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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

'Tis the Holiday Season

I got wrapped up in a holiday party last Friday night thus unable to make the next stop on Mission on Mission, Cha Cha Cha. I’m back at it this Friday and looking forward to breaking up the string of winter obligations. Until next week…

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bruno's - 2389 Mission Street

After a one week hiatus, I was back to Mission on Mission once again, this time Bruno’s at 20th Street & Mission Street. With its sizeable letters hanging from the building’s wall Bruno’s marquee stands out among the neighborhood’s low key store fronts. I knew this locale would be a late night affair so I decided to arrive at 8pm a bit later than my usual happy hour time.

In the past, I’ve seen lines streaming out of Bruno’s and down the block. But, at 8 pm on Friday the doorway was empty and the club was vacant—but I guess that’s what I get for arriving one hour after the doors open. Known as a dance club, I was surprised by the amount of seating available in the bar area. Opposite a long, gleaming bar on the left, plush red seating and short tables lined the wall. Dividing the space support beams were joined together with tall table tops to provide additional stool seating.

This early in the evening, I had no problem snatching a stool at the bar and striking up conversation with Volek, the Polish bartender. It took me a while to get the dialog going. At first I thought he was being unfriendly but soon it occurred to me that he was probably unaccustomed to having an extended conversation with a patron—my guess is more often than not his interactions involve deciphering orders that are screamed over the bar. The way I was bombarding him with questions, he must have felt like a contestant on American Gladiators—ducking and dodging my barrage while trying to stay in the game. Either that or he thought I was there trying to pick him up.

After he got over his initial apprehension, Volek kept me company as Bruno’s continued to fill up. There were a few private parties being hosted at the club including a 30th birthday party being held in the room upstairs—who knew that Bruno’s had an upstairs!?

As I headed to the rear of the main room I discovered another small bar which led into the staircase to the 2nd floor. Apparently, according to Yelp reviews, this 2nd bar is an invaluable resource to getting you hands on some alcohol when the larger bar is four people deep. Across from the second bar a short hallway with a small room branching off of it, provided an intimate refuge to patrons looking to escape the voluminous crowds that overtake the larger rooms. Beyond the smaller den, was yet another vast area hosting a dance floor and DJ booth. According to Volek, some weekends the club has all three rooms playing different types of music.

Between 9:30 and 10pm Bruno’s started to fill up—fast! As the cover charge took effect at 10pm, a line started to form outside the entrance. The music was excellent and the energy inside was lively and fun. I soon realized why there were so few barstools—they want people on the floor, dancing and mingling—not blocking the bar or playing wallflower. The second room was still sparse but a few brave souls were starting to shake their bottoms on the dance floor.

At this point I had some company – and some entertainment – as my friends Lyle, Todd and Paul cruised in to join the Mission. Together we shared lively commentary on the crowd as ladies, dressed to the nines, flashed their assets to the bartenders and guys with polished dancing shoes popped their collars and prowled the club in search of the girl that might actually go home with them.

As the hour grew later, Missionites in hoodies and jeans began to join the crowd as out-of-town clubbers in their loud trendy “I’m going out in SF tonight” gear, stopped talking and started dancing. With the beats thumping and the liquor flowing I watched courage swell—guys started to strike up conversations with the ladies while the suavest of the bunch, managed to get a few on the dance floor. Ah, to be 25 and horny again… it sure was entertaining to watch.

I called it a night around 10:45pm figuring I’d had enough and realizing that the only other thing I’d get out of Bruno’s was to be an obstruction on or to the dance floor. Though Bruno’s is very much a meat market it does offer a great late night option for dancing in the Mission. The staff was attentive and Volek, after making friends earlier in the evening, made sure my drink was never empty. With $5 cover on Friday nights and a $10 cover on Saturdays the fee seems reasonable with what you get on the inside, a good place to go with a group to get your groove on, listen to decent DJs and to meet the under 30 horny crowd.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tacos Santana Bar and Grill - 2491 Mission Street

Mission on Mission got off to a slow start on Friday night. Making my way down Mission Street, I couldn’t figure out my next location. Though the sign read “Tacos Santana Bar and Grill” on first pass I couldn’t tell if this spot was a bar or if it was restaurant with “bar” conveniently added to its name. After a few trips up and down Mission Street in the car I finally pulled over and took a quick peek inside which revealed a bar with alcohol shelved—decision made—Tacos Santana fit the bill.

Along my journey there haven’t been many questions about whether I was visiting a bar or sitting in a restaurant. So far I have only encountered one place that occupied that ambiguous territory between bar and grill— Playa Azul, which I concluded after a delicious shrimp tostada, was more restaurant than bar.

With checkered black and white tile along its foundation wall reminiscent of old school diners and a gleaming, expensive looking die cut aluminum marquee with lights, Tacos Santana has an impressive exterior that serves as a beacon to late-night patrons in need of sustenance or perhaps a final beer or margarita after a night of partying.

