Sometimes you just want to get into trouble: drink too much, dance too crazy, see the sun rise on a workday, do some ill-advised flirting, steal a kiss (or more) in a bar bathroom, follow a shot of Patrón with a cocaine back. It isn’t too hard to get into trouble in this city, where the only rule seems to be that there are no rules (except that last call’s at two, sigh). But sometimes you need a little push and a little unpredictability to explore the outer reaches of your comfort zone. A few weeks here and you already know a hundred places to get your drink on: swanky places, divey places, places with good music or music so bad it feels good. It’s hard to remain anonymous, however, when you’re sipping Fat Tire and smoking spliffs on the same outdoor patio you visit every Friday, or ordering Maker’s on the rocks from the bartender who’s best friends with your last lover. And when it comes to enjoying a bit of mischief, anonymity is key. You need the unknown. A puzzle unsolved. A night stretching out before you whose story has yet to be written the most important element being that its setting has yet to be, well, set. Which is where I come in.
Just call me Nancy Drink, Cocktail Detective. My mission? To scour the city for bars of mystery: those places you’ve passed but never entered, places whose very names are enigmas, and places so random, so hidden, so far away or just plain weird that you’ve never heard of them at all. The places where no one would think to look for you.
This story starts with the enigma that is the Western Addition … oh sorry, NoPa. Which is it? The "scary" neighborhood of yore? Or the latest example of gentrification? Judging by Club Waziema, a charming Ethiopian restaurant and bar that’s a favorite of locals and virtually unknown to everyone else, the answer is both. There’s something decidedly laid-back, eclectic, and a little low-key that is, a little Western Addition about the place, with its red and white velvet wallpaper, low lighting in front, and a back room with a pool table that feels more like a hostel rec room than a hipster bar. But the family-run business is keeping up with the neighborhood’s growth, and hints of NoPa are creeping in: for example, the menu of microbrews listed alongside Ethiopian imports (skip the malty stout if you’re not a fan of Old English 40-ouncers; try the harrar instead). Still, this place isn’t exactly on the scenester radar yet and it’s better for it. You’re really here for the fantastic eat-with-your-hands food and the spot’s off-the-beaten-path, what-happens-at-Club-Waziema-stays-at-Club-Waziema feel.
543 Divisadero, SF. (415) 346-6641, www.clubwaziema.com
FORBIDDEN ISLAND TIKI LOUNGE
With a name like Forbidden Island, I figured this must be just the joint to get into delightful, delicious trouble. I wasn’t wrong. Sprouting from an otherwise quiet street was a beacon of bamboo and booze, with a thatched ceiling and a menu of fruity rum drinks organized by strength. Enough Banana Mamacows or Macadamia Nut Chi Chis and there’s no telling what one might do maybe even something as daring as smoking on the back patio past 9 p.m., when a neighborhood noise ordinance necessitates its closure. Nahhh … this place is still a bit too tame, a bit too Disney-does-Hawaii, for such bold moves. But a young’un celebrating a 21st birthday with a drink in a bowl could certainly do some damage.
1304 Lincoln, Alameda. (510) 749-0332, www.forbiddenislandalameda.com
BOW BOW COCKTAIL LOUNGE
What a strange, strange place. Where Forbidden Island’s kitsch is calculated, Bow Bow’s is completely organic. The tiny Chinatown joint has the size, shape, and ambience of a lunch counter white walls, neon, and all. It also has karaoke, which you wouldn’t even know until you heard some drunk fucks at the end of the bar singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" … oh wait, those drunk fucks were my friends and I. There’s no stage. The screen showing lyrics is suspended between the bathroom doors. And the only person there who can sing worth a damn is the man in charge of the karaoke book (with English and Chinese selections, by the way), with a voice like Harry Nilsson’s. Everyone else seems to stumble in already drunk and high, ready to do in public what they’d normally only do alone in their car.
1155 Grant, SF. (415) 421-6730
LI PO COCKTAIL LOUNGE
Could this be the Bow Bow’s older, more sophisticated, yet seedier cousin? Perhaps. It’s just up Grant, casting its crimson glow onto the street. Inside, an homage to Buddha punctuates the L-shaped bar. Extra booths and a back room hide from the foyer. The usual alcohol selection shares shelves with unfamiliar liquors in small bottles with wooden tops, the ingredients written in Cantonese. The house drink is the mai tai, which is the color of roses and tastes like sweet tequila. And on the night that I visited, there on a cracked red bar stool, watching Asian television on the flat-screen TV, was the karaoke man from the Bow Bow. Coincidence? Was he following me? Or is there really some kind of connection between the bars?
