“San Francisco is a mad city, inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people.” – Rudyard Kipling.
Lisa Lutz is the author of the New York Times bestselling Spellman series about an unconventional sleuthing family. The latest series installment, Trail of the Spellmans (Document #5) , is now available. Lutz has won the Alex award and been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. She is also the coauthor of Heads You Lose, written with David Hayward. Visit her at LisaLutz.com and follow her on Twitter @LisaLutz.
In addition to having a large population of interesting, creative, outgoing, eccentric and outright loony people of all ages and backgrounds, San Francisco is rightly known as home to just about the most enthusiastic drinkers in the nation. One can overhear numbers of fascinating and scandalous conversations anywhere in the city, whether riding Muni, walking on the sidewalk, sitting in the park or utilizing long-range telescopic microphones from a high rooftop overlooking Union Square. Most suitable for overhearing activities is the bar, a naturally appropriate place to listen in on unsuspecting conversationalists. A stiff drink or few, as you should know by now, lowers inhibitions and loosens lips; the dim lighting and close spaces of certain bars welcomes the free flow of secrets, confessions and other intimacies.
As an ex-employee of a private investigation firm, and the author of five (so far) novels about a family of private investigators, I will offer you some tips for a rewarding eavesdropping experience and how to remain undetected in the process.
- Show up early, at the beginning of happy hour, or just before most working stiffs call it a day. You’ll want to stake out a good location where you can be unobtrusive, yet close to the action. Full-on happy hour, weekend nights or sports bars during games are generally not conducive to hearing, even if you were actually trying to have a conversation.
- Once you’ve found your spot, try to blend into the background. Look involved in something; scan the paper or text, for instance. Don’t stare at people who walk in, as if you’d like to talk to strangers. Try to look like you’re waiting for someone; check your watch repeatedly or affect the demeanor of a happy, functioning alcoholic.
- Order a drink.
And now, here are three excellent San Francisco bars where you can put your skills to use. But, I think almost any bar would do.
House of Shields
39 New Montgomery Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
Hours: Mon to Fri 2 p.m. – 2 a.m.; Sat to Sun 3 p.m. – 2 a.m.
For our purposes, the salient feature of this venerable old bar, just south of Market in the financial district, is the row of discrete booths running aside the long bar. Obviously they are good for being out of sight, as you can disappear into the tastefully dim lighting. Happy hour period is crowded with financial types and tech-start up types just bursting with insider information that they need to get off their chests, so chances are you’ll overhear something useful.
824 Ulloa St
San Francisco, CA 94127
The name of the bar is perhaps the biggest draw, but it’s a place meant for drinking and talking — there are no band nights or trivia evenings. The clientele is made up mostly of regulars who share an easy familiarity and are quite open about their day-to-day lives. The long bar lends itself easy access to any conversation in the room. If you need to look occupied, you can always gawk at the overhead mural, which includes recognizable and unrecognizable philosophers of the past.
699 O’Farrell St
San Francisco, CA 94109
Pre-happy hour, you’ve got your old-school regulars, who use the bar as their personal living rooms. Wise and mad at the same time. Be sure to go there within a week of the disbursement of Social Security checks. I recommend arriving during the “changing of the guards” right around quitting time, when the old timers give way to — and mingle with — the younger nighttime crowd.
I’ll leave you with one caveat. San Francisco is swimming in bars filled with originals. Do yourself a favor and stay away from the Marina.
Lisa Lutz’s “Trail of the Spellmans” was published in February 2012.