Entering the bar side of the establishment I was immediately surprised by the brightness coming from the three TVs—each playing “Caballo a Caballo” some kind of Mexican comedy from the 50s or early 60s. The walls were mostly bare with the exception of a Mexican sombrero enveloped in Miller Light logos which hung high above a mirrored wall and just under the various white orbs that dangled from the high ceiling. Across the aisle from four cocktail tables was a short bar with five or six stools.

Service was swift with four waitresses in tight jeans and high heels circling tables on both sides of the room—serving up drinks, food and company to those in need. Along with a Pacifico, I ordered two shrimp tostadas to help stave off my hunger and quench my thirst. What quickly followed were a bowl of tortilla chips and some bland, ketchup-like salsa. The passing waitresses were attentive and quick to deliver drinks and food. The shrimp tostadas that followed the sub-par chips and salsa were pleasantly delicious. Crisp but not crumbly, the tostadas supported a plentiful amount of shrimp and fixin’s.

Though the service and food were good I was bewildered by the check—two Pacificos and two shrimp tostadas came to a hefty $18.50. Next time I’ll gamble on the burrito to save a little dough.

Tacos Santana is a great post-night-out spot for some good eats if you can stomach the prices. The place doesn’t have much personality and its interior décor is lacking but after a night of drinking does it matter? As far as bar vs. restaurant? I am undecided. Tacos Santana continues to linger in between.

Mission on Mission’s next stop cannot be confused as anything other than a bar. Bruno’s, will be a late night visit and I’m sure to see some interesting action though it will have to wait until the first Friday of December. With the Thanksgiving holiday this weekend, I will have ample time to prepare for what I expect to be an interesting evening.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Medjool Sky Terrace - 2522 Mission Street

With the fabulous 70 degree weather Friday night, it felt more like San Diego on a warm summer night than San Francisco in the middle of November. Thankful for the beautiful weather I was ready to spend my Friday evening at Medjool’s Sky Terrace on the roof of 2522 Mission Street.

To get to the Sky Terrace I entered Medjool’s main restaurant/bar/club entrance and passed the vast open room lined with empty tables. The short bar along the right side of the room was equally deserted with only two patrons. I made my way to the hallway which featured a reception desk for the Elements Hotel/Hostel and an ATM machine warning prospective Sky Terrace patrons that the rooftop bar was a cash-only establishment. Thankfully, I came prepared so I was able to forgo what I am sure was a ridiculous ATM fee. Yelpers describe the elevator to Medjool’s rooftop as rickety and slow and I couldn’t agree more. In the time it took for the elevator to reach to the rooftop, I could have easily hiked up the four floors on foot, ordered a beer and taken a sip in time to toast the elevator’s arrivals as they emerged from the hollow death trap.

A full moon dangled heavily in the sky and a warm wind slid over the exposed roof. Stella in hand I took in the San Francisco skyline enjoying the bright lights of the City –recognizing that this was not only one of the best vantage points in the Mission, it was also, by far, the best view I had experienced on Mission on Mission. In the absence of available stools and a place to put my beer, I leaned up against a pillar by the bar and began to scope out the terrace and its guests.

With a standing no-reservations rule, the tables scattered across the rooftop are on a first-come-first-serve basis. As a “party of one” my prospects for a coaster and comfortable seat remained limited. With no “home base”, I felt a bit hobbled and found it difficult to navigate the rooftop landscape—it wasn’t hard to tell that this is a bar that caters to groups of two or more. I asked a group of women if I could join them at their table and was confronted with sideways glances then offered a free chair—not to sit in, but to take with me and sit somewhere else. Deciding not to pursue the opportunity, I figured it best to return to my duty of buttressing canopy’s support pillar. Flying solo at Sky Terrace is definitely a liability.

Once again, finding comfort in my spot I took in the mixture of perfume, cologne and cigarette smoke. The rhythmic echo of high heels on the wood floors accompanied a decent selection of music playing over the loudspeakers. Everyone was dressed up for a Friday night out in the City and it appeared that this was their first stop of the evening. Women in precariously high heels, shiny dressy tops and tight jeans seemed to dominate the landscape as guys walked around in their patterned embroidered button up shirts, jeans and glossy black shoes. Outside of the few couples who came to enjoy the nice weather and the view the majority of the crowd was comprised of crews of men scoping out the action, and looking for opportunities to infiltrate any group of girls who would give them the time of day. Likewise, I noticed a few prides of mountain lions and cougars roaming about – waiting for a weak 20-something guy to fall away from his pack. It couldn’t have been more clear—these people were not from San Francisco.

For those coming up to the City for a night on the town the appeal of Medjool is undeniable—Sky Terrace is a great place to start the evening, have a drink and check out the panoramic views. There’s also an opportunity to have a light appetizer while you wait for the dinner hour to end so you can head downstairs and watch the restaurant transform into a dance club. A one-stop-shop of sorts, Medjool is anything you want it to be—a bar, a club, a restaurant, a patio—and while the view is great, one thing is painfully obvious—being all things to all people, Medjool is pretty mediocre at everything.

