Motorcycle Places: Zeitgeist

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“Zeitgeist” is German for “Spirit of the Times,” but they should have called it “Valhalla.”

The medium-sized bar and plus-sized outside beer garden in San Francisco’s colorful Mission District is one of the City’s most fabled dives. But when I first started going there some 20 years ago, I thought I had died and gone to motorcycle heaven… at least after my buddies and I had emptied a few pitchers.

We would meet there after a Sunday ride, or maybe after Saturday race practice. During the summer, that would give us several hours of drinking time in the sunny (but grubby) beer garden. And even a club racer could drink all day – at the time I think pitchers were four or five bucks, and it was real beer, not the barely alcoholic piss-water suburban corporate sports bars pass off as beer. By the time you noticed your sunburn and hunger, it was dark, you were drunk, and as if by magic, a nasally Mexican accent called out, “Tamaaaales! Tamaaaales!”

Zeitgeist Advertisement

This is the first Zeitgeist ad in CityBike (San Francisco’s iconic free motorcycle magazine), from March of 1993. Apparently this was too inviting, as the current ad warns, “No Motorcycles No Beer No Women Stay Away”

You would get up, stagger to the porta-potties and then bump into the Tamale Lady and realize how hungry you were. “Tamales?” she’d offer; “Fuck yeah!” you’d say, fumbling in your pockets for a few wrinkled bills, receiving handfuls of spicy deliciousness you’d scarf down on a makeshift napkin plate with a flimsy plastic fork. You’d go back to find your place at our table taken up, only to realize that it didn’t really matter where you sat. You knew everybody there, so you’d wander from table to table, reliving rides and races with your fellow two-wheeled warriors.

Zeitgeist Patrons

Katrina Stauch (left) and Victoria Romero are locals who like Zeitgeist’s diveyness and mellow scene on weeknights.

And then it would be midnight and the craziness would really begin. Not in the bar – even then the bouncers were strict – but out on Valencia, where motorcycles of every type and description blocked the sidewalks on both sides of the street. A select crew of racers and no-good-niks performed burnouts, wheelies and stoppies, and the crowd would go outside to watch until the bar started shutting down, the air thick with tire smoke, spilled microbrew and the roars of San Francisco’s fastest, most colorful motorcyclists. If there is a Valhalla, it isn’t half as awesome as we remember the ‘Geist in the ’90s.

Zeitgeist Bouncer

Bouncer Joe has been holding up this wall for 17 years and has seen it all. Be nice to him.

Yes, that all happened. Since then we’ve had families, real jobs, sobriety, and plus we just can’t do that stuff anymore. We get tired. And those of us who can still punish their middle-aged meat sacks like that say the bar is overrun with trendy hipsters and is no longer any fun. So a little while ago, I stuck my head into the ‘Geist to see how much it had changed.

Zeitgeist Mural

This mural celebrates the life of Zeitgeist founder Hans Grahlmann, mysteriously murdered in 1998.

Not much… at least when it comes to the infrastructure, and all the changes are for the better, if you ask me. The smelly green portable toilets are gone, replaced with sturdy, clean (if industrial) permanent his-and-hers restrooms. It’s also smoke-free in some areas. And despite the old ad copy, the beer is cold and the women were as interesting and friendly as I remember. There are 40 brews on tap (with prices, adjusting for inflation that are the same or maybe even less than back in The Day), local favorites as well as tasty and potent European ales. The barbecued burgers and brats smell good and service is… well, let’s call it efficient and attentive, if not exactly friendly.

Zeitgeist Lally's Sign

Lally’s was a drugstore/soda fountain, back when this stretch of Valencia was a working-class meat-packing district. There was also a tow-yard and garage here—one of the old trucks is abandoned in the beer garden.

If the staff seems brisk, it’s because they’re there to work, not babysit. The bouncers – there were three of them on hand on a slow winter Thursday night – will toss you out for violating the laws of both San Francisco and Zeitgeist, but the main rule is don’t be a dick and you’ll get along fine.

Is it still the wild Norse Legend it used to be? No, of course not, but neither are you. But is it a great place to hang out with friends and enjoy a few beers and talk about old times? Absolutely. It’s a different crowd now, but it’s still the young and fearless writing their own legends, even if they don’t do it with blood, gas and tire smoke.

Zeitgeist Stained Glass Window

This stained-glass window is the last remmnant of the Rainbow Cattle Company, a western-themed gay bar that was the location’s last iteration before founder Hans Grahlmann converted it to Zeitgeist in 1991.

“It’s changed,” Eyeball the bartender told me. “But I love this bar… it’s my home. What comes through the door is up to the City, not us. You can’t control it.”

Zeitgeist, 199 Valencia Street San Francisco. 9am-2am daily, 21 and over. Cash only. www.zeitgeistsf.com, (415)255-7505.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is the Editor-in-Cheese for CityBike magazine, the legendary free regional motorcycle magazine you’ll only find in San Francisco Bay Area motorcycle shops and hangouts. He spends most of his time hiding under his desk and talking to his cats.

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  • john burns

    Cool Gabe. I never did get around to writing you to tell you how much I dig CityBike and especially the 30th anniversary issue. Glydon was my hero, sniff. I look forward to it appearing in my mailbox I think more than the big mags, of which I only get one anymore. Heck man, it’s almost good enough to pay for.