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    The History and the Mystery of San Francisco’s Wild Side West

    By Karin Jaffie

    Despite being properly credentialed as one of the oldest lesbian-founded and continuously lesbian-owned and operated and patronized watering holes this side of the Sierras, Wild Side West doesn’t really identify as lesbian. But dykes rule and women come first, so don’t you forget it. This is exactly the way the ghost of owners past that haunts the place would want it.


    Dancing Girls & Sailors …

    Wild Side was conceived in Oakland on Grove St in 1962. Her moms, Pat Ramseyer and Nancy White, named her for the Barbara Stanwyck movie about a lesbian madame, Walk on the Wild Side. The story resonated with Pat, who liked the “radical” idea of a woman in charge. Bear in mind that in 1962, it was illegal in California for a woman to be a bartender, so Nancy serving up beers to East Bay baby dykes was already a revolutionary act in itself.

    In 1968, Pat and Nancy moved the business “overseas” to San Francisco’s North Beach, landing just east of the Broadway Tunnel near Broadway and Stockton. Now named Wild Side West (WSW), an impossibly heavy leather curtain defended the entry to a bar kept minimally lit for maximum privacy. The bar quietly drew an eclectic gathering of patrons: artists, musicians, and all the usual suspects. Yes, yes, Janis Joplin played music and pool (and possibly some slap and tickle) here, but what made Pat happiest was the community of decent and decidedly odd folks that formed WSW’s clientele.

    Off-duty dancing girls from Big Al’s could relax away from hustling their bustles, without “being pawed by the men they performed for,’” as long-time WSW patron Sandra May put it. Of course, girls like Sandra May liked dancing girls too, and the girls often liked them back. “It was dyke city,” she reminisces, “Oh they were so pretty.” Years later at Pat’s memorial (she passed away in 2010), a group of “little old ladies” attended the services held at WSW. While none of the bar’s patrons immediately recognized them, it was later revealed that they were dancers who had found a haven behind WSW’s black curtain.

    Surprisingly, among the WSW’s dykes and dancing girls could be found traces of seamen: sailors on shore leave and merchant marines with money to burn. WSW welcomed the occasional gentlemen found among these hordes, those that wanted only a quiet drink away from the blaring neon life east on Broadway. Sandra May recalls, “There we’d be—a bunch of young lesbians without a pot to piss in, and these guys would be buying us drinks just because they could. They knew that it was going nowhere, and we never had problems.” Pat tolerated no disrespect of “her girls,” and was oft quoted as saying, “So long as you have a reasonable IQ and can bend your elbow, we’ll welcome you.”

    Commodes & Candy

    In 1977, Pat and Nancy moved WSW (including the actual physical bar and mirror) one last time … to San Francisco’s still untamed blue-collar neighborhood, Bernal Heights. Further than the miles on the map from the ever-growing crowds of downtown, they bought an 1890s Italianate two-story and settled down. More than just a place of business, WSW at 424 Cortland was their home.

    Less than two days after the bar opened, the neighbors welcomed them by throwing a big rock right through the front window as people were in the bar. Pat and bartender “Uncle” Bill Owens just sighed and covered the window with a sheet of wood, which remains covered. But that didn’t stop the welcoming committee. A couple of nice broken toilets were also tossed in the other window. Pat and Nancy, and their renegade group of backyard gardeners, turned the porcelain fixtures into lovely flower pots in WSW’s incredible “secret” garden. If ever there was a way to take someone’s ugly intention and turn into a living retort, they nailed it.

    Eventually, the welcoming committee either got bored or enlightened, and the harassment ended. At a time when the only other action on Cortland was the annual robbing of neighborhood Bank of America, Pat took the next step in creating community: she offered candy to little children. Nothing salacious here, just that at Halloween she’d seen neighborhood families trooping Bernal’s streets. She began putting candy outside the bar entrance for trick-or-treaters, and as the neighborhood grew, other merchants joined in what is now a nearly 40-year-old Bernal tradition. If it isn’t obvious, Pat’s idea of community really was inclusive, and is usually pretty fun.


    Politics & Spirits

    Inside the WSW, for not being a dyke bar, things are quite the lesbian party. The bar sponsored lesbian softball teams, one known for flashing their breasts at one another in greeting. San Francisco Supervisor Nancy Walker kicked off her campaign there, as did California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who quipped, “Yes, WSW is a lesbian bar because everyone who enters becomes an honorary dyke.” There is a pool table and Pride decor. A big butch firefighter used to ride her Harley in the front door down the accessibility ramp for kicks. Dogs have always been welcome. For our sun-loving and/or smoking friends, there’s a deck and incredible garden out back. There’s even a barber chair if you need to re-enact the k.d. lang/Cindy Crawford Vanity Fair cover.

    And yet, according to Sandra May, when Pat opened the bar, even she didn’t consider it a lesbian bar. She considered it a neighborhood bar. Because it was lesbian-owned and operated, though, lesbians came around and together they all felt safe. “She wanted to have it open to anyone and everyone as a place of refuge,” said May. May added unsolicited, “Pat leaving the bar to Billie (Hayes, current owner) saved this place and many lives.” Billie has vowed to keep the bar intact, and continues to welcome all; the same rules apply. If you don’t abide, Pat’s ghost often stops by to give us all a little reminder about whose bar it really is, by rearranging and banging things, changing music unexpectedly, and sending a fat little hummingbird to eavesdrop on this interview in the garden. There is always a small altar to her at the end of the bar.

    Author Miriam “Cookie” Palaia tended bar at WSW “back in the day.” A keen observer, Cookie believes WSW has its own “personality” that automatically weeds out jerks. She summed up WSW succinctly: “There was never a gay/straight division; it was an asshole/not asshole division. You can be weird, but don’t be an asshole.”

