It’s a Saturday night in San Francisco and a well-heeled downtown diner scans a listing of 1,200 wines, searching for the perfect homegrown pairing to complement her Kobe beef roulade.
Nearby, in North Beach, a night of beer pong, strip clubs and fisticuffs has landed a group of young men in police custody.
And from the Mission to the Marina, people are swilling everything from Thai basil-infused soju to Pabst Blue Ribbon.
With an exorbitant number of swanky wine bars, seedy dives and restaurant cocktail lounges, San Francisco has reaped both the economic benefits and the social costs of being the West Coast’s most booze-saturated city.
The City’s dichotomous attitude toward booze is personified in Mayor Gavin Newsom. Starting with the PlumpJack Wine Shop, Newsom found success in serving and selling wine and spirits before heading into politics. In his 2006 State of the City address, however, Newsom decried the problem of chronic inebriates — and he announced that he was seeking treatment for alcohol abuse early last year.
San Franciscans’ affinity for booze led to its ranking by Forbes Magazine this month as the third hardest-drinking city in America — beaten only by Milwaukee and Austin, Texas.
The designation was based on a survey of 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that found almost 60 percent of residents in the San Francisco metropolitan area had taken a drink within the last month, nearly 8 percent of men had more than two drinks per day, and nearly 20 percent of men fell under the CDC’s “binge drinker” category, meaning they’ve had more than five drinks in a sitting.
The love affair between San Francisco and alcohol is a long and complicated one, and its drinking culture is as diverse as The City itself.
Jim Stillwell, the county alcohol and drug program administrator for the San Francisco Health Department, said drinking case studies from as early as the late 19th century have placed San Francisco among the top cities in which alcohol is readily available.
“It sounds sort of ethereal when you talk about the drinking culture of San Francisco or New Orleans or Amsterdam, but there’s something there,” Stillwell said. “Maybe what the research says is it’s hard to change. Things get institutionalized.”
About half of the 20,000 people admitted to city-funded substance-abuse treatment centers each year are alcoholics, Stillwell said. But the CDC statistics don’t necessarily prove that San Franciscans are more likely to abuse alcohol than residents of other cities, he said.
“A glass of wine with dinner can be normal here,” Stillwell said. “In some places in the South, it might not be.”
A look at liquor licenses, however, backs up the claim that San Francisco is awash in places to buy booze. With a population of almost 765,000, The City boasts 3,809 taverns, restaurant bars and other liquor outlets.
Los Angeles, which has more than four times the number of residents, has issued only 371 more liquor licenses, according to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
San Francisco has been over the state’s limit on liquor licenses for years; for the past two decades, new establishments have been required to buy existing licenses from other merchants, said Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.
But the availability of alcohol is a moneymaker, he said, boosting The City’s billion-dollar tourist
“If you look at the survey our organization does each year, our restaurant scene is consistently one of the top reasons people choose to visit here,” Westlye said. “Having the availability of great local wines makes San Francisco a popular tourist destination.”
Shawn Magee, who owns the popular Mission district bar and music venue Amnesia, said he suspects The City’s thriving drinking culture is owed to the concentration of residents in their 20s and 30s.
“Overall, The City is a young city,” he said. “And any city like that is going to be a drinking city.”
City fights hard-drinking reputation
Not everyone thinks that San Francisco’s reputation as a party town is worth celebrating.
In an effort to reduce problems associated with chronic inebriation that are centered downtown, Mayor Gavin Newsom has worked with the Department of Public Health to create supportive housing for alcoholics.
The Mayor’s Office has asked Tenderloin liquor-store owners to voluntarily comply with a “good neighbor” agreement to limit sales of single containers of high-alcohol beverages and early-morning sales of alcohol. Newsom is also championing a new Department of Public Health program, starting this winter, that will provide comprehensive treatment to a targeted group of alcohol abusers.
“We’ve identified about 250 people who are the highest utilizers of multiple systems — EMS [emergency medical services] pickups, the sober center, psychiatric emergency services,” said Barbara Garcia, DPH deputy director of health.
Newsom has also introduced legislation to curb problems and violence associated with The City’s nightclubs, including a controversial law that prohibits loitering around nightclubs during the late-evening and early-morning hours.
In North Beach, which has the highest concentration of drinking establishments in The City, police spend an unreasonable amount of resources wrangling weekend drunks, Central Station Capt. James Dudley said.
The problem is so bad that local police have had to ask for the help of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which stations paddy wagons on the street Friday and Saturday nights, when up to 3,000 people crowd into a two-block stretch of Broadway Street.
Police have also enlisted the aid of the City Attorney’s Office, and the Entertainment Commission in cracking down on irresponsible club promoters who hold drinking contests or serve inebriated patrons. Dudley said he encourages his officers to make public-intoxication arrests.
“Otherwise, we’re going to get a call later,” he said. “They’re either going to say the wrong thing to someone, get robbed or get into a fight with another drunk.”
Drink mixers gain status as stars in restaurant biz
San Francisco’s restaurant superstars have come out of the kitchen and are planted firmly behind the bar.
Mixologists have taken their rightful place in Bay Area foodie culture as cocktails are getting more exotic and inventive, said Camper English, a freelance cocktails and spirits writer and founder of alcademics.com.
“I think so much of it is wrapped up in the dining culture. There’s a culinary approach to cocktails in San Francisco that can almost be independent of the nightlife scene,” he said. “When I see a new restaurant opening up that doesn’t promote a bar program as well, I question the sanity of the person behind it.”
Bars at notable restaurants, such as the Slanted Door, Jardinière and Beretta, sometimes receive more attention than the food. Swanky bars such as faux speakeasy Bourbon & Branch are serving up decidedly culinary cocktails. New world spirits such as pisco, cachaça and tequila are taking center stage, English said.
Golden Gate Restaurant Association Executive Director Kevin Westlye said the popularity of fresh ingredients and superstar bartenders is at a peak in The City.
“The popularity of mixologists is absolutely at a high point right now,” he said. “Restaurants and bars are focusing on high-quality cocktails at a level I haven’t seen in years.”
— Tamara Barak Aparton
By the numbers
Population of San Francisco
Bars and restaurants in San Francisco that serve alcohol
Retail establishments (grocery stores, liquor stores, package stores, etc.) that sell alcohol
Places you can get a drink in San Francisco
Source: California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, U.S. Census Bureau