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.