Something was wrong as I walked into Uptown, on 17th. A feeling I’d never had in this bar before.
Uptown is a single, large room divided into two medium-sized spaces by a beautiful wooden bar. One area is for sitting, with bar stools, tables, and couches, while the other is for standing, with a pool table, pinball machine, jukebox, and just a couple more chairs.
It has mostly bare walls, with a lot of what looks to be original wood and trim, with just enough weird on it to enhance its “dive” character rather than “make a statement about dive bars.” The furniture is the kind you’d feel great about getting off Craigslist for no money, and comfortable.
Nothing had changed, but something was off. I sat down on a stool next to “Allen,” and finally figured it out.
“It seems so … clean …” I said. It was weirdly like a demo home. It was “sanitary” in the most aggressive way you can mean that. Antiseptic. Whereas before it had always been clean, but in that way where you visit a friend and they say “sorry for the mess” as you walk into their living room. And yeah, it’s ratty, but who cares, because it’s you. Because we’ve had so many good times here that at least three of the whiskey stains on the carpet came from me, two in the same very good night.
Uptown has always been like that. Today it felt like I’d walked into a different bar with an identical layout.
“Hey,” Allen said, reaching out to calm me down. “They literally just cleaned. Just finished.”
“Yeah,” the bartender agreed. “Just.”
Okay then, it wasn’t in my mind: That was, in fact, a genuine aroma of cleaning products lingering in the air.
“They’ve gotta spruce the place up once in a while,” Allen said.
“Yeah,” the bartender agreed again. “You know, for spring.”
“You don’t have to worry, this place is never going legit,” Allen said.
“Well, you never know,” I told him. “Actually, hasn’t this dive just been named a historic business in the city?”
Allen gaped. “Really?”
The bartender nodded. “We’re a legacy business now.”
“That’s amazing!” Allen said. And then he turned to his right, and looked up at a stained glass portrait of Scott Ellsworth, the founding owner of Uptown, gazing down on the bar, grinning as though he knew something we didn’t, surrounded by the words “buy your own damn bar,” which had been his motto in life. Allen raised up his beer. “Thanks, Scott.”
The bartender looked at the picture too for a moment, grinned, and said, “Saints die.”
And a moment later, “what are you drinking?”
Given the presence of a San Francisco secular saint in stained glass — Ellsworth was a noted member of the San Francisco Cacophony Society back in its heyday — I felt like the only way to follow a statement like that was with a chalice of some sacred brandy. But I’d have had to bring my own, since Uptown doesn’t do anything like that.
Uptown’s beer menu is prosaic, while its cocktail menu is eclectic, in the very best sense of the term: not “carefully curated to represent a broad swath of tastes and influence” but “whatever the fuck we feel like making right now.” And you really never know what that will be until you get there.
Because the bartender had made a joke about spring cleaning, I ordered a Spring Fever (handcrafted botanical gin, St. Germain elderflower liquor), which was … well, look, it’s a dive bar.
Since the subject of Scott Ellsworth had come up, and Allen had known him back in the day, we had to talk at least a little about him. Which is appropriate, since his legacy is still felt in every corner of Uptown, and he is the very much the reason the bar is now considered a Mission legacy business today.
Ellsworth started the bar in the 1980s because, so far as I can tell, he just wanted a goddamn bar he liked, and kept it almost entirely the same for 30 years, down to personally curating all the songs in the jukebox. As the Mission changed around it, Uptown remained a downscale ’80s bar: a place where people from the neighborhood, who seemed like they could somehow afford to live here waiting tables or painting houses while they worked on their bands or their machine art, would all hang out. It wasn’t reverse-snobby or exclusive: Techies were welcomed too, provided they didn’t act like they had something to prove. Uptown had that wonderful, asshole-proof quality that a bar with nothing to prove can get, because assholes want people to take them seriously, and nobody at Scott Ellsworth’s house ever did.
But saints die, and Ellsworth passed unexpectedly in 2014. Miraculously, his family was able to work out an arrangement to sell the bar to its longtime employees — meaning it is now worker-owned, and the bartender we’ve been chatting with is also a boss. The commitment was to keep it exactly the way Ellsworth would have wanted it, and I think they have — although maybe the tunes in the jukebox have slipped a little bit.
We do another round, and this time I order an Uptown Margarita (100 percent agave and fresh lime, served in a pint glass), which is just perfect. I’ll get two more of those before I go. By the time the early evening crowd has come in, Allen and I have moved on to talking about other dead friends, and the kind of legacy we hope they’ve left. By 7 p.m., Uptown is filled with lively conversation and people from all walks of life. A few of them look like they’ve made it big, most look like they’re barely hanging on, some are young and fresh faced, but all of them look like regulars. The thing they have in common: They appreciate a man who got his own damn bar and then opened it up to the world, and they have nothing to prove. They don’t look down on used furniture, or the truly monstrous bathroom, covered in paint and graffiti, with a trough for a urinal, Castro-style. They take it all as it is, and love a whiskey stain that comes with a good story.