San Francisco After Dark: The Not-So-Wild Side
Published: June 2009
By Glen Helfand
Night tripping, nineties-style, in the City by the Bay
San Franciscans have weathered the wildest of the nightlife trends, and even jump-started a few of their own. But these days, things have settled into a modest nineties groove. Sure, raves, acid jazz, and fetish clubs are still part of the nightscape; but in keeping with the city's character, an easygoing spirit pervades the scene.
Redwood Room Clift Hotel, 459 Geary St.; 415/775-4700. Experienced cigar smokers--the kind who handed out stogies when their boomer children were born--are hard to come by these days; but you can sometimes catch them, along with a sleek post-theater crowd, in this gorgeous wood-paneled hotel bar. They'll be listening to the tuxedoed piano player or jazz combo as they sip dry martinis ("nine ounces of pure booze," the waiter boasts). The walls glimmer with Gustav Klimt reproductions, and legend has it that the bar was made from a single redwood tree.
Seven Eleven Club 711 Market St.; 415/777-4455. A strange, layered archaeology of styles, Seven Eleven's anachronistic interior merges Art Deco wall reliefs, clown posters, and pizza-parlor-style medieval trimmings beneath a glittering cottage cheese ceiling. Despite the eccentric decoration, the crowd is thankfully understated, and the prices reasonable, making it the perfect place for a quiet drink and a real conversation.
Tosca Café 242 Columbus Ave.; 415/986-9651. A serious amber tint has spread over Tosca's mural of Venice--but heck, this slightly wilted North Beach veteran opened its doors in 1919. The place is steeped in the kind of smoky San Francisco history that attracts politicians and socialites, musicians and gonzo journalists: U2 and Oasis recently hunkered down in the red vinyl booths. They might have found the house drink--brandy-laced Ghirardelli hot chocolate--a bit tame, but surely they picked up some musical inspiration. The sounds here are a peculiar clash of opera arias emanating from the antique jukebox and pounding bass that infiltrates from a neighboring subterranean teen disco.
Bruno's 2389 Mission St.; 415/550-7455. Bruno's is one of those places that make the occasionally annoying cocktail nation irresistible and enduring. San Francisco's swinging ultra-lounge took over a former 1950's Italian eatery and made it into a plush restaurant, bar, and nightclub. A smart young crowd in spiffy vintage wear floods the bar most nights, and each Monday, live Nino Rota tributes filter out from the narrow Cork Club, where wine corks, stuck into the wall, act as artful acoustic tiles.
Liquid 2925 16th St.; 415/431-8889. The glamour is spiked with grit--or is it the other way around?--in this new, convincing update of 1980's East Village nightlife. Diesel-clad kids with digital day jobs seem particularly attracted to the gruff gray interior, fitted with car-seat couches, reflective metal, and dim blue lights.
Red Room 827 Sutter St.; 415/346-7666. Everything and everybody inside this exceedingly popular, intensely red little womb of a boîte takes on a warm crimson glow. Even the architecture here alludes to drink: the curving wall of bottles filled with cherry-colored liquid; the giant, gently swaying martini glass behind the bar.
Corks 1518 18th St.; 415/552-8794. Guess again. This unpretentious little neighborhood spot is actually named not for a bottle stopper but for the owner, an artist named Cork Marcheschi. That's a clue to its character, as are the dog hitching post out front, the way Marcheschi has artfully incorporated bowling balls into the tables and chairs, and the prices: no wine is more than $8 a glass.
EOS Wine Bar 901 Cole St.; 415/566-3063. Though not exactly snooty--your waiter is apt to reveal his chipped nail polish as he flexes his knowledge of fine vintages--this place is clearly serious about vino. The 50 by-theglass selections almost always live up to the "buttery," "oaky" descriptions; it's easy to find a mate among them for the wonderful Pacific Rim appetizers. Weekly tastings, at which new vintners and vintages are introduced, have a playfully scientific demeanor.
Hayes & Vine 377 Hayes St.; 415/ 626-5301. Velvet Alice in Wonderland chairs, curved burgundy walls, a perforated metal ceiling--it all seems a bit postmodern for the clientele, which tends toward black-tie symphony violinists and opera fans, both fresh from performances down the street. A younger crowd with a predilection for high-fashion eyewear seems to have laid claim
to the cushiony black booth tucked way in the back.
SHALL WE DANCE?
Café du Nord 2170 Market St.; 415/979-6545. Despite the European accent in its name, there's a global feel to this wood-hued, multipurpose watering hole. Manhattans flow liberally in the main bar, as does a dizzying variety of microbrews, while in the back room the music offerings appease a variety of tastes--jazz, funk, swing, experimental, you name it. The dance floor, however, really jumps at the beginning of the week: Brazilian DJ's take over on Monday, and Adrian Bermuda offers free salsa lessons on Tuesday nights.
Mecca 2029 Market St.; 415/621-7000. The lavish velvet curtains turn the exposed air ducts into a design feature at Mecca, site of the city's chicest cocktail scene. An oval bar inlaid with tiny lights that change color is the restaurant's dominant feature. The place is always filled with a Cosmopolitan-sipping gay and straight crowd who come for live scat and soul music during the week, and DJ-spun funk on weekends.
San Francisco Opera House 400 Van Ness Ave.; 415/864-3330. Generally regarded as one of the best opera companies in the country. After 18 months of seismic upgrading, the stately Beaux Arts structure that houses it reopened last month with a revival of its original 1932 production of Tosca.
San Francisco Symphony Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave.; 415/552-8000. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who served stints with orchestras in London and Miami, is breathing new life into the city's symphony orchestra: at last year's American Festival, for example, Tilson Thomas joined the Grateful Dead on keyboards in a tribute to avant-garde composer Henry Cowell.
GLEN HELFAND writes for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco Focus, and Wired.
The beauty of San Francisco's ocean views and steep hills is not lost on bikers and roller skaters, who regularly take over the road--as attested to by Critical Mass, the organized cyclists' siege of city streets that made headlines for one particularly anarchic night last summer. Hundreds of people turn out for the less controversial Friday Night Skate (415/752-1967), a 12-mile, 31/2-hour loop that rolls through nearly every part of town each week, with scheduled food and water breaks. The Halloween edition is a wacky costume party on wheels, with lots of capes flapping in the breeze.
In this fogbound city, sunny beaches and tropical languor constitute a theme, not a reality. The old-style pupu platters at the Tonga Room (in the Fairmont Hotel, California and Mason Sts.; 415/772-5278) are standard, but the place endears itself to tourists and stray lounge lizards with its hourly indoor rainstorms and the soft-rock combos that perform on a barge in the lagoon. A hipper set sip their Scorpion Bowls
at the sultry Lilo Lounge (1469 18th St.; 415/643-5678), designed to resemble a South Seas grotto. You can actually see the surf from the Beach Chalet (1000 Great Hwy.; 415/386-8439), a restaurant and microbrewery that serves ales with such maritime monikers as Riptide Red. The aquatic theme of Backflip (in the Phoenix Hotel, 601 Eddy St.; 415/771-3547), inspired by the kidney-shaped pool in the courtyard, is carried through in the baby-blue color scheme, the chaise longues, the indoor fountains. This is the moment your Gucci sandals have been waiting for.