(This is the third part of a pub crawl around Van Ness Avenue. It began at the venerable Tommy’s Joynt, followed by a two-block walk to the Amsterdam Café, and concluded, via bus, at one of the most intimate pubs in the Bay Area, the Black Horse London Pub.)
When people try to describe how small a place is, they are sometimes given to saying, “There’s not enough room to swing a cat.” With The Black Horse London Pub, such a remark would not be an exaggeration. This hole in the wall pub/deli on Union Street near Van Ness Avenue can comfortably seat about eight people but frequently holds many more. The record, according to the owner, is 53 people stuffed into this tiny beer room. Even with as few as a dozen drinkers, you find yourself becoming physically intimate with your neighbors, and any journey to the restroom invariably involves making new friends along the way.
This scenario could go horribly wrong in so many ways if it wasn’t for the genteel and sociable clientele and the bonhomie of the good-natured bartenders and owner, James King, who welcomes every new arrival as if they were a long-lost friend. If King or the bartender somehow misses greeting you, there’s a good chance that one of the other patrons will extend a warm welcome. We began this crawl at Tommy’s Joynt, which proclaims “Welcome strangers,” but Black Horse is in a different league altogether.
Black Horse isn’t so much a pub as it is a cool rec room, with a flat screen television perched at a neck-straining angle at the corner of the ceiling; a dart board on the wall hanging precariously close to the rest room; and a bathtub full of ice and beer behind the bar. The wall is decorated with pictures of Prohibition-era beer protesters (“We want beer”) and soccer scarves. Since the Blackhorse is, after all, a London Pub, it can perhaps be forgiven for prominently displaying a blue Chelsea scarf.
On one recent visit during March Madness and right after St. Patrick’s Day, the white porcelain, claw-footed beer tub was full of Guinness, Smithwicks, Harp and Corona. Also nestled in the ice were some lovely bottles of Chimay Reserve, which matched the vibe perfectly.
After an hour or so, beer reinforcements arrived in the person of Marin Brewing Company Head Brewer Arne Johnson, who brought along a keg of his excellent cask conditioned IPA, which King generously poured into a large mug. Between popping open bathtub bottles and pouring Marin IPA, King was busy preparing cheese platters to nosh on with the beer.
Black Horse might not have the biggest beer selection, but that’s not the point of this unique “snug.” At the Black Horse, it’s all about the vibe and the camaraderie, with beer serving as a vital social lubricant. Even the injunction against cell phones seems designed to encourage real social interaction with your fellow revelers.
Cow Hollow is full of pretentious pubs and bars that attempt to create a friendly drinking atmosphere. Most of them fail miserably, and it all comes across as phony and artificial. James King could give them a master’s class on the technique of a being proper publican; when you’re in the Black Horse, you’re in his house and, at least for the evening, part of the family. All in all, Black Horse London Pub is a delightful exercise in social interaction at its finest and one that must be experienced at least once as part of the city’s vibrant, eclectic pub scene.
The Black Horse London Pub
1514 Union St
(between Franklin St & United States Highway 101)
San Francisco, CA 94123
Monday-Friday: 5 p.m.-midnight
Sat/Sun: 11 a.m.-midnight
Van Ness Avenue was named after James Van Ness, a rather unsuccessful and corrupt mayor of San Francisco from 1855-1856. His administration was marred by allegations of voting irregularities, corruption and a citizens revolt.*
During the 1906 earthquake, Van Ness Avenue, then a residential street, became a firebreak, and many buildings were dynamited to prevent the blaze from spreading west. Nowadays, Van Ness Ave. is something of a social firebreak, separating chic Pacific Heights to the west from the perceived dregs of the Tenderloin to the east. Geary Street, named after the first mayor of San Francisco, John W. Geary, transects Van Ness from west to east through the Tenderloin to Market Street. Despite its tawdry reputation, the Civic Center/Tenderloin area is full of life, thanks in part to the large influx of Southeast Asian immigrants, and some of the best food around can be found in the ‘loin.
The 9-month-old Amsterdam Café – the self-proclaimed “oasis of the ‘loin” -- is one of the more recent immigrants to the area and it’s a worthy destination for beer lovers. Although Amsterdam Café isn’t yet fully realized – the young owners are still contemplating what sort of food to offer -- it’s a cozy place to have a good beer, or even a great one. Gulden Draak, a dark triple Belgian ale from Brouwerij Van Steenberge N.V., would fall into the “great” category. Perfectly poured in the appropriate glassware, it’s a delicious brew that just gets better while you drink it, as the subtle fruit flavors and spices reveal themselves coquettishly. From the first whiff and sip, you know you’re in for a good ride, one that’s best taken slowly out of respect for the ale’s 10.5% abv. Typically seen in squatty white bottles, Gulden Draak is rarely available on tap.
