Something for nothing

Pub date July 15, 2009


You can’t get much cheaper than free. And at a time when many of us are counting every penny, the Bay Area is full of free stuff. Some of it’s right in front of your face, but most of it takes a little digging to find. This guide should send you in the right direction.

Oh, and by the way: some economists and political thinkers are suggesting that, as the over-financed, money-driven economy of the last century goes into, well, free-fall, the idea of giving things away could be the model for a more sustainable future.



You can eat like a gourmet for the price of a drink

By Virginia Miller

Eating free doesn’t have to begin and end with soup kitchens. Here are some spots where, for the price of a drink — or sometimes for nothing — you can get good food, and sometimes excellent food, for everybody’s favorite magic number of zero.


Adesso is much more than wine bar with an Italian-centric list of wines by the glass. The drinks are (relatively) inexpensive and creative concoctions. But the best part (besides a Foosball table) is food that comes out continuously from the kitchen during weekday happy hours. We’re not talking about your average free bar food here — this is stuff from the regular menu, like excellent house-made charcuterie, cheeses, hefty arancini (fried Italian rice balls), pates, sardine crostini, and all kinds of goodness. Happy hour, indeed.

Mon.–Fri., 5-7pm. 4395 Piedmont, Oakl. 510-601-0305


It’s happy hour and it’s Friday … what could be better? Especially at dive bar extraordinaire the Riptide, all the way out by the ocean in the Sunset District. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. (or until the food’s gone), Alisha cooks up down-home goodness that pairs well with the ‘Tide’s PBRs and fireplace (in case — shall we bet on it? — the fog rolls in after a sunny summer day). You get chili con carne, chicken pot pie, and something called "blushin’ bunnies."

4–7 p.m. 3639 Taraval, SF.415-681-8433.


The $5 drink specials all night on margaritas, mojitos, and sangria are already a good deal. Add in free all-you-can-eat Mexican snacks and it’s a party. Free stuff includes Mexican bites like guac, quesadillas, taquitos, jicama with ceviche, tamales, and black bean dip. Arriba!

Weekdays, 4–7pm


El Rio is one generous bar — the place serves free pancakes from the griddle the third Saturday of the month. Further cool points won by calling it "Rock Softly and Carry a Big Spatula." Breakfast is kindly served at 1 p.m., so after you’ve rolled out of bed and wandered over, ease into wakefulness with soft rock and hot flapjacks. Wear the "funkiest kitchen couture" and you could win their Golden Apron honors. After a meal that costs nothing, it’s easy to feed the tradition with generous tips. There’s also free barbecue at Friday night happy hours until 9 p.m. and on Sunday afternoons during the summer.

3rd Saturdays, 1–3 p.m. 3158 Mission, 415-282-3325.


Any two drinks (of the alcoholic kind, $6–$9) and you’re given a generous-sized pizza for two (or one massive eater). Devour the sauceless pizza d’Asti (shaved asparagus, fontina val d’aosta, thyme), a classic Margherita, or a Siciliana (fabulous Berkshire pork fennel sausage, fire roasted peppers, and smoked mozzarella). It’s no trouble drinking cocktails when they’re as playful as rosemary "sweet tea" (bourbon, muddled rosemary, lemon, and a splash of Moscato d’Asti), or a rhubarb margarita with lime and a salt rim.

Mon-Fri, 4–7pm. 640 Sacramento, SF.415-395-9800.



Sometimes, even the booze is on the house

By Amy Monroe

If you’re curious and thirsty on a Friday, head to Spuntino’s free wine tasting from 4 to 6 p.m. Let the friendly staff pour and explain a flight of wines organized around a different theme each week. Drink free and get educated — imagine that.

1957 Union, 931-0122,

Cash-strapped social butterflies need only round up a group of friends and bring them to Tropisueno any night of the week to earn free drinks, and lots of them. The host imbibes gratis all evening provided she brings five friends with her to the bar.

