In my years of covering the entertainment world, I’ve frequently noted the ebb and flow of nightlife venues. The places open, achieve popularity or don’t, and then they either fade away, or they change hands and get refurbished for another go-round. But in this day and age of hipster irony, the dive bar has been breaking the cycle — defying the rules or rewriting them.
A certain damaged chic is implied by the act of imbibing at a dive bar, generally a rundown joint that decayed from a busy watering hole in a once-thriving area to a seedy dump frequented by lowlifes and ungracefully aging alcoholics. From an artsy, Bohemian perspective, patronizing such a spot can be as if paying homage to the late mean-streets author Charles Bukowski — the sage of Skid Row — while slumming, but doing so with a modicum of respect for the struggles and hardship of the unfortunates that while away their lives there.
Following the first wave of scenesters, there have been the inevitable, increasing instances of new blood beginning to displace the regulars with carefree thrill seekers who are heedless of the poverty and despair to be found in nearby residence hotels or dank alleyways. And that can lead to the scene-making lemmings that follow the trends and grow the crowds in order to bask in reflected cool. Now, where you might expect to see shabby old men and women with florid, bloated faces latticed with busted capillaries, nursing tumblers of rotgut, you find twenty-somethings jabbering about the latest app and drinking designer cocktails.
SHARING THE BLAME
I was party to such a dive bar takeover in my misspent youth when I would hightail it to Chinatown in San Francisco and hit Li-Po — a model of dingy glam with its red lighting, Oriental decor, inexpensive drinks, shadowy corners, and more shadowy habitués. From the first time I was there with a pair of adventurous friends, my imagination was piqued. Was there an opium den in the basement? Did the bartender or one of the more unsavory looking characters add roofies to the Mai Tais of unsuspecting young women for nefarious reasons? Were my pals and I going to be followed and robbed after we left the bar? The answers were “maybe,” “probably not,” and “no,” none of which diminished the allure of the place.
Within a few weeks, more and more of my peers were stopping by Li-Po after dark to guzzle a little booze and soak in the vibe. Eventually, we began to schedule unofficial soirees there, then actual blowouts on birthdays and holidays. After a number of months passed, the allure of the place dimmed, and our gang moved on. Alas, the damage was done. The owners tided the place, raised drink prices, and drew an increasingly mainstream clientele. These days, it’s just another weekend stop on the techie after-work party circuit.
It’s disconcerting to think of another Chinatown dive like the sketchy-on-the-outside Mr. Bing’s or the onetime Grassland Cocktail Lounge (with its awning that read the lurid-toned “Where good friends and girls meet”) getting refurbished to suck up the paychecks of the young and privileged. Still, business owners need to make the ever-ascending rent; thus, they seek the millennial seal of approval. It’s too late to stop the cycle as it spins.
DIVING FROM SOMA TO CRESTA’S
There are numerous examples of the in-crowd commandeering a — pardon the expression — hellhole and turning it into a destination for a time. The rough and tumble Sixth Street dive Club Six was in as a rock-oriented dance club and performance art space for 14 years beginning at the pop of the first tech bubble. Now, it’s branded Luxx, and seems to skew more toward individual events than ongoing bar status. Driving past a few weeks ago, I peered at the entryway, which seemed at that moment to be hosting an informal meet-and-greet for winos.
Meanwhile, Showdown, the smaller, beloved hangout next door on Sixth closed in May after eight years of purveying cocktails and soulful D.J. programming to the hipoisie. The bums shrugged, even though, as dive bars go, this one had quite a pedigree: For most of the 20th century, it had been the quintessential South of the Slot saloon best known as The Matador. I’m not certain why Showdown shut down. Perhaps that block has finally been targeted for redevelopment, continuing the destruction of so much funk and character in the city. Of course, this is Sixth Street we’re talking about — longtime extension of the Tenderloin’s downscale strata of society.
And sometimes, a dive bar has gotta be a dive bar. Case in point: Cresta’s Twenty Two Eleven Club, a funky oasis right in the heart of the most populous strip of over-priced eateries and drinkeries on the Russian Hill portion of Polk Street. It seems invisible to Google goofballs in frat boy mode who trundle by on the way to one of the nearby affluence magnets. For their part, the elder statesmen and women inside Cresta’s only see one another and the whiskey, gin, or vodka before them. Bless their livers.