(This essay by Dinah first appeared in the Hayes Valley Voice.)
If you haven’t gone before 5pm on a workday, you haven’t really been to our little neighborhood bar on the green. At opening time—2pm—on a recent sunny Tuesday I stopped in at Brass Tacks to talk with co-owner Matty Conway. My plan was to spend a quiet hour discussing a topic of mutual interest: low-alcohol cocktails. Matty’s menu features a couple great ones—my favorite is the sherry-based ‘Spanish Prisoner’—and my book, The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level, is all about lighter drinks. Shop talk was the plan, but the sun was shining in the open front windows and within moments of my arrival began a steady flow of interesting people joining us.
Off-duty restaurant and bar workers traded good-natured teasing with Matty and sipped wine, beers, and whiskey sours. A serious pair talked business over craft brews. People popped in long enough to say hello or waved as they passed. A trio of Giants fans combined watching the opening day game on the TV over my head with planning for one of them getting married the following weekend.
As they alternated between applauding the team and reviewing the timeline for the big day’s events, I was delighted to have Marlena herself, Garry McLain, sit down beside me to enjoy a cool beer after a long hot walk. Since his bar closed so Matty and team could move in, he’s been a big supporter of Brass Tacks and, though like me may enjoy a quiet afternoon best, is thrilled to see the bar overflowing on busy weekend nights. After all, he knows how tough running a neighborhood feature can be.
Before his legendary and lamented Marlena’s bar opened, that location was The Overpass—aptly named for its position in the shadow of the Central Freeway—and Garry was behind its bar, too. Instead of a thriving neighborhood riding the wave of being acclaimed across the country, Hayes Street west of Octavia was struggling. Storefronts were empty though they could be rented for $400 a month, Garry recalled, instead of more than $10,000 today. Still, neighbors could imagine good times ahead. They gathered, planned, and, step by step, revitalized Hayes Valley. As he confirmed for me, this rebirth wasn’t born out of centralized planning, but from local vision of a better place to live.
What role might bars like The Overpass, Marlena’s, and Brass Tacks play in shaping the life of the neighborhood? I thought about Europeans sipping aperitifs at café tables on the public square. Beer gardens open to their surroundings. And, yes, bars with open doors and windows, inviting interaction between those imbibing and passers-by. These all support light drinking as a casual activity alongside connecting with a place and its people, as opposed to hiding away with the drab goal of getting hammered. And they all can create an informality and openness within which connections can be made.
As urban design critic, Jane Jacobs noted, “it is possible in a city street neighborhood to know all kinds of people without unwelcome entanglements, without boredom, necessity for excuses, explanations, fears of giving offense, embarrassments respecting impositions or commitments, and all such paraphernalia of obligations which can accompany less limited relationships. It is possible to be on excellent sidewalk terms with people who are very different from oneself, and even, as time passes, on familiar public terms with them.” Far from being a source of division, with their acceptance and encouragement of conversation with strangers, neighborhood drinking spots can build bridges. There’s a reason my copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities features on the cover a picture of Jacobs in smiling interaction with others beside her at a bar.
Wonderful conversations and neighborly connections--that’s what
cheerful local bars are made for. I may have come in expecting to talk
theory with Matty, but the reality swept me up in a big hug and made
clear why wit and heart combine perfectly in a lighter drink with smiling
strangers, now friends.