A little disappointed at the lack of hipster patrons, seating and the high price of beer I decided it was time to call it a night. Having had one successful trip that evening, I decided to cut my losses with the elevator and take a trek down the stairs. As I hit the first floor landing, I had to wonder how many drunks had made the same decision only to find themselves eating concrete before heading home.

For a hot November evening in the City I got pretty much all I could ever ask for at Medjool’s Sky Terrace—except for maybe a place to put my beer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Laszlo Bar - 2526 Mission Street

With the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of helicopters overhead, I ventured into a cold, winter San Francisco night and down to László Bar, my next stop on Mission on Mission. As my evening began, a protest gathered in the Castro to challenge the passing of Proposition 8—accounting for the aerial surveillance. I had to wonder, what can three helicopters really do to hold off a crowd of thousands? I wondered if protesters would spill onto Mission Street or if I was too far on the outer periphery of the neighborhood.

László Bar has two doors—one on the street which is found between a few tables outside the bar, and a second door down the long hallway leading up to Foreign Cinema’s hostess station. I entered through the side and found the bar comfortably full, but not packed. Upstairs a mezzanine offered a curtained seating area which hovered vacantly over the bar area. The corners of the bar buzzed quietly with small groups enjoying cocktails, and the bar stools were all spoken for as couples sipped their $8 drinks and waited for tables at Foreign Cinema. I chose a spot along the wall that had stools and a thin landing to place my beer.

Over the doorway a large, contemporary painting reminiscent (or a direct replica) of a communist propaganda poster, announced the bar’s ironic socialist-chic vibe. Lighting inside was dim with a faint orange glow radiating from the pendant lights above the bar. A TV in the corner added its own shimmer to the surrounding bar. Though the lighting was dull I quickly noticed the difference between László’s clientele from that of the other bars I’d visited so far. A new-to-me SF crowd—these folks were not hipsters or rockabillys, and they weren’t Latino—rather the place was packed with Europeans, yuppies and the over-40 crowd. Opting for a subdued pallet, the patrons of the bar all seemed to don every shade of gray and black, and my brightly striped orange and yellow sweater seemed to clash with the rest of the crowd.

Though the bar’s website promotes the DJs that spin nightly and considers it a Euro-friendly which was evidenced by the many European accents I detected through the low music. Despite its promises of a clubish atmosphere, I couldn’t quite imagine the place packed with dancers and loud music. With its urban, minimalist décor, the prospect of house music ricocheting off the bar’s steel and concrete corners seems potentially unpleasant.

Cozy is not the word I would use to describe László Bar especially on a brisk evening like last Friday night. But somehow, through its bare interior—with glass doors, ice block windows and masonry—there is a certain kind of warmth to the place. Over the two hours, a steady flow of patrons in overcoats and wool scarves found their way into the bar to join friends for a pre-dinner cocktail, but I was hard pressed to single out anyone who looked like a habitual visitor. More than anything László’s seemed to like a nice place to enjoy a relaxing layover before moving on to a main event—wherever that might be.
Leaving László Bar I could almost feel Mission’s tide turning from dive bars to trendy lounges. László did its best to bring the Eastern Block’s cold edge to San Francisco–for this Friday, I am hoping that San Francisco can serve up one more warm, Friday night as I make my way to the Mediterranean ambiance of Medjool’s Sky Terrace.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mission Bar - 2695 Mission Street

With barred windows and black exterior the Mission Bar has an intimidating and bleak façade. Its nondescript marquee reading only “Bar” calls to mind the drab and seedy bars depicted in graphic novels and film noir. Were the windows laced with iron bars there to keep trouble out or to protect the public from what was inside?

Passing through the door, the interior had the same overcast mood as the exterior with dark colors and muted lights. Expecting to discover a pub full of shady characters, I found instead a much tamer bunch. A group of early 20- something girls sat at the bar near the entrance in their Friday night best ready for a night of drinking and dancing. Along the wall there was a row of stuffed, vinyl booths – one of which hosted a handful of young Latinos guys catching up after a long day of work. Further down the bar a few nicely dressed couples drank before their late night dinner reservations. Rounding out the collection of patrons, a group of regulars were perched at the end of the bar near the pool table. Some were chatting with Walter, the bartender, while others sat on their stools necks cocked back watching the game. A few others just stared into their beers.

The bar’s elaborate Halloween decorations were impressive. A pack of rats scurried down the wall as spider webs, skeletons and tombstones, with the names of Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday, adorned the walls. Two skeletons hung from the ceiling copulating to the alternative music that wafted out of the juke box.

After a long and taxing work week I was delighted that the Mission had landed me at a nice, mellow neighborhood bar where I could enjoy an ice cold beer and watch my alma mater—the San Jose State Spartans—go against the Boise State Broncos. Walter and the female bartender were courteous and attentive with just the right amount of attitude—a quality that I have come to appreciate among Mission Street bartenders. Great service paired with just enough edge to handle the variety of personalities that drift off Mission Street and up to their barstools every night.

