Illustration by Molly Oleson

I like a quiet bar, but it can be much too quiet in Mission bars these days. Some days … when it’s not like drinking in an abandoned warehouse … it’s like drinking in a monastery where everyone’s an alcoholic who’s taken a vow of silence.

Granted, my drinking habits take me to the Mission on off hours as much as peak times, but even so … I have never seen so many bars so empty so much of the time. I’ve had to check in on several occasions: “Are you open?” 

The Valencia Room — like many bars in the Mission right now — was still all-outside seating when “Vicky” and I stopped by. And it was often empty. One guy was sitting in his little plastic shielded booth, masked, when we got there, but he left moments after we arrived. There were two guys on staff who casually waved us toward booths to indicate “whatever.” They did not look like they were taking any of this seriously. They had the air of teenage security guards who want to get paid, but wonder, “do I really have to be here?”

We picked an outdoor table randomly, and sat down. One of the guys brought us some menus that had clearly been made specifically for the pandemic, stating that all customers must order a “bona fide meal” to get drinks, and that drinks will only be served after the meal arrives. 

I asked the server if this was actually true. “No,” he said, waving it away with the exact same motion with which he’d waved us towards the outdoor booths. “Not if you’re sitting outside.”

Which … wait … was that ever how the law actually was? Also, why are these the menus you’re giving people who are sitting outside? It seemed less like somebody had screwed up, and more like everything about the bar was stuck in its own period of pandemic time. The servers were stuck in the pandemic of six months ago, the menus were stuck in the pandemic of two months ago, the seating was stuck in the pandemic of three weeks ago, and “Vicky” and I were here now … I think ….

Vicky ordered a Lavender Lemonade (vodka or gin, lemon juice, lavender syrup, lemon wheel). He asked her if she wanted vodka or gin. She chose vodka. I ordered a Mint Green Tea (Jim Beam peach, fresh mint leaves, lemon juice, simple syrup, topped with club soda). He asked me if I want gin or vodka, too.

I blinked. “It … doesn’t come with either,” I pointed out. 

That didn’t seem to matter to him. “Do you want to substitute gin or vodka for whiskey?” he asked. 

“I … no …” 

“Okay,” he said, and walked away.  

At the Valencia Room. Photo by Angel Mayorga.

The good news about drinking in the Mission these days is all the new outdoor seating. The tables, the booths, the half-gazebos set up on the sidewalks and the streets make the city feel much more social, even when there’s almost nobody there. I hope we get to keep that. Even though the wind was unusually strong and cold, it was much nicer to be sitting outside of the bar than it would have been to be in it if we couldn’t mingle anyway. 

The drinks came out lightning fast, even for us being the only visible customers. It made me instantly suspicious, and I was right to be: They were terrible. Basically watered-down grocery-store lemonade with a little booze and fix.

“It’s an achievement for the vodka to come through more than the lavender,” Vicky said. I think they were made eight months ago, in pandemic time. 

A customer sat down in the booth behind us. “I’ll take a Lavender Lemonade” he told the server. I wanted to shout “No! Don’t!” and, if we were sitting at a bar together, I probably would have. But with this configuration, with us in separate little containers that weren’t supposed to overlap, I didn’t. I let the environment keep us separate. 

That’s a problem with bars right now, in a nutshell.

Friday night outside the Sycamore, May 2020.

We paid for our drinks and walked over a block to the Sycamore. The murals on the alley walls got us talking about the politics of street art: Is street art less legitimate if it’s not political? Is there a point past which it can become too political?

“If the entire message of the art can be summarized by a couple of bullet points, then you don’t need art at all,” I told her. 

“I take the point,” she said, “but I like a lot of the messages. It makes me feel connected to people.”

The Sycamore was open and, while it wasn’t crowded, it was clearly firing on all cylinders. There was bar seating in the alley outside that nobody was using (except for a guy sleeping underneath it, clutching his sleeping bag). The indoor bar was open  — though nearly empty and well ventilated  — and the back patio, while limited in seating, was also open, with clusters of people. 

I ordered a Berryessa barleywine. Vicky ordered a sangria. “So,” I asked the bartender as he poured. “Bars in the Mission are fully open now, kind of. Is that weird?”

“Well,” he said, “we’re more of a gastropub. So, no.”

That was the first time I’ve ever disliked this bar, even a little. 

We took our drinks to a table in the front of the bar  — we were going to be inside a bar now, dammit  — and a minute later, “Maria” joined us. 

Maria believed my theory that different people and bars are stuck in different time points in the pandemic. “Yeah, I’ve seen that,” she said. “But I’m also seeing people coming out of it, which is really sweet and inspiring. One of my roommates just got fully vaccinated. And I asked him ‘Hey, do you want your first vaccinated hug?’ And he said yes, and it’s not like we’re really friends or anything, he just moved into a room in my place, but he held me so long, and so tightly … it wasn’t uncomfortable, exactly, but it was noticeable, it was a big moment for him, and I think that something like that happens for everyone as they start to come out of that sense of being lost in pandemic time.”

Vicky and I realized we had both felt that too, and that there are people we each love who are still lost in the timelessness, even if they are already vaccinated.

At Hawker Fare, the food bank days: Monday to Wednesday 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday to Sunday 2 to 3 and 5 to 8 p.m.

After another round, we walked down the block to Hawker Fare. The Valencia Room looked like it was about half-full as we passed it. Hawker Fare’s bar wasn’t open  — perhaps it’s still lost in pandemic time  — but its restaurant was.  It had lots of outdoor seating too, but the wind was picking up and it was colder, so we went inside. It was strangely easy — much easier than I’d ever imagined — to make a snap decision to go inside a restaurant and be unmasked. 

Everything seems up in the air right now, and that’s still the experience of bar-hopping in the Mission: Everything’s a changing frontier, and we’re all figuring this out as we go along.

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