Feast: 7 homey hearths

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John Barleycorn
Photo by Rory McNamara

Amber is my living room, and not just because I really like Pabst Blue Ribbon and smoking inside. It's also because I live in a city where rents are high and living space is scarce, where community rooms are shared with multiple people (if there are community rooms at all), and backyards tend only to be big enough for the recycling bin. In suburban places, people share community and comfort around backyard barbecue pits and luxurious living-room couches. They have dinner parties and cocktail hours and invite friends over for tea. But here, we go to bars and restaurants and taverns and coffee shops. These are the places where we meet our neighbors, celebrate special occasions, while away idle hours, have intense conversations. And so, in many ways, these places — particularly those in our neighborhoods — become extensions of our homes and hearths. As the cold weather approaches (global warming willing), I've been thinking more about the literal interpretation of hearth; Amber serves me for late-night writing sessions and drunken postdate tell-alls, but where will I go when I want to curl up with a hot chocolate — or a hot toddy — and a long Russian novel? When I want to play Trivial Pursuit late into the cold night with a small group of good friends? When the weather outside is frightful and my date is so delightful? Where, by god, are the fireplaces? In this city of Edwardian apartments retrofitted with gas heaters (and roomies who have to get up early), here is a list of places with flickering flames and belly-warming booze.

BITTER END

I don't think the Irish invented the fireplace, but they may have the patent on its best use. Wood paneling? A flaming heat source? Thick beer and hot soup? All Irish pubs seem to have 'em — and this Irish-style Richmond locale is no different. Stumbling into the Bitter End feels a bit like wandering into an O'Malley's or a McSweeney's in any country in the world — and with items like shepherd's pie, Gaelic chicken with whiskey, and beer-battered appetizers on the menu, it's almost like wandering into one in Ireland itself.

441 Clement, SF. (415) 221-9538

MCKENZIE'S

Sometimes you want cozy and kooky all in the same shot — and those are the times you end up at McKenzie's. This small local favorite is half neighborhood bar in a mountain town (downstairs) and half cheap hostel (upstairs). Either way, it's charming: small tables cluster around a fireplace over which a flat-screen television broadcasts sports, a jukebox blasts cheesy-but-lovable '80s hits, and a live-feed video camera in the upstairs lounge, its images visible to every patron downstairs, lends itself to endless prank possibilities.

5320 Geary, SF. (415) 379-6814

ZEKI'S

Wanting no frills in Nob Hill? Try Zeki's, which boasts two fireplaces — one by the pool table and one directly across from the leather-lined bar. With paraphernalia from old movies lining the walls and a good selection of European beers on tap, you'll quickly see why this is a favorite spot for both old-school regulars and just-stumbled-in newbies.

1319 California, SF. (415) 928-0677, www.zekisbar.com

JOHN BARLEYCORN

If ever there were a place that personified hearth, it would be John Barleycorn, the little mountain lodge in the city that's in danger of disappearing by November. This is the place to order strong whiskey from a salty but jovial bartender, to sip it while sitting on church pews in front of roaring flames, to break out a game of rummy or Scrabble (housed in a cozy room behind the chimney) long after you'd already planned to go home.

1415 Larkin, SF. (415) 771-1620

FIRESIDE

A cross between a dive bar and a swanky hipster joint, this Sunset watering hole embodies the schizophrenia of its up-and-coming neighborhood.

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