The Riptide Rises
August 18th, 2015, was a very bad day indeed. I awoke to the sound of blaring sirens in my Outer Sunset neighborhood, and naturally assumed they would Dopler-effect their way past and carry on to some distant emergency as they always do. Not this time. They parked themselves outside The Riptide, our beloved local watering hole, which was now going up in flames. One of many lessons learned that morning; while it can be utterly awe-inspiring to watch firefighters do their job, there is an inverse relationship to how much fun fire trucks are to watch casually and how much fun is involved when you actually require them. Put more simply, the more you need a fire truck, the funner it ain’t.
One person to whom that day was particularly unkind is Alisha Liscinsky, The Riptide’s general manager, among the loveliest of people, and for my money the best bartender in all the land. Not only was she watching her place of employ being gutted and hosed down by the fire department, but it was her birthday too. She was planning to come into the bar later in the day to celebrate. But, to paraphrase co-owner Les James, this was one big goddamn candle even Alisha couldn’t blow out. We all just had to stand around and watch, and leave it to the professionals to cart away all the sad charred debris.
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Well friends, if you haven’t heard already, I am overjoyed to announce that The Riptide has risen from the ashes and is wide open again, with most of the familiar friendly faces still in place, plus some new ones. The story of its resurrection is truly a heartwarming one, as much as its history is head-scratchingly amazing. The place was built in 1941 and spent many years being The Oar House, adjoining (and yes, you’re going to read this correctly) the Master Bait Shop. One of the funniest moments I imagine ever to happen at City Hall was when co-owner David Quinby had to recite slightly sheepishly to the Entertainment Commission panel the previous names of the place during a recent permit hearing.
By the 1960s it had become a grimly dangerous place, its tenure punctuated by no small number of murders and shootings. One especially remarkable incident involved a clever inebriate who thought it would be fun to take pot shots at the lights mounted on top of a passing police car, its occupants promptly shooting him dead in the doorway. In the 1980s it became The Sand Bar, a marginally less hairy yet still thoroughly loathsome place, a bar where for some reason women were especially violent, routinely hosting fist fights out on the sidewalk. On one occasion some geezed-out half-toothed lass chased me down the street while I was driving by in my poor wheezing Toyota and tore my rear license plate off. I think she started chewing on it. To this day I have no idea what my transgression was. It was just that kind of horrible place.
The Sheriff’s Department shuttered and padlocked The Sand Bar in about 2000 because, if memory serves, some genius was dealing coke after-hours to minors from behind the bar. “Good friggin’ riddance,” the neighborhood collectively thought with a giant sigh of relief, and it stayed shut for a couple of years. Enter, stage west, Les James and David Quinby. The previous owner, a gregarious and extraordinarily magnanimous fellow named Leonard Iffla, gifted James and Quinby with the lease. They didn’t pay a dime for it, though they did have to do some heroic somersaults to find an available liquor license to transfer. Later Iffla would say, “You guys didn’t buy a bar. You built a bar.” That’s exactly what they did.
In 2003 it was rechristened as The Riptide. Hollowed out and completely redone from top to bottom, it instantly became the jewel in the Outer Sunset’s fog-encrusted crown, not only as a wonderful neighborhood bar but also as a somewhat unlikely live music venue, the only one of any consequence for miles around. The Sand Bar used to have live music too on occasion. But James and Quinby, both accomplished musicians themselves, had raised the talent bar to a world-class level. The word spread quickly among musicians that this was now a coveted gig, and not an easy one to land. For well over a decade The Ripper dutifully and joyfully held its position as the little place in the Marine Layer Belt where everyone wanted to be, and where every musician wanted to play. Some musicians were disappointed though, beaned squarely in the head with the harsh reality that they simply didn’t posses the required quality of musicianship to perform there.
An electrical fire changed everything on that August day, dealing a severe gut-punch to the neighborhood and indeed the entire city, tossing many people out of work, infecting the whole block with that nauseating smoke smell, and leaving a monstrous smoldering hole in the Sunset district. Jean Fontana, assistant manager and bartemptress extraordinaire, discovered the fire tearing up the wall as she unlocked the door that morning. It could have all been so much worse but for her quick response. But within hours of the last fire engine rolling up its hoses and leaving, people started getting to work. “No time to wait,” the neighborhood said en masse. The outpouring of support was instantaneous and overwhelming, from regular patrons and neighbors to the remarkable flood of spontaneous fundraisers put on by any number of local bars and clubs. “We’re just so happy to be part of the community. It really has changed our lives,” said Quinby, remarking upon just how tightly-knit and loyal the San Francisco bar/live music community really is.
Small steps, as they say. But The Riptide is surely and happily getting back to normal, awaiting your patronage, and none too soon. The new sound system has yet to be installed, so the bands aren’t back just yet. But the beautiful new stage curtains have been hung up, designed and constructed by Tara Pellack, longtime San Francisco Opera and Ballet artisan and stagehand along with her crew of volunteers. If that’s not a hugely fantastic indicator of the city’s esteem for this treasured place then I don’t know what is. All the live entertainment permits are secured, there are a few new ornaments on the walls, the new windows are soundproofed to placate a couple cranky battle-axe neighbors we didn’t know existed before, and there are some new sand dollars wedged into the bricks above the fireplace. I live just around the corner, and I always described The Riptide as my elegant living room, connected to my rust-bucket apartment by a ferociously drafty hallway. Amid the nostrils-deep muck of 2016, I’m beyond thankful that it’s that way again, because it truly is a sanctuary for us out here in the clouds. Come by and have a drink, 3639 Taraval between 46th and 47th Avenues, crawling distance from the L-Taraval MUNI line, at the edge of the western world. Actually, have many drinks; I’m the sound guy at The Riptide, and baby needs a new PA system.