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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.