Toronado — this non-word holds a lot of meaning in West Coast craft beer circles. For San Franciscans, it’s the name of a Lower Haight bar whose stock has consisted of fine craft beer for the past 24 years. That’s a long time considering, when they opened, San Diego didn’t even have one of its now near-50 brewhouses in operation. As that large number of suds factories goes to show, San Diego is an amazing craft beer town—one that’s regarded by many as the best in the US. So, it’s only fitting that we, too, have our own Toronado. It’s a bit younger, nearly four years young to be exact, but is every bit as formidable as its forerunner.
An exterior shot of San Diego's version of a NorCal craft beer institution, Toronado. Photo by Kristina Blake.
Last month, I headed to San Francisco to experience the city’s Beer Week festivities. Before heading out, I identified numerous beer-centric places I wanted to go and am proud to say I was able to hit a ton of them, experiencing the best that city (which is plenty beery in its own right) had to offer. It was a whirlwind affair that all started with my first stop straight off the plane — Toronado. I’m a fan of our North Park iteration (which is the only other Toronado anywhere) and was curious to see how it stacked up to the original.
A view from the entryway of Toronado in San Francisco.
I arrived just after 5 PM on a Friday. Since most of my Toronado SD drinking occurs on Friday afternoons and evenings, I figured this pretty ideal. I entered through the split Dutch door (ours has the same form of entryway) into a full, but not overly crowded room that was narrower, but quite similar. Many components were the same, but merely out of place by San Diegan reference. The bar was in the same location, running along the right wall, but the beer board, which is nearly identical to ours with its no-frills plain text paper print-and-cuts naming each beer and its price, was positioned so it faced the front door. In North Park, you need to find rare and sometimes nonexistent space in the aisle separating the bar from the tables, which are full-size full-on tables versus smallish wooden protrusions jutting out from the east wall. Ours is also more pub-like and complete in that aesthetic whereas Frisco’s (yeah, I called it Frisco, members of the Bay Arean nation…get over it) is a bit more kitschy and patch-work; the kind of thing you’d see in one of our older strip malls if San Fran had such things.
The line-up, on the bar stools and the beer board at North Park's Toronado on 30th Street. Photo by Kristina Blake.
But the true differences in the two Toronados lay beneath the surface, in the fiber of the culture and offerings. San Diego’s Toronado is the type of laid back place where craft beer seeking locals and out-of-towners can mix seamlessly. Sit down, open up a tab, kick back and be enraptured by good beer. If you’re so inclined, partake of some heavy, honest-to-goodness sustenance from a full menu, which was just revamped several weeks ago by the bar’s food-and-beer bon vivant, Nate Soroko. Chances are, if you like beer, or food, or people, you might well end up getting in a friendly chat with Nate. (NOTE: If you don’t like these things, you’ll definitely have a rather negative back-and-forth with him, but then again, why did you show up in the first place with opinions like that).
The only thing keeping San Francisco’s Toronado from being called a dive is the history and the commitment to incredible beer that’s at its core. These are the things that make it appropriately significant and, in many respects, an archetype to reference for those looking to create similar shrines to the craft brewing industry. Toronado two takes the best of the genuine article and infuses modern-day and SoCal sensibilities. That’s not to say it makes it better…just different. In San Francisco, you have to pay cash, and there is no food menu. Fortunately, there is a nice artisanal sausage spot called Rosamunde Sausage Grill serving up transportable food next door, making that last one an assailable obstacle to drinking fun.
A duck sausage from Rosamunde Sausage Grill directly nextdoor to Toronado SF.
What’s harder to get past is having to deal with the kind of BS that exists in many old-timey institutions that can and will flourish with or without your business. The sass and generally unwelcoming nature of some of the staffers behind Toronado SF’s bar has been explained to me by many a patron as “part of the ambiance.” Because a large contingent of Toronado’s regulars are hospitality industry types or people so enamored with craft beer they’d take a few lashes on the back if it meant receiving a pint of some rare double IPA in return, the staff can behave this way. That's certainly well within their right, but it’s probably not an environment that’s going to appeal to many SoCal visitors.
I wasn’t a huge fan, but even though I found many San Francisco craft beer venues I considered to be better and much more enjoyable than Toronado, I can still respect the ethics and unflagging drive that has made them as popular as they are. Fortunately, I see that same level of desire and effort at work at Toronado 2.0 and get to reap the benefits of both without a shot of pompous negativity. OUR Toronado is located at 4026 30th Street.