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Friday, April 3, 2009

Shine - 1337 Mission Street

After 9 months of Mission Street bar exploration I turned a corner - 13th Street to be exact – which took me out of the Mission into SOMA… unfamiliar territory. I seldom travel to this part of the city, so in an effort to figure out where I would end up later that evening, I drove down Mission Street on my way home from work on the prowl for the next bar’s façade while trying not to rear-end the car in front of me. I soon glanced upon Le Duplex’s sign at 1525 Mission Street. With its CD encrusted doorway, its curbside appeal was promising with the exception of its windows which were covered with broad gray brush strokes. Still, it was a start, as I headed home I Yelped “Le Duplex” discovering that the last review was from June 2008—I would have to wait until later that evening to see if Le Duplex was open for business or yet another victim of the economic downturn.

Le Duplex or no Le Duplex, it was becoming pretty clear that the bars in SOMA would be more “dancey” than “divey”. After a challenging week, I was in desperate need of a good old fashioned dive bar to blow off some steam before departing for my dance club expedition. To buy some time and some space, I ventured to Glen Park Station, a great little bar in the Glen Park neighborhood. With a Big Daddy IPAs in hand, I enjoyed some NCAA Sweet 16 basketball games along with the bar’s festive Friday afternoon audience.

Upon serving up my second beer, the bartender asked me: “Are you slumming it tonight?” The question caught me completely off guard—was he talking to me? As a professional dive bar enthusiast my first inclination was to take offense but after taking a quick glance around this deceptively large bar I realized I was probably the only guy at the bar who didn’t know his name. Not only that, I was wearing a relatively nice sweater, clean jeans and had gel in my hair, which stood out among the overweight, weathered regulars sipping whiskies and Bud Lights, and the occasional white wine. It was clear that his question wasn’t intended to be a “you-don’t-belong-here-insult”; but rather, a hospitable greeting to a world weary, new patron—proof to me once again that I am an explorer in my own city.

Glen Park Station isn’t on Mission Street but is still worth noting as one of the great friendly dive bars in the city. Conveniently located next to La Corneta (a Mexican restaurant that quickly produced the burrito I would later eat) and Gialina, an excellent pizza place (I highly recommend getting the fried egg on top, it is utterly delicious!), Glen Park Station is well positioned for some post happy hour grub. If you play darts or want to learn, then Glen Park Station is also one of the few “true” dart bars in the Bay Area, according to Wolf – yes, that’s the name he gave me – who I’ve played a couple rounds of around the world with.

After my warm up in Glen Park, I headed back to Le Duplex. After inspecting the chalkboard (picture to the right) and looking at the flyers on the window, I mistook the glass door entrance to Mama Calizo's Voice Factory to be the entrance for Le Duplex and preceded to erroneously text that Le Duplex had now turned into “a weird sex show place” (you can follow me on Twitter @missionprowler). With its mission statement “to nurture the development of Queer Performers, Educators and Activists by providing them with Artist in Residence Programs and Arts programming,” it looks like I got it wrong about Mama Calizo's Voice Factory too—either way, an interesting destination, but not one that qualified for MoM.

I pushed on to find the 3rd beer of the evening Thankfully, I didn’t have to travel far. Perched over the sidewalk, a bored and lonesome bouncer settled into his stool for the night waiting for a line to form. If it weren’t for the bouncer, I would have easily missed Shine’s nondescript entrance. With a black door and a black façade, the dark building was anonymous except for its bright orange moniker which was pasted in a window above the door. With the evening still young, I was able to enter the desolate dance club free of a cover charge and with nothing more than a quick once-over.

Shine opens at 5pm on Fridays for Wii Happy Hour (5pm to 9pm) where you can play the basic games or bring your own – Heinekens are $2/bottle and Platino Margaritas are 2 for 1. Thanks to some novice attempts at Wii tennis, boxing and Guitar Hero, I know that my Wii playing is worse than my dancing—so, I wasn’t too upset about missing the happy hour, though the margaritas would have been a nice Friday night treat. Judging from the bar’s emptiness, there was little evidence that the Wii happy hour was much of a neighborhood hit. The only suggestion that it even occurred was a complaint by one of the bartenders about his sore shoulder - no doubt the result of some vigorous volleying in Wii tennis. Nonetheless, the Wii happy hour is a great concept and one that I’m sure many a Wii player will take advantage of as they seek bigger a better ways to couple cheap booze and large-screen play.

Inside a barren dance floor was surrounded by comfortable looking leather couches drenched in low, reddish lighting. Being one of only a couple patrons in the bar I was happy to encounter a classic John Cusack movie “Better Off Dead” which was showing on a large TV over the bar and was also being projected on the dance floor’s back wall. Showcasing high school awkwardness; the desperation to “fit in”; and the struggle to create an identity in an uncertain world, “Better Off Dead” is the perfect metaphor for Mission on Mission. With every bar I enter I am the new kid in school—and with every dance club I enter I am the new kid in school making his debut at the homecoming dance. Recognizing that I fully suck at dancing, and therefore clubbing, I embraced my night’s destiny knowing that I soon be forced to convulse to the beat. I take dancing to a whole new level.

About half way through my first beer a gaggle of women came strolling in. Obviously on a girl’s night out, these ladies were “mature” but ready to dance. Reluctant to be the first dance crew on the floor, the women stood in place bopping their generous hips side-to-side before making their way to the photo booth at the rear of the bar. While this may sound like a cool little feature, let me warn all of you extroverted, drunken clubbers—the pictures taken in the booth are uploaded to Shine’s Flickr site for the world to see. So, if you don’t want your wasted, red-faced and watery-eyed mug showing up on the internet, take your photos early in the evening.