Arriving right before 8pm, I was just in time to take advantage of $2.50 happy hour drafts and I stayed long enough to watch an ebb and flow of customers come through the door. I wasn’t looking for much but I got exactly what I needed, a great neighborhood bar. Nothing too exciting but a place that many—including myself—can call home.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

El Farolito Bar - 2777 Mission Street

Mission on Mission last Friday night felt a little bit like a tourist on an African safari. However, instead traversing the Serengeti, I was transecting one of San Francisco’s more diverse neighborhoods, the Mission. With Savanna Jazz behind me, El Farolito Bar awaited just 2 blocks ahead.

For personal protection and to blend in with regional wildlife, safari attire has traditionally consisted of khaki clothing, bush jackets and pith helmets (remember Banana Republic circa 1989?). Working from the same premise but addressing a totally different type of “wild-life,” I donned a black hoodie and jeans to travel Mission’s 2500 block.

While there were no acacia trees or any desert brush obscuring my path, I did encounter pot holes and a lot of concrete. As I hiked through the neighborhood the vibrant storefronts clashed with the smells oozing from the city’s pores and BART rumbled underfoot on its way to the 24th Street Station. The dissonance of the city made my ears yearn for the oasis of the rhythmic jazz from my last stop.

I turned into the den of El Farolito noticing that I walked a full block before arriving at the bar which hasn’t happened since Canchola's Bar. The cavernous bar was lined with a variety of soccer trophies and a smattering of TVs showcased an undisclosed soccer game with only a few of the bar’s denizens cheering for a victory.

El Farolito is home to a number of species and though I did not find any mighty lions or speedy cheetahs, I did discover a unique species of zebra-hippo and a few machito meerkats. Squeezed into a silver, zebra-print, too-small-skin-tight top with white pants and silver high heels, the zebra-hippo waitress shimmied up and down the bar delivering drinks to the patrons as her heels clicking under hoof. Small in stature and hovering around the pool tables in the rear of the bar, the machito meerkats huddled skittishly in groups drinking their beers and watching the waitress intently. Standing a good “head” above the other wildlife in the bar, I was clearly the giraffe on this safari.

Among the bar’s other thirsty inhabitants I spotted a rare creature—the zigzag bearded monkey. The specimen entered the establishment late in the evening and almost slipped by my watchful eye. Though I was unable to take of photo of this rare breed, I did find a similar specimen online (see photo on the right). I was also able to witness a surprising mating ritual between the zigzag bearded monkey and the zebra-hippo.

In the savannah that is El Farolito most species coexist without issue; however, when threatened the wildlife can become extremely dangerous. As I arose to leave, one of the machito meerkats said something to offend the bartender who quickly retaliated. Picking up the ice scooper, she quickly shot a handful of ice with viper-like speed directly to his face. Startled by the speed and accuracy of her attack, the bartender’s scooper assault instilled in me a fear deeper than that of the “knife sharpener” at Canchola’s. I have no doubt—that had she so desired—she could have taken out one of his eyes with an ice cube.

Monday, October 20, 2008

El Farolito to come...

Unfortunately, I'm unable to post today. I won't make any excuses, I will just say that I've been very busy lately. I did make it to El Farolito Bar and will share my experience with all of you by Wednesday morning.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Savanna Jazz - 2937 Mission St

On a chilly and windy evening in San Francisco I found myself approaching Savanna Jazz’s awning thinking about the stark contrast between Club 26 Mix and what I expected to find at Savanna Jazz. In just a block’s distance I expected to encounter a relaxing loungey environment compared to the grungy weathered feel of 26 Mix.

The outdoor seating in front of Savanna Jazz was empty which I attributed to the less than friendly weather. Savanna Jazz’s doors open at 6:30pm but it was a little after 7 when I strolled in. Upon arriving a nice, older gentleman asked me for the $5 cover charge which caught me a little off guard given that it was so early in the evening. Nonetheless, I dutifully paid for my ticket knowing that the proceeds would go to the musicians performing that evening.

Upon entering I was immediately impressed with Savanna Jazz’s great ambiance and surprised by its emptiness. The dark walls were lined with portraits and album covers of Jazz greats—projecting a sense of honor and reverence to their talent and their craft. The long elegant bar with blue pendant lights radiated a soft illumination that reminded me of old New Orleans. Walking along the bar, the room opened up to booth seating and a dance floor, which also contained a handful of tables. In the back corner, a small stage hosted a piano, a set of drums and a space in between for the bassist. Though only established in November 2003, Savanna Jazz had the feel and character of an old San Francisco landmark.

After ordering a Fat Tire and perusing the dinner menu I opted for some nachos to snack on. A video of Ella Fitzgerald’s "Jazz in Montreux '79 ‘St. Louis Blues’" performance played on the many TVs found throughout the room. Conversation with Howard and Allison, the bartenders, and with Makay, the hostess/waitress, was easy and comfortable. All were personable, friendly and welcoming.

Shortly after I arrived, three musicians began setting up on the stage and soon after commenced their set performing only for me, the staff and a group of ladies in a corner booth. Having never played an instrument myself I was mesmerized by the trio’s talent, soul and passion which were expressed not only through their music but also through their body language.

