Bar Part Time Mission San Francisco bars
Illustration by Molly Oleson

“Natalie” texted me in the late afternoon, asking if I was free, and even though I wasn’t I decided I’d rather hang out with her and show up late to my other plans. So I said yes. I was so enthusiastic.

Then she told me she was planning to see an art exhibit about AI, and said I should come.

I was less enthusiastic. 

I’d seen promotions for the exhibit and had already decided to take a pass … did you know that AI could destroy us all? Have you heard that fresh and original take, which no one has ever created art about before? But I get it: AI terrifies me sometimes too, and what’s more human than making art about things that frighten you? 

Fate was with me, however, and there was a screw-up with the tickets. She’d paid for two tickets online but only gotten one, and by the time I reached the venue ahead of her they were sold out. 

“Sorry,” said the bouncer, “you can get tickets for the next time they open this exhibit.” And I tried not to laugh in his face, because if I could have arranged a ticket screw-up that kept me from paying to see this event, I would have. 

“Gahhh, okay, I didn’t see that coming,” Natalie said when I texted her that we only had one ticket for the two of us. “We could get a drink nearby instead?”

Enthusiasm was back! 

Artificial intelligence.

“Google says ‘Bar Part Time’ is across the street,” she wrote.

It was literally right there, at 14th Street near Guerrero Street, but also a little hard to find. One of those bars that doesn’t have its name anywhere outside … you have to know it’s there and look for it. I usually like that in a bar, but in this case it’s one of many mixed signals that I felt like Bar Part Time was sending out.

Mostly shaped like a cozy shotgun bar, Bar Part Time is a long hallway split into two parts: The first is a traditional bar with bar seating and a few booth tables, the second is a small club with turntables, a few shelves of records, and a dance floor. I can see how, for many people, this would combine the best of both worlds, but for me it represents the worst of both: A club that is too small to have any space in, and a bar that is noisy and ruined whenever the club is hopping. Fortunately, while the bar was getting crowded, the club wasn’t active yet, so I claimed the last open table and stepped up to the bar to order a stiff drink.

“We don’t serve hard liquor,” the bartender informed me, in the same tone the bouncer had used to tell me that I couldn’t get into the exhibit. “Only beer and wine.” 

And very little of that, it turned out. Bar Part Time’s drink list includes exactly two beers (Wayfinder Czech pilsner, $6; and Hop Butcher Sauvin IPA, $8). It also has a house cider, two non-alcoholic sodas, and a wine list with eight wines, all of which are “natural wines,” a vague category which is less an actual thing than a buzzword that gestures at other buzzwords: Natural wines are more “organic,” “biodynamic,” “support permaculture,” and other terms full of holistic goodness, signifying nothing. “Natural wine,” like “Artificial Intelligence,” is a term that conceals more than it explains. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means you’re going to be frustrated if you’re trying to really figure out what it means since different “natural” wineries may have different wine-making processes. 

The very limited drink list, along with a seven-item bar snack menu (available only between 5 and 8 p.m.), makes Part Time Bar a minimalist bar: A very simple space (though warmer and more inviting than most other minimalist bars I’ve seen), and only a few choices to make. 

You show up, and it’s clear what you can do and what you can order — the choices are simple and stark. 

Most minimalist bars aspire to be neighborhood bars, rather than big destinations. Yet all of Bar Part Time’s marketing materials … its website, its social media … scream “WE’RE A BRAND!” with all the urgency of a teenage life coach. Its website doesn’t have a drink menu, but prominently features Bar Part Time shirts and hoodies and hats; it invites you to join their club, which not only gets you free bottles of juice, but a Bar Part Time (“BPT”) limited edition key chain and stickers; it has an online radio station that you can listen to … and oh gosh do they really, really, want you to subscribe to their newsletter. 

I grumbled to myself that I might have been better off at the AI art show, and ordered the Wayfinder, appreciating that at least the process was simple and cheap, and sat down at my table. Bar Part Time is also a bottle shop, and they have bottles of natural wine out in display cases in a way that is pleasingly decorative. To me this is a bar that can’t make up its damn mind about what it wants to be, but everything that they do they seem to do well. 

Natalie came in a few moments later, a bundle of energy. “Hello, my dear!” she said. “What are we drinking?” 

