Behind the Bar: Secret Bitters at a San Francisco Tavern

A dive bar on the South Side of Chicago is a place to savor Bud Light and talk White Sox. But here in San Francisco, a city suddenly flush with 25-year-old tech workers snapping up $1 million–plus starter condos, neighborhood taverns like The Little Shamrock are keepers of a loopy, anarchic spirit that was buzzing in the city’s punk-rock flowering in the late 1970s, and in the chemical-laced Summer of Love that preceded it.

In this first installment of a recurring feature, we go behind the bar at a local tavern to see what makes it location-specific, lovable, or merely quirky in that way an old house is. Use the discussion box below to tell us about your favorite bar in your town: the thing or things that make it unique. Cheers, guys.

Colleen Hubbard did the original reporting for this story.

The Little Shamrock’s back bathroom is out of order, and the one on the left is a dank retreat of absolute necessity. There’s a sour reek of beer soaked into wood with the varnish worn away, and a hazy cast to the light, as if the cigarette smoke never vanished after the ability to light up did. The bar that claims to be San Francisco's second-oldest looks and smells like a dive in any American city. But on a Wednesday afternoon, when Bob’s tending bar in a purple stretch top, this place feels different.

Bob’s a 29-year-old woman—self-conscious and a little dorky, with hair the color of burnished copper semi-obscuring her face. Her real name is Christine Renno. At her last birthday, she announced at the bar that she was changing back to Christine, but it didn’t stick. “I don’t think I had that much conviction about it,” she says. She’s still just Bob.

Bob is mixing one of the massive $7 rye Old Fashioneds that’s not on any menu (the Little Shamrock is not a place with menus—you have to ask). Bob brews the bitters at home. She’s made different ones: angostura-style, apricot, orange. They end up in a mismatched collection of canning jars, and in eye-droppers behind the bar, ready for the odd customer who knows to ask for an Old Fashioned. Bob’s bitters are part alchemy, part art project, and everything to do with what makes the Little Shamrock cool.

The Little Shamrock: 807 Lincoln Way, San Francisco; 415-661-0060

What to make your own bitters? Follow our step-by-step instructions. And tell us about the unique thing behind the bar at your local, the thing that makes it one of a kind.

Photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com