I’m sitting at the bar at Pop’s in San Francisco’s Mission District with a shot of tequila and a can of Tecate beer dressed with lime, salt and chile pepper. Pop’s calls this combination the Calle 24, the Spanish name for 24th Street, where the bar resides. There are a few other patrons here besides me, mostly regulars, including a trio engaged in lively chatter that fills the room. It seems like a typical bar scene, except for one small detail:
It’s 6:30 in the morning.
Ever since the repeal of Prohibition, bars in California have legally been allowed to open at 6 a.m., and a small handful in San Francisco actually do. What do people do at bars at the break of dawn? Well, it’s not unlike what people do at bars at other times. As you might imagine, there are people drinking in the morning because they have a problem with alcohol. But in a recent early-morning bar crawl, I also met a lot of interesting people who were there for very different reasons.
When Mike Krouse and Tom Tierney bought the 81-year-old Pop’s six years ago, they didn’t initially have plans to open early. But San Francisco General Hospital is only a few blocks away, and the bar quickly found an early-morning market among those working the graveyard shift.
“After a year of being in business, we saw a large group of people that had few choices when they wanted to relax after a hard night,” says Tierney, adding that it isn’t just hospital workers who come in, but many others who don’t work normal hours: firefighters, police, bus drivers, baggage handlers, bakers, warehouse workers.
The most surprising thing I discovered the differences in the morning clientele and atmosphere were from bar to bar. At Gino & Carlo in North Beach, the bar feels more like a cafe. The place is full of locals and regulars sitting around reading the paper, drinking coffee — and beers or shots. The bar banter is dominated by sports and car talk, with plenty of teasing.
I asked John, the bartender, what working at Gino & Carlo early in the morning is like.
“It’s the same annoying faces every day,” he said with a just-kidding smirk.
The atmosphere at Gino & Carlo changes throughout the day, with customers using it as a sort of community center. Older men and people getting off overnight work show up in the morning, retirees pop in at midday and in the afternoon, and young people dominate at night. Everyone knows each other, and I felt somewhat shy about asking too many questions as a stranger, feeling like I was crashing a private gathering. The eavesdropping is fantastic, though, particularly if you want dirt on the neighborhood.
Ace’s in the Tenderloin was the liveliest of the bars I visited, a New York-centric sports bar with morning people drinking mostly brunch-style drinks, like the frozen Irish coffees that come out of its slushy machine.
While the Tenderloin and its denizens can be erratic, Ace’s sits on the far edge and is full of locals and friendly regulars. Bartender Jason, who also works at another Tenderloin bar called the Ha-Ra, says that even though that bar is located only a couple of blocks away from Ace’s, it would be very difficult for Ha-Ra to open this early because of the neighborhood’s concentration of drug users and homeless people.
I met some of the most earnest and intriguing people in the morning at Clooney’s Pub in the Mission. I sat next to an older customer at the horseshoe-shaped bar who told me that he spent time in San Quentin. He had worked as a locksmith for many years, then got into safecracking, got caught and spent decades in prison. Yet for his history, he was jovial and funny. He joked with me and the guy sitting next to him that the three things he likes best about getting old are not being able to see, hear or remember as well as he used to.
The Clooney’s morning crowd was a mix of ages, with some regulars along with restaurant industry people opening up the comfortable dive. As at Gino & Carlo, it’s a crowd that reflects the old parts of San Francisco, those who made the city home decades ago, along with those who defined it and continue to do so in the darkness while we sleep.
They say that nothing good ever happens after midnight. They may be right, but plenty of remarkable things happen in bars beginning at six in the morning.