Best Gay Bars Not in the Castro

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August 22, 2014

Best Gay Bars Not in the Castro

This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.

San Francisco’s reputation as one of the gayest places in North America rests primarily on one neighborhood: the Castro. But there are gay bars across a wide swath of this gay city.

At least for now. Like the fast-disappearing bookstore, the institution of the gay bar is in peril, a victim of the acceptance of LGBT people in mainstream society as well as of the easy availability of online hookups.

With the closure of the Deco Lounge, San Francisco waved good-bye to a fourth gay bar in two years. As gay rights win, gay culture sometimes loses — and often, these spaces go unremembered, written off as frivolous or incidental to the “real” fights.

Folsom Street has lost its dens of iniquity and people have lamented the Castro’s homogeneity for decades, but across San Francisco, the neighborhood dives live on — albeit, perhaps tenuously. While they all share a welcoming atmosphere you won’t easily find in a club, each retains its charms and quirks. So go get a beer!

Cocktails meet the Cockettes.
Neighborhood: the Haight
“Do you have a glitter pen I could borrow to make a sign?”

When, to accommodate this request, the bartender produces several with little effort, you know you’re in the Haight’s only LGBT watering hole. In contrast to the area’s street culture, Trax is pleasantly subdued, with a broad mix of folks, from tattooed dykes to middle-aged guys in corduroy hats they made themselves — and it’s heavy on the regulars.

Trax is very red. You might even call it a fantasia en rouge: from the bar itself to the lighting to the felt on the pool table to the stools that all fill up before the booths do. Bathe in the redness or sit window side to gawk at the gawkers who come to marvel at the Haight.

Is this a Saturday night bar? No, but $2 beers on Tuesdays beckon. Plus, Trax opens at 10 a.m. on game days, so you can watch football like they do in real America.

One of the last trough urinals standing.
Neighborhood: Polk Street
Polk Gulch was the epicenter of the hustler universe until all that disappeared. People tried to bowdlerize it into “Polk Village,” but that never took off, so the name and history vanished — such that Yelp, for instance, lists The Cinch’s location as Nob Hill.

But it’s still Polk Street. While having more than a dozen beers on tap might jeopardize its dive status, The Cinch establishes its cred with the bizarre nudes on the walls, including an image of a lion topping a man.

Second and fourth Sunday afternoons mean “Shot in the City,” a beer bust with a photo booth where all the pics wind up on Facebook and everyone marvels at how sexy you look and wishes they’d been there to make out with you.

You could probably bring your parents.
Neighborhood: Bernal Heights
San Francisco’s hilltop urban village has a reputation as a lesbian aerie, a distinction cemented by Cortland Avenue’s Wild Side West. While definitely a home for women-loving women, this 50-year-old institution could perhaps best be described as “plurality lesbian,” because these days, it’s for everyone.

Although the bar and the neighborhood feel spiritually inseparable, bartender Beth Kenny noted that when this location opened in 1977, locals threw toilets through the windows. The original owners repurposed them into planters but boarded up the front, “which is why there are no street-facing windows today.”

Exuding comfort, the décor looks like your eccentric aunt’s living room. (You know, the one who made you watch Nashville and taught you to inhale.) Cozy inside and breezy out back, Wild Side West is ideal for a hot toddy on a dreary evening or a blueberry mojito in the summer.

Where the ones who only come out at night come.
Neighborhood: the Tenderloin
Insanely cheap, strong drinks abound in this oubliette of naughtiness, carpeted like an unlicensed casino and narrow enough to graze the bar while palming the opposite wall. Aunt Charlie's is the home of the Hot Boxxx Girls, the drag performers of all ages who own it for two solid hours Friday and Saturday nights.

Thursdays bring the Tubesteak Connection, a recreation of a vintage 1978 discotheque hosted by DJ Bus Station John. “It’s a refuge for people who don’t fit into the mainstream or couldn’t if they tried — and, more often than not, don’t care to try,” he says. His unrivaled catalog of obscure four-on-the-floor gems lures a ridiculously diverse crowd; over nine years, “we’ve seen everyone from John Waters to an Episcopal archbishop.”

But be warned: Bus Station John will admonish you if he spots a soft blue glow. “Get your face out of your phone and make out already. I mean, that’s why we leave the house, right?”

Full-spectrum hanky code.
Neighborhood: SOMA
Yeah, it’s gone. Sunday beer busts — church for San Francisco’s queer misfits — are no longer. Its closure was like punching San Francisco’s gay community in the collective solar plexus, because if S.F. couldn’t sustain a freak show, what might the future hold?

But The Eagle is coming back, probably in March. The new roof is already up.

Entertainment Commissioner, Harvey Milk Club President, and drag legend Anna Conda fought the good fight, promising that when resurrected, The Eagle will have a fuller schedule — and, of course, that three-hour block on Sundays when you can put away cup after cup of Miller Lite for a good cause.

Given this positive outcome, is Anna Conda optimistic on the future of gay bars? For the most part, yes. “Instead of gaining equality, we’re gaining assimilation,” she says. “With everything, there’s an ebb and flow. But there will always be queer spaces — they allow us to get past our fear of being different.”


Turn off Scruff and trek to Trax (1437 Haight). Inspect every inch of The Cinch (1723 Polk). Dip yourself in honey and throw yourself to the lesbians at the Wild Side West (424 Cortland). Fork over a few singles to a sexagenarian at Aunt Charlie's (133 Turk). And fraternize with freaks at The Eagle (398 12th St.).

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