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Here’s what it’s like working at SF’s smallest bar.
It involves a bathtub.

Grant Marek |  SFGATE
Aug. 16, 2019
Updated: Aug. 17, 2019 9:14 a.m.

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Welcome to San Francisco's smallest bar. Blair Heagerty / SFGate

Cassandra Harvell stands — very precariously — on the rim of a clawfoot bathtub, weight shifted to the balls of two feet tucked neatly into a pair of white high-tops.

She's trying to turn up the volume on a 50-year-old stereo receiver propped up in the rafters of Black Horse London Pub and Deli, a legendary San Francisco dive that sits on the edge of Cow Hollow and Russian Hill. And perched atop the ice-filled tub — which holds the bar's entire stash of canned and bottled beer — is sort of the only way to reach the volume knob.

It's one of the many quirks that comes with being a bartender at the smallest bar in San Francisco.

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Bar owner James King (left) and resident bartender Cassandra Harvell (right). Blair Heagerty / SFGate

Black Horse is 7 feet wide by 19 feet deep. Its maximum occupancy is 22 (and they definitely never, ever, ever go over that ... ever). It's tight enough that your knees push up against the bar from atop your stool, leaving just enough room for someone to scoot behind you.

"You need to cuddle through the bar to get to the bathroom," says Cassandra Harvell, Black Horse's 29-year-old bartender.

Harvell, who was born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, has some bartender in her blood — her mom was a drink-slinger at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on Van Ness — and she looks every bit the part standing at the end of the bar top, a couple feet from a dart board that feels comical in this tiny space.

"We don't allow darts anymore," she says with sort of a half smile.

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James and Cassandra sport matching black horse tattoos.

Blair Heagerty / SFGate

Harvell is technically the manager of Black Horse, though who she's managing isn't exactly clear with a staff of just four — there's long-time owner James King, Harvell, and two other bartenders who work just one shift.

What is clear, though, is it takes a special sort of bartender to work here.

"You have to talk to everyone 'cause you're in everyone's face," she says, while very much in my face. Harvell measures out the bar top — there's just around a foot between the bartender and the patron.

"People don't come back for fancy cocktails, or games — people come back for the interactions," she says. "This is like my home. I'll be talking to regulars and we'll just say, 'Oh s—, we've known each other for 10 years.' We're not related, but it feels that way sometimes."

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The beer selection rotates somewhat frequently here. Pictured here are two cans of Sucker Free Kölsch beer by Pine Street Brewery (CA).

Blair Heagerty / SFGate

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Cassandra Harvell prepares a Coors Light to "shotgun".

Blair Heagerty / SFGate

Black Horse is open 365 days a year, including Christmas. Thanksgiving dinner is attended by long-time bar patrons and hosted at Harvell's place across the street, before everyone heads back to Black Horse for the after party (she lives in a building owned by one of the regulars, and says her rent reflects that lucky relationship). There's a big co-birthday party for James and Cassandra during the start of summer ("We try to fit the whole neighborhood in here," she says). There's "Pints with the Pontiff," where King dresses up like the pope on St. Patrick's Day and bar-goers make bets on how many times he'll trip on his cape. On New Year's Eve, everyone wears white tuxedos and toasts when midnight hits in any and all time zones.

Christmas lights were put up almost a decade ago, and as part of an almost-tradition, patrons who move out of the neighborhood use replacement bulbs from their Christmas strands to keep the bar's lights aglow.

Harvell says long-time regulars who've come and gone (and still come back from time to time) are somewhere in the hundreds. "I couldn't even count that," she says.

Academy Award winner and San Mateo native Sam Rockwell came in for a little bit ("I think he liked us because we didn't know who he was"), but Harvell is quick to point out: "We treat our regulars more like celebrities."

She tells the story of a long-time Black Horse drinker who returns to San Francisco for a couple months every year on business and spends every single night he's back in town at the bar.

And just after she's finishing telling the story, an SUV pulls up in front of Black Horse and idles in front of a red-curbed Muni stop.

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Cassandra and James join a regular in "shotgunning" a beer.

Blair Heagerty / SFGate

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"The Ten Bar Commandments" are referenced often here.

Blair Heagerty / SFGate

"Cassie!" someone yells from the car. "We haven't seen you guys in a while, we're gonna get sushi then come by."

Cassie turns to James: "Oh, I forgot to tell you, Big Momma's comin' by, too."

Big Momma, another regular, turns out to be much more of a normal-sized guy, but it's the in-joke nickname that makes you start to understand why everyone loves the Black Horse.

That, and, of course, the tub.

"If I need to make a corner store run, I just climb the tub and hop over the front of the bar instead of going around," Harvell says.

There's also a dent in the trash can so you can lean against it while the second 'tender slides past you. And the one bottle opener affixed to the back of the bar? If someone's standing in front of it and you need to open a beer, they keep extras hanging 4 feet away, because otherwise people are waiting.

"You have to give much more attention to customers, and that's what we're known for," King says.

"Nobody works here for the money," Harvell adds with the biggest of smiles.

They work here for the bin of costumes under the bar (which include everything from Batman to Austin Powers), for the childhood photos of regulars on the walls, for the two guitars that owner James King brings out from time to time from behind a curtain that hides party supplies that have accumulated through the years (including buckets of bubbles, which I sort of want to see to understand).

More than anything they work here for San Francisco, past and present.

"One of the special things about this bar," Harvell says, "is we're one of the constants."

Grant Marek is SFGATE's editorial director. Email: | Twitter: @grant_marek

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Well behaved pups are welcomed here.  Just come early enough so there's space. Blair Heagerty / SFGate

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