Along with reliable brews such as Trumer Pils, Racer 5 IPA, Czechvar (the original Budweiser), 21st Amendment IPA and Great White Shark, Amsterdam Café has some harder-to-find beers on tap, like the Brewdog Punk’d IPA from Scotland, Koningshoeven Quadrupel and Oaked Arrogant Bastard from Stone. The bottle list is also intelligently selected and eclectic. After the heavy Gulden Draak, I wanted to go lighter, so I picked a bottle of the pitch black Kostritzer Schwarzbier (4.8% abv), a deceptively smooth sipper.
Noticing the absence of good coffee in the immediate vicinity, Amsterdam Café serves java made to order one cup at a time and pastries in the morning. Hookahs are also available for people who want to get their flavored tobacco fix. Although Amsterdam Café doesn’t serve food, you’re welcome to bring in grub from the neighborhood.
Amsterdam Café fills a vacant niche in this part of the ‘loin for great beer and good coffee in comfortable, convivial surroundings. It is a welcome addition to the burgeoning San Francisco pantheon of Belgian and German-leaning pubs like Monk’s Kettle, La Trappe and Church Key.
Hop Head Alert:
Amsterdam Café is hosting a special event on April 1 at 7 p.m. with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery of Delaware, featuring the brewery’s excellent 90-minute double IPA and Aprihop American IPA on draft, and Red and White wit beer, Burton Baton double IPA, Midas Touch spiced beer and Palo Santo Marron brown ale in bottles. If you love the hops, mark your calendar. But save a little room for a Gulden Draak.
*In May 1856, city Supervisor and ex-con James Casey fatally shot newspaper editor James King of William, with whom Casey had a feud. Tired of the shenanigans of corrupt politicians, citizens had had enough. Declaring “the people have no faith in the officers of the law,” they formed a Vigilance Committee and within a couple of days, 3,000 men had signed up for service. The Vigilance Committee removed Casey from jail and hanged him in front of their office at 41 Sacramento, just as the slain editor was being buried.
937 Geary St
(between Larkin St & Polk St)
San Francisco, CA 94109
(This is the first installment of a mini-pub crawl around Van Ness Avenue. The next installments will include Amsterdam Café and The Blackhorse London Pub.)
San Francisco beer bars come in all shapes and sizes. Some have been around for decades while others are less than a year old. One thing the good pubs all seem to have in common, though, is a sense of community. Unlike other forms of social entertainment – restaurants, night clubs, the theater, movies, concerts or even cocktail bars – pubs create an environment where people who walk in as strangers can within a couple of hours become part of the “family.”
Viewed from the outside, with a line snaking out the door, Tommy’s Joynt can seem a bit daunting at first glance and a little chaotic. It’s neither. People line up for the hofbrau carving station where veteran carvers serve fresh turkey, barbecued brisket, lamb shanks, ham and buffalo stew, to mention a few. If the line seems a little onerous, simply veer left and walk past it and belly up to the bar, where you can order a beer while the rush subsides, as it invariably will. Once you’re able to order your food, you can bring it to the bar until around 6 p.m. By no means is the food "gourmet" and some of the sides are more than a little sad, but it's affordable, fresh and hearty.
Hofbrau food like brisket and roast turkey matches perfectly with beer, and Tommy’s Joynt has the usual suspects on draft – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Steam, Sam Adams Lager and Guinness – along with a few pleasant surprises, such as Trumer Pils from Berkeley, Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA and Chimay. You can find some winners among the bottles, too, like Maredsous (Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat NV) and Leffe from Belgium; Old Peculier (Theakston) and Old Speckled Hen (Greene King / Morland Brewery) from England; and
Very little, if anything, about Tommy’s Joynt has changed over the years, and that's by design. Its Web site declares:
“While the City has been changing year after year, we remain steadfast in our opposition to change. We want things to remain the same because our founders established a reputation in San Francisco; a reputation that promises hot food and cold drink at a price that parries our atmosphere.”
As long as Tommy’s Joynt continues to deliver on that promise, it will remain a valued destination for hungry tourists and locals alike.
1101 Geary Blvd
(between Franklin St & United States Highway 101)
San Francisco, CA 94109
It’s not that people south of the airport aren’t thirsty for good beer. K and L Wine Merchants in Redwood City is doing such a brisk business with its expanded cold beer selection that it might soon become K and L Wine and Beer Merchants; it’s already arguably the best beer store on the Peninsula, with a very helpful beer manager. A few pubs around San Carlos and Redwood City serve good quality lagers and ales (and I’ll review some of them soon), but the options deteriorate significantly the farther south you go. By the time you reach Santa Clara County, buying craft beer usually means making a trip to Costco or BevMo. If you want to drink beer on the premises, you’ll have to settle for a brewpub chain like Gordon Biersch in San Jose or B.J.’s Brewhouse in San Jose and Cupertino.