75 Yerba Buena Ln., 243-0299,

If you happen to be walking by one of the city’s many Kimpton hotels between 5 and 6 p.m. on a weekday, you might want to wander in and mingle with the guests in the lobby. If you look the part (and nobody asks you to show your room key), you can partake in the hotel chain’s free wine hour. Bonus: many locations pour free Anchor, too.

Nine locations in San Francisco,

Like beer, music, and crowds? Then head to tiny Laszlo on the first Friday of the month for GroundSound Happy Hour. Hosts Upper Playground and SonicLiving buy you beer — and good beer at that, Trumer Pils and Shiner Commemorator — from 6 to 7 p.m. while DJs spin for your listening pleasure.

2526 Mission, 401-0810,



By Johnny Funcheap

When you’re broke in San Francisco, sometimes even "cheap" can seem like a four-letter word. So thank God for free. Here are a few ways you can still enjoy the fun of living in San Francisco without cracking open your wallet even once.


The Mission District bar Elixir hosts a free Thursday night "Cocktail Club" with tastings (whiskeys, vodkas, tequilas … even absinthe) and a guest expert to help guide you through the process of finding new ways to appreciate staying off the wagon. For beer and wine drinkers, most BevMo! locations in the Bay Area have regular free tasting parties with themes like summertime ales and Mexican beers.

Elixir, 3200 16th St.


To help lure in and lubricate casual art fans into being art-buyers, most galleries have regular receptions with free-flowing wine and a tasty platter of things to nibble on while you research art you can’t yet afford. If one reception a night isn’t enough, try sauntering from gallery to gallery during one of several monthly art walks — the most reliable of which clusters around Union Square with regular collective receptions the first Thursday evening of each month.


Unemployed? Got time on your hands? Do something useful with it — and meet new friends in the process. One Brick is a local nonprofit that hosts upwards of 20 different flexible volunteering opportunities each week, ranging from working a short shift beautifying a local park to serving food to the homeless. It’s not just about doing good — One Brick aims to help you make new friends by organizing meet-ups after each event so volunteers can get to know one another in a relaxed setting over a meal or a drink.


If you’ve ever looked up to the heavens and wondered what the hell was up there, the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers might be able to give you some answers. The group gives free lectures the third Wednesday of each month at the Randall Museum. When skies are clear, it hosts free monthly Star Parties at Point Lobos at Lands End with a lecture and a public telescope viewing.

RandallMuseum, 199 Museum Way; Point Lobos, El Camino Del Mar in Lands End;


If the live music at the Stern Grove and Yerba Buena Gardens Festivals make you sad that most weekdays are quiet, the annual People in Plazas festival should help fill in any remaining gaps in your work-week concert schedule. This free July-to-October Market Street music festival puts on more than 145 free lunchtime concerts of all types in 16 different public plazas from the Embarcadero through the Castro.


Rather than plunking down a big portion of your salary (or unemployment check) on a gym membership (or signing up for a free introductory pass at a different gym each week: a.k.a. "gym slutting"), get sweaty by donning your blades or old-school roller skates and join the Midnight Rollers’ weekly Friday Night Skate. A large group of skaters embark from the Ferry Plaza on a 10-mile dance party/skate tour of the city, which includes plenty of stops for ice cream, Frisbee-throwing, and a chance for slowpokes to catch up.


Macy’s Union Square puts on free monthly cooking demonstrations in the Cellar, where top local chefs reveal their secrets for dishing up creative yet healthy meals. Not only do you get to learn skills like how to barbecue like a grill master, expertly pair chocolate and wine, or make a brunch worth waking up early for, you also get to sample the yummy delights the experts have cooked up. It’s like watching your favorite cooking show on the Food Network, but getting to magically reach inside the TV to grab a taste.

Johnny Funcheap runs, a free San Francisco-based service that uncovers and shares a hand-picked recommendation list of upwards of 50 cheap, fun, unique Bay Area events each week.



