SAN FRANCISCO — It's 7 on a Sunday night in the Haight. Outside the Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery a few ghosts from the '60s occasionally glide by, but inside the food is contemporary -- whole roasted quail and moules frites on the menu -- despite the old wood bar, stained walls and worn tile floor.
It was the fifth night of a weeklong trip with Steve Dollar, a friend of 25 years, who wanted to travel Highway 1 from near Santa Barbara to where it ends at the edge of the Humboldt County redwoods. As a loyal resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., Steve doesn't have a driver's license, so he dragooned me into serving as his wheelman for the trip. It was an easy sell; I've long wanted to do a beer aficionado's trek up the coast.
The trip was also a good way for Steve and me to reconnect. This was not the first road trip we had taken together, but it was the first since the Reagan era, and we were looking forward to it. Envision "Sideways" without the sex.
We technically began in Orange County, where I live, but the true adventure didn't start until Ventura, where we stopped for a late lunch. As we pulled into a parking spot in front of a local diner on East Main Street, Steve spotted the Anacapa Brewing Co. next door. We took that as a good omen.
The space is carved out of an old retail building in the heart of downtown, with high ceilings, brick walls and the bar backed by racks of labeled vats filled with beer-in-progress -- a maternity ward for ales. The food was good, basic pub fare, but the beer was inspired. I had a short glass of the Pierpont India Pale Ale (as the driver, I was destined for short glasses for much of the week), which was bright and crisp with a pleasant lingering back-taste of hops.
A good omen indeed.
We cruised through Santa Barbara, but passed up the Santa Barbara Brewing Co., which I've visited with mixed results. In San Luis Obispo, we pulled into the Downtown Brewing Co. and had the first disappointment of the trip. I'd been here years before, when it was the SLO Brewing Co., maker of some memorable ales. But the business had changed hands three years ago, the barmaid told us, and I found the IPA lacking, too sweet with an unpleasant sharpness. Steve, who usually finishes everything, didn't finish his.
Our destination for the night was Morro Bay, and after checking into a nondescript Best Western -- selected for bar proximity -- we walked a few blocks to the Morro Bay Brewing Co., a Spartan room in a renovated building. A cluster of musicians at a table was whirling through an Irish reel, part of a weekly get-together that made us feel as though we were crashing a private party or band rehearsal.
The beer, a pale ale, was good but the vibe was flat, so we headed across the street to the Fuel Dock, a local watering hole that doesn't make its own beer but serves just about everyone else's.
The feel of the bar was much better than the brew pub and got me thinking about the similarities between a good bookstore and a good bar. They have to get the basics right -- good beer and food for the bar, good books for the bookstore. But they also must embrace something more intangible. They must be the hub of a community.
The Fuel Dock -- no menu, but you can bring in food -- is such a place. Steve and I -- strangers to the bar -- were welcomed as though we were regulars by John the bartender, a commercial fisherman until the fishing grounds were closed. We stood at the bar near the pool tables as a young woman occasionally danced past, stopping to gyrate when the jukebox warranted it.
We cracked jokes with strangers at missed pool shots and ordered another round until a bunch of clean-cut sixtysomething men in pressed Harley-Davidson shirts showed up. Not our crowd. So we headed back to the hotel.
After meandering through Big Sur for a day -- there's a lot of fun in watching an Easterner experience it for the first time -- we wound up in Santa Cruz at the Seabright Brewery, which also got the balance just right. Dinner was basic bar fare, but its Pelican Pale Ale was among the best beers of the trip. And the place was packed with regulars, including families with young children, who greeted one another by name and with the occasional hug.
The next morning we cut through San Francisco, bookmarking it for the return trip, and picked up Highway 1 in Marin County. We had our sights set on Guerneville, an old logging town about 15 miles inland from where the Russian River spills into the Pacific.
There isn't much to Guerneville. As you drive upriver, you cross a bridge over a small creek and the main drag plays out ahead of you, roughly paralleling the river for a few blocks before the buildings peter out into wilderness.