Nightlife » Bars

Sports; Drinks III - Hi Tops Gets Game

by Jim Provenzano
Sunday Mar 31, 2013
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As a sign of the renovations and continual change going on in the bar scene, the latest new addition seems to be hitting a home run. Or would that be a field goal? Whatever term, the new sports-themed Hi Tops is catching more than a few Hail Mary passes, as its popularity continues to grow fans.

Along with partners Matt Kajiwara and Dana Gleim, manager and co-owner Jesse Woodward has created a new addition to the Castro bar scene. For Woodward, who left the world of finance, it’s a dream come true. "The neighborhood and community seem to be enjoying it," he said. "We’ve gotten good reviews for the food. The 49ers have helped, for sure."
The venue at 2247 Market Street replaced the bar Lime after six months of renovations and a December 2012 opening.

Although its website (www.hitopssf.com) remains short on specific events, several have taken place, and not just crowded Super Bowl viewings. For those who are merely pro or college sports-viewing fans, regular sports viewing can be enjoyed any day or night the bar is open.

In a time when several bars are closing or "going straight," Woodward’s bar has a slightly butch if not merely affable atmosphere that isn’t off-putting to non-sports fans. But it definitely has taken on a neighborhood comfort in a short time. The open bright decor is airy while still amusingly faux-retro, with tables made out of bleachers salvaged from a high school gym in Kansas City, and real gym lockers brought in from Texas. The flat floor, doorways and rest rooms are also fully accessible.

With 15 flat-screen TVs, benches at the bar and in the back, Hi Tops makes ample room for herds of sports fans, or fans of spicy buffalo wings, burgers and other tasty food on the menu that fits a slightly upscale stadium cuisine. Chicken sandwiches, tuna burgers, buffalo wings, grilled cheese and a bacon-cheeseburger may not tempt your vegan friends, but pretzels, corn on the cob, and fries might suffice instead of a yucatan-style pork chop on a stick, all created by Top Chef TV show contestant Jamie Lauren (who created the menu, but is not on staff).

With ten beers on tap, bottles and cans, the drink menu includes some tasty new local and Portland-based beers. "We try to get a little more creative with local brews; a little more interesting than the standards," said Woodward. Look out for a few more delicate drink choices, like The Big Unit (and a handy double-entendre sports reference), which includes Tito’s vodka, lemon, elderflower and champagne.
Hi Tops patrons Michael and Jeff were enjoying the outdoor window view before last month’s Super Bowl started up, and offered a few comments in between sticky-fingered chicken wings bites.

"We’re mostly Giants fans," said Jeff. "But we were here for the playoff game (which the 49ers won) and loved the atmosphere, so we wanted to celebrate the Super Bowl here."
Added Michael, "We’re looking forward to the coming season of baseball. We’re Sharks fans as well." The two men are like many in the LGBT community who defy the stereotype of gays not liking sports. "We’ve been waiting for a gay sports bar in the Castro for a while," said Michael, who is also part of the gay SF Giants fan Facebook page, where people meet up for games or viewings.

San Francisco 49ers fans Myke Suyat and his boyfriend Roger Elauria (our cute cover models) enjoyed a pitcher of beer at Hi Tops’ Super Bowl party. "It’s better than the Pilsner," said Suyat of the multiple screens. "You have a great view from everywhere."

Asked if, along with watching, Suyat also plays sports, he replied enthusiastically, "Sure! Volleyball, flag football. We play sports! Gay people play sports! It’s a shame that we can’t be as out in professional sports, but it’s coming along."

The conundrum of being a gay sports fan in a non-friendly pro sports setting leaves Hi Tops patrons rooting for a local team with a player like Chris Culliver, who made unsupportive statements about gay athletes. The opposing team, The Baltimore Ravens, includes on its roster one of two outspoken straight allies, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who, along with Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, have made discussions of homophobia in football a gay sport whether it likes it or not.

Beer-sipping fans at Hi Tops seem willing to debate the subject at length, in good company. It’s also the kind of bar where one can be serious about sports fanship, while also feeling comfortable to comment on a player’s "cute butt!" as was heard a few times.

The blend of straight and gay attitudes serves as an example of a probable future for gay venues. A 2011 BusinessWeek article noted the expanding popularity of gay sports bars. Focusing on New York City’s Boxers, it called the venue "a pioneer" in the trend, although gay bars and sports have long had a connection in many communities, specifically San Francisco. Since the mid-1970s, gay bars were sponsoring softball teams, hosting events, and supported the development and fundraising for the first two Gay Games in 1982 and 1986.

Yet, the idea of a sports-themed gay bar is still considered a novelty. In the past few years, nearly a dozen gay sports bars have opened around the country: Crew in Chicago, Fritz in Boston, GYM Sportsbar in Los Angeles, Score Bar in Columbus, Ohio, Woof’s in Madison, Wisconsin, and Nellie’s Sports Bar, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 2007.
Of course, standards continue locally, where The Lookout, Moby Dick, The Pilsner, The Wild Side West and other bars have long supported local LGBT sports teams and fundraisers.

With Hi Tops’ main focus being sports, don’t expect any karaoke contests or drag shows. You can expect lots more fundraisers and a bar filled with enthusiastic LGBT jocks.
Softball teams that the bar sponsors include The Sluggers, The 7th Inning Stretch Marks (Woodward’s team), The Outlaws, The Knockouts, and The Storm. Hi Tops will also sponsor events for the SF Gay Basketball Association, and fundraisers for the SF Fog Rugby Club, the Spikes soccer team, The Pirates women’s soccer team, the Golddiggers Hockey team, and even a new AIDS Life/Cycle team.

"We’ve also got beer busts with the ladies soccer teams, a tennis event, and registration for a volleyball tournament coming up," said Woodward.

All that activity fits well into the surprisingly spacious bar, which packs in the fans on big game days. "The design was to make it really friendly and a fit for the neighborhood, not too loud," said Woodward. "Combined with the really friendly staff, we don’t have the sound on the games turned up loud unless it’s a big local event. And the bigger tables make for a place where people can really hang out."

One problem of using 15 TVs is scheduling what sports to play. "It takes a lot of planning," said Woodward. "We try to accommodate what everyone would want. We plan for it and have some TVs play different games. It’s hard to please everyone, because we don’t change the channel on impulse."
Along with an easy-going atmosphere, the bar isn’t afraid to get its sexy on, as proven by the Thursday night Gym Socks, which features male jock imagery on the TVs, and two-dollar shots served by guys in uniforms (or less!) from 10pm to 2am. Yet the straight/gay mix at Hi Tops may be a model for success, with several gay bars closing or changing.

"It’s kind of shocking," said Woodward of the trend in bars: the closing of Lime, Trigger, The Deco Lounge, imminent sale of Kok Bar, Marlena’s, and the stalled re-opening of The Eagle. Woodward, who has lived in San Francisco since the 1990s, said one of his reasons to open Hi Tops was "a lack of places that are fun and different."

So whether it’s baseball or rugby, chicken wings or a local beer, stop by Hi Tops, the new gay bar that seems like it’s been part of the neighborhood for years, or should have been.

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