You’d expect a bar with a name like “Thieves Tavern” to appear in a Game of Thrones knock-off. As if you could be accosted by a grungy man on 16th Street BART Plaza saying “Seek ye the Thieves Tavern, young man!” just before he presses a hand-drawn map into your hand and scurries away.
Actually, I kind of want to make that happen now. We have more than enough street theater troupes in San Francisco to make that happen. (Of course, they would likely repurpose it into an allegory about gender imperialism with Dick Cheney as the villain.)
The point being that there are only two ways to go when you name a bar something like Thieves Tavern: high-concept theme cocktails, or dive bar.
Thieves Tavern makes its choice early and often. Walking into it out of the afternoon sun, my immediate thought, before my eyes had even adjusted to lighting, was “what a dump!”
Perfect. I was so happy!
It was dark. The specials were written on the door, in chalk. Two pool tables, a jukebox, a photo booth covered in stickers and graffiti, and three TVs turned to sports all surrounded the bar, which had a metal sculpture of a steer’s skull hanging over it. It was a great first impression.
My second impression walked that back a bit. It’s clean, the mural on the back wall is weird but nice, the jukebox is digital, and it’s not actually that dark. The bar is clean. It’s not so bad. I’m kinda disappointed.
There’s literally one other customer in the bar right now, so it’s easy to overhear a conversation about how it’s the bartender’s first bartending gig, and she’s lucky because so many dive bars have closed around the city that if you want to work in a place like this, competition is fierce. I don’t know how to feel about the idea that working in a dive bar is a plum gig — that seems paradoxical — but the other customer agreed. I interrupted by ordering a Red Trolley Ale, and he got a stick to play pool.
Beer and shots are the house specials. Thieves Tavern has the ability to make cocktails in the same way that you have the ability to make cocktails at your bar at home. I mean, I’m sure it’s fully stocked, right? Why wouldn’t it be? It’s a bar. Of course it’ll have everything you need for a great cocktails stored … somewhere. Of course it does.
But in case you’re worried, Thieves Tavern is not going to run out of Jameson. They’ve got that covered. They have four shelves behind the bar conspicuously dedicated entirely to Jameson. Four shelves — each with the bottles lined up in double rows. You can be confident knowing where your next shot of Jameson’s coming from. If that’s not your thing, another shelf is entirely stocked with Bulleit bottles in a kind of “flying V” formation. You know, in case someone wants a different whiskey. I also spot two bottles of Dickel, two of Knob Creek, four of High West, four of Michter’s … This is a college frat’s idea of a diverse shelf, given pride of place.
My friend “Rodger” came in, making three customers in the bar now. “Do you think they like whiskey?” he asked as he sat down next to me. Thieves Tavern is not ambiguous: You don’t spend any time wondering what they do or what they’re about.
Rodger needs that right now. After a long period of hesitation, he decided to go back into the tech industry, taking a job that offered him everything he wanted. He did his research carefully, making sure that the company was adequately funded and had a corporate culture he could live with. It didn’t matter: Five days after he started the job, they announced they were being acquired.
“This was EXACTLY why I didn’t want to get back into tech,” he told me after we’d clinked pint glasses. “FIVE DAYS!”
But it gets worse. As he’s trying to figure out whether or not he has a job, his wife is being headhunted by a company dangling her dream job — but it’s on the East Coast. His life could take any number of directions in the next few weeks, and he has almost no control over the options he has available.
A bar where you know exactly what you’re going to get may be exactly what he needs.
“I think life is like the Hawaiian islands,” he said, which is a thing I have never been told before. “The islands are all actually mountains in the ocean — they’re the peaks of the mountains that are higher than the ocean. But they’re not the only mountains in the ocean. There are all these other mountains around the islands that are really big, they just don’t go above the water. And having all these underwater islands around changes all the patterns of the tides and the waves and the currants, so that if you’re trying to navigate a boat around the islands, your path is way more affected by the things you don’t see, just under the surface, than the things you see above it. I think that’s life.”
He’s right. And the bartender’s right: places like this are disappearing in San Francisco. But it has nothing to do with their quality, it’s all the result of patterns under the surface, that we’re all caught up in. Patterns far more insidious than anything you’d find in Game of Thrones.