Q & A with “High Spirits” author J. K. Dineen
November 19, 2015 by Mariko Conner
When author/San Francisco aficionado Gary Kamiya describes a book as “a righteous pour from the top shelf,” that’s a very good sign you should add it to your bookshelf. High Spirits: The Legacy Bars of San Francisco invites readers into twenty-six joints that serve as anchors of cultural identity, offering up human connection and deep sense of place—even as the city changes before our eyes. Written by San Francisco Chronicle reporter J. K. Dineen, each profile weaves atmospheric descriptions together with the history of the site and personal stories of owners, staff, and longtime patrons. J. K. and I recently talked via email about San Francisco Heritage’s Legacy Bar program, good craic, and the research that went into crafting High Spirits.
What is a San Francisco Legacy Bar?
We started with a list of places that had been around for at least forty years and demonstrated a continuity of culture or community. It’s not just about architecture or pictures of Herb Caen or Neal Cassady framed on the wall. That stuff is cool but can be bought on eBay. We were looking for places with deep San Francisco identities, bars that have a story to tell about the city.
How do these establishments play into the larger conversation about the city’s rapidly changing neighborhoods?
Bars are just very public places—obviously even the word “pub” is derived from public house—so when a bar loses its lease, or gets priced out because of rising rents, people notice. The neon sign goes dark. The music stops. And it becomes brick-and-mortar manifestation of the unsettling change a lot of people are privately experiencing throughout the city. Maybe an example of this is the recent news that two downtown places, Dave’s and Zeke’s, are both closing. Neither is particularly historic or even especially charming. They are just ordinary bars. But in today’s San Francisco, especially downtown, there are only a few regular, unfussy, affordable drinking establishments left. So there’s a collective sense [of,] “Okay, obviously ordinary bars are vanishing. What about ordinary people? What about me?”
I was intrigued by your descriptions of your childhood experiences in country pubs in western Ireland. What does craic translate to—and can it translate into something that can be found in San Francisco’s barrooms?
I always thought the craic was a Gaelic word, but turns out it’s more like pseudo-Gaelic. To me it’s a freewheeling sociability that elevates a room and breaks down barriers. It’s gossip, yarns, banter, music, the clicking of bottles, the tapping of toes, a healthy disregard and distain for title, professional status, or worldly responsibility. Definitely it’s found in San Francisco all over the place—Hotel Utah, La Rocca’s Corner, Specs, Mr. Bing’s, to name a few places.
Some of the bars in book, like Vesuvio and Specs, are pretty famous and well-documented, while others like the Silver Crest Donut Shop and the Gangway are much more obscure. Was it harder to chronicle the obscure places? What were the biggest challenges you faced?
The hardest ones to write were the places I had the strongest sentiments about. Specs was challenging—as a person and a bar there is just so much material. Someone should write a book just on that place. Same with Hotel Utah and the Zam Zam. Other places, like Sam Jordan’s and La Rocca’s Corner, were tough because the regulars were justifiably suspicious of my motives. I mean [when] you work hard all day and head to your local bar for a cocktail, pretty much the last guy you want sitting next to you is a writer with a notebook and a bunch of stupid questions like “What makes this bar special?” So for some of them you have to hang out, catch a rap with some of the barroom constituents, watch a couple of innings of a Giants game, buy people a few drinks, soak up the vibe, and then kind of tip-toe into the information pool.
Were there places you wished you had included?
Definitely Gino and Carlo’s in North Beach. I went in there a bunch of times and talked to some of owners—Frank Rossi Jr., a few other guys—but they were always like, “The guy you need to talk to is not here…come back on a such-and-such a day.” It seemed very secretive—like trying to crack the Catholic Church. Plus Warren Hinckle wrote some columns about that place that would be impossible to beat. Also, maybe Little Shamrock in the Sunset. The 3300 Club, the 500 Club. I researched the 21 Club at Turk and Taylor in the Tenderloin, but it closed. It was sad, but not too sad because Frankie wanted to retire and he got a little money out of it. He worked seven days a week and had a bad knee. So you had to be happy for him even though the 21 is being replaced by a artisanal ice hipster joint.
What research did you do in addition to interviewing people at the bars?
I dug into city history, neighborhood history. I tried to imagine what these places were like when they opened. Who drank there? What did Haight Street feel like in the 1950s when Bruno was a kid and his family had a greasy spoon called the Pell Mell with bookies in the basement? What was going on in Butchertown in 1960 when Sam Jordan was making a name for himself as a boxer and civil rights leader? The San Francisco Library has great oral histories—listened to a lot of stuff about the Irish community in the Mission in the 30s, about runaway gays on Polk Street before the AIDS epidemic. That kind of stuff. I did dig up a lot of ephemera—menus and postcards and matches—but photographers Cindy Chew and Spencer Brown took such amazing photos we didn’t really have room in the book for other artwork.
What lesson did you learn from all of this research?
San Francisco is still the best. There is a lot of handwringing going on these days. It’s easy to be cynical. Sometimes you just have to get your nose out of your phone and go talk to some people. Go to West Portal and sit in the Philly [i.e. the Philosophers Club]. Walk up Haight Street and take a stool at the Zam Zam. Even if you don’t drink I think you will come away with a refreshed feeling that the city is still alive. Still full of characters and stories and dreamers and strivers and oddballs.