Urban adventures don’t have to cost money

By Broke-Ass Stuart

Although wasting a day in Dolores Park or purposefully misdirecting tourists might be great way to have some free fun, anything can get redundant after a while. That’s why I put together this list of amazing free things to discover in San Francisco. Whether you’ve been here your whole life or just landed today, you’re bound to find something entertaining on this list.

The Wave Organ at the end of the jetty extending past the Golden Gate Yacht club in the Marina. It’s not bellowing quite like it used to, but the Wave Organ is a perfect particle of San Francisco’s quirkiness. Built by the Exploratorium, the Wave Organ consists of 25 PVC pipes of various lengths jutting through concrete into the bay below. The sounds it makes depend on the height of the tide.

The Seward Street Slides at Seward and Douglass streets in the Castro District. Cardboard: free. Concrete slides: free. Getting bloody scrapes from combo of cardboard and concrete slides: priceless. The two concrete chutes are constructed so that when you get to the top and sit on a piece of cardboard, you slide down. Bring wax paper for even greater velocity.

The Xanadu Gallery at 140 Maiden Lane. If you’re excited about free stuff, chances are you can’t afford anything in this gallery. But looking around is free — and awesome! Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at the same time that he was doodling the Guggenheim, Xanadu Gallery (built as the VC Morris Gift Shop), has a remarkably similar interior to its New York City cousin — seemingly devoid of right angles and full of curving ramps. I’d pay so much money to see Tony Hawk go to town in here.

The Tiled Steps and Grand View Park, 16th Avenue at Moraga. Bring your sweetie and climb the lovely 163 tiled steps. Stop at the top and breathe a bunch. Then climb the next set of stairs to the right, and the ones after that. Now you’re in Grand View Park. Breathe a bunch more while checking out the staggering view. Smooching at the top is optional (but excellent).

The Jejune Institute, 580 California, Suite 1607,. Imagine if Lost took place in San Francisco. But instead of wandering the jungle dodging weird smoke monsters and "the others," you could explore the city in ways you never imagined. The JeJune Institute is kinda like that, only better. I don’t want to ruin anything for you, so all I’m gonna say is go there with a couple free hours, a cell phone, and $1.10 (not technically free but seriously the best $1.10 you’ll ever spend). The Jejune Institute blew my mind so hard that the top of my skull still flaps in the wind.

If you like cheap stuff, check out



Let the students practice on your head

By Mayka Mei

Has anyone ever said you have a great face for hair modeling? Volunteering as a hair model gives salon trainees a chance to fulfill all their requirements for becoming full-time stylists. True, salons have become more guarded about their freebies, sometimes nixing the programs altogether. But a few freebies are still out there.

A few caveats: you’ll need an open, available schedule. Some salons have casting calls or will screen you for certain characteristics online or over the phone. Decide if you want a cut or color, and exactly what type of styling you have in mind. With specific days devoted to specific lessons, they may not need another graduate specializing in bobs the week you need a cut. Here are two places that still cut hair, absolutely free.

Festoon Salon

Haircuts Mondays at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Coloring second and fifth Mondays at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.

1401 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berk.

(888) 35-SALON or (510) 528-5855,

Visual Image

Hair modeling vacancies available one or two times a month, or once a quarter

5200 Mowry, Suite C, Fremont

(510) 792-5922,



Why are you still paying for Internet access?

By Annalee Newitz

Information may want to be free, but Internet service providers want to charge you too see it. That doesn’t have to crimp your style; there’s plenty of free Wi-Fi — and ways to get free movies and phone service.

Let’s start with a little disclaimer: When you’re talking about getting things like free Wi-Fi, or free phone service, even "free" comes with a price. You’re going to have to invest in some equipment to get free stuff later. You might also need some training — but that’s available free.

For free classes where you can learn more about how to build some of the technologies I’ll be talking about below, check out the Noisebridge hacker space near 16th and Mission streets (

Now, here’s the dirt on how you can stop paying for phone service, cable, Internet, and online media.