    Karin Jaffie of KAR!N JAFF!E DES!GN is a graphic design, web and marketing specialist, whose work you have likely admired at the annual Pride Brunch (she’s created the colorful flyers for years), or for clients such as Lyon-Martin Health Services and UCSF. By night, Jaffie is the popular drag king Kit Tapata, who won the title of Mr. Gay San Francisco in 2011 and has earned many other honors since. For more information about Jaffie’s namesake business, please visit



    Is Wild Side West a Lesbian/Women’s Bar?

    Margaret Young, lesbian

    Yes! Because it has/had lesbian owners and I have always felt supported by that community there. I only tell special people about Wild Side West to keep the atmosphere friendly and fun.

    James Ward, transman

    I think that being a lesbian bar is in its roots, for sure. It’s also always been a safe space for all sorts of people, especially the queer community. It’s still that today. It’s also very much a neighborhood bar where friends come together any day or night of the week to laugh, catch up, and support each other. When I began my transitioning process, the Wild Side West was the first place to provide me with unconditional support as a community. I proposed to my now wife on the back patio of the bar. It remains our second living room, and we continue to spend amazing times at the bar with so many awesome friends.

    Brad Larsen, gay dude

    Yes, because that’s where it’s history comes from.

    Hannah Sablestrom, cisgender girl

    I would think of it first and foremost as a neighborhood bar. Bernal Heights happens to have a big lesbian community, which makes it a natural meeting spot for lesbians. It also helps that you always feel welcome and it is a “safe” place to be your queer self. Traditional lesbian bars are very cliquey, in my opinion. It’s hard for an outsider to get into the community, especially if you are not lesbian. Wild Side West is not like that. It’s a lesbian bar. A queer bar. A neighborhood bar for the whole community.

    Tom Temprano, gay dude

    To me, Wild Side West is first and foremost a neighborhood bar. In a neighborhood with a vibrant and active queer and lesbian community, you’re sure to see lots of LGBTQ regulars whenever you go in. I like Wild Side so much that I celebrated my 30th birthday there last year!

    Tweaka Turner, drag queen

    If it isn’t, it should be. San Francisco needs a good lesbian bar. It’s a neighborhood fixture, which caters to lesbian clientele and locals.

    Kitty Tapata, trivia host

    It is when I’m there!

    In the 1970s and ’80s, there were seven active women’s bars in the city. Now Wild Side West is it. Why has WSW outlasted other women’s bars?

    Heather Dunham, WSW bartender

    WSW has lasted so long because there is no other place like it and the owners are stubborn as hell. (laughs) It’s a touchstone for the community, whether they realize it or not. I have some really fantastic conversations with people from all over the world who come to the “only lesbian bar in town.” The garden …  the quirky clientele. Also, it has ghosts.

    Fudgie Frottage, drag king

    It has that true San Francisco dive bar quality, cheap drinks and a beautiful garden. What more could you ask for? Oh, and cute bartenders. Plus, Kit Tapata hosts drag king shows there.

    Brad Larsen, trivia regular

    Because it welcomes all kinds, which also makes it a great neighborhood bar. It has one of the best bar patios in San Francisco. It feels like hanging out in a funky art exhibit.

    Tweaka Turner, drag queen DJ & promoter

    As a drag personality and pro DJ, Wild Side West has been welcoming to me and my friends. It has friendly and funny bartenders, a wonderful atmosphere inside with an eclectic interior of artifacts dating back to the early 60’s … . It’s a gem of a bar that I hope lasts for another 50 years.

    Tom Ammiano, local politician

    It has lasted so long because if you behave, you are always welcomed. It is a real neighborhood dive.


    Miss Kitty Tapata’s Fun & Free Trivia Wednesdays at Wild Side West

    Since 2013, Kitty Tapata (aka Karin Jaffie) has been hosting rather unique and fiercely funny trivia competitions on Wednesday nights at 8 pm-ish at Wild Side West. Part game show, part contact sport, and all comedy, Kitty’s trivia nights are one of the only independent (read: not corporate) pub quizzes in San Francisco. Oh, and she’s in drag.

    Tapata pulls together 30 questions each week, 3 rounds of 10, with the last round being a special topic. She always makes a Facebook event to let players know what to study for, and often puts bold hints on the event page to see if folks are paying attention.

    “I really like to make people work their brains,” Tapata says. “It’s sexy that they try, even if they don’t get it right. I always say, ‘If you don’t know it, you just don’t know it yet!’”

    Playing for booze and bragging rights, teams of 6 or less compete throughout the evening, taking two-song breaks between rounds. Tapata Trivia has three rounds and three rules. Questions are projected on one of the bar’s big-screen TVs (so those darn sportsball games can be on the other). She hands out glitter chalk and “patented Kitty Tapata clean slates” to teams for writing their answers down, then they bring them up to her for some fun and interaction. Tapata keeps score on a Playskool chalkboard she’s been using since she began hosting trivia 7+ years ago at the now defunct Stray Bar, which was also on Cortland up the block from Wild Side West. She also hosted at the Mission Street 3300 Club prior to its demise in a fire almost 2 years ago.

    In Wild Side West’s namesake movie, Jane Fonda has a supporting role as a heart-of-gold prostitute from Texas named Kitty. Tapata, who did indeed grow up in Texas, was amused to learn this, saying, “So I guess it was my destiny to end up at Wild Side West, tickling folks’ medulla oblongata and touching their funny bones.”

    Upcoming topics:

    (subject to change, cuz … life)

    Wednesday, Aug 30: Sports

    Wednesday, September 6: Rock & Roll Movies

    Wednesday, September 13: Catch Phrases