Located at the apex of the Castro, Mission and Hayes Valley districts, the Pilsner Inn has been called a Castro gay bar. But from its inception, The Pilsner has been considered by many patrons as an easy-going neighborhood tavern known for its wide selection of beer.
The Pilsner Inn won three votes in our parent publication, the Bay Area Reporter’s Best of the Gays poll; Best Bar with a Pool Table, Best Bar With a Patio, and Best Bartender.
That bartender, Steve Dalton, is a relatively new face at the historic tavern. Two years ago, Dalton was unemployed for a while, and before that had worked at The Nob Hill Theatre, which he called "the most interesting job I’ve ever had in my life," he said with a bashful chuckle.
"Every day, after work, my friends would ask, ’What happened today?’
And while Dalton remained discreet about the actual goings-on at the local strip club, he hinted at a few naughty happenings.
Less naughty is the G-rated ambiance at The Pilsner. There won’t be any jock strap nights, but there are plenty of actual jocks who visit, and most choose to drink beer.
"I can make a mixed drink, but we’re really not known for that," said Dalton, gesturing to the amusing array of beer taps, where thirsty patrons can choose from such suds as Moose Drool, Blue Moon, Fat Tire, Shock Top and even Green Death.
As one can tell from his accent, Dalton is from the South. His familiarity with Alabama bars stems from performing in a string of bands (with names like Bush Pilots and Redeye Five) since age 16.
"A lot of my friends were bartenders or managers; just playing music on the road," said Dalton. But after Sony dropped his last band, he said, "I just wanted to do something different, and I was seeing a guy out here." Although the romance got him to San Francisco, they eventually broke up, but Dalton said that moving west, "turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made."
Being gay was not an important part of his move, however. "Alabama may not be the best place to be openly gay," he said. "But I never really had a problem with it, and if other people did, they never told me."
Dalton said he prefers the generally more relaxed attitudes, including the environment at The Pilsner.
"Most people that come here live in the neighborhood," said Dalton. "We do get lot of tourists. People going to Chow (the restaurant next door) like to check us out, have a beer while they wait for a table."
The expansive patio is a big draw. "People come for the pool table a lot," said Dalton. "But the patio; I’ve seen people walk straight through to the bar. It’s definitely a plus for us."
The question about the large selection of decorative penguin toys and figurines brought this writer back to my Sports Complex days, and another entertaining interview with owner Pat Conlon.
The only surviving original co-owner of the Inn, Conlon has a lot of stories about the grand old days since the Pilsner "went gay" in 1980.
Transferred to San Francisco in 1965 while working for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Iowa-born Conlon had transferred from France, then settled in San Francisco.
Despite a conservative Des Moines upbringing, and a youthful desire to become a parrish priest, Conlon knew about gay men, and at age 20, was taken out by some military pals.
"They took me to a bar, where there were no women. There, you see how naïve I was."
Shunning flirtations at the time, Conlon took a while to gradually come out.
Already patrons of the then-straight Pilsner, Conlon and his then-business partner, discussed buying the Inn, which was originally a seamen’s bar (no jokes!)
"We went there and played pool, and there were a lot of old people," said Conlon. "The original owner was 70. He decided to sell the building. At that time, there was a rooming house upstairs."
While Conlon’s partner bluntly told the selling owner, "’We’re gonna make it a gay bar,’" when it started getting patrons, Conlon endured a semi-closeted series of diversionary mishaps when his mother visited.
With its current rainbow flag proudly posted outside, there’s no mistaking what the Pilsner is. But it still attracts a diverse patronage, and maintains a solid reputation.
"We don’t have music outside, so we don’t disturb the neighbors," said Conlon. "That makes it much more cooperative."
"And, we don’t have a happy hour," he added. "It encourages people to get drunk. Our specials are as long as the bar’s open. Younger people need to be more careful. What’s fun about wondering ’What happened to me last night?’"
Perhaps because of Conlon’s focus on a balanced atmosphere, The Pilsner has become a regular and enduring bar The staff have been friends, and as the gay softball league expanded from the 1970s into the ’80s, the Inn sponsored The Penguins and other teams.
Through the years, Conlon suffered the loss of several business partners, including Patrick Bonfiglio, who died in 1987, and Bill Martin, who was for a time the bar’s accountant. Both died of AIDS. A later co-manager, the popular Angelo Maggio, who also played softball and was an avid bowler, died in 2008 of brain cancer.
The bar’s name goes back to the staff’s softball roots. "I started playing softball in the 1970s in the mixed leagues," said Conlon. "In 1980, they decided to start a new gay league. One team needed a pitcher, so I joined. In 1981 we cosponsored, then decided to have our own team. Since I was the team captain, I said the name should start with the letter P, to go with the Pilsner. We had one player who had white hair and waddled like a penguin, and we voted and that’s how we named it."
The bar’s second team, The Huffin Puffins (started in the 1990s) is named for the older-looking bird, and its senior players.
Additionally, Conlon’s bar sponsors women’s tag football, women’s soccer, and five softball teams. "We used to sponsor bowling teams, two tennis teams, and the rowing team," he added.
"We’re a gay sports bar, but we definitely have a lot of straight patrons. Anyone can come in and not feel out of place."