My “Swingin’ Nachos” arrived just in time to attack the hunger that had come over me. I haven’t had nachos that tasty in a long time—maybe ever!—and, it surprised me that of all the possible places to have the “best nachos in the Mission”, I was having them at Savanna Jazz!

A few minutes later, Jeff, the chef, poked his head out from behind the kitchen curtain – to offer the bar staff a small sampling of his homemade salsa and chips as well as a hotdog bun stuffed with sausage. The bar staff was nice enough to share with me and despite their simplicity, this second batch of chips and the accompanying salsa were scrumptious—warm and homemade, the chips where crisp and flaky and the fresh salsa was almost reminiscent of an Italian bruschetta. Later in the evening, Jeff emerged from the kitchen to enjoy some music at the bar, and after few minutes of chatting with him, it was clear that he is a man that takes great pride in his culinary creations.

As the evening crept towards midnight a few groups of late diners arrived claiming just a handful of seats but the place never filled up. The trio was generous with their music and talent, and it was truly a shame that the audience wasn’t larger to reciprocate their efforts.

Driving down Mission St., I’ve passed Savanna Jazz countless times wondering each time for a few seconds what the place might be like inside. If it weren’t for Mission on Mission I am sure that I would have never discovered this San Francisco gem. After a thoroughly enjoyable evening of fantastic jazz and hanging out with Jeff, Howard, Allison and Makay at the bar, I left the bar wanting to share my Savanna Jazz experience with my friends and fellow San Franciscans.

My hope is that more people will discover Savanna Jazz and get to enjoy the good food, the friendly staff and harmoniously talented musicians. Whether it’s a Tuesday night jam session or a celebrated Jazz performer, what Savanna Jazz brings to the south Mission neighborhood and the City is a completely unique and inspiring experience.

Amazing live music, grubbing food, a friendly staff, and parking … what more could a San Franciscan ask for?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Club26 Mix - 3024 Mission Street

Fixing my laptop in order to write my blog this week may have been the hardest thing I’ve had to do on Mission on Mission, even harder than Roccapulco. I never thought that that repairing a computer would involve a power drill and when I say power drill I’m referring to my Dewalt High Torque Power Drill that can bore through a cement block like a hot skewer through butter. My Apple Powerbook didn’t stand a chance; but then again, I didn’t stand a chance of fixing it if I didn’t somehow find a way to pull out the screw that I inadvertently stripped while trying to open the casing. So out came the Dewalt and in went the drill bit, right into the head of the screw—a screw so tiny I needed my glasses just to keep it in view. Luckily, the drill is mightier than the screw and I shredded the bastard into bits—amazingly without damage to the computer or myself.

Best Buy’s Geek Squad is in no danger of me taking on computer repair as a hobby. With each lost microscopic screw and misplaced keyboard letter, my frustration grew—my singular focus and motivation was putting the computer back together so I could write this week’s entry. Alas, after a full day working on the computer (9 hours to be exact) interspersed with some Sunday football (watching the 49ers lose to the Patriots), the repairs rounded completion and I was able to find solace in some afternoon beers and reflect on Friday night’s adventure at Club 26 Mix.

Friday night marked another major milestone on my journey—I was finally crossing Cesar Chavez. After 18 Fridays, I am exactly one mile into my Mission and incredibly, I have already visited 17 bars. Passing the large construction site on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Mission Street, I made my way to the large orange arrow with martini glass that was pointing to my next destination, Club 26 Mix. Encased in a plethora of unlit neon lights, the bar’s sign seemed to promise both excitement and disappointment—kind of like a strip club with the lights on. Dressed in black and perched on a stool just outside the bar, the bouncer sat and watched as pedestrians cruised by.

After a brief but thorough pat down I was granted entry through the heavy, leather drapes (yes, heavy…leather…drapes) separating the bar and its patrons from the public outside. I soon realized that the drapes were as much about keeping daylight out as they were about keeping the people and noise in.

Once an upscale dance club/lounge, Club 26 Mix has faded into a typical though gigantic dive bar. A remnant of its more festive days, a long dance floor and stage were positioned in the center of the space with booth seating lining the edge. Somewhat out of place, two pool tables were crammed into the rear of the room.

Settling into my seat at the end of the bar a feeling of déjà vu overtook me as I noticed all the girls walking around the room delivering drinks and chatting with the patrons. Was this Coronitas Bar?

Music blared in the background and I ordered my standard fare, a Pacifico, from one of the two female bartenders. Squeezed into an extremely short skirt, the poor woman had to tug at the bottom of her skirt with every step to prevent the thing from climbing up her back and over her butt. Meanwhile, the second bartender flaunted her enormous breasts which struggled to stay contained in her backless top. The whole get-up was a precarious network of fabric and physics, which wasn’t as flattering as one would have hoped.

The rest of the harem did their best to entice the male clientele by wearing the tightest pants, shortest skirts and tops so snug you could see the contour of their every curve, lump and bump. Some were cute, some were homely but all of them were working hard taking orders, delivering drinks and keeping the gentlemen of the bar the company they desired. It seemed like for every two guys there was one server taking care of them—not letting an empty glass or bottle hit the table before another had been ordered and delivered.

