Noe Valley Voice December-January 2003

Is There Life After Dark in Noe Valley?

By Peter Orsi

A friend of mine likes to say, with no small amount of snark, that "Noe Valley is a great place to be on a Sunday morning, and a lousy place to be on a Saturday night."

It's something I hear all the time from friends in other neighborhoods: Noe Valley is famous for couples lounging on sunny sidewalks with bagels and gourmet coffee, not nightclubs full of young hipsters prowling the singles scene.

But with no less than five watering holes in a span of three blocks, 24th Street must be home to at least a few vampires. So I've decided to spend a Saturday night searching out these denizens, to ask what draws them to Noe Valley after dark.

When I arrive at 24th and Church a little after 9 p.m., the intersection is bustling with people. Several young couples are working hard trying to flag a cab. A good sign of life perhaps.

Maybe not. If they're getting in taxis, they're likely heading for North Beach or the Marina.

I duck into Noe's Bar and find there's a different sporting event on each of the 12 televisions in the place. Nobody's paying attention, except for three people who are deep into a San Jose Earthquakes playoff game. Most of the chairs and stools are taken, though.

It's Wig Night at Noe's, and the table next to me is full of 30- and 40-somethings with creative coiffures. One of them is my former neighbor, although I don't immediately recognize her beneath her dark Cleopatra wig.

"Cleopatra" is a fan of the night scene here. In fact, she doesn't have much use for 24th Street on weekend days. "I like it after six," she says.

Noe's Bar is a "friendly, neighborhood place," she tells me, where everyone knows one another. "When [the regulars] don't show up for a few days, everybody's calling."

"It's like Cheers," says a man wearing a stringy brown wig, whose friends keep calling him "Cro-Magnon Man."

They say the neighborhood is such a small circle that none of them wants to be identified in my story. "People come in and say, 'I read about you in the Noe Valley Voice,'" Cleopatra says. "It's too much."

She catches me up on everything that's happened in my old building since I left in June. She just bought a house in Sunnyside and is moving out this week, which means that soon four of the six units will stand empty. If the rental market is any indication, we'll have to wait a while for that economic recovery. Consensus at the table is, that's not a bad thing. They don't remember the dot-com boom fondly.

"Noe Valley was trying to be Union Street," Cleopatra says.

A man wearing a bright orange 'fro peeking out from under a Giants hat adds, "It was too commercial. It didn't have the personal touch anymore."

Cleopatra says she's "bummed" about leaving Noe Valley, but she knows she'll be back. "Everyone at this table has moved away"--to Hunters Point, Glen Park, the Sunset--"but they come back for the camaraderie."

They Really Are Dubliners

My next stop, the Dubliner, is about three-quarters full, mostly with patrons who look to be in their 30s. I pull up a stool and ask the bartender for a beer.

"The cab is outside," she is saying gently to one of her customers. He thanks her, gets up, and walks toward the door on shaky legs. I change my order to a half-pint; must keep my wits about me.

The Dubliner is one of a vanishing breed: an Irish pub with honest-to-goodness Irish people bellying up to the bar.

David Owens, 30, claims the stool next to me. Born in Dublin, he's lived in Noe Valley for the past four years. He estimates that about 40 percent of the crowd at the Dubliner was born on the Emerald Isle. "Lots of Irish construction workers and bartenders stop in," Owens says. "The rest are mostly working-class Americans."

What brings him here a couple times a week? "This is probably the best pint of Guinness in the city," he says. Keeping it the right temperature and pouring carefully makes all the difference, he tells me.

Twenty-fourth Street is a "mellow" scene, Owens says. "They're neighborhood bars, not go-to places. You always run into someone you know."

Failing that, you can grab a stool and chat with whoever's next to you. After I'm done interviewing him, we start talking soccer. A half-hour and another half-pint later, I remember I'm here to do a job. So I say goodbye and head for nightspot No. 3.

Our Answer to Studio 54

Bliss Bar. I've been warned that it's different from everything else on 24th Street. Cleopatra called it "pretentious," and Owens said that on weekends Bliss is full of "yuppies" and "martini drinkers."

