Never once, not for a moment, in the Bear vs. Bull bar, do you forget that you’re also in a historic movie palace. A statue of a bear fighting a bull (both in boxing gloves) stands at the entrance, with high ceilings, low red lighting, and faux baroque decorations covering every wall on the inside. It falls under the “kitschy but cool” category, or at least “kitschy but so dark that you can’t tell how gaudy it is.”
Which was good. I didn’t want this bar to be embarrassing, because I was not only meeting my friends Stuart and Nicole there, I was introducing them for the first time, so, there were some stakes for me on this trip.
Bear vs. Bull is the house bar of the Alamo Draft House, which operates in the “New Mission Theater” building at 2550 Mission St. It was first built in 1906, then re-modeled in 1916, and finally closed in 1991. Now it is that rarity, a historic building that has been “re-purposed” to its original purpose, and perhaps this is why the bullshitty décor feels oddly authentic.
Sure, it’s stupid, but it kinda belongs, you know?
But while the décor is the first thing anyone trying to drink at Bear vs. Bull will focus on, the most important element of their experience is not the building’s furnishings, but its purpose. It is a bar in a movie theater. It is, along with bars in theaters, bars at airports, and bars at train stations, a perfect example of what I call “transit bars.” Bars that exist not for people to sit and linger at, but to make a pit-stop at while they’re in between points A and B.
Bear vs. Bull will fill up with people, right before a movie starts and right after one ends, who will get a quick drink, say “hello” or “goodbye” to their friends, and then move on. There is nothing remotely like the community of regulars and strangers that most bars aspire to, because you don’t go to a bar and then think “screw it, I’ll see a movie,” but rather go to a movie theater and then think “screw it, I’ll have a drink.”
That’s the normal course of events, at least, but there is one exception to it, brought about by the one architectural feature of a contemporary movie palace that I haven’t mentioned yet: Bear vs. Bull has air conditioning. And sometimes that makes it a destination bar in a way it never otherwise is.
That’s why I was there on a Wednesday afternoon. I had no intention of seeing a movie. And I wasn’t the only one: The bartender told me that over the superheated weekend, the place had not only been packed all Saturday, but they’d broken their record for piña coladas sold by a mile.
I mean, there are only so many bars with air conditioning in this city, after all.
Bear vs. Bull has a menu, but it’s almost entirely a cocktail menu. Most of the beer list is written on a chalkboard off in one corner of the bar … which is a great idea, except that it’s a back corner that isn’t actually easy to see or read from most vantage points, and even the best idea turns out pretty terrible if it’s badly executed. If I’d actually wanted a beer, I’d be pissed. Nicole, who has the beer taste of an illiterate peasant whose taste buds died in the plague, would later order a beer and find the process only moderately annoying.
I, however, was enough of a beer snob that the beer menu interested me a lot less than the cocktails. If nothing else, you have to give Bear vs. Bull points for novelty: the menu starts off with a list of boilermakers, concoctions that I almost never see highlighted in this city anymore. Well, not “highlighted” – a lot of places offer beers and shots. But Bear vs. Bull is at least trying to play with the formula, pairing ciders with shots of rum and beers with apple brandy as well as the more traditional PBR and Jameson. This is excellent. There’s a whole forgotten frontier here.
But I was first struck by the offering of an old fashioned made with a private barrel of Old Scout bourbon. There are a small number of bars in this town that work directly with distillers to develop their own private and exclusive barrels, and even though it’s honestly as much stunt as it is craft, it speaks to my jaded little heart. So that’s where I started, and God damn it was a good old fashioned. Would order again.
Stuart arrived first, and ordered the La Paloma (Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila, Lime, Agave, Grapefruit Bitters, Mexican Squirt), which he strongly approved of, and we started talking about old business. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other, and I’m kind of mad at Stuart, and more mad at some of the people we have in common, but dammit, I like the guy and don’t want this to be a problem. But sometimes, when you’re drinking together, you don’t really get to decide what is and isn’t going to turn into a problem, you know? And before we were even on to our second drink I was challenging him to a public debate while saying things like “I will not be erased.”
If you’re going to say things like that, I highly recommend saying them in a historic building. It adds extra gravitas to the whole affair. Demanding an acknowledgment of shared history in a refurbished hipster pop-up is toxically ironic.
My second drink was a Cool Jerk (Plantation Pineapple Rum, Eldorado 3yr Rum, Ancho Reyes, Falernum, lime, pineapple, mint, spicy salted rim), which I strongly approved of, while Stuart moved to white wine, and for a little while the two of us were back on an even keel, laughing about our shared history instead of fighting over it. Every friendship fights differently.
My third drink was the Shanghai Bastard (El Dorado 12yr Rum, Encanto Pisco, Honey, Ginger, Lime, Angostura), and at this point I should emphasize that just because I was ordering rum and tiki-esque drinks doesn’t mean that’s what the bar itself leans towards – it was just the mood I was in. Maybe rum paired well for me with the air conditioning. That could be a thing. Or maybe it’s that I got back from rum tastings in Puerto Rico not too long ago, and still have the flavors on my mind. Perhaps they will not be erased.
“Shanghai bastard?” Stuart asked me. “Is that supposed to be a comment on the company you’re keeping?”
“Oh, God no,” I told him. “You’re not a Shanghai bastard. But, man, the first drink I ordered after you arrived was a ‘cool jerk.’ Pay attention.”
The drinks are good – across the board – but I find myself a little depressed by the prices. It wasn’t so long ago in this city that a $16 cocktail was supposed to be something special, instead of quite good. The mixology at Bear vs. Bull is better than it ought to be for a transit bar, but not quite as good as it should be for the price. On the other hand, movie popcorn costs too fucking much too, and I’ll still buy a bag if I’m in the mood.
Nicole arrived a moment later, and since I want them to like each other, I was on my best behavior. The truth is that Stuart and I aren’t good at fighting: We tend to stab each other deep when we mean to punch in the arm. Air conditioning and a third party both helped a lot. The drinking didn’t help so much, but dammit, that’s what we do. Surrounded, in this case, by tourists who came to San Francisco and for some reason wanted to see a movie in the late afternoon.
I usually hate transit bars. But if you bring friends, I think this is the best of the breed.