Novice level: If you have a laptop with a Wi-Fi card, you should never have to pay for an Internet connection while you live in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are countless cafes that provide free Wi-Fi to their customers. Yelp offers a good, up-to-date list of free Wi-Fi cafes in San Francisco at

In San Francisco, check for free Wi-Fi provided by commercial vendor Meraki using this map: Every branch library in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland offers free Wi-Fi.

Techie level: If you’d like to get free Internet service at home and not have to visit your local cafe all the time, you can build a cheap antenna so that you can see countless networks all around your house. Find out how to build such an antenna using this free online guide at

If you are going to be borrowing your neighbors’ Wi-Fi service, please observe this cardinal rule: You are a guest, so use their service sparingly. Checking e-mail is fine, surfing the Web is fine, but downloading giant movie files is extremely uncool.


Novice level: Make all of your phone calls over the Internet using an IP phone. You can either invest in an IP phone and make phone calls using free Wi-Fi cafes and free city networks, or you can get the headset and microphone to plug into your laptop so that you can use Skype or another free Internet voice service.

Techie level: Turn your home phone into an IP phone.

Here are other ideas that some people have tried (and we, of course, don’t recommend that anyone does anything against the law). One of the open secrets about cordless phones is that it is extremely easy to steal phone service using them. Many cordless phones use the DECT chipset, and special laptop cards are available that that allow the users to trick cordless phones system into thinking that the laptop user is one of the cordless phones associated with it.


Novice level: Miro is an online service that allows you to turn your computer into a Tivo-like device that will download the shows you want to watch as soon as they are available via file-sharing programs. Find out more here:

Techie level: Turn your computer into a television tuner using Myth TV.


Novice level: There are plenty of services online that offer free media, from, which offers a lot of free television and movies, to, which has a vast collection of public domain films. Neither Hulu nor requires you to download any special software. Or if you’d like something classier, you can download free, public domain classical music at MusOpen!

Techie level: Use a BitTorrent client to download public domain music and movies that you can save on your computer. lists many artists who offer their music for free. Public Domain Movies offers torrents of movies available to you for free.

Other options people have tried: Some use a BitTorrent client to download any movie, television, music, software, or books that they like, using a popular Torrent search engine like Isohunt. There are a lot of what you might call grey area legal media at the Pirate Bay. That oufit is located in Sweden, a country that recenty elected representatives of the Pirate Party to serve in the European Parliament.



You may be broke, but you can still smoke

By Rachel Buhner

It’s not well advertised, but if you’re short on money and need your organic herbal medicine, many of the city’s pot clubs will give it to you, free. Some places ask for proof of income or require membership while some are more loose about it. You won’t get big bags, either — typically the freebie is a gram. But while the American Medical Association and the insurance companies argue in Washington, D.C., about how to keep their fingers on the cash, local medical marijuana dispensaries are actually trying to serve needy patients.

The Green Door offers free marijuana every Thursday from 12 noon to 2 p.m. for those who can’t afford it. No proof is required.

843 Howard Street. (415) 541-9590.

The Market Street Cooperative offers free marijuana every Sunday for those who can’t afford it. No proof is required.

1884 Market. (415) 864-6686

The Hemp Center offers compassionate donations to all members when available; no proof of income is required. There’s also free Internet access, free bottled water, and free rolling papers.

4811 Geary (415)

Sanctuary offers free medical marijuana, but there’s currently a waiting list and priority if given to terminally ill patients. Proof of income required; open to San Francisco residents only.

669 O’Farrell (415) 885-4420

Harborside Health Centers offers a care package program to low-income patients. Paperwork showing a fixed low income is required; patients can receive a free gram and a half each week. Additionally, members from any income bracket can volunteer at the center performing general activist work (calling local representatives, writing letters, etc.). After one hour of work, patients receive a free gram.

And there’s more: every Sunday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., the center offers members free how-to-grow classes taught by David Gold, author of The Complete Cannabis. Members also get a free lending library for cannabis-related materials as well as free holistic health services such as hypnotherapy, chiropractic, naturopathy, yoga, reiki, traditional Chinese medicine, Western herbalist consultations, and Alexander Technique classes.

