Ihad expected the Big Rec Tap Room at 24th and Treat streets to be big. An amateur mistake. Both literary clichés (“don’t judge a book by its cover”) and the rules of San Francisco real estate (“it costs this much per square foot”) could have warned me that this was never going to happen.
Big Rec’s actually very small — in San Francisco terms, just slightly bigger than “a hole in the wall.” It’s got just enough room for two holes. Two holes and eight TVs — eight! — spread around and all turned to the same game, even though the place is tiny enough that you can literally see most of the TVs from any point in the bar.
After a certain point of screen coverage you have to wonder: Is this really about sports?
The place has only bar and communal seating — but between the full volume on one of the TVs and the noise bouncing off the walls in the confined space, it didn’t make for the kind of atmosphere where it seemed easy to meet people. Everyone there seemed to be talking to the person they came with, and I wouldn’t be able to join a conversation all night.
One woman behind the bar was doing all the front-of-house work: taking orders, filling beers, delivering food and busing tables. It was a lot, and I felt for her, but at least she could keep an eye on everyone at once. The house was nearly packed: Seats were available, but not many. If there’d been two bartenders, maybe I could have talked with one of them, but the look in her eye as she was constantly scanning the room, seeing what she had to do next, warned any pretext of small talk away.
The Big Rep Tap Room’s menu is small, too: It has exactly 15 beers listed on the wall, and two (count ‘em, two) types of wine, both local from California, both running $12 a glass. The beer selection is mostly IPAs with a few curveballs — like Noble Ale Works “Naughty Sauce” milk stout with coffee and Morgan Territory’s Dark Reckoning imperial porter, both of which are delicious (if you like that sort of thing) and $9.
The small one-page food menu is tiny as well. But finally, in the prices, we find something that’s Big Rec. There isn’t a single entree on the menu under $15. Someone tell me it’s still possible to get a cheeseburger for less than $10 in this town. Please. Not here, though: A single beer and a sandwich set me back over $30, with tip.
I ordered the “Big Bird Fried Chicken Sandwich” (bacon, avocado, cabbage jalapeño slaw, and garlic mayo) with onion rings. And, to be fair, the sandwich was large. Stupidly large. Big enough that I actually wished it was smaller. I sat at a table and ate and alternately read and watched the game, because I didn’t seem to have any options. I never once felt the opportunity to look at a stranger and strike up a conversation: Big Rec is one of those places where you drink with those you brought or you drink alone. And in both cases, I have to wonder: Why here?
The only thing I have a harder time imagining than going to a small, noisy, expensive, and largely undecorated little box of a room to drink alone is inviting my friends to a small, noisy, expensive, and largely undecorated little box of a room to drink with me.
Maybe I’d invite my enemies, if I didn’t want them to think I had taste.
I’ve seen enough beer bars in San Francisco recently that are basically just small, square-ish, rooms with bare walls and screens that I’m beginning to wonder if the space crunch, and low set-up costs for places like this, is creating a kind of anti-design trend — a pushback against the absurdly decorated and heavily themed San Francisco hipster bar that has defined our watering holes for the last decade.
If so, I’m obviously against it, but it does illustrate a couple of points clearly: the first being that it can be done. The appeal of a bar is not in the kitsch on the walls, the “theme experience,” or the menus with artistic pretensions. All of those things can be great if they are done soulfully — if they are an experience of artistry instead of items on a consultant’s checklist — but they are not necessary. People like bars without them. They only seem necessary here, where design is a fetish and people with money actually think that walking into a bar should be the start of a transformative journey into authenticity something something chakra something something self-care.
The second point is that not just the global beer scene, and not just the American beer scene, and often not even the California beer scene, but the greater Bay Area beer scene is, at this point, diverse and high-quality enough to be competitive with the breadth and depth of cocktail bars. These “anti-design” bars (if they are a thing) are all beer bars with a strong emphasis on local beers. And even when the selection is small it doesn’t feel reductive: So long as you like beer, you don’t need hard liquor mixed with exotic ingredients to have a diverse drinking experience. (Though the competition is strong enough that having just 15 beers on tap does seem either risky or daringly curated.) Plus, at this point, beer is substantially cheaper, and often a better value. As high-end craft cocktails have gone from a treat that you splurged on to something you can’t get away from, they have on average gotten worse as the prices have gone up. The beer scene right now is just the opposite.
Which doesn’t mean I like The Big Rec Tap Room, because I really don’t. And I don’t know what’s going on with its food prices. But as a corrective to the hyper elaborate touristy craft cocktail bars of the last 10 years, I can appreciate it.
Also, to be fair, one of the guys at a table next to mine had ordered the same thing I did, and was rhapsodic about the sandwich. “This is SO GREAT!” he said.
I wouldn’t have gone that far. But his opinion counts, too.