Black Horse London Pub: beer begets intimacy

(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
(415) 928-2414

Monday-Friday: 5 p.m.-midnight
Sat/Sun: 11 a.m.-midnight

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