatting about how nobody’s here tonight. Not even for the game.
“Were you here during the game when my TVs were shutting off?” she asked. “I’m terrified that’ll happen again.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah, but I’m on shift and the computer’s still down, so it doesn’t really matter whose fault it is.”
That’s the way of the world, he agreed, and she handed me my drink. “Imagine it’s 1937,” she said, and I cracked up.
The “Jungle Bird” is rum, Campari, lime juice, simple syrup, and pineapple juice. Done right, the sweet exactly balances the bitter. Kara is clearly more bitter than I am, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly. She checked back in on me about it, having a good enough time that I was invited into her banter with Richard, and now, suddenly, we were all drinking buddies.
They both have histories here. Richard first moved to San Francisco in 1995, and lived in the Mission: This was his bar. When his building got bought out, he moved away for a while. Later, he found a place in the Mission that he can live with (nobody was more surprised than he was) and his new place is even closer to The Blind Cat. And one of his old roommates sometimes bartends here now, so he’s even more of a regular today.
Kara moved to San Francisco eight years ago, and lives in the Tenderloin. Bartending at The Blind Cat was her very first job in the city, and she met Richard on her first day. She’s worked here, off and on, ever since.
“It’s a family affair,” Kara explained.
And isn’t that what people want in a bar, Richard asks? “I can’t go anyplace else, because everybody’s going to be here,” and it’s great. Especially when so many bars in San Francisco are such terrible places to just meet regulars and hang out.
“Every bar in this town has got to have a theme,” I said, repeating a complaint I’ve had for years.
“It makes it so stilted, so artificial,” Kara agreed. “Are you familiar with Future Bars?”
“Oh, God, they’re what happens when consultants make a techie’s idea of a bar for tourists.” I rolled my eyes, and we spend a nice long time insulting the company that makes some of the most successful “destination” bars in the city, which have great drinks and are designed to be seen in, not enjoyed.
Kara asked what I wanted to drink next. She really wanted to make me another interesting cocktail, but felt stymied by the limited ingredients on hand. “Okay,” she finally says, “margarita. It’s the best I can do, but I can do it.”
“And you’re good at it?”
“Then do it.”
She is, as it happens, very good at it, and I had several more of these as the hours went by. As we drank, a few more people filled in, and Richard and I were are the social center of the bar: Anyone who wanted to have a conversation, stranger or regular, just had to come within talking range, and they were welcomed in.
The Blind Cat doesn’t have tourists. It has people who want a bar that feels more like home than the places they live, and so, when they get together, that’s what they create. And it’s great, even though “home” is a complicated concept in San Francisco right now.
“I really don’t know how I feel about being back in the city,” Richard said. “How the hell am I supposed to retire here? What am I doing, hanging on?”
But nothing is permanent. In a few weeks Richard will be going out of town to move his mother out of the home she’s lived in for decades — a house Richard built for her, all that time ago. It took him nine months to make. Now, she’s too frail to live there alone. None of us are safe from the future, or Future Bars.
Fuck the future: Bars are for the present.