At 6 p.m. on a Friday, Zeitgeist was only serving on its patio. Standing room was forbidden: Every party got its own spot at a table, separated from other spots by distance or wood-and-glass barriers, where patrons had to sit and be served. When Zeitgeist ran out of spots, no one new could come in. So there was a line outside about 30 people long.
We’d hoped to go to a bar, but were actually waiting in line for a bar-themed restaurant. That’s what drinking in the Mission has become.
“A line at Zeitgeist? This is so fucking surreal,” Nicole said as we stood and wondered whether standing around was worth it. “I think the true Zeitgeist spirit is just to get a six-pack at the corner store and polish it off in line.”
Bryce and I agreed, so Nicole grabbed a six-pack down the block. It was IPAs, which I think was unkind because she knows I hate them, but at least we had something to drink while we stood around at a bar.
By 6:30 p.m., the line behind us had disappeared as the beerless crowd had decided it wasn’t worth it. But we were near the front now, and a line manager came out with a clipboard to ask us how many we were and to take our party’s name.
He explained the rules as I poured the IPA on the sidewalk: Masks on while you walk to your table. Masks can be off at the table, but you stay at the table at all times except to go to the bathroom. The server will come to you. You see the menu by scanning a QR code on your phone.
It was hard to imagine a rebellious teenager ever wanting to come here. Surely there’s something more interesting you can do with a fake ID?
“That was the unhappiest line manager EVER!” Nicole laughed after he walked away. He did have a definite “if there were anywhere else I could be I wouldn’t be here” vibe.
The music inside was peppy, and the former punk bar was pristine and orderly, with signs posted on the clear white barriers between tables warning “Do not write on, sticker, or tag glass. Violators will be removed immediately.”
“This is a Disney version of Zeitgeist!” Nicole said.
“It’s one step removed from a tiki bar,” I agreed.
Bryce went to the bathroom. “Outside the line,” he reported “some guy got within three feet of me and then froze and jumped back.”
Our server was much more enthusiastic. She’d been working here three weeks. Most of the staff, she said, was actually new. “It’s so nice!” she said. “I love to work outside.”
She took our orders and we looked around the bar, quickly realizing that we weren’t supposed to do that. “Eye contact across tables is taboo,” Bryce said. There would be no meeting people tonight.
Nicole ordered another IPA. Bryce ordered a whiskey, and it came in a greenware takeout sauce container. I ordered a dark and stormy, which is a stupid thing to order at Zeitgest, but at this point, why the fuck not?
We left after one round. The line was down the block again as we walked away.
We looked for someplace else. At this point it was 7:30 p.m. on a Friday, and 16th and Mission felt like an empty movie set. The crew was still here working, but all the actors and the extras had gone home.
The Monk’s Kettle was open and looked all but deserted, but staff said that they wouldn’t be able to seat us for about an hour, so we passed.
Kilowatt had only outdoor seating (though they said they’d have indoor in a day or so) and told us they had no space either, but when we said “Really? Really?” they gave in. Lacking a patio, they had built a section of open “rooms” in front of the bar, each one consisting of a table, chairs, and a TV. The TVs were remotely managed from inside, so you couldn’t change the channel, and each had a baseball game playing. We turned it off manually.
You ordered by going inside. The long room was empty, with all the furniture pushed against the walls. There’s one guy behind the bar, protected by plastic shields, who takes the order and makes the drinks.
I ordered a “Trinity Test” (Hornitos, Chambord, ginger ale, fresh lime, grapefruit juice), and asked the bartender if this was weird for him, too.
“Fuck no,” he said. “I’ve been staying home all year. That’s weird.”
Outside, the bouncers were baffled by the fact that our TV was off. They kept coming over to check it. Finally one of them asked “Did you turn it off?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“This stays on,” he said, pushing the button.
“But WHY?” I asked. He walked away.
Once again, there was to be no crosstalk or interactions between tables. On the one occasion when it looked like people from another group were approaching our little room, staff showed up to make sure that didn’t happen.
“Hey, let’s go to the Lexington Club,” Nicole said. “Can we do that? Is that open tonight.”
“No, that’s closed,” I told her.
“Really?” she said. “Goddamit, covid, that hurts. That really hurts.”
“No … no … that closed in 2015. That’s gentrification’s fault.”
“Yeah … everyone was angry with the techies about that one … that spot is where Wildhawk is now. Which … actually … is where we went on our first date.”
“Oh, right.” She considered. “Why does it feel easier to blame that on covid? Am I going to be blaming everything that’s closed on covid now?”
“We’re in a weird covidian simulacra of the Mission,” Bryce told her. “Somehow everything’s about covid.”
We went on. Virgil’s was shuttered. El Rio was open, but with another line. We brought out more beers. At this point we’d done as much drinking outside of bars as in them.
This line moved faster: Just 12 minutes in, we were at the front. Twenty minutes in, we were seated at a table.
El Rio has a back patio, and operated the way Zeitgeist had, but there were no barriers between the tables and you were asked to mask up whenever staff were near. There was also a 90-minute time limit on tables: A couple rounds, tops, and then you were out to make way for more people. “We’ll tell you when it’s coming,” the line manager told us.
He also thanked us profusely for our support when he led us to our table. “It means so much to us,” he said. He wasn’t the first bar staff who told us they were glad to be here again, but he was the first that night who seemed like he was happy about it.
We all agreed that, for all the weirdness, El Rio was the bar that felt most like itself. We weren’t sure why. Was it the fact that the staff seemed to be having the best time? Was it the fact that for all that the bar was off-limits and the patio was now table-based, it had undergone the fewest physical changes? Had we, after a night of it, finally started getting with the program and adjusting our expectations to what bars can provide right now?
We didn’t know, but El Rio was the only bar of the night where we ordered a second drink.
San Francisco nightlife is in a transition period, and we don’t know what’s going to stick. But at this moment, the need to adjust to the pandemic has had a homogenizing effect. Most bars are more like one another than they’ve ever been because they’re all more like restaurants where you order off an app. You don’t meet strangers, you don’t have serendipitous encounters. Everything is weirdly spacious: Bars with long lines on the outside look like they’re having a slow night on the inside.
You can order a B, but it’s BYO fun. The bar cannot help you.
On Sunday afternoon, Jolene’s was open with indoor seating. It’s a great venue but not great for our times; it’s a hard-to-ventilate space. People tentatively mixed between tables — hesitantly, but it was happening. Mask protocol was a grab-bag of ideas that seemed good at the time: Some people wore masks except when they were drinking, some weren’t wearing masks at all, some people put masks on when new people approached the table, but took them off when it looked like they were staying.
We didn’t know what we were doing. So much of this was new, and we didn’t remember how to do the things that were familiar.
When the MC came out and said they were going to start the burlesque show in five minutes, everybody forgot to “woo!” and clap.
“Come on people,” she chided us. “I know it’s been a year and a half but you have to remember to do better than that!”
We tried again, enthusiastic but embarrassed.