Thursday, July 09, 2009

THE TORONADO: THE PROS, THE CON

San Francisco’s TORONADO bar is a legendary church of beer worship. It’s usually on the agenda of just about every beer pilgrim who makes it through our town, and locals like me find our way to it as often as we can. For many years it thrived without much serious in-city competition outside of a few breweries; now, with the arrival of CITY BEER STORE, LA TRAPPE, THE CHURCH KEY, THE MONK’S KETTLE and others, it’s not the only game in town when one wants to sample outstanding, obscure beers from the four corners of the globe. I’ve got sort of a mixed bag of feelings about the place these days, to be honest. It will always have a dedicated corner of my ale-worshipping heart for being the place that really schooled me on beer, and there’s no question I’ll be coming here at least once every couple months until I move away or stop drinking. Yet I think the place throws off a sort of insider douchebag “’tude” that’s going to mark it for extinction someday if it’s not careful. Allow me to elaborate.

When I started going to pubs with great beer selections around 1990, I actually avoided the TORONADO for a couple years because it seemed like only dogs and bike messenger alcoholics were allowed in the place. You’d have to step over someone’s golden retriever and leather jacket to get to the bar, only to get a crateful of “what the hell do you want” attitude thrown at you by the bartender. For a little while I spent my pint-drinking hours at the British-themed pub THE MAD DOG IN THE FOG directly across the street instead. As my palate improved, so did my desire to revisit The Toronado and give it another shot, and around ’92 it became my favorite place to drink, where it has more-or-less stayed for 17 years. When I moved to Seattle in 1997, thinking I might never return to San Francisco, one of my last acts before leaving was to buy a commemorative Toronado t-shirt (and several pints for the road). Here’s what I like about it in 2009:

1. The absolute devotion to great beer. Not content to rest on their laurels, the bar continues to bring in rare and amazing beers from everywhere, be it some one-off from Russian River (just “up the street” in Santa Rosa) or some weirdo Belgian ale nobody except owner David Keene’s ever heard of. There are 40-something taps, including a few perennials like Moonlight Reality Czeck and Russian River Damnation. I usually go for one strange Belgian and one strange American beer per visit. There’s always something revelatory. Always. Their events are legendary, if overcrowded, and they’ve done more to teach San Francisco about great beer than any one institution save Anchor Brewing.

2. The prices. You can always get an amazing pint for $3.50 here. The markups are never ridiculous, even when they’ve brought it one of those aforementioned Belgian kegs from Brasseries de St. Konigschimayrochefort that you’ve dying to try. Those will usually go for $7 or $8 or sometimes $9 per glass, but hey, you know the Toronado paid through the nose to bring it to you. At Monk’s Kettle, a bar I avoid because of the prices, the same beer would likely be $14-$20. A beer lover can not only drink well, but comparatively cheaply at The Toronado.

3. The back room. It’s not much of a back room, but if you can score a seat back here, you can actually hear your own voice, and converse with other like-minded individuals over the din of shouted conversation and awesome 1977-78 punk rock blasting out of the jukebox. You can also bring it your own sausages from next door’s Rosemund Sausage Grill, whose owners have a symbiotic relationship with Toronado, and who no doubt depend on at least half their business from the pub.

I like a couple other things – the fact that the San Francisco Giants game is always on the lone TV when the Giants are playing (sound off, of course – you wouldn’t be able to hear it anyway); the fact that the jukebox is stocked with great tunes of the punk and old-time country variety; the proper glassware for each pour; the easy ability to grab a CELEBRATOR every time I visit; and the fact that the place isn’t really overrun by dogs the way it used to be. In fact, I don’t remember seeing a dog there for years. I like that.

But for every yin, there is a yang. TORONADO’s really only got one, but it’s a big one: the total f***-you attitude of its bartenders. No, not every bartender here berates their customers, shouts in their faces, or grimaces when newbie questions are asked, but too many of them do. My old pal from college Kirstin used to bartend here, and she was a notable friendly exception, but even she has that sort of tuff, tattooed, punk rock chick vibe that appears to be mandatory to gain meaningful employment here. She was a veritable Strawberry Shortcake compared to the firebreathers typically behind the bar.