1840 Embarcadero, Oakl. (510) 533-0146,



Not many colors, but the price is right

Every wonder what happens to all that old paint that good, responsible San Franciscans drop off at the city dump? It gets recycled, in the best possible way. The dump workers sort it by color, pour it into big buckets, and give it away.

You don’t get a wide color selection (off-white is the big choice) but the price is right and it keeps the stuff out of the landfill. Schools and community groups get priority, but San Francisco residents can stop by and pick some up whenever there’s extra.

501 Tunnel Avenue. 330-1400.



Clubs, classes, and clinics dedicated to low-cost lovin’

By Molly Freedenberg

As anyone with a broken bed frame or a broken heart knows, even sex you don’t exchange money for is rarely free. But we’ve compiled a list of sex-related events, resources, health centers, and club nights that are easier on the pocketbook than most.


Good Vibrations is always hosting free events, classes, and book signings at its Bay Area stores. This month, check out Paul Krassner reading from his book In Praise of Indecency on July 15 and Kevin Simmonds presenting his new project "Feti(sh)ame," based on interviews with gay men about sexual fetishes, on July 16, both at the Polk Street location, and a reading/signing of Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Prostitues Writing on Life, Love, Work, Sex, and Money (featuring stories by Annie Sprinkle and Tracy Quan, among others) July 30 in Berkeley.


With no cover and nightly drink specials, this SoMa gay bar is the place to ogle hot men on a budget. Ongoing events include Shirts Off Mondays, Trumer Tuesdays (featuring $2 Trumer drafts and specials on Jäger and fernet); the sports-gear and jock-strap-themed Locker Room Wednesdays (with specials on Speakeasy ales, Wild Turkey, and shooters with names like Cock Sucker and Golden Showers); Thursday’s Busted (with whiskey specials and indie, electro, and ’80s remixes); Men in Gear on Saturdays, Cheap Ass Happy Hour every Monday through Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m.; and Rubber (hosted by the Rubbermen of SF Bay) every second Friday.

1225 Folsom, SF. (415) 255-2427,


This nonprofit organization provides education and resources across the gender spectrum. Though there’s a fee to attend many of the events hosted here, visiting the extensive library/media archive is free. So is checking out "Erotic Embrace of the Corset," an exhibit featuring 50 years of photography of bodies tied up tight, on display through Sept. 10. Call before you visit (the center is run by volunteers and has irregular hours), or try stop by between 1 and 5 p.m. weekdays.

1519 Mission, SF. (415) 255-1155,


Burlesque, by its very nature, is meant to be accessible to the masses — which means it should be not only lowbrow, but low cost. This monthly burlesque, music, and comedy revue takes "low" even lower by cutting out the cover charge entirely.

9:30pm. Stork Club, 2330 Telegraph, Oakl.


Part art gallery, part performance space, part community center, this nonprofit dedicated to greater visibility for women and transgendered artists has become a favorite of luminaries like Annie Sprinkle, Michelle Tea, and Carol Queen. Many events are low or no cost, and it’s always free to check out the art, including this month’s "Show Me Your Fantasy," featuring Malia Schlaefer’s photographs addressing contemporary female sexuality.

Thurs–Sun, 12–6pm. 2199 Market, SF. (415) 864-1558,


When you’re poor and bored, nothing perks you up quite like a good session of self-love. But if you’re tired of the solo mission, join other like-minded men for group "therapy" every second and fourth Monday. Though a $7 donation is suggested (insert "donation" pun here), no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Just remember the rules: mandatory nudity, jack-off play only.

7:30–8:30pm. Center for Sex and Culture, 1519 Mission, SF. (415) 267-6999,


Run by and for sex workers, this 10-year-old nonprofit provides free STI counseling and testing, rapid HIV testing, transgender healthcare and hormone therapy, self-defense classes, legal advice, and much MUCH more to sex workers and their families.

