“So do you want to hear my story about painful personal growth?” I asked Stuart.

“No!” he said, after a moment’s pause. “No, I really don’t! Tell me a happy story! Can you do that?”

The thing about Stuart is, for almost as long as I’ve known him I thought he was a cynical bastard who viewed the world through a skeptical eye. But these last few months? I’ve come to think of him as a brilliant man who just wants to be happy and isn’t very good at it.

That’s understandable. Happy is hard.

We’re sitting in The Rite Spot Café, a long-time neighborhood establishment that just might have the most run-down marquee sign in the Mission. But if it looks worn on the outside, you are well prepared for what you will find on the inside. But it still seems classy in a way that defies its condition, like an old man with a bad back wearing a sharp suit and grinning. You’re pretty sure he knows something about life that you don’t.

Indeed, The Rite Spot Café is best described as “a white tablecloth dive,” which it literally is: The most prominent feature inside is not the bar itself but the aging tables covered in white cloths, as though awaiting the dead of the Titanic to arrive for supper. Then there’s a piano and a small stage, where you can take in live performances nightly.

Rite Spot sign

“You ever seen Mr. Lucky perform?” Stuart asked me. 

I shook my head.

“He’s San Francisco’s oldest lounge singer.” He wears a sharkskin suit and was a performance artist back in the day. “I’ve seen him here four times. It’s amazing, really amazing, in that ‘this is so bad I can’t believe he’s doing it’ kind of way.’”

“He’s performing here tomorrow night,” the bartender said, interrupting. “I’m in his band.”

“Are you!” Stuart was delighted.

“Yep. His plane is landing right about now, and he’s performing tomorrow.”

Our bartender turns out to be an aficionado of local dive bars. He tells us he worked at the 500 Club for 20 years, until the new owner took it over and invited him to re-apply for his job. 

“But I couldn’t even look at the place then,” he said. “Because it just wasn’t going to be the same. Have you … seen it?”

It’s like he was asking us if we’d run into his ex.

I was just there last week,” I told him, wondering if it would be better to lie.

“How is it?”

I considered. “Honestly? As historic businesses bought up in this city go, it’s actually really good. It’s still a neighborhood bar. Thank God. But it’s not really a dive anymore.”

He nodded. “That’s what I’ve heard from people.” Poor guy. This really broke his heart.

Soraya Bouslimani’s jazz group, Soraya’s Quartet, jams at the Rite Spot in 2014.

But he’s doing really well with his rebound. There’s a solid weeknight crowd here: The place is jumping with local people who don’t give a damn and are having a great time. And while the bartender doesn’t know how to make several of the drinks we ask for, the things he does make are sharp and tasty. His Manhattan is marvelous, and his Sazarac sizzles. 

The wine list is unusually solid too, for a dive bar. That’s a nice touch. And the food menu … much of which is listed in chalk on a wall … looks shockingly good for a dive. Tots with cheddar and bacon, sriracha lime wings, burgers, a variety of pastas, it all looks extremely appealing.

“Fried cheese ravioli,” Stuart said, eyeing the menu. “I think I might.”

But the bartender waved him away from it. “It’s not crispy enough on the outside,” he said. “They’re still working on it.”

“Thanks.”

“You got it. Yeah, the food used to be pretty bad, until about three years ago. Then they really turned that around. Now it’s great.”

Worthy, perhaps, of a white table cloth. 

We hang around drinking, chatting with the bartender and another customer who is also in a band, and making up the names of country western songs we think would sell a million copies if anybody actually bought music anymore. There are so many anachronisms here. Put them together and they form a scene worth coming back to. I’ve seen very few hip spots that are this much fun.

That’s a happy story. But it only seems easy from the outside.