Though no one asked for it, a three-day pop-up Rat Bar premieres tonight at the San Francisco Dungeon, a low-impact haunted house of history nestled between Lefty’s Ballpark Baseball Buffet and Cafe and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum near Pier 39.
Like Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and Madame Tussaud’s, the Dungeon is a location-independent tourist attraction, with each version tweaked to suit its region. (San Francisco is the only U.S. location, with the other eight scattered from Berlin to Shanghai.) On a regular visit, ticket-holders enter through a faux Chinatown gate, filing past a bear republic flag into the basement, where they are lead from room to room for various vaguely spooky experiences: A zombie-esque Spanish missionary whose voice recording tells the tale of the Ohlone Tribe (vaguely implying that we’re walking on haunted ground), and a shadow puppet show telling tales of “Little Pete” and the Chinatown Gang Wars. Overall the tour is as light and loose on history as one might expect.
As with most stunts, the media was invited to a preview of the experience, which normally costs $49.99 (the regular tour, sans rats, is $20). For that extra thirty bucks, attendees get a welcome drink, a chance to hold rats, and access to a cash bar. The specialty cocktail is the “Ama-RAT-o Sour,” served in a plastic cup prominently featuring a Rat Bar sticker.
On my visit the cocktail was pre-poured at least a few minutes earlier, with ice melting on top of the drink, adding a watery welcome layer to the sickly sweet entry-level cocktail dying in the cup below. The drink’s garnish is perhaps the most exciting component, featuring the root-end of a beet intended to mimic a decapitated rat’s tail (so, de-butt-itated?), which to be fair, is awesome.
After the drink and the tour, the group is lead into a room where one would normally purchase unflattering pictures taken on the Dungeon’s Escape Alcatraz drop ride (a rollercoaster-style chair rises up ten feet or so, then quickly drops back down), which has been co-opted for the rat activity. On preview night there were six rats present, whose names included Juniper, Hiroshi, Aragon, and Merlin, and all of whom were provided by Ratical Rodent Rescue.
Guests can take turns holding the rats, letting them crawl onto their shoulders and into their hair. One peed as it was being handed to me, so I opted for a dry rat instead: a fat, hairless male that felt like a lumpy potato I could easily learn to love. The truth about pet rats is they are adorable and friendly and clean when they’re not peeing on you; they can even be trained to come when you call their name. (TL;DR: We should all get pet rats.)
After about half an hour of handling the tame rodents, tour members are released into the “Rat Bar” itself, which this journalist was quickly able to sniff out as a gift shop in drag. The walls are laden with skull mugs and mason jar mugs and t-shirts displaying the Dungeon’s slogan (“Have a horrible day!”). The floors are lightly dusted with sawdust for atmosphere, and highboy tables draped with linen are topped with skeletal rat centerpieces, a move that seems kind of edgy given the live rats being cuddled nearby.
Rats and beverages, unfortunately, must be enjoyed separately, at least in this venue. The cash bar (a cleverly disguised checkout register counter) offers the Ama-RAT-o Sour as the sole specialty cocktail for ten dollars apiece, while drinks made with other spirits run twelve. (The flyer advertises “ManRATtan, anyone?” though mixers seem extremely limited.) Beer for $6 is the best pricing, but there is really no reason to stand around the gift shop drinking except to wait for any friends still handling the rats downstairs.
For those looking for a more rat-focused educational experience, it’s worth noting that rodents don’t play a starring role at the Dungeon, though according to the signage outside there were “Chinatown Plague Street” and “Plague Doctor” experiences in previous iterations (the “shows” change seasonally). The plague, caused by fleas carried by rats, is a common theme of the Dungeon in its other locations too; the website lists current plague experiences in London, Berlin, Hamburg, York, and Blackpool. (Fun fact: In San Francisco, another plague vector was the California ground squirrel, but you won’t learn that in The Dungeon.)
Ultimately, the Dungeon’s pop-up Rat Bar is very much a tacked-on experience to a cheesy, year-round haunted house for tourists, but the bragging rights for having done it may be worth the price of admission. It depends on how you feel about rats.
The pop-up rat bar runs June 13-15 from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. Tickets are available here.
Camper English is a Bay Area cocktail and spirits journalist and educator, and founder of Alcademics.