There is nothing quite as much fun as exploring other people's favorite bars. So I jumped at the chance to test out the Besties, the annual reader's poll of the Bay Area Reporter for best bars (formerly the Best of the Gays). Here's a roundup of your best picks.
Best Gay/Gay Friendly Bar - Blackbird
Blackbird is a beautiful, lively bar with a very mixed clientele: gay, lesbian, straight, and undetermined for both couples and groups. I stopped by on a weeknight in the early evening to find it busy but I found a seat at the bar right away. I tried an Early Bird cocktail (vodka, elderflower, lemon, soda), which was light and refreshing, the perfect drink to start off a night.
My bartender, Victoria, told me that the most popular drinks are the Last Word, Black Lodge, Orchard cocktail and the Poached Pear. The paper drink menu changes on a seasonal basis (they're about to introduce the spring menu) and there is a wooden menu at the end of the bar (which doesn't change) that lists mixed drinks, wine and beer. The bartenders are as mixed as the bar. Besides Victoria, there were two male bartenders, one with tattoos and a beard, and the other clean-shaven. All were friendly and clearly enjoyed what they were doing.
The bar itself is enticing, with rich tufted leather benches, a pool table in the rear, and filament lights hanging from the bar. There was an exhibition of Julie Bullock's photographic portraits which lined the wall (exhibitions change about every three months) and in the back of the bar is a pool table (which seemed busy) separated from the main section by a screen.
The crowd was about equal parts people settled in for a few drinks and those in for a quick drink before starting the night. It's a great place to people-watch and will be high on my list of places to return to. My own category for this bar would be Best Place to Pretend You're in a Noir Thriller. Happy hour is 5-8pm weekdays.
Blackbird, 2124 Market St. 503-0630. www.blackbirdbar.com
Best Bar to Meet Men - 440 Castro
It's a week-in week-out event to see men waiting to get into 440 and hanging out on the sidewalk outside, with many smiles and no attitude, save friendly among the attractive hairy lot of them. To get a better feel for the bar (and not be distracted by wall-to-wall men), I went on a Sunday afternoon. Bartender Tony responded to hearing that his bar had been chosen as the best place to meet men by saying, "What's a ball gag between friends?"
The bar itself goes for something of a construction/industrial atmosphere with chrome and back being the major colors and red industrial lights giving accents. The weekend daytime crowd gives it the feel of a friendly neighborhood bar. The women seated next to me gave thumbs up to the Bloody Marys, which include pickled asparagus spears as a garnish.
But really, it's all about the nighttime here, and with theme nights like Underwear Night on Monday and the Outlaw night with gogo boys, it's no surprise. Like the sign behind the bar says, "Area Closed: Bear Danger.
Think of this as the Best Place to Channel Your Inner Were-Bear.
440 Castro St., San Francisco. 621-8732. www.the440.com
Best Bar to Meet Women - Lexington Club
I knew I was going to love this place from the moment I sat down and my bartender Kat served me my favorite, Racer 5 IPA. Lexington Club bills itself as "Your Friendly Neighborhood Dyke Bar," and they deliver! They celebrated their Edge of Seventeen anniversary party on March 29, and there are always things happening there. Check upcoming events on the website.
There is something about this space that makes it feel as if it is a holdover from the days of San Francisco's Barbary Coast. The red walls and art nouveau grills on the outside of the windows remind me of no other building in San Francisco more than the Great American Music Hall, which was once a brothel. And it offers you the opportunity to make your own soundtrack with the bar's jukebox. My fellow ex-Michigander Kat played Motown while I was there.
You can tell a lot about a place from the attitude of the people who work there. Kat, who makes her own candles, showed me one with a picture of Dolly Parton on it and told me, "Dolly Parton is my spirit animal."
I have good news for you all - the energy and D.I.Y. spirit of the women's community that was once on Valencia Street is alive and well at Lexington and 19th. Go visit and marvel in it!
Lexington Club, 3464 19th St. 863-2052. www.lexingtonclub.com
Best East Bay Bar - The White Horse
Having written about the history of the White Horse for BARtab before, I wanted to get a feel for the bar as it is now. I stopped by on a Sunday afternoon, and it's a busy and fun neighborhood bar during the day, right on the border of Oakland and Berkeley, just north of the thriving Temescal neighborhood. There is a friendly attitude there on Sundays, and my bearded, flannel-shirted bartender Brandon was carrying on a lively conversation with a patron who was going to Coachella (and trying to convince Brandon to ditch his planned ski vacation with his boyfriend).
The bar reminded me immediately of the ingenuity of the LGBT community, as there is a glassed-off area with a pool table area that opens onto the street so that people can play pool and smoke, a rarity in California bars. That area also has an amazing mural dedicated to the White Horse done by art student and White Horse barback Kyle McCracken. Another feature of the bar is a fireplace, which must be very cozy on foggy nights.
