By Tyler Hansen
In late 2015, then-assistant manager of The Riptide, Jean Fontana, arrived early to begin assessing inventory levels. Startled at the sight of smoke billowing from the roof of the building, she hurried around to the back, uncertain whether the source was The Riptide or the tenant next door. The door handle was cold to the touch, so Fontana tried to enter the bar.
“The whole front of the bar was on fire,” Fontana recalls. “You could hear bottles popping inside, it was very traumatic.”
Fontana quickly shut the door and dialed 9-1-1. She felt helpless while she waited for firefighters to arrive and extinguish the advancing flames.
“I sat across the street and watched our home burn,” Fontana said, referring to the familial setting the bar has played in her life and the lives of countless others.
The Riptide website describes the watering hole, built in 1941, as being “on the edge of the western world.” It is located on a stretch of Taraval near the Great Highway that has become increasingly crowded with popular shops and eateries. Today, The Riptide has arisen from the ashes to remain a staple for local music, cocktails and conversation amongst neighbors.
The fire that might have destroyed the bar forever actually brought bar patrons even closer together.
Rather than sulk at their misfortune, regulars immediately organized fundraisers and donated their time, money and effort into a rebuild that was spearheaded by owners David Quinby and Les James. Routine visitors selflessly tapped into their shared networks to help bartenders and workers find new jobs in the City while renovations began.
Despite a fear that The Riptide could become just another name on the list of extinct music venues in the City, Fontana and others found new optimism in the growing number of people who dedicated their resources to get the bar running again.
Just over one year later, The Riptide was rebuilt enough to reopen its doors to welcome the very patrons who stood loyally by in the midst of its absence and, in some cases, even got their hands dirty to aid the rebuilding efforts.
“I might have cried,” Fontana said, describing the emotion of their soft reopening. “We didn’t even have a sound system. There was just an old boom box in the corner with CDs and tapes, nothing on the walls and red light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling.”
The less-than-ideal ambiance was more than made up for by the enthusiasm of a community eager to get its local hangout spot back in business.
“We had glassware, we had ice, we had beer, we had customers,” Fontana said with a laugh.
Now, three years after reopening, The Riptide just celebrated its 15th anniversary, a milestone it may never have realized were it not for the tireless efforts of the people who call it home.
“Everyone takes care of each other,” Fontana said, sharing what makes the bar special to her. “I feel like it’s one of SF’s secrets. The quality of production, the live music; it meshes weird, unique, quirky and awesome together.”
When Fontana isn’t serving up cocktails or managing inventory, she can be found calling out numbers as “Jean the Bingo Queen” on Saturday evenings, just one of the many recurring events the bar holds on its monthly calendar.
The Riptide is located at 3639 Taraval St. For more information, visit http://www.riptidesf.com.