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Summer Guide: Sports Bars That Aren't Terrible 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2011

Sporadic bursts of activity notwithstanding, baseball is as sweet and drowsy as summertime itself. Sure, there's the occasional home run, stolen base, or double play, but the true nature of the game is in the chitchat between the base runner and the shortstop, the outfielders playing catch before the first at-bat, the pitcher's meditative ambles about the mound, the fans in the bleachers sipping beer and stretching in the sun.

This isn't to say that baseball is dull. To the true fan, the drama, strategy, and potential inherent in every pitch is as suspenseful as anything Alfred Hitchcock ever came up with. But when the weather is balmy and the peaches are at their ripest, summer is best defined by the sway of the hammock, the fragrance of woodsmoke, and the lovely sound of Kruk and Kuip filling in the spaces between pitches.

Which is why your typical sports bar may be a bit too rampant for the national pastime. The postseason is another matter — you want lots of Sturm und Drang when the World Series beckons — but that's autumn, not summer. Of course, the best place to watch the World Champion San Francisco Giants (God, that's a pleasure to type) is at China Basin, site of the finest ballparks in the major leagues, but securing a ticket isn't always feasible or economically advisable.

Happily there are several baseball-friendly saloons around town where you can catch the game without an acre or so of competing flatscreen TVs distracting you from the pros and cons of the infield fly rule.

In this year's Best of SF issue, we trumpeted the orange-and-black charms of Gino & Carlo (548 Green at Bannam, 421-0896). Sweeties (475 Francisco at Powell, 433-2343), another affable North Beach watering hole, is a fine place to catch the game as well. This tucked-away neighborhood hangout has a friendly, relaxing vibe with reasonably priced hooch, free billiards, a gallery of local artwork, and a sterling cast of regulars, all of them versed in the finer points of the game. Posers and loudmouths are 86ed without mercy, and the occasional game-day potluck welcomes your contribution.

Cresta's 2211 Club (2211 Polk at Vallejo, 673-2211) is not only an oasis of proletariat quietude amid Russian Hill's scenesters and fern bars, its dark, narrow confines are also ideal for sipping a fine bourbon while the action unfolds on the two strategically placed plasma TVs. Rory the barkeep pours a mean martini, and a paper plate of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish is never far from your elbow.

If you're in a more rambunctious mood, Tommy's Joynt (1101 Geary at Van Ness, 775-4216) is a particularly atmospheric option. This venerable hofbrau, saloon, and tchotchke gallery is also a great place to catch some baseball, with a TV or two strategically located in each of its rambling dining rooms and a bar that dispenses beers from 33 countries. Good meatball sandwiches, too.

Before and after the game

If you do happen to have tickets to the ballpark, the question isn't finding a place to watch the game, but where to go beforehand to fuel up and afterward to mellow out. (You can, of course, nosh and quaff at the yard itself: We especially like the Orlando Cepeda Cha Cha Bowl and the Crazy Crab Dungeness sandwich on sourdough, but you won't have enough carfare left over.) Fifteen years ago, the immediate neighborhood offered few to no dining opportunities, but today the possibilities are abundant, even when you aren't in sports bar mode.

The Ferry Building (Market at Embarcadero, is a pleasant 10-block bayside stroll from McCovey Cove, lined with food stalls serving some of the city's finest snacks and nibbles. Among the tastier offerings are Out the Door's chicken buns, Ciao Bella's Key lime gelato, Scharffen Berger's pecan turtles, Ferry Plaza Seafood's oysters on the half-shell, Mijita's rock cod tacos, Boccalone Salumeria's porchetta di testa panini, and perfect peaches from Frog Hollow Farms.

If you're in the market for a more glam pre- or postgame meal, check out Prospect (300 Spear at Folsom, 247-7770,, Nancy Oakes' delectable temple to New American cuisine. Feast on tongue carpaccio with fried oysters, McCormack Ranch goat chops with English peas, and butterscotch ice cream with apricots and pecan brittle while absorbing its striking, sexy SOMA vibe.

At Second and Folsom streets, you'll find two eateries festive enough to match your spirits and tasty enough to keep you fueled through fog, rain delays, and extra innings. Maya (303 Second St. at Folsom, 543-2928, serves up classy Mexican fare like mahimahi ceviche, lobster-avocado tacos, and an exceptional mole poblano as well as pomegranate mojitos, hibiscus margaritas, and other yummy restoratives. Happy hour (4:30 p.m.-closing), with its $2 tacos, $3 drafts, and $5 well drinks, is an especially festive time to drop in.

At Zaré at Fly Trap (606 Folsom at Second St., 243-0580, the cuisine is hearty Persian-Mediterranean fusion: braised duck legs with wild rice and pomegranate; lamb burger with sumac and pickled Persian cucumber; pistachio meatballs with harissa-honey glaze; and squash stuffed with almonds, orzo, and spiced yogurt. The setting is all pressed-tin ceilings and burnished woodwork, and the bar is a good place to sip a Pisco sour and ponder that inning-ending triple play.

If you want to snack and sip within shouting distance of the ballpark, Tsunami (301 King at Fourth St., 284-0111) has a wide array of imaginative sushi rolls and an even more impressive selection of 58 gins. What could be more Independence Day–patriotic than baseball and martinis?)

Another tasty idea is to bring your own picnic to Willie Mays Plaza. Everything you need is available at Little Skillet (360 Ritch at Townsend, 777-2777,, a cheery little takeout window two blocks from the ballpark. Its lip-smacking soul food and/or Creole organic and sustainable specialties include creamy grits with cheddar and andouille; fried chicken and buttermilk waffles with strawberry-rhubarb compote; full-to-bursting catfish and pulled-pork po' boys; and tiny, buttery pecan tartlets. (It's open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., so stop by before a day game.) The food is especially delicious accompanied by the breeze from the bay and the sound of horsehide splashing into McCovey Cove.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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