Illustration by Molly Oleson

I tried to order the Ponche De Leche (clarified milk, chamomile infused pisco, lemon juice, demerara syrup, fino sherry, lemon bitters) at El Techo, but they’d run out of the clarified milk.  So I took another look at the menu, and asked for the Hummingbird (chamomile infused pisco, lime juice, ginger syrup, seltzer water, angostura bitter). 

This was the only thing to go wrong during my time at El Techo, which remains one of the go-to rooftop bars in San Francisco, and it wasn’t a big deal. The Hummingbird is delicious. 

But I found myself wondering if enough had gone right.

El Techo, at Mission and 21st streets, was packed, as it always is, and my friend “Debra” said she’d managed to grab the very last table available when she’d arrived about 20 minutes ahead of me. I was impressed: Most of the time, I don’t bother with El Techo because I don’t want to wait that long to be on a roof that crowded. 

Chips and guac were waiting at the table when I arrived (El Techo generally requires that you order food as well as drinks if you’re going to sit at one of their premium spots). Chips for the table were just a down payment. 

Debra had called together a small band of people who were all going to be camping together at Burning Man to discuss logistics. Meetings like that are happening all across the Bay, popping up like dandelions now that our long winter of inactivity is over. Nature is healing, and so Burners are in bloom. Real logistics do happen at these meetings … giant sculptures and massive shade structures and weird art experiences are all mapped out in detail, down to the paint … but they are also reunions. Debra and “Thomas” hadn’t seen each other in years, and since then both had gone through divorces and met new partners. They spent a lot of time reminiscing about the old days and catching up on each other’s former spouses, with whom they’re both still close. 

I’d never met Thomas before, and didn’t know Debra back in the old days, and I’m not even camping with them. I’m more of a “friend of the camp who starts trouble sometimes,” and so I didn’t have much to say. We ordered elote off the regular menu and pollo frito off the happy hour menu for more food, and I sat back and contemplated the sky and the rooftop and all the people around me while the small group I was with reminisced and planned.

Firefighters extend a ladder to fight a one-alarm fire at 2518 Mission St., which houses El Techo, on August 5, 2016. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

El Techo used to be in an exclusive class of bars because of its rooftop patio, but not so much anymore. While the “rooftop” part is still unusual, the explosion of outdoor seating in San Francisco bars and restaurants since the pandemic means that El Techo has less to set it apart than it used to. There’s a lot of really nice outdoor seating now. A lot of new options. 

It doesn’t seem to be hurting El Techo, if the crowd around me, made up of all the shades of “white people with money” that the Bay Area offers, was any indication. Happy hour was crowded enough that, even outdoors on the roof, it felt a little claustrophobic. On the other hand, we’d been fortunate to get a table at all. I remember that used to be a lot harder. 

We ordered another round, and this time I got a Manzanita (apple brandy, apple syrup, orange liquor, lemon, cava), which is also very good. A new person who also doesn’t have the long history of social polyamory with this group arrived, and so the topic shifted back to camp logistics: How many weekends do we have before getting out to the playa? Who’s responsible for what? How can we make these ideas funnier and even more fucked up?

Nothing makes me happier than conversations about how we can make something even funnier and more fucked up.

There was something incongruous about the discussion and the setting. The camp that my friends were creating would have a cafe and a bar and — if people knew where to look — a speakeasy that could be accessed through a hidden panel. So we were having a conversation in a bar about creating several other bars. They were spending virtually no time on what the drinks would be (people will bring booze), what the food will be (there will be a “snack glory hole” if you want to eat and dare to try it), or the minutiae of service, all the things that El Techo emphasizes as its selling points. 

Instead they were asking themselves, over and over again, “how else can we get people participating?” “What other ways can we find for people to do things in our space?” “What other invitations to nonsense and fun can we provide?”

None of which are things offered by  El Techo, or most conventional bars for that matter. Everybody liked the drinks (although I was the only one experimenting with cocktails), everybody liked the food, but all the fun that we were having were things that we had brought ourselves. Which is the opposite of the kind of bar space they were planning to create out in the middle of the desert. That’s a bar where there will be all kinds of invitations to play, where the drinks will be the least memorable part. 

I love my fancy cocktails, but I prefer bars where the drinks are the least memorable thing that happens.

Everything had gone right at El Techo, I decided. It’s just that their “right” isn’t all that interesting. It’s nice, if crowded, tasty if a little pricey, and the rooftop is no longer as special a space as it used to be. All my friends had a good time though. If you can get in, it works. And the good news is, that’s easier than it used to be. 


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  1. ” . . the crowd around me – made up of all the shades of “white people with money” that the Bay Area offers . . ”

    Was it really not possible for you to write a review of a bar without introducing your preferences about race and success into it? Change a couple of words there – if I described a bar as being mostly poor black people, would that be OK?

    Here is another idea: Be post-racial and stop noticing race. I guarantee that you will enjoy the bar experience more if you resist the temptation to characterize and stereotype others based on superficial and prejudicial grounds.

    1. “What if I changed some words and said something completely different that doesn’t reflect reality for this bar?!”

      1. Sure, people want to know what the crowd was like. Were they quiet or rowdy? Young or older? Well dressed or casual? It is perfectly reasonable to describe the ambience and atmosphere in such ways.

        The problem arises when you assume instead we care what race the people were, as if that contributes to the idea of a bar being good or bad. The rather snide language used here implies that there were too many successful white people. Is the implication that the bar would somehow be better with more poor Asians? Were there not enough blacks there for the author? That quickly leads you down a rabbit hole of biases that just aren’t relevant to the many of us who don’t make recreational decisions based on which race.

        1. Spoken like a white person who hasn’t thought very deeply about their privilege. Going to a crowded bar in the Mission that’s filled exclusively with white people may be important information about who may feel comfortable there and who may not.

          1. Why would people of any race make you feel uncomfortable in a bar? Why does it matter to you?

        2. The implication is that El Techo is full of wealthy white people, which is 100% true. Don’t know why you’re so mad about that.

    2. it’s actually quite a useful description for some. wanting to be “post-racial” is a luxury that only wypipo can afford.