When I arrive a little after 11 p.m., a handful of people are outside smoking cigarettes and watching a deejay spin hip-hop tracks at the front window. A young man wearing shiny leather shoes, gray slacks, and a button-up shirt is on his cell phone. "Are you there already?" he asks. "Are you going to get in line? Who are you with? Cool. All right, I'll get there as soon as I can."

If there's anything "happening" on 24th Street tonight--at least in a Studio 54 kind of way--it's here at Bliss. Inside, 20-somethings in jeans and leather jackets have gobbled up all available seating on the lounge-y couches and low chairs covered with burgundy plush. Mixed drinks are de rigueur. Suddenly I feel underdressed in my black hooded sweatshirt.

But I'm the only one who feels out of place. Bliss is "very romantic," say Cathy and Neal, both 25, who live in Twin Peaks. "We went for a meal in North Beach and came here. It's what we call a nice wee bar: very cute, very cozy."

Originally from Northern Ireland, Neal and Cathy say they chose Bliss as an alternative to the Irish pub atmosphere. "There are a lot of dark, dingy bars," Cathy says. "You walk into Bliss and there's a different vibe. The name of the bar definitely suits the bar."

That, and they mix her vodka orange just right. "It's the best vodka in the city," she says.

Everyone else is having a good time too. At least a dozen people are packed into the back room for a private party. A champagne cork pops, followed by cheers and cries of "Speech! Speech!" The guest of honor is happy to oblige: "I love you all," she says. "I mean all. All, all, all."

A Good Happy Medium

Just up the street, about 40 Gen-Xers and youngish boomers are crowded into the Valley Tavern, listening to the likes of Def Leppard and AC-DC on the jukebox. Two couples are playing a spirited game of pool in back. The beer selection is extensive, but I stick with my half-pint of Stella Artois.

The last time I was here, I came alone and read in the sun on the back patio, but the bartender tells me tonight that it's been closed for "months," ever since a neighbor complained about noise. "It was open for 15 years before that," he says. The Tavern has been fighting to reopen its patio; the bartender says it could happen "anytime now."

The Valley Tavern is the new kid on the 24th Street block, and the latest in a series of bars to occupy this space. After the last tenant--the Coyote Club--closed down in the spring, Dubliner owner Vince Hogan remodeled the interior, built an open-air smoking patio in front, and opened the spiffier Tavern.

Matt Pendergast likes the new look. "They invested a little, put in some benches, spent some money for some TVs. They did a good job."

Pendergast, 36, says the nightlife here is better than near his home in Glen Park. "And I'm too old to hit downtown and do the hipster scene. This is a good happy medium.

"I like going out on a Saturday night for a few drinks," he adds, "but I don't want to have to dress up or wait in line or know somebody."

It takes us a few minutes to figure it out, but Pendergast and I met about six months ago at a beach bonfire party thrown by a mutual friend. I'm beginning to believe what people have been telling me all night: On 24th Street, you always see someone you know.

Last Call in the Neighborhood

It's close to 1 a.m., but the Peaks up on Castro Street has as much business as it can handle. Tonight's clientele: a handful of people who look like regulars, and a few dozen hipsters.

A woman dressed all in black, who describes herself as a "sometimes" regular, seems baffled by the youth invasion. Usually, she says, half-kidding, the Peaks is full of "old alcoholics."

She declines to tell me her name, saying, simply, "I have priors."

A man who asks to be identified as "Vinnie Schlitz" says he and his friends came to the Peaks for a birthday party. Vinnie lives in the Castro and "very rarely" visits this neighborhood. "Noe Valley is not necessarily known for its nightlife," he says. What is it known for then? "Strollers, and nice houses."

His friend Kate Ellison, 32, from Mission Dolores, agrees. "Noe Valley is what your parents want you to be in San Francisco," she says, "with the 2.5 [children] quota filled."

They're the only people I've met tonight who haven't raved about the 24th Street bar scene. Nevertheless, they're full of pints and good cheer, as are their friends. One of them, a blonde woman wearing a Philadelphia 76ers dress, is finding her groove next to the pool table.

And just before last call, Ellison does have a few kind words for Noe Valley. "It's quaint," she says. "It's one of the last neighborhood stops in a city that's running out of neighborhood stops."