Let me give you an example, witnessed a couple of weeks ago, and likely the prompt for this post. A guy comes in and bellies up to the bar next to my barstool. He looks over the menu up on the board, settles on some sort of amber beer, yet the battle-scarred, tattooed warrior taking orders tonight hears him incorrectly (which, given how loud this bar is, must happen every fifth beer), and instead brings him a saison. The customer says, “Oh – uh – whoops, that’s not what I ordered”, and instead of apologizing or asking for clarification, the bartender dramatically rolls his eyes and spits back at him, “That’s what you said! That’s what you said!”. I was there. It was most definitely not what he said. The customer says, “No, that’s cool – I’ll take it. This one sounds good”, but no, the bartender hauls back the freshly-poured beer in very exaggerated, oh-it’s-killing-me-to-do-this fashion, lets out a huge, audible sigh, and carts the beer over to his buddy sitting at the end of the bar. A freebie. Meanwhile, our customer’s potentially been turned off to the Toronado for life – or at least he starts reconsidering his enthusiasm for it, as I have been.

I have a friend, EW, (my recent Dallas drinking companion), who boycotts this place along with her boyfriend for this very reason: bartender attitude. She’s been on the receiving end of this sort of abuse too many times, and finally just said the hell with it, I love beer but I won’t put up with this. One has to very carefully choose his or her beer, pronounce it exactly right and loudly enough, and have one’s money ready when prompted, or be prepared to get, if not a stream of invective, at least a couple of eye-rolls and sour faces. Beer dorks like me, we can take it if there are enough pluses to outweigh this large minus, but the quote-unquote regular guy or gal who wants to try a couple great beers after work? Why should they be subjected to this? Why shouldn’t the Toronado work to help cut a bigger slice of pie for everyone, rather than exist to serve people like me who are looking for the newest, latest and rarest? I have been to wonderful beer bars like THE MAP ROOM in Chicago or the BLIND TIGER in New York that are exactly the opposite of this. They’ve left me with a great “included” feeling each time I’ve visited, and I’ve therefore sung their praises repeatedly on this blog.

Sure, The Toronado will probably continue to thrive, even with their a-hole staff. They don’t seem to be slowing down one iota, even given their new, friendlier, more respectful competition. But the EWs of the world are no longer bringing a gaggle of friends with them to the Toronado to try new beers – they’re going to La Trappe and City Beer instead, where customers are treated like fellow travelers and human beings, not like barroom enemies that need to be sized up and snarled at. If I were running the Toronado, and of course I’m not, I’d think long and hard if it was worth maintaining my punk “edge” and outsider street cred at the expense of some seriously bad PR and lost business. One can still be a punker, wear tattoos, dress in wifebeaters and still treat patrons like they actually belong inside the bar with you. I’ve had enough similar experiences myself at this place that I have no bones about writing this post and warning off anyone who likes to be treated with dignity and respect, and who won’t settle for some douche smarmily popping off to them because they asked a simple question about which IPA was better tonight.

17 comments:

Vince said...

Thanks Jay. I've been meaning to get back to this place but I'll gladly skip it in favor of the alternatives you've listed. City Beer in particular is a great place for rare beers.

Anonymous said...

I guess the argument is if the Toronado didn't throw attitude like that, it would get filled with with pretentious white collar douchebags. Anyway, the place is usually too crowded when anything is going. It doesn't really need any more customers than the ones that are already happy with it. And as long as the prices stay low, I doubt that it ever will.

Chris said...

Sounds very different from Toronado San Diego. I have never encountered any attitude there, and I am more "pretentious white collar douchebag" than tattooed fixed gear riding hipster. Still, I plan to check out Toronado if I ever visit SF.

Steve said...

Very interesting post. In my 5 years of craft beer drinking I'm thankful to have not come across a place like this at all, and that includes some of the bars in SD that are heavily filled with die-hard regulars (ie O'Brien's). But the attitudes described of the bartenders here sounds much like what I've heard of one of the East Coast's premiere beer bars- Monk's Cafe. Thankfully my only visit to the Toronado last Summer was a very positive one. The bartender guy even alerted me that I gave him too much money (because I didn't know it was happy hour), needless to say he got an even nicer than your dollar-per-pint tip from me. Seeing as though it were the early afternoon, wasn't too busy, and wasn't too loud probably played a roll in getting better service. Hopefully I have the same experience if I make it up there in a couple weeks like I want to.

