The Story Behind SF’s Best Loved Pop-Up Holiday Bar
Yellow Snow, the Baby Jesus and more, in North Beach
No one does the holiday vibe quite like Deck the Halls, which returns after a covid-centric year off to North Beach in the locally legendary hungry i (née “hungry id”). All of our favorites are back, from the high-kitsch Christmas decorations to high-concept drink menu (the Bah Humbug is a shot and a beer; there are also non-alcoholic drinks like the Baby Jesus, a.k.a. warm cider).
We talked to lead bartender Shaher Misif, Deck the Halls’ co-founder, about this fourth edition of the pop-up, certifiably magical things that have happened within its walls, and how he keeps the whole affair from going in the way of Santa Con.
How did you know it was time for a Christmas event in S.F. — not like the most traditionally religious city?
Christmas has never been a big thing here — it’s a little different from the East Coast, especially when it snows and stuff like that. But there’s also a demographic here that actually loved to celebrate Christmas — San Francisco is such a transient city; there’s people from the East Coast; there’s people from everywhere. We just felt this would be a good concept to spread, like, holiday cheer.
How did you decide to make it such an experience, versus, say, a special drink menu or whatever?
For me, bars in general are all about the experience — bringing you into a completely different world, you know? We didn’t want to put up a bunch of decorations and say, “Hey, we’re celebrating Christmas.” What we want to do is bring people in a completely different world.
People love Deck the Halls, and they hate SantaCon. What’s the crucial difference?
Aggressiveness. SantaCon is more about people trashing their city, whereas this is celebrating the city a little more. The music’s very low key. And there’s always a charity element here. [This year’s non-profit partner is the SF Firefighters Toy Program.]
What’s the biggest challenge in pulling off the concept every year?
Each space comes with its own challenges — basically, we’re opening a bar within weeks, whereas most people take, you know,, a year to open up a bar. Depending on what space we’re in, there’s things we can or can’t do. In the past years, we had a cocktail that was made in a gingerbread house. But this year, we don’t have a kitchen.
For the sort of space we need, we really can’t find them until around October or November. This year we’re at the hungry i, which was an old-school strip club. It has new proprietors who are going to run it as a regular cocktail bar, but even before it was a strip club, it was a performing arts venue — people like Maya Angelou and Barbra Streisand performed there.
If you only get going with this in October or so, how do you spend the rest of the year?
I opened a bar on March 13, 2020, and three days later the whole world shut down. That’s now on a back burner until we figure all that stuff out, but generally I consult on bars and restaurants.
How has COVID shifted what you can do with Deck the Halls this year?
We’ve been very conservative on what we’ve tried to execute this year. We just had to be realistic. We weren’t sure if there would be another shutdown or more regulations. So it’s a lot more intimate this year, and we’re in a smaller space. The crazy thing is, it seems like everybody now just wants to come out. I think everybody’s been locked up for so long that they’re kind of over it.
Are you a Christmas person by nature? Or is this an exhausting sprint that doesn’t end until January?
It’s tough because it’s 30 days of nonstop, 16- or 18-hour days. But that’s just the nature of the business.
I am sure magical things happen at Deck the Halls. Can you share one?
The bartenders are very engaging — the people almost become like an audience. There’s always cameras out — they’re always trying to video the bartenders and stuff like that. That to me is very magical because it creates a connection with people. That was one of the reasons for creating a space like this … There’s a lot of bars in this city that do the opposite, where it’s more confined and everybody kind of stays in their place. To me, the magical part is engaging bartenders and how fun it is and how easy it is to connect with somebody else. That, to me, is magical, and something that I feel is super important, and really the true nature of bars: a place to connect people from different places of life. Especially in this day and age, when there’s so much stuff that keeps us separated. Connecting them is magical.
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