As these women swirled around the bar, there was a steady influx of men coming and going. Some played pool while other just stopped in for a quick drink. Just as Coronitas had a bouncer at the door and another one inside, 26 Mix added a third bouncer who meandered about keeping a watchful eye on the scene. A Goliath amongst the many Davids inside, I wouldn’t want to mess with him during a drunken evening.

With almost everyone speaking Spanish I managed to hold some light conversation with Sandra the barkeep in the tiny skirt. By light conversation I mean a lot of short sentences and awkward pauses—all in Spanish. She kept me company for awhile before getting what looked like a look or signal from someone behind a partition telling her to move along. I have no idea what was said or what happened, all I know is that she suspiciously walked to the other end of the bar and stayed there for the rest of my visit. I can only venture to guess that by sitting at the bar I wasn’t allowed the same attention as someone who had commandeered a table.

26 Mix could be Coronitas’ doppelganger, once a lounge with popular DJs spinning as hipsters danced and the bar now hosts Spanish music, pool tables and urban vaqueros. Despite their painfully high heels and the treacherously uneven floor, the bar’s hardworking staff smiled all night as they traveled to and from the bar—chatting with their patrons, taking orders and delivering drinks—and, more than anything, lifting spirits.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Roccapulco - 3140 Mission Street

The day finally came, the day I entered Roccapulco. If Mission on Mission is my Everest then Roccapulco is my Hillary Step—hard to get to, intimidating and a necessary milestone as I continue my journey towards Mission on Mission’s final destination.

Located at 3140 Mission Street between Cesar Chavez and Valencia, Roccapulco is tough not to notice with its name splashed brilliantly across a mammoth purple façade and its illuminated marquee hanging over the sidewalk. For this adventurer of the night, Roccapulco has been the biggest “unknown” among the many (relative) certainties along my Mission. Since I started Mission on Mission I have often driven by Roccapulco wondering what my evening there would behold.

As I prepared for my Friday at Roccapulco, I had to consider a few extra provisions that, as of yet, I have not needed to negotiate—specifically, purchasing tickets in advance, a dress code and my lack of ability when it comes to salsa dancing.

To satisfy Roccapulco’s “no jeans, no tennis shoes” dress code, I donned slacks, a button up shirt and casual shoes. With my $45 tickets in hand, I made my way down the street eager to see if Grupo Niche would live up to their hefty price tag—which was $30 over the club’s usual $15 cover charge. As I approached the club’s grand entrance, I passed a parked police car only to see 3 of our SF’s finest congregating at an open doorway that seemed to tunnel into the club. While there didn’t seem to be any commotion taking place, I took note of their presence which seemed to bolster the many Yelp reviews I have read claiming that this section of the Mission is a particularly rough part of town.

I pushed my computer generated ticket through the ticket window and was immediately frisked before being allowed to enter the massive structure. Security seemed to be a big priority at the club, as I evidenced by the swarm of bouncers who circled inside the doorway, dressed in black and chattering through their microphones and earpieces.

Given the attention paid to its exterior, Roccapulco’s interior décor is disappointing. With a few neon lights peppered throughout the enormous, hanger-like cavern, light was a precious commodity. Serviced by 2 bars—one located at the entrance and another in the back of the club—sweaty, post-salsa patrons eagerly waited to quench their thirst on buckets of Corona. The centerpieces of the club, the dance floor and the stage somehow seemed to make up for the club’s lack of decoration acceptable.
I weaved my way to the back bar through the masses as the band played. Circling the dance floor, a multitude of booths hosting groups of 4 to 6 and tables of couples enjoyed their buckets of Coronas as they, along with those looking down from the balcony, watched the ebb and flow of dancers stepping on and off the dance floor. The whole place reminded me of the Havana nightclubs you often see in Mafia movies.

Roccapulco intimidated me because I knew that it would require me to scoot my feet and move my hips. Of the many things I’m not good at, dancing and singing are at the top of the list. But, with every sip of Corona my courage grew and I quickly realized that my aversion to dancing was diminishing—I decided that dancing wasn’t that big of a deal. For the crowd, dancing seemed to fluctuate between accomplished Salsa steps (which Roccapulco is know for) to amateur shimmying—feet glued to the floor, shoulders and heads bobbing erratically back and forth. Though I am no salsa expert, I could tell that amongst the flock of tight, bedazzled and sometimes outrageous outfits, the dancers ranged from amateur to experienced.

As the band played on I worked my way to the dance floor to cut some rug. It wasn’t pretty and I could tell that my steps were being evaluated by the crowd ranging from 20-something guys who were out on the town with their “chicas” to a 60 year old couple dancing their hearts out. As I scanned my dancing radius, I noticed some less than hospitable looks from guys who were tightly holding onto their ladies—maybe my moves were better than I thought!

In the end Roccapulco was as entertaining as any other stopover along Mission Street. Though the band did not live up the exorbitant ticket price, Roccapulco’s pseudo-salsa dancing make the club a unique and fun experience much in the same way that El Rio’s burlesque show and the Knockout’s live bands make those places the gems they are. I didn’t see any hipsters or Rocabillies but through my research found that there is a large salsa community in San Francisco. I wonder if you have to wear sequins to fit in.