Anonymous said...

Your article sums up exactly how I feel about Toronado, with one exception. Rather than eye-rolling condescension, I find myself completely ignored by the bartender for over 15 minutes. I can live with a little (or a lot of) attitude as long as I am served in any reasonable amount of time. I guess I don't have enough scraggly facial hair.

Rational Realist said...

Like Chris said, this is very different from the Tornado in San Diego. My wife and I visit most Thursdays late in the afternoon during the school year, and the whole atmosphere is great. Bartenders gladly talk up the tap list and make recommendations if you tell them what you like. (Heck, I was even told that Toronado is kid-friendly last winter when I got caught up in the Pliny the Younger hype. My kids ate excellent mac n' cheese while I had my PtY.) I hope to visit SF later this summer and have already told the family, that I am going to Toronado for a beer, without the kids. I guess I will have to order my beer like ordering soup from Seinfeld's Soup Nazi. Also, in doing research for the trip I saw how expensive beers are at the Monk's Kettle, and I will skip it.

Anonymous said...

Yin outweighs the Yang in my mind. They cater to locals first which in my mind aint a bad thing. BTW, Church Key is a pretty weak comparison.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. The Toronado is a place of deep personal conflict for me. I want to love it: the fantastic line-up, the thoroughly reasonable prices, and the ready availability of wild boar sausages covered in peppers and onions should complete a near-unbeatable trifecta. However, the reality is that it's a tetrafecta they ought to complete, and that fourth leg of service appears to have been amputated after a severe bout of gangrene. The net effect is that I get left standing at the bar, staring desperately at where the bartender's eyes should be, if he were ever to look at me, beerless, and sad.

Anonymous said...

I love Toronado. It's a BAR- not a beer education center. Dive bar attitude with really awesome beer. It shouldn't be much of a discussion beyond that. The fleece wearing golf boys who demand descriptive menus and want to take notes using the words "cloying" and "presumptive" can stay in San Diego.

Michael Snider said...

My only problem with the Toronado is that I feel REALLY old when I go there. I feel like I could be the father of everyone who goes there. Not that it's the only Haight area bar whose patrons seem to be overwhelmingly under 21 and most likely quite a few are under 18. Just another reason why I consider the Haight to be for the teenyboppers (in that respect, it's weirdly come full circle back to 1966, albeit without the massive cultural explosion of that era)and would much rather hang at Zeitgeist or Lucky 13.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jay. 5 years ago after leaving a quarter as a tip (having left $1 + on the purchase prior) the quarter was thrown at the back of my head when I walked back to my seat! No joke!

Lee Vegas said...

I hope that hurt anon, a quarter is an insulting tip.

You might be grumpy too if 2 dozen times per shift you had to explain that you don't have bud light, cosmopolitans, or a credit card machine.

Von Umlaut said...

Maybe, those of us that grew up in the Lower Haight, and paid our fuckin dues before the trendy gentrification of our neighborhood, feel that this was a locals bar... a bar for us- and our DOGS. Maybe when we see a some shithead 'slumming it', as it were, we get a little heated. Maybe when you're in a place that gets as slammed as Toronado, you shouldn't be surprised when you're treated less than courteously by someone who hates working thirsty Thursday and the weekends, and prefers the local weekday happy hour crowd and misses the times when it was comfortable enough to chill with friends and neighbors and their fucking DOGS, and only had to worry about what crackhead wwas gonna harass them when they got off, or if someone was gonna try and rob them. Though you might not understand this, some people miss this about the neighborhood. And trendy as it may be these days, every tattooed battle scarred warrior isn't a poseur. Some of us are exactly that: Tattooed battled scarred warriors, who are sick of little pussy un-calloused meely mouthed whiners with skin so thin, a harsh attitude can make them cry.

Jay said...

