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.