As far as safety goes… my night began with pat down and as I left Roccapulco I passed a pair of cops lingering by the front bar. I felt safer here than in many of the other places in my odyssey. The Mission on Mission “Hillary Step” turned out to be more a figment of my imagination than the reality that is Roccapulco.

I don’t salsa yet but the Salsa classes offered on most Friday nights at 8:30pm are appealing. Maybe there’s hope for this Mexican born without any detectable rhythm or soul to speak of.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A bump in the road...

After making it 3 months without missing a Mission on Mission Friday night it finally happened. After a busy work week and with a broken body, I sat on the couch too sick to attempt Roccapulco. From about 4pm to 4:30pm there was an outside chance that I was going to make the trip but after much deliberation I figured that Roccapulco warranted my full strength. Attempting this next destination without the proper reserve of energy would surely have put me at a disadvantage when it came to the salsa dancing classes, fighting the crowd and cheering on the band.

Next Friday night promises to be a festive evening as the Roccapulco Supper Club welcomes Grupo Niche, a well known Colombian band (which I am sure will warrant an advanced ticket purchase). This next stop on the Mission will also commence slightly later than usual because the club’s doors don’t open until 8pm – which ties in nicely to recent feedback that I’ve received about the Mission’s start time.

A number of readers have commented that Mission on Mission’s Friday launch time of 6pm is too early in the evening and is causing me to miss out on some important late night action—particularly at bars that don’t have an early-evening crowd. Initially, I had decided to start Mission on Mission at 6pm because it would give me insight into the after work/happy hour crowd. While this earlier timeslot has rendered some bars completely empty, it has also given me the unique chance to chat with bartenders, bouncers and regulars to learn about the history and culture these places have to offer. That said Mission on Mission isn’t just a review of local pubs and their clientele, it is also a travelogue about transecting San Francisco at a certain time every week in an effort to uncover the city’s unexpected characters and treasures.

However, as readers have pointed out, I am undoubtedly missing out on some important idiosyncrasies of each bar. So, after much serious thought, I have decided to continue Mission on Mission at its usual 6pm time slot and, if after one hour the bar does not come to life, I will return later in the evening in an attempt to behold its full potential. Hopefully, this new approach will give me a more insightful glimpse into the full spectrum of what each bar has to offer.

Keep on reading and thanks to those of you who’ve commented and sent in emails your feedback and comments have been extremely valuable.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Nap's 3 - 3152 Mission Street

Last Friday I was simmering in the hot sun, enjoying a nice cold beer as I took in an entertaining burlesque show at El Rio. This week, on an overcast, frosty Friday night I entered Nap’s thinking I should ask for a hot Tennessee Mud rather than an icy Pacifico. As I drank I willed the cloud cover to give way to the sun’s last opportunity to warm me up.

My hopes didn’t get realized and the nippy breeze pushed me past a gentleman wearing a cowboy hat and boots who was busily swinging a large Maglite from side to side. For a quick moment I couldn’t tell if he was the bouncer or just some guy playing with a giant flashlight and having a good time singing along to James Brown on the jukebox.

The bartender, Jesus, was doing his best impression of Danny Trejo. Donning a Nap’s 3 logoed vest and a two foot ponytail, he looked more like an off-the-strip Vegas card dealer than a Mission dive bartender—I mean how many dive bars have uniforms!? I attempted to strike up a conversation with him but he didn’t seem to be in the mood.

Nap’s 3, a self-professed sports karaoke bar was artfully decorated with promotional beer posters ranging from the lovely Budweiser girls to the NASCAR sponsored drivers. These cheap posters were in stark contrast to the 45’s, small disco balls, dream-catchers and the odd fly strip that dangled from the bar’s glimmering ceiling. I’m not sure what the “3” in the bar’s name is all about (I can’t imagine that Nap’s 3 is the third bar in a successful chain of San Francisco karaoke dive bars) but it certainly begs for an explanation. I’ll have to ask Nap, the owner, someday when I return to the place because on this particular evening he was too preoccupied with trying to fix the television and the karaoke machine to mingle with his customers.

Nap’s 3 receives surprisingly excellent reviews on Yelp though on this Friday night it was quiet and I was joined by only a handful of other patrons. I figured there had to be more to Nap’s—so I made my way through the bar beer in hand as James crooned in the background. Migrating past two women who were sitting at the end of the bar and a lone pool player; I made my way through a small hallway which opened up into a large patio.

The spacious patio was cluttered with an accumulation of tables, chairs and umbrellas which was probably why it was vacant. Across the fence, the bar’s neighbor, El Rio, seemed to be enjoying a large backyard crowd as a steady stream of chatter and music cascaded over the fence. Standing in the vacant enclosure, I couldn’t help but think about this humble bar’s potential. With so few bars in San Francisco having outdoor seating, Nap’s doesn’t seem to recognize that there is a goldmine in his backyard. In a daydream moment I thought about what I could do with a bar like this… back yard, pool table, great location. So much potential!