Speaking of thin-skinned, here’s one of my all-time biggest pet peeves in a nutshell: “a quarter is an insulting tip” – for the twenty-second act of pulling a goddamn tap handle! I think answering questions about credit card machines and Bud Light totally comes with the territory – and if it’s too much trouble, I understand that the University of Phoenix offers some fantastic vocational degrees. Jesus H Christ.

When Von Umlaut was payin' his fuckin' dues in the ungentrified Lower Haight back in the day, the Toronado STILL hired people who'd bark at you for asking a question about the beer. I've been going there since 1990, and the bar has barely changed an iota. And don't romanticize what a tuff neighborhood it was back then - anyone with an ounce of street smarts knew to keep his eyes open & walk carefully around the housing project a block over, even a tatooed warrior and a pussy slumming it for Belgian beer. Otherwise this area was like anywhere else in San Francisco - a cute 'lil Victorian neighborhood full of shops and whatnot.

Even without the projects there, the "gentrification" of the Lower Haight is almost totally a myth - the place has ALWAYS been where the pseudo-hipster went to drink, eat Thai food and go dancing. The same popular establishments there today were there 15-20 years ago, and you STILL have to look both ways on the wrong side of Haight/Fillmore.

Amazing that there's actually a full-throated defense for the douchy behavior served up in the name of my once-favorite bar in town.

Von Umlaut said...

yeah, well- there wasn't shit there in '85. Tom Bennets Coney Island Hotdogs, and Armadillo's was in the neighborhood, but not fuckin Mad Dog, Toronado, Midtown/Molotov's, etc... Naked Eye was there, as well as the produce joint. Cuco's was there, too, btw, which still serves up a damn fine burrito w/ Colorado spicy pork. But up pops Atomic Cafe, and then Erno's Tattoo, and the next thing you know, hipster city. Don't get me wrong, Jay, I'm as bitter about that gentrification as much as the later phases as well, and I don't harbor any ill will towards you. In fact, I was never that much of a fan of Toronado, simply because it took too long for service, and I always felt it was too crowded. We may even know eachother, since I spent waaaay more time in Mad Dog, or the old Midtown in those daze, and Zeitgeist and Armadillo's prior to that(since I didn't turn 21 until '91, and they didn't realize this.), and you're right about the hipster influx. However, being the neighborhood in which I grew up, I'm quick to defend it. And in those days, I didn't avoid the projects, I shot back. Not kidding. So i find it difficult to hear people (who I didn't want in my neighborhood in the first place), whining about a bar (I didn't want in my neighborhood in the second place), without some sort of a rant issuing forth from my -in this case- fingertips. All in all, I like your blog, and I realize that much of what i write is nothing but my own chip on my shoulder about San Francisco in general, and how it's changed for the worse, in MY opinion -which I know is exactly THAT- My Opinion; But that's the fun thing about this new fangled lamo Blog-dork shit. We get to express it. I just don't know how to start one of my own yet. Cave-man make tool. Cave-man slow on 'puter. heh heh. S.F. wasn't always so soft. That bothers me, and why I prefer the East Coast these days. But, whatever... again, that's just my opinion, and I'm somewhat schizotypal with sociopathic tendencies, so what the fuck do I know?

Lee Vegas said...

Hey Jay,

I've been drinking there since '91 or so so we've probably seen each other there.

Perhaps since you consider a quarter an adequate tip you have gotten service that reflects that. TIPS stands for To Insure Prompt Service.

Personally, I tip about a buck a beer. Not only do I get prompt service, but often the bartender will shake my hand and greet me by name.

So, if you tip a quarter don't be surprised if you get attitude and an an eye-roll.

Anonymous said...

If the night in question, the night of the supposed mistaken beer, was a Tuesday between 5 and 8... I was there too, and that was the beer he ordered. It may not have been the beer he expected, breweries do make more than one beer and the most popular may not be on tap at the time.

I like the Toronado, I drink there weekly and get along with all the bartenders. I also respect a bartender when he/she is busy, don't ask stupid questions if there is a line of patrons waiting for beer, and come during quieter times when dogs are definitely still welcome. Part of the allure of the Toronado is the mystery beers that you just have to try without any direction or instruction. Try a beer based on it's name, type, style, brewery of origin, or just because. It will probably be a damned fine beer and might enlighten you.