The Crafty Fox Ale House, on Mission at 13th, is just a few feet from being under an overpass. It is sometimes in the shadow of one, depending on where the sun is. That alone doesn’t mean anything — some of the coolest places in the world are squeezed into unconventional spaces. The legendary Night Heron speakeasy in New York City was inside a water tower atop a condemned building. But it does mean that you have to do something special to avoid starting at a deficit.
It is rare that I approach a bar, peer in, and say, “Oh, HELL no!” But it happens. And, crossing the street toward the Crafty Fox on a sunny afternoon, peering in the windows, observing what looked like a pop-up greasy spoon built by apathetic grandfathers who needed to get some furnishings out of their basement … an “oh, HELL no!” escaped out of me.
I might very well have turned around and found another spot, but I’d agreed to meet friends. And so I walked in to greet Nicole and Eric. Eric was on his first beer, Nicole hadn’t ordered yet, but they were already skeptical: Apparently they’d seen the place from across the street, too, and had the exact same reaction.
The front room of The Crafty Fox had a decent crowd at the bar, though, so some people do like it here. The 36 beer taps in the front room are definitely its best feature — they look nicely antique. The front room is okay, in fact. It’s basically all bar seating and stools at a narrow window counter. It is minimalist in décor, which kind of works, although enough of the things they put on the walls are “crafty fox” branded as to make it look like they sold their naming rights to themselves. The feel of the room is “busy lunch counter for people with only 30 minute breaks, but in a gentrified neighborhood.” Which is fine as far as it goes, but seems all wrong if the idea is that you’re going to sit and savor some fine beer.
There are two other small rooms, one open to the kitchen, which contain small tables and picnic table-style seating — and they’re terrible. The décor could best be described as “minimalist bland;” it does exist, but it doesn’t matter. It comes across as quarter-assed, rather than casual. Worse, the bare walls catch and reflect all the sounds from the kitchen and the street, which doesn’t so much make conversation impossible as unpleasant. When the bar played music, it bounced off the walls and interacted with all the other sounds in a way that came across as noisy without adding ambiance. Eventually, we actually moved out of the second room and into the third just because the acoustics were so bad, and desperately wished there was a fourth room we could try.
I started to reconsider my initial trepidation, though, when I saw that The Crafty Fox uses empty bottles of Bulleit bourbon as water bottles at the tables, which seems a nice touch, and that the beer taps leaned heavily on Northern California microbrews, which is the beer bar equivalent of a sports bar sponsoring the home team. You like to see it. I ordered beer from Maine, though, because I was feeling contrary: an Allagash River Trip, a hop-forward,Belgian-style, pale session-style ale with strong citrus notes ($9), and went back to my table.
“You know what trend I’m not good with?” Eric said as he saw my beer. “Seven- to eight-percent ABV beer served in 13 ounce glasses. If I’m going to get a beer, I want a pint!”
“Beer comes in pints!” Nicole agreed. They high-fived, and then began wondering if we wouldn’t be better off just drinking a six-pack in the park.
To be fair, neither of them has any goddamn taste. Eric likes flavorless macrobrews and Nicole drinks IPAs so strong they bruise her tongue. (“Well, you like beer brewed by virgin monks,” she says in retort, which is untrue. Just because the monks are celibate now doesn’t mean they were virgins when they took the vow.) Inviting them to a serious taproom was a terrible mistake, and for all that we’re having trouble with it as a bar, it is a serious taproom: The Crafty Fox makes an effort at curation, and knows what it likes. I can’t for the life of me figure out why it was named “the best beer bar in California” by CraftBeer.com in 2017 — that’s just crazy talk — but they do put together a strong list.
The problem is drinking it here, because Nicole and Eric are right about one thing: When you’re day-drinking and the weather’s nice, “six-pack in the park” is the standard you have to beat. And if you’re not actually here for a particularly hard-to-find California microbrew, then The Crafty Fox wouldn’t cut it. Our conversation regarding Eric’s theory that, nowadays, no one would kill their parents for a measly $2 million, like the Menendez Brothers did, because income inequality has increased the threshold for patricide, was amusing to be sure, but the bar atmosphere added nothing to the discussion. We were having fun in spite of our surroundings.
Iwent back and bought Eric and myself a Curieux, also by Allagash: a Belgian Tripel style ale aged in bourbon barrels and poured into a 9-ounce glass, and priced at $12 just to add extra insult to that injury. He immediately recognized that I was thumbing my nose at everything he holds dear in this world, but had to agree that the beer is goddamn tasty. So there, asshole: My beers are better than yours.
We tried to have a serious debate about whether, when someone mentions that they’ve had sex on a football field, it’s impolite or not to ask if they’ve climaxed. What’s the etiquette? I wanted to stay a while longer, and try out the kitchen, which I’ve heard good things about.
But the sudden noises from the roadway outside bouncing off the bare walls, mixing with the music, and the kitchen noises, and the fact that we were paying top dollar to be here, drove us away before we had time for another round and a fancy chicken sandwich. Nicole has absolutely no standards, but when she says “I can’t do this,” you can’t stay. Oh, HELL no.
Sometimes, first impressions are the right ones.