“Less than I thought,” I said after we hugged, and showed her the menu. 

“Oh, well, let’s order some wine!”

We looked at the shortlist and were unfamiliar with everything, so Natalie went up to the bartender and asked “What’s delicious to you? What would you like to pour?” 

The bartender didn’t hesitate. “I’m really into our sparkling wine right now. It’s delicious.” So Natalie ordered two glasses of the Ca’ De Noci Querciole, Spergola Emilia-Romagna, IT 2021 ($16 a glass), along with a cheese plate featuring cheeses from Vermont, Sonoma, and the French Pyrenees, and marcona almonds ($22). She chatted excitedly with the bartender until the wine was poured, then brought the glasses back to the table. I really admire the way Natalie can talk to bartenders. When I do it, I succeed by creating a wry, knowing, exchange. She generates pure enthusiasm. She’s the perfect person to go to a minimalist bar with, because she can turn it into a maximalist experience.

But the truth is that, while she could create that kind of excitement around her, she herself wasn’t excited at all. 

“I’m going through so many changes right now,” she admitted. 

Some of them are good — stepping up at work, delegating to other people so that they can succeed on trails she blazed. Some of them are sad — a relationship that’s taken a sharp and unpleasant turn. And some of them just go with being in San Francisco.

“I just signed a lease on a place in Berkeley,” she said. 

“Berkeley!” I didn’t even know she was moving.

“Yeah, I … my housing situation in SF just wasn’t working out. When I invested in it, it was with the understanding that I would be able to buy the unit over time. And I was really excited by that, you know? That I’d have worked myself up, coming here with nothing, to a place where I could own an apartment in the city. It’s not a house, but still … I was proud of that, and I love the community. You know? But as time went on, that got vague, and then they took it off the table. It looks like they’re just going to keep renting forever. And then the market crashed, and suddenly I wasn’t in a position to buy anyway, and … I don’t know, at that point I needed to make a change, so I’m moving to Berkeley, and even if I come back after a year, at least I’ll know what it’s like to live in the East Bay, right?”

“Right. Oh, I’m sorry.” I really was. Both for her, and because I liked her space. She really had seemed like she was going to make it all work.

“I’ll just be a five minute walk from BART, so it’ll be easy to get into the city in a half-hour.”

“Five minutes? Oh that’s nothing! That’s great!”

“Yeah,” she said. And it was her way of telling me: Don’t worry, we’ll still see each other. 

Even though the truth is that it’s never been the distance that separates us. We only see each other occasionally because I live a slow life and she lives a fast one. We don’t travel together, we intersect each other’s orbit periodically.

The cheese plate came. It wasn’t great, but it was pretty good. The wine, too, was perfectly adequate. There’s nothing about it that I’m going to go out of my way to recommend to people, but I was perfectly happy drinking it and it went well with a decent cheese plate. 

Bar Part Time sets my teeth on edge by so obviously trying to be a Relevant Brand in the Natural Wine Influencer sector, but I appreciate how well it still manages to do what a minimalist bar ought to: It gets out of the way. You come with people, you drink wine, maybe you dance, and it’s all simple. There aren’t any difficult choices. That’s easy to pull off when a bar isn’t trying to build a brand, but it’s actually very hard to pull off when they are. 

That’s especially comforting in a time when our place in the city is so insecure, and so much of the world is driven by buzzwords that gesture at what they mean but don’t really mean what they say. It’s a difficult time: We should drink and make more art about it.

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  1. I think that space used to be called ‘Thieves’ or ‘Thieves Bar’ (and yeah there was another Thieves on 24th & like Treat, but which is still pretty divey… and maybe dicey…). But this new direction, heavily branded and sporting websites and social media and newsletters sounds like it sucks. That’s not a bar. The old place really did feel like a place where criminals drank (which is good in my view) and the weird location also added to the otherworldly vibe. (Like another former fave – a bar where there normally wouldn’t be a bar, obscure, on a residential street… the kind of place you take your secretary to drink… where no one you know would ever be there… (How many of you guessed Lone Palm? You get a heavy pour on me… tell them I sent you.) (Although ordinarily Ι hate it when a spot I love gets announced in the media e.g. La Taqueria… Although I’m happy for the family. They work hard, have a good product and I imagine they’ve made a lot of money.)