The Hemlock Tavern is Trying to Kill You
This originally appeared ing my Weeknighter column for 7×7.
Socrates died from drinking hemlock. He was too smart for his own fucking good, and they killed him for it. Those in power tried him and sentenced him to death by drinking a beverage laced with that poisonous plant. He was apparently a real asshole though, the kind of guy who couldn’t take the hint that you just want to sit at the bar, have a drink and not be asked hundreds of questions like, “But who are you really?” and “Do you wanna hear about my app?” He was that kind of asshole.
It kinda fits that Socrates was killed by hemlock though, because the Hemlock Tavern is also trying to kill you. And I mean that in the best way possible. It appeals to all your vices: The drinks are cheap, there’s a heated smoking patio, loud rock n’ roll bands play in the back room, the jukebox is free, and it’s a good place to get laid. Plus, it’s in the Tenderloin, so if the bar doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you can pretty much walk out the door and find anything else you might want.
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The Hemlock Tavern is part of the San Francisco I moved to 11 years ago. It was a period I now refer to as “between gold rushes,” when things on Polk Street were grittier, gayer, and stranger, and the people who now yell stupid shit like “YOLO” from the windows of May’s and McTeagues were too scared to cross Broadway, let alone California. These days the douchery of the Marina is creeping down Polk Street like hemlock (does hemlock actually creep? Regardless, it just works so well here) but the Hemlock Tavern has managed to stay the same. The bartenders are still sweet and sour, the bags of peanuts are still hot, and you’re still guaranteed to run into your ex’s roommate, or an old co-worker, or one of the thousands of people that drift in and out of your life, only to show up again years later at a dive bar in the Tenderloin. There’s an old Oscar Wilde quote that goes, “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.” If he’d lived here, he would’ve known that you just have to go to the Hemlock to find them.
If you’ve been reading The Weeknighter all this time, you know that I often end up waxing nostalgic. It’s hard not to when the places you go and the people you love are so intertwined and when the city that you’ve given your heart to is changing so rapidly before your eyes. If you haven’t figured it out by now, these are not fucking bar reviews, these are reveries. These are meditations and these are love poems. These are for the people who need San Francisco almost as much as San Francisco needs them. For the drunks and the dancers, the protesters and the pot heads, the fighters and the fuck-ups. These are for people who want to spend their lives with San Francisco but have landlords who feel otherwise. It’s my way of pinning down San Francisco to what it is now, like a time capsule, so hopefully future people can look back at it with wonder.
The Hemlock Tavern is just a bar–a really great bar, but just a bar. I’m using it as a vehicle through which to tell you a story about how much I love San Francisco and how much it breaks my heart sometimes. They killed Socrates with hemlock. I hope the Hemlock Tavern keeps killing it.