y most significant memory in Zeitgeist is of a group of people rejecting it.
Some time ago, after a company I was working for had been bought out by a company in Chicago (I’m oversimplifying here because — trust me — you don’t care), someone in our office tried to impress a visiting team of our new out-of-town bosses by telling them that I was a local bar expert. It turns out they were easily impressed, and so suddenly I was drafted to take the big shots out and show them that San Francisco drinking scene they’d heard so much about.
I resented this, but I complied, and organized a bar crawl to give them the breadth and depth of what we had to offer back then. And the further along we went, the less I liked them. I mean, I wasn’t crazy about them before, but damn they were acting like tourists. They were the kind of people who had no connection at all to their own city’s vast and remarkable underground, but who had come to my city looking for a garishly colored holy grail of San Francisco is so wild! experiences. And so, like Schliemann digging for Troy, they missed the real thing every time it was put in front of them, preferring a cartoon version of a scene.
But the moment I decided I really hated them was when I took them to Zeitgeist, and they couldn’t get out of there fast enough. They walked in, half of them ordered a beer, and then they started coming over to me, one by one, saying “yeah, can we go now?”
From that moment on, we were enemies.
Now blessedly open again after a brief hiatus for seismic retrofitting, Zeitgeist, at Valencia and Duboce, is an unapologetically punk dive that was once viewed as the meanest bar in the city. But punk isn’t mean, it’s punk. People who can’t get past the fact that it is deliberately and aggressively loud and divey will never notice that one of the many, many signs over the bar says “be nice or get out.” (And if you’re not nice, or maybe even if you are, you may have to get out).
To be sure, Zeitgeist has been tagged and covered: Graffiti, bumper stickers, antique signs, and old posters for old alternative SF events are everywhere. A vintage Street Fighter II machine sits in a corner. There’s a pool table right by the kitchen.
It’s a bar that wants you to know that it has thrashed, is thrashing now, and will continue to thrash long after you’ve gone.
But once you accept this, it’s also obvious what a labor of love this place is. Zeitgeist is a shithole where everything is clean and kept up. A classic car that’s been through hell and back but is in perfect working order under the hood. Its metal-plated, graffiti-covered, bathroom is at once a disgusting spectacle and spotlessly sanitary.
Its margaritas are good, its bloodies excellent, and its beer list – really solid. Actually far better than most “beer bars” popping up in small rectangular rooms around the Mission these days. And cheaper too.
Scrimshaw, Hoegaarden, Evil Twin, Pliny the Elder, Duchessede Bourgone … Chimay Blue … the list, with a heavy presence of regional beers, goes on. I ordered a Fin du Monde for $7, and was happy.
Yeah, Zeitgeist says “fuck you,” but because it really cares. It has a soul, and that soul is as enormous as its back patio.
And that patio … oh man … that’s where the magic really comes in.
I mean, the patio’s got a small batch of trees scattered around it. It’s basically a micro-park. You’re all but in somebody’s backyard, and at this point it’s all but unique in the city. Teeth’s back patio is just as visually impressive, maybe even a little more, but Zeitgeist’s feels much more natural. It has the vibe of a chill house party thrown by your punk friends who try to be pacifists and, you know, mostly succeed.
It might not be your aesthetic, but it is a real aesthetic, sincerely meant, and there’s plenty of room for everyone. Sitting on that patio at night, surrounded by people, nursing a beer, you really can forget you’re in a place of business. And that’s a very hard trick for a bar to pull off. I can’t think of another bar in San Francisco that can do that right now.
And yet … I’m told that all of San Francisco used to be like this in the ’80s. That all of San Francisco was like Zeitgeist’s back patio: a chill place in which to lose yourself, however rough around the edges. You could live here on a part-time paycheck, and spend your time with people you cared about, while focusing on your passion projects. You could live your life outside of the race to keep up, without worrying that if someone else hustled you might lose everything. If you liked what you were doing, and who you were with, you could relax. It wasn’t elegant, but you could relax.
It’s no accident this was also (more or less) the heyday of punk.
Back in the present, it was a perfect night. Nothing much was happening, but I sat on the back patio, surrounded by people, and together we all lost ourselves. Zeitgest is perfectly named: It is forever in this moment, from the ’80s, while preserving a timeless quality.
My strongest memory of Zeitgeist is of introducing people to this paradise, and having them run away, begging me to take them to someplace shiny and Instagrammable. And if Zeitgeist is timeless, that is a tragedy of our time.