Journeys Magazine

Taste Testing the Polk Street Pub Crawl

Designed for Hostelling International’s three San Francisco locations, the Polk Street Pub Crawl takes guests to six pubs during one adventurous evening. As avid fans of local brews and the merriment that accompanies them, Chris and I were excited to test drive this tour in January during our production trip for our first trial issue. Our guide, Mel, met the eight of us in our hostel’s lounge and after a brief introduction, she led us to the bus stop where we boarded a bus for two dollars each and headed to the City Center Hostel to meet up with more tour goers.

Despite its name, the tour didn’t actually go down Polk Street; it zigzagged all over the neighborhood. The pubs seemed to be chosen at random, as if the guides had picked them out on a whim instead of strategically choosing them to accommodate hordes of thirsty travelers. Our first stop was Ivy’s Place, a former speakeasy turned café and bar attached to the City Center Hostel. The ambiance was warm, friendly and perfect for getting to know our fellow tour group members, who multiplied to nearly 30 people once we reached the hostel.

The next stop was a bar called the Olive. It was packed with locals when we arrived so we squeezed in and tried to be quick about ordering drinks. There wasn’t enough room to sit, so we stood and talked among ourselves for our allotted 45 minutes. The place looked like it was frozen in the 90’s complete with flaking paint on the walls, a silver disco ball hanging above our heads and S&M artwork. Not my cup of tea, but many members of our group enjoyed themselves and the locals didn’t seem to be disturbed by our abrupt and noisy appearance.

The next pub was a completely different story. The Gangway prides itself on being the first LGBT bar in San Fran and it certainly has a personality that rivals most. Imagine a pirate ship full of mismatched decorations, rainbow flags and gentlemen who enjoy watching romantic flicks on the corner TV and bobbing their heads to old school U2, that’s Gangway. We piled our loud foreign bodies into this bar that had been enjoying a nice quiet evening and Chris and I suddenly felt like we had walked in uninvited. While the bartender may have been excited about all the drink orders and extra tips (though he didn’t show it) everyone else in the room looked at us like we had waltzed into their living room unannounced and started drinking all their booze. It was the longest 45 minutes of the night standing next to a fish tank and feeling apologetic. Not the kind of time we were looking for. Several other travelers felt the same way and waited outside after they finished their drinks. At this point, I was starting to wonder how each pub was chosen for the tour. When I was finally able to get the attention of one of our guides, I learned that the six pubs were chosen several years ago based on size (they had to be small enough to keep track of everyone easily) and the fact that they agreed to host an unruly group of tourists every week. I felt embarrassed after spending time at Gangway, not because I had stepped in a puddle of spilt beer, but because I felt I had walked into a place I hadn’t been invited and made a mess of things. I am sure the setting calmed down as soon as we left, but I wouldn’t keep Gangway on my list of places to return to unless a friend invited me to join them.

Edinburgh Castle was the next stop and was much more in keeping with the typical pub crawl vibe. With a varying crowd, a live DJ, a pool hall, and plenty of room to dance, the Scottish pub had a little something for everyone. Visitors could throw darts, drink whiskey to their heart’s content, and chat about the day’s events at one of the many booths or in the upstairs seating area. Unfortunately, this is where we disembarked from the pub crawl, unable to venture further to Lush Lounge or Vertigo, the last two pubs on the list. A cold I had caught earlier was starting to take its toll and the full day had wiped out my energy. We said goodbye to our new acquaintances and headed for the bus stop and our temporary home at Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel. Since we weren’t able to visit the last two pubs, we can’t post a fair review on the Polk Street Pub Crawl.

From what we experienced, Ivy’s Place, Olive and Edinburgh’s Castle were ideal for groups and were happy to see new faces. Because we had such an uncomfortable experience at the Gangway, we would recommend visiting it with a small group of friends if you’re interested in learning about San Fran’s LGBT history and culture. Regarding the tour itself, its kick-in-the-front-door mentality left us feeling as though we were taking advantage of local businesses more than trying to cultivate positive interactions with the community.

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