With festive weekly events like Thursday night's Thump (with dance music and $3 Long Island Ice Teas) and the Rebel Kings drag king show every first and third Wednesday, the White Horse is not just a bar with a past, but with a guaranteed future. Check their website for weekly events.
The White Horse, 6551 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, (510) 652-3820. www.whitehorsebar.com
Best Sports Bar - Hi Tops
Do you yearn for someone to bark out calisthenics instructions? Do you think of gym socks and jock straps as the perfume of love? Then this is your place. Since the bar opened in December 2012, it has had a buzz about it, from its appearing in Sports Illustrated to being on Chelsea Lately.
Obviously the owners know what they're doing, because it started out wildly popular and the enthusiasm shows no sign of dimming.
From the waiters in jerseys to the lockers against the wall, this place certainly has the right atmosphere. On the night I visited, 15 of the TVs were tuned to NCAA basketball and one to the Golf Channel. Events here include 25 cent chicken wings and a shuffleboard tournament on Monday, Bottoms Up Bingo on Wednesday and gym class - free whiskey shots from hunks in jock straps - on Thursday nights.
The one perplexing thing for me is the menu, which has pulled pork sandwiches, bacon-beef burgers and "killer nachos" on it. While it all looks delicious, you might need to go for a run afterward. So this might be the 'Best bar to make you restart your cardio routine' (unless you wear your meal off with someone you meet in the bar).
Hi Tops, 2247 Market St. 551-2500. www.hitopssf.com
Best Bar to Meet Transgender People - The Café
This category is a bit perplexing, as many transgender people pass, and 440 Castro, Lexington Club or any of the rest might be an equally good place to meet transgender people, as you wouldn't know who they were unless they told you.
Definitional problems aside, The Café is a wonderful place to see a show. I went on a Monday Night for a RuPaul's Drag Race viewing with Mahlae Balenciaga and special guest Phi Phi O'Hara from Season 4 of the show. It was a lot of fun and the audience had a great time.
The open design of The Café and the central performance area on the main floor lends itself very well to shows and the lines out front are evidence their shows are wildly popular. There are great drink specials (Monday was two-for-one drink night) and something is always going on there from the show on Monday through Boybar on Friday.
Unlike the runner-up Divas, there was no one behind the bar or working at the bar in drag. Still, because of the confusion among our voters between drag and transgender, this might be the Best "that word doesn't mean what you think it means" Bar.
The Café, 2369 Market St. 834-5840. www.cafesf.com
Best Party/Theme Night at a Bar - Trannyshack
Trannyshack has had an amazing lifespan, from its roots at The Stud through its move out of the club to multiple venues. It's inspired not only a host of other clubs, but has accentuated a whole style of performance on the West Coast which compliments the New York style of events such as Wigstock. So it's only appropriate that the wild mad fun that they continue to share with the community should be honored as the best party and theme night. Truly, nothing even comes close in terms of its impact. Among my favorite Trannyshack memories are Vinsantos performance of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" at the Folsom Street Fair. Their events are mind-bending and epic.
Heklina and crew continue their psychotic performance rampage at a variety of venues throughout town in the near future, including Trannyshack Reno on April 19 and 20, Daytime Realness at El Rio on April 20 (Easter Sunday), and their ever-spectacular Madonna tribute at the DNA Lounge on Sunday May 25. If you haven't seen a Trannyshack performance, you need to have your nurse wheel you into the next one (because if you aren't in extended care, I can't imagine you haven't been yet). And if you have been, then you know that you owe it to yourself to catch the next wave of fun with this crazy crew.
Trannyshack (mostly at) DNA Lounge, 375 11th St. www.trannyshack.com
Best Bang for your Buck, Best Bar with a Patio, Best Neighborhood Bar, Best Bar with a Pool Table - Pilsner Inn
The Pilsner obviously does quadruple duty with people voting in our poll, and it's no wonder. With the recent remodel, the bar offers a wide variety of bears...er beers on tap, and there are nightly specials (I had a Moose Drool, which was on special the night I visited), so it's easy to understand its winning the Bang for Your Buck category.
The lush patio is always lively, and with a special section for non-smokers, it shows ingenuity in its design. The bar is busy throughout the day, so it's also clear why the bar won the best neighborhood bar category. The pool table is always busy, so again, it's a natural winner.
Think of the Pilsner as the Best 'and the Rest are Here on Gilligan's Isle' bar.
Pilsner Inn, 225 Church St. 621-7058. www.pilsnerinn.com
Now get out there and visit the winners (and/or see if you have your own favorites for next year's poll). Congratulations to a truly marvelous set of bars.