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Bottoms Up in the Search for the Best Bar

From secret shuffleboard tables to late-night bratwursts, which bar is your best shot?

Zack Pick’s will rate not the fancy restaurants, but goes out in search of the basics in San Anselmo/Fairfax. He has previously settled. With an unquenchable thirst, he now seeks to answer the question: what is the best bar? 

Everyone looks for something different in a bar. You might put an emphasis on the quality of the drinks, or the number of pool tables, or how low the lighting is. There might be one type of place you do your weeknight baseball watching at and another for more boisterous celebrations. The towns of San Anselmo and Fairfax offer a diverse array of watering holes, so I embarked on the task of visiting as many as possible to answer once and for all which bar stands above the rest.

For the sake of consistency, I judged the establishments below on service, atmosphere, inventory and aesthetic. Now pour yourself a cold libation, and join me on my journey through the gin joints of our neighborhood.

Don’t expect any philisophical discussions to transpire at this Fairfax mainstay - the only thing louder than the nightly bands at center stage are the patrons. Most of the clientele are longtime locals, gregarious and friendly. With savvy bartenders who know their drinkers well, service is usually prompt. The biggest obstacle is yelling your order over the bluegrass funk fusion experiment fifteen minutes into their first song.

I have no problem with live music; it’s an integral part of many modern bars. I do wish Peri’s would mandate some nights of the week to be silent. On Tuesdays, when pool leaguers like the Young Guns play in the back and a Giants/Dodgers game is up on the flatscreen, how necessary is it to also have a three-piece house band? These are good musicians for the most part, and I honestly feel they deserve more attention then they’re going to get in these situations. 

On to the drinks. If you’re not sticking with domestic (Pabst Blue Ribbon and Budweiser are always on tap), you’d be remiss not to try a Shirt Lifter. A shot of Mandarin Skyy vodka is dropped into a pint glass half-full of orange juice and Red Bull. Try counting how many get ordered in a given night at the ‘Dollar. You’re sure to end-up with a staggering number.

Overall, Peri’s is an old-town staple for lively late nights. The age range runs the full gamut and, more than anything, everyone is a smile away from starting a conversation with you.

There’s no need to wait until 5 p.m. at this living tribute to your father’s favorite bar. The faces stay the same from day to day, as do the copious posters and statues of Elvis, The Beatles and other icons of yore. Matteucci’s splits its image between a sports bar and a jukebox dive, and attracts a fiercely loyal crowd that considers the grounds a second home. Indeed, a voyage to the men’s room reveals a 2011 schedule of events that includes trips to Europe, Las Vegas and 49ers games. On more than one occasion, I’ve stopped in to play pool or watch a game and found a piping-hot crock pot full of turkey chili available to any who enter.

A sharp contrast exists between the everyday regulars and the younger in-town-from-college-for-the-weekend patrons. Matteucci’s does an adequate job attempting to cater to both, but usually the lure of the slightly livelier Fairfax strip draws the twentysomethings away. Two pool tables are squeezed into the back of the building, and the game becomes an obstacle course as shots are blocked by gumball machines and other bric-a-bac. A small patio extends beyond the main space, ideal for summer lounging.

The drinks are stiff, and blenders are seldom seen. If your taste in spirits requires more than three ingredients, you’re best served drinking elsewhere. Matteucci’s is a good bar to catch-up with an old friend, watch a sports event in relative peace or sneak a drink in on your lunch break.

Regarded by many as a well-kept local secret, the Dugout Bar is located at the base of the log cabin next to Memorial Park. The rooms are a bit labyrinthine, with a trip to the restroom requiring some serious adventuring. The standard fare of a pool table and dart board are well-complimented by the rare beauty of a shuffle board table. Shuffle boards can easily be faulty, jammed into a space ill-fitting of the game or dusted poorly for inferior shuffling. The Dugout Bar bucks all these trends and has given proper due to their set-up, a billowing feather in their covert cap.

The selection is standard, but with an often quiet air about the place, bartenders are at the ready to serve you quickly and often with a bit of cheerful banter to boot. There’s something quaint and comforting about this bar; it’s the kind of place you could build a Cheers crowd around. Again, the nights of raucous debauchery are few and far between, but the warmth of the establishment radiates to all who enter.    

If you’ve ever reached the conclusion that what most bars were lacking was a copious amount of board games and a to-order sausage menu, then clearly you’ve never been to Gestalt Haus. Unassumingly nestled next to in Fairfax, this popular post-drink haunt has recently become a destination for the intoxicated looking to nosh before calling a cab home. Make no mistake: Gestalt Haus serves drinks too, Californian and European microbrews in frosty mugs. In fact, there’s much to be discovered by entering this bicycle shop by day, bar/restaurant by night.

The sausages are delicious and plentiful. One can choose from amongst an assortment of brats, and those so inclined may also opt for potato salad or a giant pickle. Lining the back wall is a mishmash of classic games, ranging from Monopoly and Trouble to card fare like Uno. There’s no guarantee that every piece will be inside the box you open, but most people tend not to notice when partaking in the spoils of the Gestalt Haus game wall.

There’s always a chance a B-movie will be projected on a pull-down screen or some other happening will be in full-swing when you arrive. This bar is nothing if not wholly unpredictable. Be sure you bring an appetite with you, and remember that sauerkraut is not an option; it’s a way of life.

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Choosing a favorite amongst these places was no easy task, so I’m going to cop-out a bit. I feel like an ideal night would start at Peri’s Silver Dollar and end with some post-drinking grub at Gestalt Haus. Matteucci’s and the Dugout Bar both fall short mainly because they're bars you have to drive to and from. Fairfax’s downtown spread is much more condusive to bar-hopping, and thus the crown belongs to both Peri's and Gestalt. 

Up next month: as summer dawns on 2011, I set out to see if any ice cream can top the legendary .

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