A return to Monk's Kettle
Illustration by Molly Oleson

After a pandemic closure and renovations, The Monk’s Kettle is open again. I went to perhaps the best beer bar in San Francisco for the first time in 18-odd months hoping it wouldn’t feel new and improved. 

The signs on the exterior walls here at 16th and Albion streets instructed me to walk up to an open window facing the street, and tell the staff member stationed there what I wanted. I asked for a table outside and they acted like they had to think about it, even though it was before 6 p.m.,  and there was literally no one sitting at one of their many new outside tables and only one person sitting inside, from what I could see. But, after a few moments’ thought, they said yes, told me to wait a minute, and came outside through the back door to lead me to my spot. 

Keeping me outside through the entire process meant they didn’t have to ask for my vaccine card, which I suppose is courteous and is probably more convenient for them, but … I dunno, feels like a workaround of something that shouldn’t be worked around. 

Why, I wondered, was this bothering me?

I sat down at the table and the server asked me if I had been to The Monk’s Kettle before, and even though I said “yes,” she still walked me through their menu, letting me know that “we’re well known for our beers,” as if that wasn’t the whole point of my coming here, and wow … wow … was I being pissy over nothing. Then she told me something I didn’t know: That, since the renovation, they now have wine on tap. 

Not a lot of wine, I saw, looking at the menu: Two kinds of white, two kinds of red, a sparkling, and a rosé, mostly from California and priced from $12 to $15 a glass. 

Which is, ya know, fine, if you come to a premier beer bar with someone who doesn’t like beer.

Monk's Kettle. Belgian beer.

All the outdoor seating is a great improvement. That made me happy. Though it was entirely empty at the moment, it more than doubled the space that the cramped little bar has available. Even without a pandemic it would be a huge improvement. Although … although … at the moment it also makes the bar even more like a restaurant, which is a direction that all of our bars are getting pushed in as a result of the pandemic. 

Coming back to The Monk’s Kettle had felt like a big deal for me. Like stepping back into normalcy; finally returning to something that mattered to me. So why was I so annoyed now that I was there, doing exactly what I wanted to do? Was the fact that it wasn’t just the way it had been really setting me off like this?

I studied the draft menu, which remains strong and regionally focused. But I ordered from the bottles, a Rochefourt 6 — a Belgian Trappiste beer, one of my comfort beers, which the server brought over and expertly poured into a glass. It was a pleasure to watch. I also ordered Brussels sprouts, which came out unbelievably fast. I never used to like Brussels sprouts, until one day someone all but forced me into trying some that were unbelievably good. “What is this sorcery?” I’d asked, and they’d explained to me: Americans didn’t know how to cook them. But time passed, and we learned how. 

Monk's Kettle. Belgian beer

The Belgian beer and the Brussels sprouts were delicious together. I sat and read an article about a 1928 poem that described the end of the Jazz Age. It was resonant: One end of the world always resembles another, I suppose.

Half an hour in, I finally settled into the moment: I was sitting outside on a nice day, drinking fine beer, eating fancy snack food, and reading about poetry. It was lovely. 

Had I forgotten how to do this, somewhere in the pandemic? To just relax in public houses and let the moments be all right? It seemed like I had. Like I had been carrying explosives around, waiting for something to set me off. Maybe that was a healthy survival tactic, I dunno. But at that moment I was happy to let it all go.

Nicole arrived, ordered a Pliny the Elder and a jar of pickles, and we added some garlic fries for the table. I ordered a Westmalle for my second drink, sticking with the Belgian beers because of course I did. I wasn’t at The Monk’s Kettle to experiment, I was here to find something that brought me comfort. I wanted to feel like the world wasn’t ending.

We talked about my Burning Man art project this year and the kinky camping trip she’d just been on, and everything was delicious and the outdoor seating was nearly packed by 7:30. When a server came out and I ordered a Devotion from The Lost Abbey as my third beer, I was reminded that one of the great joys of The Monk’s Kettle is how much love and knowledge the staff have for their beers.

“You’re going in descending order of complexity,” he said, clearly disapproving.

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure how many I was going to have, so I started with what I really wanted anyway, and have been working my way down from there.”

“That’s how you’re supposed to drink,” Nicole said, defending me. “Start with the good stuff, while you can taste it.”

“I always do the opposite,” the server said, “saving what I really want until last.”

And the truth is that’s usually how I do things too, but lately the world has taught me to reach for what I want now, right now, because everything can change in a heartbeat. Only when I had what I cared about in hand could I take a tour of other options. Is that healthy?

“I admit it, maybe I should have just ordered more Rochefourt,” I told him. 

“If you want the 10, tell me. We’ll get you back up there,” he said. I felt so seen.

We chatted about the tragedies in the world. I’ve had a dead friend very much on my mind recently, and the four-year-old goddaughter of another close friend of mine had just died from covid this past week. It’s all so tiring. It’s all so exhausting.

“I should go,” Nicole said after a while. “I have so much laundry and cleaning to do. Or … or … should I stay for one more drink?” She thought about it. “I’m going to stay for one more drink. This is good.”

I used to love the events of the world and resent its pauses; now I savor the pauses. Just being here, with nothing going wrong, is often as good as it gets.

When our last drinks ended, I asked for the check.

“Are you sure?” the server asked me. “You don’t want me to bring you a Belgian table beer to end your sequence on?”

I had to laugh. As beer snob trash talk goes, that was great. He absolutely had me. 

It seems wrong to go to a bar filled with well curated beers that I should try, and only order what I know I like. But that’s what I want to do there, and I can’t wait to come back. To sit and savor those moments when the world feels like a poem of its own ending. 

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