John Litster is a creature of habit. He started coming to the Dogpatch Saloon back in 1999, when the neighborhood was mostly dockworkers and the bar’s vibe was rough. “It was dark and grimy. There were no windows. It was full of port workers, and stunk of Pine-Sol and piss. And I couldn’t seem to connect with either of the bartenders,” he says. But, despite not fitting in for more than a decade, he kept coming back anyway. “It was so close to work,” he says, gesturing through the window to his former office, right across the street.
The bar is no longer convenient: Litster, who does sales for a commercial printer, works in Berkeley these days. Nonetheless, he drops in nearly every evening on his way back across the Bay Bridge to his home in the Excelsior, sipping his standard order (a pint of pilsner) and cheering on the Giants game on the TV mounted above the bar. Rangy, with black-framed glasses and a winning smile, he’s known for his friendliness and volubility; he’ll chat with anyone, from fellow baseball fans stopping in for a pre-game drink to the former heroin addict/prostitute who resides upstairs.
Litster says he loves the Dogpatch Saloon for many reasons, first and foremost the bartenders. “They’re good guys and gals. The bar is pretty chill, and they like to sit around and talk. They’re not trying to pose.” He also loves the crowd. “We still get a good mix of blue-collar, real people in here, which I like,” from bikers to workers from the construction company down the street.
Around him, the bar and the neighborhood have changed. The Dogpatch, once a somewhat blighted industrial area, now houses dozens of new condo developments and a burgeoning restaurant scene; the Golden Gate Warriors are slated to debut their stadium just six blocks away in 2018, bringing even more traffic to the area. The Saloon itself changed hands in 2011, getting a full makeover and more of a craft-cocktail focus; these days, like so many San Francisco bars, it’s packed to the rafters with the under-35 crowd, blowing off steam after long days in tech offices.
Like them, Litster came from elsewhere. A native of Worcester, MA, he developed an appreciation for bars while working behind one in Boston. His parents, concerned he was wasting his college degree, encouraged him to get a “real job” in the financial-services industry, which he hated. “I got off at 5, my friends at the restaurant got on at 5, and it was no fun at all. So I said to my old manager, ‘Can I pick up some shifts?’ So I would work 9-5 in my suit, and then I’d go over there and wait tables.” He says working both jobs didn’t tire him out in the least. “It was my social life. And it was great.”
Litster met his wife, a UC Berkeley grad, while working at the restaurant, and in 1987, the pair moved west and never looked back. Though they split in 2012, they have two kids; Litster’s son turned 21 this year, and his father took him to the Dogpatch Saloon to celebrate. “All these locals, a lot of people who aren’t even regulars anymore, came in on a Sunday just to meet Jack. It was really pretty cool.”
The bar’s staff say he’s more than earned his welcome. “John is a person that if I see him pass a window, I pour a pilsner because I know he’s coming in to brighten our day,” says Christina Henderson, one of the Saloon’s bartenders. “He’s thoughtful and cares about each and every one of us. He checks in on us and also shares amazing stories. He’s a family man that still knows how to have fun. And his laugh is contagious.”
That doesn’t mean he’s immune to teasing, of course. “It’s a good bar, it’s a fun bar,” he says of the Saloon at one point. “Good?” fires back bartender Edward Calhoun, who met Litster during his very first shift two years ago. “You’re in here five days a week! I hope it’s good.” Litster says he likes the ribbing. “It’s like family, like siblings. You give some, you take some right back. They start it half the time.”
Calhoun says he admires Litster’s enthusiastic consumption of sports. “This guy will watch, like, a three-year-old rerun of cricket from India, and still be fired up at the bar watching it.” Sometimes the fervor catches: Calhoun fondly recalls the time he, Litster, and a handful of other regulars decided to take bets on a two-year-old rerun of a dog show.
“I love being able to come here and talk to people I would never talk to in my regular life,” Litster says. “They don’t know my problems, I don’t know their problems. And that’s what a bar should be. The problems stay at the door.”