Live Wire was a two dollar price-cut away from being the perfect bar. There was plenty of room on the most crowded of evenings, a good pool table, sports on TV and a jukebox full of punk and soul. Puppies hopped excitedly from customer to customer as old dogs slept soundly under tables covered in beer pints. The bartenders, North Park locals with the right amount of chip on their shoulder, had generous knowledge regarding the thirty local beers on tap, and Luigi’s Pizza waited only a couple doors down the block.
Live Wire was the main reason why I rarely ever stepped into another beer bar that was closer to my San Diego apartment – Toronado – but it wasn’t the only reason. The over-designed, franchised Toronado in San Diego looked like a shopping center food court, and despite its lack of neighborhood charm, every chair and stool was taken by four every afternoon. Sometimes, walking into the draught beer hotspot would quickly send me fleeing to the local Henry’s to play six-pack roulette instead. Other times I’d force my way to the front and beg recommendations from friendly but overworked bartenders who probably used the opportunity to thin out unpopular beers.
There seems to be a flaw in going to a bar where the drink is the star and having no place to sit and enjoy it, especially in San Diego, where the affinity for local beers is more or less universal across the late night scene. Toronado served food, too, gourmet sausages on coveted Bread & Cie buns, but even during off hours the din of sitting in the harsh interior and uncomfortable seating kept me away. Maybe I missed out, but living in one of the most laid-back cities in the country had trained me to abide more dudely ways, so instead I grabbed a taco and headed to Live Wire.
When I checked out the original Toronado for the first time, it’s safe to say I had certain expectations built in. I’ve only been living in San Francisco for half a year, but I’d already received more dirty looks for ordering Budweisers in bars than the rest of my life combined. SF is full of people making statements, and the beer in your hand is no different. Cheerful San Diego hospitality is replaced with giant chips on the shoulders of the bartenders at San Francisco’s Toronado. These men and women are pushing forty, can’t stop talking about the eighties, and know more about local beer culture than the breweries themselves – every question I ask them is met with a one-word response.
Toronado is a love song to beer, a place where every draught poured is served in the appropriate glass, with the precise amount of head and possibly too much adoration. Even the brand Chimay will earn scowls and invitations to better nine-dollar Belgian beers, and the India pale ales are tapped with hand pumps. Lots of people order the local Pliny the Elder while plenty others chase rumors that Pliny the Younger had recently been tapped. Toronado is the only place I’ve ever seen beer ordered as a double, and it’s the only place where, when my beer is served in a plain old pint glass, I feel like I’ve screwed up somehow.
Aside from its dutch doors and cornucopia of quality beers, San Francisco’s Toronado could not be more different than San Diego’s brand brother. The Lower Haight’s neighborhood beer bar is almost divey in nature, with stickers all over the wall, European flare and a stadium audience of colorful beer taps. With a jukebox full of punk B-sides, sports on television and a surprising amount of regulars ordering The Usual, SF’s Toronado reminds me more of Hamilton’s Tavern in South Park, San Diego than its franchised sibling. The roomy interior can support most crowds on off days, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the place to hopheads. I’ve had some tasty and educational beverages there, Jacobin’s Rouge winning the prize for most interesting: my first “sour” beer, the six ounces fell somewhere between citrus candy and vinegared chardonnay, and tastes better than it sounds.
As a casual fan of beer, I don’t see myself returning to Toronado for the drinks and snobby service. I will, however, return to its mutually parasitic neighbor, Rosamunde Sausage Grill. This particular block of Haight seems over-prepared for post-drinking munchies, with burritos, pizza-by-the-slice and, for special cases, Memphis Minnie’s BBQ – but Rosamunde is the undisputed king. Often surrounded by empty kegs, drunks and leashed dogs or bicycles, the glorified hot dog stand probably hasn’t been empty in its two decades of existence.
As a Berkeley graduate who drank his way through college, I can’t help but think of Top Dog, a tiny place with a large selection of sausages and one employee manning the grill with attitude, when I see or read about Rosamunde. Most of the business for both grills comes at night, when partiers get hungry, but unlike Cal’s favorites, Rosamunde sausages lean toward the gourmet. For six-plus bucks a dog, lager-filled customers get to choose between specials like “fresh lamb with sun-dried tomato and fennel” sausages and a selection of toppings that often includes homemade chutney.
About a year ago, a new Rosamunde location opened in the Mission with its own bar, a large menu and brunch on the weekends. The original Lower Haight location is a small place with lots of metal counter space, big windows, cold sausages behind glass and a lone employee, his face reddened by grill exposure and housing empty eyes that would rather not deal with you. Most customers take their sausages next door to Toronado, a practice that influenced San Diego’s Toronado to serve gourmet sausages as well. It’s also not out of the question to bring one’s dog across the street to Mad Dog in the Fog to watch soccer in HD and drink less pretentious pints.
The sausages themselves are subject to circumstance, like the efforts of distracted employees that could potentially overcook your spicy pork and beef “Beer Sausage” into a chewy stick of flavored protein. Tossed into doughy, unevenly cut buns and smothered in toppings that have been sitting around too long, it’s not out of the question that the gourmet sausage doesn’t live up to the seven dollars you paid for it. That’s simply the drawback to using a grill and serving dogs en masse, and it’s an acceptable price to pay two drinks later, when the beer goggles kick in and anything in hot dog form turns to gold.
A crowd favorite at Rosamunde is the Duck and Fig sausage, or the combination of Duck and Wild Boar in one bun. In my experience, this is more exciting on the menu than in your hands, because though the taste is a tad different, the sausages as a whole are rather generic. Most choices at Rosamunde taste a little too similar to each other, invalidating the expansiveness of the menu. But in the absence of poor grillmanship every one I’ve tried has been well above average. The Nuernberger Bratwurst in particular is beautifully plump and juicy, with strong flavors and a great snap to each bite. With hot peppers on top, I’d be surprised to find a dog as good elsewhere in the Bay Area.
After two drinks, I’d be surprised to find a dog as good elsewhere in the world. That’s the beauty of beer, and it doesn’t matter whether they were limited edition microbrews, hand-pumped IPA’s or Budweisers. It doesn’t matter which city you’re in, how crowded and noisy the bar, or what the jukebox is currently playing. In the end, a couple drinks and some good company can erase all the dirty looks and discomfort and reduce life to the simplest pleasures. One of those simple pleasures is a third beer. A sausage from next door would go really well with that.
|Toronado (San Diego)
4026 30th St
San Diego, CA 92104
|Toronado (San Francisco)
547 Haight St
San Francisco, CA 94117
|Rosamunde Sausage Grill
545 Haight St
San Francisco, CA 94117