You haven’t really done San Francisco until you’ve done a crawl of Chinatown dive bars. Granted, they’ve become slightly less special now that they’ve been featured by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, whose disciples (of which, admittedly, I am quite a fervent one) have flocked to these hard-drinking holes in the wall amidst the many dim sum halls on Grant Street and its intersecting thoroughfares.
But that doesn’t mean the fun’s been sucked out of them—quite the contrary. As long as you go on an off-night you’re still likely to get a fairly local experience, for the most part. I’ve ranked the Big Four of the neighborhood’s dive bars from the mildly “meh” to the most magnificent (sorry, I really committed to the alliteration on this and the latter word was the best I could do). Of course, this is just my opinion, which, combined with four quarters, is worth about a dollar. You may (and probably will) beg to differ.
4. Mr. Bing’s: The relatively compact space is just about all bar (of the wrap-around variety). It’s got an ’80s video game, which is always a plus in my book but it seems like a magnet for the bridge and tunnel crowd (or whatever the equivalent is in the Bay Area…I mean, there are bridges and a tunnel or two, but are there “bridge and tunnels?” Please enlighten me, oh internet). I just get the sense that people have no interest in making a real lasting connection with it. They heard it was cool, so they have to be there. But they really don’t know why. It’s not really the bar’s fault though. It keeps it real for the most part.
3. Red’s Place: Big plus here is there’s some bona-fide old-school, familiar conversation between the bartender and the regulars on any given night (often not in English). And the fact that it has regulars earns it further points. Another big bonus: best beer selection among the dives. Don’t expect Toronado, but you’ll find the requisite locals/regionals like the flagships and seasonals from Anchor, Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada and 21st Amendment, as well as a few choice imports from quasi-mainstream Belgians like Duvel and Palm. It also sports a cozier, more tucked-away feeling than Mr. Bing’s.
2. Li Po: The best thing about it: it’s famous for its authentic Chinese Mai Tai. The worst thing about it? it’s famous for its authentic Chinese Mai Tai. I tend to be wary of places that are “famous for” anything, especially when it’s going out of its way to publicize that fact. But damn, it’s good! And strong! And the upside is that you only really need to have it once before you settle on whatever eventually becomes your go-to drink there. It’s the first place I ever had Chinese whiskey (on the rocks). It tastes like it’s been aged for about three minutes and its brick-red color is surely the result of food coloring. But in this type of place, are you really expecting to drink an Auchentoshan Three-Wood? the bartenders are extremely friendly (especially on a quiet night) and the weathered decor (a Buddhist shrine in the corner and a rather large, tattered, lantern dangling from the ceiling) make this an “I’m in for the night kind of place.
1. Buddha Lounge: Located right across the street from Li Po, Buddha Lounge is often overshadowed by its slightly more popular neighbor. That’s why I’ll give it the edge. It too is a place to have a good (if there is such a thing) Chinese whiskey or a Maker’s Mark if you want to stick with what you know. The bartender is extremely vocal and animated (you’re likely to know his life story before you get to the bottom of your glass). Its worn Chinese decor is a bit more subdued than Li Po’s—it’s got a string of small red lanterns lining an awning-like covering over the bar, supported by bamboo posts, and a dragon mural on the back wall. It’s a bit smaller and more dimly lit, which are both big selling points for me when I just want the world to leave me alone.