The Toronado is probably one of the most famous bars in the country. I heard about it through listening to Craft Beer Radio, and it has probably been made most famous by its annual barley wine event. I was in San Francisco for a work weekend a few weeks ago and on my day of touring San Franciso, the Toronado was the grand finale. By some miracle I made it back to San Jose, 60 miles outside of SF!
The Toronado is, by all standards, a dive bar. It is in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, so expect to see lots of colorful people and an interesting atmosphere. It’s too bad they don’t have street seating out on the sidewalk because I can think of fewer places that would be as much fun to have a few drinks and watch people.
The bar is dark, the service is non-existant, they don’t serve food and it’s a ton of fun! When I was there, the place just kept getting busier and busier, and they had one bartender and no servers. So, 150 or so people all had to crowd the bar to shout drink orders to the guy. The music was good, with a mix of Iron Maiden, Guns n’ Roses and other classic bands. The people were friendly, and it was probably the most laid-back dive bar I’ve been to. They don’t serve any food, so people either bought their own with them or ordered sandwiches from the shop next door and brought them in.
Now, let’s talk about the beer. The Toronado has some good taps, and things we’d never see here in KC, but it didn’t blow me out of the water completely. They did seem to be having a happy hour, though (I was there for a few hours, and the whole time I was there my beers were $1 off), which was VERY cool for a Saturday. Try finding that anywhere!
I started off with, what else, Pliny the Elder, the world famous double IPA brewed by Russian River Brewing Company. This beer weighs in at 8%ABV, but it felt stronger than that to me. A full pint was, get this, $4. The hops were piney and resiny, West Coast style, but without some of the grapefruity and floral notes I also like in IPA’s. I got tired of it about halfway into the glass, and was a little disappointed I had wasted so much sobriety on what to me was a run of the mill double IPA that you can find 20 more like at any bottle shop in town. Maybe I’m a heretic!
I decided to change up my tactics a lot on my next round, heading straight for the cask ale side of the menu. The Toronado had about 4-6 cask ales on hand pumps while I was there. I can’t honestly say I have ever had a cask conditioned beer before this, so I was really excited. I went with a brewery I’d never heard of, and a beer I’d never heard of, Twist of Fate by Moonlight Brewing Company. After screaming to the bartender several times, I learned that Twist of Fate is an English style “bitter,” basically an amber ale meant as a session beer, more or less. He warned me, “It’s served warm, at room temperature.” Perfect! My kind of place! Moonlight was started in 1992 and only makes about 1000 barrels of beer per year, almost all of which are kegged/casked and sold off Bay Area taps. I was really happy to be drinking something so local!
The beer was served as promised, and cost me a whopping $3. Yes, $3 for a pint of artisanal, local, cask beer. Crazy, huh? It was perfect at that temperature. Had a bit of a bite to it, sort of sour, but not like an acetic acid sour. It definitely wasn’t a “sour beer” by any stretch, but it had that type of bite, with a nice malt and hops balance. At 5.6%ABV it was a little strong for a session beer, but it was smooth and delicious and one of the best beers I’ve ever had. With a menu full of awesome beers in front of me, I liked it enough to have a second one!
I was buzzing pretty good by now and I probably should have gone next door to eat something, but I literally had the best seat in the house, so I didn’t want to give up my perch. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to have Lost Abbey’s Serpent’s Stout. LIke Russian River, Lost Abbey is a famous California brewery and it was a treat to sample their beer. This one was served in a tulip glass, also at a very appropriate temperature for an imperial stout (which for me, is around room temperature, again). I think this one was a measly $4, too!
At 10.5%ABV, this ended up being a big mistake. I honestly can’t tell you much about the beer other than it was good. I was flying pretty high by now and adding a big beer to it all didn’t help, plus I was engaged fully in conversation with my new friends I met at the bar and wasn’t really taking tasting notes. I read some complaints that this beer can be “hot” meaning sharp with the alcohol, and I didn’t notice that, possibly because I was two sheets to the wind by this time.
Not wanting to call it quits just yet, I finished my afternoon drinking session with another Moonlight offering on cask, their IPA called Bombay by Boat. At 5.9% this just added insult to injury and, again, I have no brilliant tasting notes to offer, but it had a nice bitterness, some balance from the malt, and was really smooth and easy to drink being on cask. It cost $3. I could have stayed all night!
Somehow, I managed to leave the Toronado, catch a bus back downtown, walk to the Caltrain station and get back to San Jose! Amazing!
The Toronado was a lot of fun and I highly recommend it to anybody who is visiting San Francisco. Bring some food and plan on staying for a while. My original intent was to go a mile west of the Toronado to the actual Haight-Ashbury intersection and eat dinner at the Magnolia, which is supposed to serve excellent beer and food, but I was pretty much stumbling out of the place and just getting back to where I needed to be seemed like the best idea of all. The best dive bar in the world, except for the Cigar Box, that is!