Geno and Cindy Acevedo observed this vacuum back in 1992 when they conceived of El Toro Brewing. By November 2006, they had converted a former bank in Morgan Hill to the El Toro Brewpub. The brewpub’s 25 taps include an intriguing assortment of beers and handcrafted sodas. Food consists primarily of pub grub – burgers, greasy onion rings, fried food – and pizza from a wood-burning oven. Overall, the beer is more consistent than the food and a few of the brews are downright tasty.
Greasy, fatty food loves hops and pairing a good IPA with a prime rib sandwich and onion rings masks some of the more nefarious characteristics of each. The food tones down the hops a notch while the carbonation and bitterness of the beer cuts through the fat and the grease. A hoppy El Conejo Red IPA (6.7% abv) accomplished this feat admirably. But greasy, fatty food doesn’t make for the most inspired dining experience and smacks of culinary laziness.
El Toro is a good concept in a nice environment and the beer is actually pretty good. The food and service, however, seemed inconsistent for a brewpub that charges $13 for a sandwich. One prime rib sandwich was nicely cooked and tender while another was overcooked, dry and lacking in flavor. Consequently, the two-story building can be cavernously empty – a sure sign that something’s amiss.
El Toro is better in theory than in execution. The beer is good and probably better than most of the options in the area but the food and the service could stand some improvement. The beauty of craft beer is that it pairs well with a variety of foods, so it’s not necessary to cling to the pub grub playbook to create successful pairings. In other words, everything on the menu doesn’t have to be deep-fried. Also, the wood-fired pizza oven seems to take a back seat to the grease when it could be a star.
El Toro should break out of the pub grub box and try something fresh and different. How about a smaller menu using locally sourced, seasonal, fresh ingredients prepared by a chef who knows how to pair good beer with good food? They could even incorporate beer into some of the recipes. If people want lowest common denominator pub grub, they can always go to B.J.’s or Gordon Biersch.
Get as creative with the food as you are with the beer, El Toro. Thirsty South Bay beer drinkers deserve better.
El Toro Brewing Company Brewpub
17605 Monterey Road
Morgan Hill, CA 95037
Hours: Tues. through Sun. from 11:30 a.m. to 12 a.m. - Fri. and Sat. from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
HAPPY HOUR Tuesday-Thursday 3pm-5pm
Rogue SF, the southernmost outpost of the Oregon-based Rogue Nation, has a lot going for it in becoming a local hangout. The bar is in a good location (formerly Mel’s Steakhouse and Little City) near Powell on Union and it’s open every day from around midday on. It’s kid- and pet-friendly, and serves better than average beer with food. The outdoor patio gives the ale house a bit of an urban oasis ambience and Thursday night pub quizzes are popular. The pub pushes Rogue’s beer and paraphernalia pretty hard – bottles for sale are lined up all over the pub -- and the staff is eager for you to try the beer.
Sometimes the devil is in the details, and Rogue SF is a bit frayed around the edges. The vinyl-covered bar stools are cracked and show considerable wear and tear, the patio is a little dingy, and the whole pub seems a bit tired and very 1980s. Food is typical pub fare, though the Kobe beef chili the bartender recommended was nicely balanced and tasty. Clearly, the chief reason for being here, other than trivia night, is the beer, which you order from the large chalkboard that looms over the bar.
The pub advertises 40 beers on tap, and even though several taps were out, there’s still a lot to choose from. Unlike some other chain pubs, Rogue shares taps with beer from several local breweries, including Anchor’s Old Foghorn Barleywine, Drakes Imperial Stout (Denogginizer was out), Anderson Valley Huger Boont and Lagunitas Hairy Eyeball.
Rogue began in 1988 in scenic Ashland, Oregon, the home of the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, but soon outgrew its small surroundings and limited distribution capabilities. Expansion continued apace and the Rogue Nation has established several Oregon public houses, called “Meeting Halls,” in Portland (including one at the Portland airport), Astoria, Newport and Eugene, and in Issaquah, Wash., in addition to San Francisco. Rogue’s beers are available in bottles all over the country. Rogue also grows its own hops (Perle, Sterling, Horizon, and Centennial) in Independence, Ore., and distills spirits at Rogue Distillery & Public House in Portland.
Rogue Ales Public House in North Beach is worth a visit just to sample a nice variety of well-crafted, well-poured beers. The food isn’t spectacular, especially considering the abundant options available in the area. But it’s a good place to duck into for a pint in a cozy atmosphere with some North Beach denizens.