New face in an old place

Photograph of Wild Hare by Daniel Bahmani

Photograph of Wild Hare by Daniel Bahmani

SALOONS | Chris Barnett

The classic neighborhood bar is an endangered species in our parts. While there is no shortage of drinking dens, most are either ear-splitting sports saloons or relegated to being parts of restaurants.

But a new face in a familiar spot just might deliver the closest thing we have to the ideal neighborhood bar. Wild Hare is the latest libational hangout to occupy the big, airy, high-ceilinged space on the southwest corner of California and Divisadero.

The address has been a saloon of some sort for the past 75 years, according to the landlord. He can call the roll back to the ’60s, when San Francisco went psychedelic and the bar was known as the Pharmacy. From there, it morphed into the Old Waldorf, Major Ponds, Rasselas (before a move to the Fillmore Jazz District) and then, until last March, Solstice.

The brains and bucks behind Wild Hare — three East Coast bred San Franciscans named Ben Bleiman, Duncan Ley and Mark DeVito — were wise enough not to unleash a squadron of wild-eyed decorators on the space. They did add some whimsy and change out the tables, chairs and barstools, installing a 15-foot long communal table, three shorter ones and a long counter along the open windows on the north side. Still, the carved wooden and beveled glass backbar that just may be an original Brunswick is intact. Says Bleiman: “We didn’t do a million dollar makeover.”

The underlying DNA — more than seven decades of continuous elbow bending under the same roof where only the names and characters have changed — may be why the place has retained its roots.

No surprise, then, that the new owners are billing Wild Hare as a neighborhood tavern. They wager that camaraderie and conversation will pack the barstools and keep the cash register ringing. The proprietors own a small empire of other bars in San Francisco, including Tonic, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, Lightning Tavern, Soda Popinski’s and the Royal Tug Yacht Club. Wild Hare, Bleiman says, is a tribute to the otherworldly Alice and her Wonderland.

Look around the faintly Victorian decor and you’ll spot a framed antique photo of a curly blonde Alice look-alike and a large, framed Queen of Hearts perched over the backbar. Several — mercifully fake — bunny heads are mounted on the walls. There are no visible rabbit holes for making a quick getaway, but there is a second exit.

Ambiance and ancestry aside, there is a reason to hurry to Wild Hare, whether or not you have a very important date. Happy hour starts promptly every day at 5 and ends at 7. Basic well cocktails are $4 for the two-hour stretch and, while the rail pours are mostly private label, no-name hooch, they are healthy sized. A tip: The well Manhattan is made with Evan Williams, a very drinkable and smooth second-fiddle spirit to Jack Daniels.

During happy hour, beers go for $3 a bottle or can and house wines fetch $6. Don’t plan on eating dinner on the house, though; no gratis nibbles or cut-priced appetizers are offered. It pays to be timely. After seven bells, well drinks move up to $6, beers command $4.50 to $7 and the house wines go for $8 a glass.

As might be expected, Wild Hare has a repertoire of its own cocktails for $11 apiece that are imaginative, but this side of silly. The namesake concoction — the Wild Hare — is a mix of Wild Turkey 81, Campari, maraschino and blood orange bitters; no skimping on the pours. The Classic Bloody Mary is made with Absolut vodka and all the usual ingredients plus a dollop of Guinness. The Fog Cutter sounds seductive: Bombay Sapphire Gin, Canton, fresh raspberries and lemon and — whoa — ginger beer. A pint of Shiner Pale Ale brewed for Wild Hare, Firestone Union Jack IPA, Trumer Pils and Guinness is $6 all the time.

While the owners appear to be enjoying a nice net, they do not just pocket profits without giving back. In fact, Wild Hare offers up possibly the best deal in town once a week. On Surf and Turf Thursday, it rolls out an 8 oz. filet mignon, grilled shrimp, French fries, a pint of draft beer or a glass of house wine for a $20 bill. On Taco Tuesdays, Wild Hare will sell you up to 20 tacos for $20 or one taco for $2.

And few taverns are so generous and creative in their kitchens. The wings appetizer, offered in three sizes and three flavors — Buffalo, BBQ and sweet chili habanero — comes piled high with meaty wings. And Wild Hare’s burger has caused quite a stir among the “gimme protein, hold the carbs” set. For $9.50, it comes out as a half-pound of 100% natural, grass-fed beef
between two slices of cheese — no bun. It’s offered with fries, tater tots or a salad. The Ranger, a muscular chicken breast sandwich, is a stand-alone meal.

So far Ben Bleiman and his team have won friends and influenced locals with their neighborhood tavern.
Stephanie, a child psychologist who was meeting two friends from college there recently, says she decided on Wild Hare “because I was walking by and it looked nice and cozy. I walked in and immediately got a welcoming feeling.”

Carolyn Charlton lives within walking distance and likes not having to hassle with finding a parking spot when meeting friends. Sipping a house chardonnay, she says the bar “has good energy and it’s not too loud; I come here and feel like part of the community.”

The bartenders are professional and eager to please. One customer’s recent request to turn down the piped in music was met with an immediate drop in decibels. Another who failed to specify tater tots as a side instead of fries got an extra full plate of tots that’s usually priced at $6. Plenty of booths, stools and tables accommodate intimate groups of any size. Wild Hare is open until 2 a.m. nightly with food served until 1:30 a.m.

Perfect for a neighborhood tavern.

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