As San Franciscan soccer fever intensifies during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Excelsior visitors and residents have a reliable place with six TVs to check into: The Witch Doctor’s Lounge. Its owner, James King, has been opening much earlier than usual business hours to accommodate patrons in need.
The need is there. For the match between South Korea and Mexico on June 23, he opened the doors at 8:00 a.m. and took care of approximately 60 people that Saturday morning, serving drinks and the World Cup Wonder, his $3.99 breakfast special of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.
Between opening early for games by himself and running Witch Doctor in conjunction with his Marina District establishment Black Horse London Pub, King has his work cut out for him. However, he calls his state of constant motion his secret to maintaining his “thin and girlish figure.”
“Ninety percent of what I do is awesome,” King says. “Ten percent is not. I love people, I love working. I come from a huge family and I do bartending because I miss them often.”
King, one of 11 siblings, is the current proprietor of a 67-year-old bar space that is no stranger to rebirth. It was previously named Doctor’s Lounge on Nov. 11, 2011 and The Dr’s on Aug. 8, 1988. Even before The Dr’s was D&R’s and the 1951 original, the Question Mark Club.
He acquired Doctor’s Lounge on Nov. 7, 2017, after previous owners Rochelle McCune and David Henry closed the bar due to an 82 percent rental hike in 2016. The month of July marks Witch Doctor’s eighth month in business.
“We call it the Witch Doctor to retain some of the old character and add something new,” King says.
The bar still has a Dr’s telephone booth room at its center and the original Doctor’s Lounge sign outside, made iconic with a retro martini illustration. Both King and head chef Sergio Cruz continue The Dr’s and Doctor’s Lounge’s distinguished histories of providing breakfast and brunch on weekends.
In time, King plans on replacing the sign with something apt. A friend advised his original idea of a voodoo priest illustration could be unintentionally racist.
A simpler design with feathers is in progress, along with employee shirts taglined with King’s brand of humor.
“The shirts will say ‘Which doctor? The Witch Doctor,’” he says, voice hushed and excited. “Great, isn’t it?”
King’s good-humored temperament disguises a solemn commitment to the Excelsior District, something he shares with his small team. Filling the shoes McCune and David didn’t want to leave behind was a huge undertaking.
According to bartender Jim Howard, Witch Doctor started as a San Francisco bar with San Francisco prices. Then, they adjusted to local tastes and regulars’ preferences.
“We served alcohol people think is common, but we learned to tweak our selection a bit because this is the Excelsior,” Howard says. “Whether it’s Jameson, tequila or beer we brought our prices down.”
By and large, beers are served most. IPAs reign as the most popular drink among regulars, followed by light beers such as Coors Light, Casa Modelo and Pilsner. Third are draft beers, kept on a rotational menu with up to 18 beers.
Fort Point Beer Company’s sale representative Steven Guidos comes in occasionally for a Saison and to discuss beer inventory. To Guidos, Witch Doctor strikes a respectable balance between new and old, where prices cater to locals and completed renovations aren’t intimidating to newcomers.
“The main territory is changing. People are fickle and inconsistent, going to one bar one day then the next. What happened in the Mission can’t happen here [The Excelsior],” Guidos says. “People here like the bar they go to. You change too much and they leave.”
For bartender Maya Barnum, Excelsior’s sense of community is a definite draw.
“I prefer this neighborhood. It still feels like a neighborhood,” Barnum says, who previously worked at Black Horse for a year. “Six days out of seven someone says, ‘Hi’ to you on the street. You get to know the people you serve.”
Regular Rey S. visits three times a week to watch sports or talk. He observes there are 10 to 30 customers present on an average day.
“This is a bar that’s friendly after work or to your work. Sometimes, people pop open their laptops,” Rey says. “If you want to have a drink, eat and work, you can.”
It’s known his favorite drink is an IPA and if he’s stopping by a weekend, he’s ordering brunch. He never met someone at the bar who complained about the food.
Rey thinks highly of the most recent brunch item unveiled on June 17, during the game between Germany and Mexico at 8 p.m.
“The chicken and waffles is amazing,” Rey says. “My boy can cook.”
King has yet to name the dish, though he hinted he’s brainstorming. He named the dinner menu “Menu for the Hungry People” starring fare like Pterodactyl Wings, The Dr.’s BBQ Pork Prescription and the Boogie Woogie Burgey.
Eddie Jimenez, a regular and retired employee from the now-defunct Valente Marini Perata & Co. mortuary, has King marked in his phone contacts as King James.
“He’s a good owner, has good chemistry with clients and is as good as a mother who gets a paycheck,” Jimenez says.
The fondness is mutual between customers and staff.
“I love this neighborhood. I’m not one of those guys who’s going to flip it. I’m here for the long haul,” King says.
The Witch Doctor’s Lounge is located at 4826 Mission St. More information can be found online at www.witchdoctorslounge.com.