Todd Shields playing pool at Doctor’s Lounge in the Excelsior on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Photograph by Emma Chiang for the Ingleside-Excelsior Light.
At 2:00 p.m. on a Sunday, brunch may have been winding down at the Doctor’s Lounge at 4826 Mission St. at Onondaga, but the lively crowd was still hanging out. Stevie Wonder played on the jukebox, Key and Peele capered on one of the two flat-screen TVs and customers sipped bottomless Bloody Marys and mimosas.
With its midcentury modern décor and loungey, inviting vibe, the Doctor’s aims to be more than just a dive bar. The concept, said co-owner Rochelle McCune, is “the Excelsior’s living room.”
Streamlined black leather couches surround a 1950s coffee table and sculptural vintage light fixtures hang from the ceiling. Pink elephants sit in nooks against the stonewall in back of the bar, and the impressive (and clean) bathrooms features an entryway decoupaged in vintage circus advertisements, red velvet curtains and hot-pink and black striped walls.
“The food is amazing, it’s been here forever, but now people are coming from different neighborhoods,” said customer and Excelsior native Erica Espinoza. She leaned in to chat when she heard me interviewing McCune, who purchased the bar with longtime best friend David Henry in 2011.
“I think our original vision is still here—everyone’s welcome, it’s a neighborhood gathering space,” Henry said. Though McCune lives in the lower Haight, she and a friend were regulars before she made the purchase. One day they walked by and saw there’d been a change of ownership—it was becoming a Chinese restaurant.
“We basically cried,” she said. Despite no previous experience in the bar business, McCune left her corp0orate job to revamp the 64-year-old establishment. Henry’s background was in planning ultra-high end corporate events in Los Angeles, but he had never tended bar or waited a table.
“She brought me in as a ‘gay oracle,’” he said. Together they planned updates to the outdated bar, which includes a large, den-like back room complete with pool tables and pinball.
“It had been messed with plastic Budweiser lights, terrible tables and weird chairs,” McCune said. But they saw that the place had “good bones” and wouldn’t require any major remodels.
One big change was the addition of 14 beer taps, up from zero. (Previously a coffee pot sat where the draught beer tap does now.) A range of mostly-local beers and ciders draw customers, along with drink specials, two pop-up restaurants and a live bluegrass band every third Thursday.
Much of the old bar came along with them: weekend brunch, a few regulars and beloved waitress Doris. While many new clients helped the new bar get off to a good start, some of the old-timers were less than thrilled that one of the new co-owners was gay—but a few have since returned.
Stouts and Doubts, a Mission Bay Community Church group with a significant LBGT contingent, meets once a month at the Doctor’s, along with the occasional board game night.
A yoga studio across the street, gastropub Dark Horse Inn in nearby Crocker-Amazon, and the Henry’s Hunan outpost across the street (in the former Granada Café spot) have been welcome additions to the area since the Doctor’s reopening.
Yet the Mission Street corridor is also dotted with more empty storefronts than ever—a result of unaffordable rents.
“If you look historically, the neighborhood has lost, like 10 bars,” McCune said. Because liquor licenses are so in demand, they are often sold to business owners in more profitable zip codes. Cotter’s Corner, on Mission and Avalon, is a recent casualty.
It’s all the more reason to drink locally. Christen Camp sat at a table with friends Adam Thompson and Matt Forbes. The Southern native lives and works in Glen Park, and brunches at the Doctor’s almost every weekend. Her favorite dish is the brioche French toast, while Forbes goes for biscuits and gravy or the “hangover hash.”
The trio appreciated the bar’s mix of old and new, and lamented Doris’ rare absence that Sunday. “She’s served eggs for thirty years, and is wonderfully grumpy, lovely and charming in her own way,” said Forbes.
It was Thompson’s first time at the Doctor’s, and as he lounged with his friends at the retro Formica table, he seemed to be enjoying himself. “It’s definitely a good feel, a local feel,” he said. “It’s not pretentious.”
McCune and Henry hope to encourage the bar’s diverse mix and bring in more customers on Friday and Saturday nights, when many residents head to the Mission.
Camp’s favorite bartender, Tom Ivancich, has worked at the Doctor’s four days a week for 12 years.
“I’ve been here for so long, I know everybody,” he said. “It’s a good atmosphere.”
The Doctors’ Lounge is located at 4826 Mission St.