Off-Track Bets

by Ronn Vigh

I was on the phone with my mother, discussing her upcoming trip to San Francisco, when she said, “I can’t wait to see Fisherman’s Wharf!”

I immediately cringed. I tried to explain that most locals would never willingly go there, unless it was the result of losing a bet. While Pier 39 and its surroundings may be more family-friendly, with kitschy shops, squawking sea lions and metallic human-robots who dance when change charges their buckets, the real pulse of San Francisco goes beyond overpriced bread bowls and tourist trap bars.

I spoke to some locals to find out their favorite unusual and alternative spots that make San Francisco night life special.

Scott Nolen, a six-year resident of San Francisco, often saunters to the Tenderloin to seek refuge from the scenesters who plague many city bars.

The Brown Jug Saloon

A quintessential dive bar, The Brown Jug Saloon (496 Eddy St.) has all the grit and grime you’d expect given its location, and that’s part of what makes it truly memorable.

“The drinks are cheap, and strong enough to make you forget that the working woman next to you just explained what you can get in the alley for $5,” says Nolen. “Of course, this was after she explained that she was trying to save up to buy her teeth back.”

Hugging the other side of Civic Center is Hayes Valley, home of the dim and inimitable bar, Marlena’s (488 Hayes St.) “This is the first bar I fell in love with in San Francisco,” notes Scott. While its clientele varies, Scott has a helpful hint for that woman you may be eyeing in the corner. “No, she doesn’t have Madonna arms. That’s a man in lady’s apparel.”

Marlena performs at her eponymous bar. photo: Rich Stadtmiller

Marlena’s hosts many a benefit, and a weekly drag show with performers who seem to have been, um… one too many times around the wig store. Most memorable is their sprawling suburban-grandma-esque collection of Santa dolls, which takes over the narrow bar every holiday season.

Chris Sams is a nonprofit program director who has resided in San Francisco for 13 years. No stranger to the bar scene, Chris enjoys Truck (1900 Folsom Street at 15th) as one of his alternative go to bars. “The bartenders are friendly, the entertainment is so varied, and it’s a fun venue for people-watching.”

Truck Bar. photo: Rick Gerharter

Complete with license-plate light fixtures and a corner kitchen serving up tasty bar food, Truck is a ‘Sybil’ on the bar scene, as its personality and offerings change not just from day to day, but hour to hour. At happy hour, folks just out of work can be seen drinking beers and eating burgers. Then, just hours later on an average Tuesday night, the club converts into Busted, a ’speakeasy-style’ club night involving a secret password! to enter.

Before getting too crazy, Chris suggests hitting an improv or sketch show such as Bay Area Theater Sports at Fort Mason, or Killing My Lobster Improv comedy, which is often overlooked. But let’s face it; even if the show is a flop, most theaters usually have cheap wine and beer for a small donation.

Off the Grid

If you’re headed to Fort Mason on a Friday night, you may run into Off the Grid, which takes over much of the complex’s parking lot to accommodate hordes of hungry hipsters and the more than 40 food trucks serving offbeat cuisine from their galleys. This can all be washed down with beer and cocktails available at multiple stands for somewhat reasonable prices.

It seems that San Franciscans are forever riding the trend wave, from scouting out the newest, spiciest food trucks to dive bars with cheap beer, or new crafty cocktail venues. Now, all this can be combined, with bowling! Mission Bowling Club (3176 17th St.) has combined the working-class sport of bowling, with mixologist-made cocktails and an upscale restaurant, all in one hipster-iffic setting.

Mission Bowl. photo: Niall Kennedy

On a recent Friday evening, the wait for a lane was already ten parties long, even at 6:30 p.m. While our party got too tipsy to bowl, we did spend two hours drinking expertly crafted cocktails, eating fancy foods on sticks and enviously watching others throw their fluorescent bowling balls down the sleek lanes, hoping against hope that we too might soon do the same.

That’s just a glimpse of some “off the radar” night spots in San Francisco, but I encourage you to plan your own scavenger hunt of night spots and see what treasures you may turn up. Whether you’re looking for a shot of whiskey and a back-alley blowjob all for under ten dollars, or expertly-made cocktails with ingredients whose names you can barely pronounce, San Francisco has it all, and more.

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