1372 Mission, SF. (415) 554-8494,



More free stuff we love

You can watch Giants games free through the outfield fence; three-inning limit when there’s a crowd … Thrift stores all say "no dumping," but people leave stuff out in front late at night anyway … Ask someone leaving Muni for their transfer (and always take a transfer, even if you don’t need it, to share) … There’s almost always great free music at street fairs …. You can actually ski free at a lot of resorts if you do the old-fashioned thing and hike up the slopes instead of buying a lift ticket; on busy days nobody notices (obviously, this works best for short-run beginner hills) … There’s some great stuff at, but it’s a Yahoo newsgroup and floods your inbox so you have to keep up with it … The free stuff listings on Craigslist are also good … Casual carpools are a great way to get a free ride across the Bay … The Lyrics Born, Toto La Momposina, Kailash Kher’s Kailasa and the San Francisco Ballet all perform free this summer at Stern Grove, Sundays at 2 p.m., see … Catch Wicked, Beach Blanket Babylon, Killing My Lobster, and more at the SF Theater Festival free shows; see and Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (till Oct. … You can get free movie passes many weeks from the Guardian … Buy a Muni pass before the end of the month, and you can share your old one; it’s good for three days of free rides at the beginning of the month … Almost every used bookstore has a free box; mostly crap, but sometimes some gems …. The Cal Sailing Club in Berkeley offers free introductory sailing sessions on summer Sundays; for the schedule and details check out San Francisco Brew Craft offers free beer-brewing classes every Monday night at 6 p.m. 1555 Clement, 751-9338 … You can catch free outdoor movies at Jack London Square in Oakland every other Thurs. night through August ( … Free Shakespeare in the Park performs The Comedy of Errors Sat. and Sun. afternoons in August and September at the Presidio Parade Grounds (schedule at



Go ahead, give it away — that’s the way the next economy may work

By Cecile Lepage

The 2003 documentary film The Corporation established that corporations were psychopathic entities, prone to irresponsibility, manipulation, and remorselessness. Now writer Douglas Rushkoff contends that we — the human beings — have started to act like corporations. His new thought-provoking book — Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back (Random House) — retraces how society has internalized the corporate values that disconnect us from one another. The current economic meltdown, he argues, is our chance to overthrow this dysfunctional model. We talked to him about a very different economy — one based on things that are free.

SFBG Your outlook is bleak, but you are still optimistic enough to see a way out. What’s your plan?

Douglas Rushkoff This crisis is an opportunity to start doing things for each other. First we have to be daring enough to enter gift economies, where we exchange favors freely and openly without even keeping track, just assuming that it’s all going to work out. So if someone needs tutoring or help mowing his lawn, you should do it. Eventually we’ll realize how much less money we need to earn to get what we need.

SFBG You acknowledge that accepting favors in exchange for other ones feels messy and confusing to us. Why is that?

DR We’re afraid of being indebted to somebody else. In order to accept something from another person, you also accept your indebtedness and acknowledge your gratitude. Money feels cleaner to us. People prefer hiring a person to babysit for their child rather than accepting a favor from the old lady down the street — because if you accept, what social obligation have you incurred? What if she wants to join you at your next barbecue? What if she now wants to be your friend? So now we all have to work more to get money to buy things that we used to just exchange freely with each other.

SFBG You blame the corporations for convincing us that we are self-interested beings. How did they achieve that?

DR They thought that the mathematician John Nash’s bad game theory applied to real life. A number of experiments tried to show that human beings made decisions like poker players for personal short-term gain and assuming the worst about other people. None of the experiments actually worked: the secretaries they did the experiment on behaved collaboratively and compassionately.

The better scientists, like Dr. Glynn Isaac, an Africanist from Harvard, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that food-sharing and collaboration are what allowed homo sapiens to survive. Nevertheless, we intentionally built an economy and a scarcity-based currency to promote the self-interest.

People look at the economy we’re living in as a fact of nature. They don’t see it as a set of rules that was put in place by a particular people at a particular time. They look at money the way a doctor looks at the bloodstream. They don’t understand that it’s a social construction and that we can rewrite it.