For the first time ever on Mission on Mission, I was joined by a buddy, Alex, who strolled in at 10pm ready to get his first sample of the magic that is Mission on Mission and to kick the night into overdrive. After catching up over a few beers we noticed that the place had filled with a diverse cast of offbeat characters. Among them a 6’4” long haired, nerdish looking guy; a tank top wearing tattooed chick; and the rave girl complete with lip ring and a white fedora. Then, of course there was Alex and me, the seemingly gay couple, at the end of the bar chatting like a couple of girls as we watched the flood of gyrating bodies on the dance floor.

Most people were dancing solo, so we decided—in full comfort of our heterosexuality—to hit the dance floor. Navigated our way through the dance floor, we carved out a space in the sea (more, like pond) of sweaty, swaying bodies. Completely without any hint of rhythm, we spastically shook our hips while attempting to steer clear of the smallish girl in tall boots and a short skirt, who was dancing in a cardio-kickboxing kind of style—punching at a nonexistent attacker and then forcefully thrashing her head to and fro. The tiniest misstep could have landed either of us into her firing range, where she could have easily have taken one of us out with a head butt or a swift punch to the melon. The strange but friendly crowd was rounded out by a 50ish man in a black tank top who had eyes for Alex and who slowly but surely danced his way into Alex’s personal space.

As the night wore on, the crowd grew younger and then, at around 1:15am it started to thin out. After swigging the dregs of our brews, Alex and I decided to call it a night. Sweaty and tired, we stumbled onto the street looking for a ride home. Lucky for us, we found a limo in search of his last fare before calling it a night—the perfect cap to our “romantic” evening.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cha Cha Cha – 2327 Mission Street

With brick walls and long rounded counter leading to the kitchen, Cha Cha Cha has an excellent canteen layout with plenty of swivel stools and a few TVs to keep its patrons occupied while they wait at the bar. Dining tables line the restaurant’s walls with a separate dining room found at the rear of the building packing in locals and visitors searching for a good meal. Old black and white photographs adorn the walls adding to the festive vibe inside Cha Cha Cha.

While the bar caters to couples - in for a drink - and singles - waiting on their friends - the restaurant is an excellent choice for large groups looking to enjoy a couple jugs of sangria while sharing a wide selection of tapas for dining. Its back room was crowded as were the many booths with diners spilling into the aisles making the narrow passageway tight.

As I sipped on a Pacifico and watched the guy next to me constantly check his phone and turn his head towards the door obviously waiting on his date, it occurred to me why I wasn’t a big fan of tapas restaurants. It was because of the “Tapas Effect”. In the past, Cha Cha Cha had always been one of those places where I’ve gone in a group for a birthday celebration or to get the group of friends together to catch up which always leads to... the Tapas Effect.

The Tapas Effect is the struggle of navigating a hostile shared-food dining experience. Parceling out a jug of sangria or a pitcher of margaritas is no big deal but when you’re a vegetarian or just a picky eater then ordering tapas becomes a stressful endeavor. First, you have to balance everyone’s desired choices while strategizing on the items you can actually consume on the menu. What dish will be served first and how to get to it before someone else does. Do you double order, take your chances or just make an obvious play for the desired food early in the process? There are too many variables to deal with especially in a larger group.

I’ve learned that the best plan of attack in this situation is to sit closest to the aisle where the waiter will deliver the food. You get first dibs on all items as they’re passed to your neighbors. Now if you’re stuck in the middle, the key is to use distraction by playing the role of conscientious host handing a jug of sangria or pitcher of margaritas (a bottle of wine also works well) to occupy the hands of the intended recipient of the coveted dish so the waiter is forced to place the platter closer to you or one spot ahead in the rotation. Once the food starts making its way around the table – typically two to three tapas plates are delivered at once- pass the undesired items quickly while doubling up when appropriate on items that you can actually eat or want. The drunker your friends the better your odds at them not getting wise to your game plan.

Finally, the bill… how do you deal with the back and forth on amount owed, the friend that never pays enough and the fact that you’ve eaten about a quarter of what everyone else had. Do you split it evenly with the group even though you chose not to eat half the dishes or just try making up for it by drinking your way to an even split?

Drinking your way to an even split – an aggressive yet effective way to go - can be dicey because it can lead to being very drunk in an uncomfortably confining space, usually in a booth or the middle seat at the table, creating havoc on everyone around you as you struggle to sit in one place or become obnoxious. Your best bet here is to grab the bill and do the math for the table. You have to be careful that you planned ahead for this move and didn't drink so much that your amount too far off the mark. Over estimate the split and you'll be called out for trying to pull fast one on everyone and underestimate and you'll be paying the remaining part of the bill. Worst case scenario is being called out by someone and your response should be to plead drunkenness and simply forgetting to carry the 3. Nobody will question you and there’s a chance you get out of there paying the appropriate amount. Be wary of the light drinker, engineer or accountant at the table because they're always called on to work out the bill. Those are the times when you’re drinking your way to tapas equality.

Cha Cha Cha, (Original McCarthy’s) found between 19th & 20th Streets on Mission is a popular place for just about anyone on a night out not looking to venture far from their comfort zone, looking for decent food, plenty of alcohol and a good time. So the next time you’re asked about celebrating someone’s birthday offer up Cha Cha Cha but remember to choose your seat and company wisely or else you will be dealing with the Tapas Effect.