Returning inside and settling onto my barstool I was once again confronted by the flashlight wielding buckaroo who was now enjoying a duet with Aretha Franklin as he sipped his beverage. By now I had confirmed that he was in fact the sheriff of this pub—maintaining law and order over the place while partaking in conversation with anyone who returned the favor.

Before my evening drew to a close, a panhandler approached the bar’s entrance but was quickly turned away with a $0.50 handout in exchange for preventing his offensive odor from crossing the threshold of the bar. Shortly thereafter a hombre and his female companion came to the door pushing a stroller that had a kid inside and a bag of grilled corn hanging from the handlebars. I hadn’t seen the Corn Guy before and was once again astonished by the number and diversity of street food vendors that Mission Street employs. Nap gave a “maíz a la parrilla” shout out to his customers to see if anyone was interested … there were no takers and the Corn Salesman moved on to the next place.

As 8pm approached Nap’s was still waiting to hit its stride while El Rio was humming with activity next door. I had to wonder if Nap’s ever lives up to the wonderful Yelp reviews because it sure didn’t on this Friday night. As I left Nap’s I took a quick look over at Roccapulco, next week’s destination. At 8pm the place looked completely closed but judging from its website, 10pm might be a better time to visit I’ll have to adjust my start time next week and, for the first time on my journey, be prepared to pay a cover charge.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

El Rio - 3158 Mission Street

At the conclusion of a very scorching late summer day in the Bay Area, the Mission on Mission led me to the next stop along my journey. El Rio, a bar that defines itself as “your dive”, is the perfect oasis on the rare summer day in SF.

El Rio’s entrance is deceptively unassuming—but as I walked through the bar’s plain gray doors I was accosted by the bar’s dynamic vitality. Packed but not stuffed, the bar hosted a lively crowd who were busily wetting their whistles and chatting with their friends as music blared in the background.

Hosting a clientele from all walks of life this surprisingly large bar on Mission Street puts “happy” back in “happy hour”. The just-off-work crowd captured the diversity of San Francisco’s 20- to 40-something professionals with representatives from the financial district, local construction sites, Mission coffeehouses and even the drag scene. El Rio’s Happy Hour runs from 5 – 9pm but on this hot evening draught beers were out of commission so my suds of choice were Red Stripes, an option I often overlook.

El Rio lives up to its claim of being “your dive” with the usual telltale signs of a dive bar: pool table, shuffleboard table near the entrance, juke box (a dive bar necessity), Giants’ game on the tube, DJ booth, dice behind the bar and, of course, what every dive bar needs … regulars. The rare hot weather was reason enough for any regular to make their way to El Rio for a cold beer—it also provided Bernal and Lower Mission inhabitants the opportunity to swagger out for the evening in their “summer attire”—which on this particular night meant plenty of pasty skin and tattoos.

As I ventured to the back of the bar, I ended up on the backyard deck overlooking a sizeable patio. In the far corner a grill was available for those who were keen enough to bring some steaks or dogs with them. Though I don’t eat meat, I am sure the steaks go nicely with the oyster appetizers which are occasionally free and served on Friday nights starting at 5:30pm. I hear those go quick so make sure you’re there early. There’s a lot going on at this neighborhood bar and the backyard deck and patio is a great space for hanging out, catching up with old friends and making new ones.

Hanging out on the patio my senses were bombarded with music, lively conversation, cigarette smoke and an even wider array of colorful outfits, skin and some really incredible well-done tattoos. I even caught a glimpse of a woman in fishnet stockings wearing nothing else but a red button-up shirt that barely covered her derriere. And, actually, she didn’t even stand out as much in the sea of other interesting outfits—some slinkier than others. That was before I noticed the flyer for the Red Hots Burlesque show that was sitting the deck’s railing … SF’s most socially conscious burlesque show appears at El Rio every Friday night from 7:30-9pm.

When in Rome…

The stage was located off the patio in a separate a room that also has a DJ booth and seating—the perfect spot for a live band or, in this case, a striptease. With a $5 - $10 donation, the cover charge was reasonable especially considering that some of the money goes to charity.

Kingfish, the comedian/host of this event, brought the standing-room-only crowd to attention by grabbing the mic and telling a few hack jokes. The gathering, which looked to be more women than men, waited with anticipation as the first performer was introduced.

The burlesque starlets sang, danced and performed their routines to the enthusiastic and rowdy audience. Tattooed and au naturale, the performers brought down the house with their modern and cheeky interpretations of this vaudevillian tradition with reviews ranging from a risqué striptease to a comedic interpretation of fan dancing. At the midpoint of the performance the audience was given the opportunity to purchase $1 raffle tickets for a drawing where the raffle winner would get to select a charity for the collected raffle funds. My tickets were losers but it was nice knowing the money was going to a good cause.

As the performance came to a close, so too did my evening. The burlesque show was definitely a highlight of the evening. After having had my fill of beers I meandered through the still-busy bar and stepped out into the mild, fog-free SF night.

Next up…. Naps.