Permanent outdoor seating at bars is a small silver lining through a dark and terrible time, but it still shines.
Walking down Valencia Street the other week, we saw a giant sign outside Curio (Valencia between 18th and 19th) proclaiming: “We are open! Welcome back everyone!” But it wasn’t inviting people in; the space inside was so empty I couldn’t tell at a casual glance if it was even open. They were inviting people to sit at a table in their courtyard, or out on the street by their heat lamps.
Another large sign said: “Pick up and delivery available.” You see that now, where signs used to find clever ways to say things like, “come in and meet friends.”
We took them up on their offer to sit outside a while. It was a beautiful night, too early to stop, and we’d been walking down Valencia Street, just hoping that something would distract us. There was a piano player in their courtyard, doing covers, and he was very good, though no one seemed to be paying attention.
The menu was a QR code taped to the table, also a new normal. I ordered a Sphinx (bourbon, Arkansas Black Applejack, pear liqueur, Swedish Punsch, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters), a take on an Old Fashioned, and I sipped the delicious drink as we talked writers we love from eras past while the pianist played “Wild World.”
It was so beautiful, so perfect, and moments like these are easier to have now in San Francisco.
It’s happened, however, because for many bars, the street has become the new center of operations. The “bar” has traditionally been the gravitational center of a “bar.” The watering hole around which strangers come to partake in a ritual act of communal drinking and, in this communion, to meet each other.
The addition of so much outdoor seating at so many bars has had a wonderful opening effect, it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s come at a cost: Many bars are more isolating than they once were, no longer such communal spaces.
I was thinking about this the week before when I met a friend at Beretta, at Valencia and 23rd streets. We sat down outside, in a little chamber with wood and plastic coverings on three sides to keep us from accidentally breathing on other tables, and ordered drinks. We were especially fond of the Float n’ Stone (bourbon, apricot and peach puree, IPA, lemon, though my friend ordered it without the IPA and we both agreed it was better without the beery bitterness). We talked, we laughed, my friend told a hilarious story about going through a sexual harassment training session at work and then going out to a spa with her manager where they got naked together. We had a great time. Beretta is top notch.
But the new arrangement meant we were cut off from everything else happening, even more isolated together than we would have been if we’d been sitting at a table indoors. The outdoor tables, especially when they’re enclosed structures, also further encroach on the communal space of the street. There’s less room for people who aren’t paying customers.
This is a trend, not a universal truth. Bars that haven’t made a move outdoors, or that have a strong neighborhood and community connection, are still much as they were, though somewhat more tentatively.
I visited The Homestead at Folsom and 19th streets the other night, a bar which has been among the city’s most stubbornly resistant to changing with the times. The bar at The Homestead is still the center of gravity, and the bartender there told me that, sure, strangers still come in and meet one another there, different groups cross-pollinate there, and the sense of a common community is largely intact.
My problem is that I want both: I want the plentiful outdoor seating on beautiful nights and the possibility of meeting engaging strangers while sitting around a bar. I can’t blame any establishment for not having the balance right yet, because I don’t, either. The embarrassing truth is that, ever since delta, I’ve had the yips. For the first time since I started going to bars, I’m nervous and hesitant about standing around a bar with nothing to do except find an excuse to talk to strangers. I can bring great people with me, so why not cocoon in a little outdoor space and drink marvelous things with someone I enjoy?
But I know I’m missing out on something I love. The loss is real, even if it feels safer.
Back at Curio, I ordered a Banshee (light and dark rums, makrut lime, pineapple, coconut, turmeric, pebble ice, angostura bitters, fresh nutmeg), which was also good but not as good, and we listened to the pianist play “The Boxer.” Everyone had been ignoring him when we started, but now he had loud and sustained applause when each piece ended. It became clear, after a while, that we were lingering, staying longer than we had to, ordering another round, because this moment was just so good.
I don’t want to give that up, and I don’t have to. But maybe it’s time to start going to bars alone again.