916 Grant, SF. (415) 982-0072
RADIO HABANA SOCIAL CLUB
Some of the best mysteries are those hidden in plain sight. Like Radio Habana, the hush-hush restaurant-bar nestled sneakily into a corner at 22nd Street and Valencia. Radio Habana has no sign and it’s particularly obscured by some new construction on Valencia. But if you keep an eye out for the intentionally skewed windowpane and the metal cockroach pinned to the door, you’ll find exactly the kind of place where time stands still, where novels are written, and where stories worthy of novels are perhaps played out. The highlights? Dioramas featuring Barbie dolls, cockeyed pictures, framed homages to John Lennon and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, homemade sangria, and delicious Latin-inspired food (from a quaintly small menu) served on gorgeous, long, rectangular plates.
1109 Valencia, SF. (415) 824-7659
There’s nothing about the name of this bar that sounds appealing. I don’t want to enter a dog’s anything, much less drink in it. The consonants alone, rolling around in your mouth, taste bitter. So the mystery is, why give a place such a name? And why go here at all? Turns out this Irish bar’s moniker is a version of the across-the-pond phrase dog’s bollocks, which means, roughly, "the best ever" (though it does also translate as canine testicles). And though it’s rumored to be overrun by Marina-type college kids and sometimes smell like urine, I found it delightful late on a weeknight: dark wood, frothy Guinness, a pool table, a large, long bar where you can chat with the friendly, attractive (though Scottish!) bartender, and small nooks for more intimate conservations.
408 Clement, SF. (415) 752-1452
It was a dark and stormy night … no, wait, that was the Dark and Stormy cocktail I had at Le Colonial across the street after trying and failing to visit the Hidden Vine, a place so very hidden that it wasn’t even open. Apparently there was "no hot water." A likely story. Surely something unseemly was going on behind those closed doors. Nothing like a wine bar in the dark to inspire criminal activity. But that would have to wait for another investigation. I was on a very particular mission and couldn’t be distracted by just any old cries from the city’s dark underbelly, even if it was an underbelly filled with pinot noir.
1/2 Cosmo Place (at Taylor), SF. (415) 674-3567, www.thehiddenvine.com
BARLEY ‘N HOPS
Barley ‘n Hops is the kind of place you’d never stumble on. You’d have to know it was there, tucked away on the second floor of the 55 Parc Hotel. It has bright lights and carpet and an airport-lounge feel. Also a sports theme, with Angels autographs on the walls, a Giants helmet on a pedestal, and televisions blaring news and sports. But I’m not fooled by such sterile-seeming ambience. I know this is a place to make secret deals, to order a hit, to plot the overthrow of an evil dictator. Or to down a few shots of Patrón and get out before I’m tempted to thwart a coup.
55 Parc Hotel, 55 Cyril Magnin, SF. (415) 392-8000
WOULD YOU BELIEVE?
The first time I drove by this bar, I was on one of those strange adventures involving interpersonal dynamics and unreal drama that can’t be written about in a nonfiction format. The kind of day when my answer was, "No, dear bar, I wouldn’t believe." So of course, I had to return to this Richmond enigma as part of my search for tippling treasure. What is it, I wondered, that the bar didn’t think I’d believe? Turns out it’s that the place is so … well … normal. A bit divey, a bit upscale. Ridiculously attractive bartenders juxtaposed with middle-aged clientele rolling dice on the bar and locals playing pool in the sunken foyer. Perhaps I also wouldn’t believe that I’d find myself there on a Wednesday, swing dancing to the Rolling Stones and sipping a fantastic mojito and an impressive Godfather (whiskey and something …) before seeing dawn on yet another workday. But now, I believe. I believe.
4642 Geary, SF. (415) 752-7444
Those in the know call it "the Philly." I knew it only as the lone beacon of light in the otherwise dark and quiet West Portal neighborhood near the tunnel. From its name, you’d expect an interior wreathed by curls of smoke rising from cigarettes held by fedora-wearing men discussing Nietzsche and Kant. But the place is much more like a neighborhood pub. Unpretentious. Friendly. Comfortable. The light hanging over the pool table resembled a ’50s surfer station wagon. "Why is it called the Philosopher’s Club?" I asked the bartender, who’s also the owner. His answer, appropriately Socratic: "Why not?"
824 Ulloa, SF. (415) 753-0599
"If you found us, do not tell others." That’s the Bar 821 golden rule, a rule just begging to be broken if you’re a spirits sleuth like Nancy Drink. The forced speakeasy theme seems painfully pretentious until you actually visit the tiny NoPa (yes, folks, where Club Waziema is headed, Bar 821 has already arrived) haunt. The spot offers affordable champagne cocktails, plenty of Belgian beers, and a small, swank, but surprisingly unsnooty interior perfect for intimate conversations. Get there early, though. The place stops letting people in at 11 p.m. Whether the bartenders kick you out then, though, is a nightly mystery …
821 Divisadero, SF. www.bar821.com