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The Best Places to Play in San Francisco 2015
San Francisco magazine | Photo: Aubrie Pick | June 22, 2015
The disco fever throwback, the dog park with billion-dollar views, and a warehouse full of trampolines.
Drag Show: Oasis
298 11th St. (Near Folsom St.), 415-795-3180
When Trannyshack ended last year, there was a fear that San Francisco was yet again losing a piece of its soul. But Heklina, the long-running show’s MC, is queen of the queens, and she can’t be held down. Enter Oasis, her new venue for all the drag shows and tributes we’ve come to love. Mother: Stevie Nicks Tribute is alive and well, as are the beloved The Facts of Life Live! and Sex and the City Live! But now there’s also room for solo shows by faux-queen Fauxnique and local comedian Marga Gomez—the latter on a night when it’s not all about glitter and stilettos.
Runner-Up: The Monster Show at the Edge
Happy Hour: 15 Romolo
15 Romolo Pl. (Near Broadway), 15romolo.com
It’s close enough to the Financial District to make a dash straight from work, and it’s hidden down an alley, so your boss will never find you! Plus, the happy hour, which runs until 7:30(!), delivers: top-notch Pimm’s cups and Pisco punches are only $7, Scrimshaw pilsners can be had for $5 and Tecates for $3, and pitchers of sangria are 20 percent off (so your coworkers can get in on the action too). A killer duck poutine ($8), cozy vinyl-back seats, and a mellow crowd make it easy to forget about whatever work drama drove you here in the first place.
Amphitheater: The Masonic
1111 California St. (Near Taylor St.), 415-776-7457
he recently remodeled venue still has all the gilded charm of its modernist- era bones, but with light and sound up to today’s standards. Headliners range from Josh groban to Meghan trainor to Florence and the Machine, all best enjoyed from the floor in front, though you’ve still got the option of sitting room up in the balcony. and no need to pregame else- where: Beer and liquor await.
RunnER- up: Bill GRaham Civic Auditorium
Outdoor Bar: El Rio
3158 Mission St. (Near Valencia St.), 415-282-3325
Going to el rio feels more like going to a friend’s barbecue than to a bar—strangers face off in a game of shuffleboard, dogs lounge in the sun, and freaks of all ages and races happily enjoy each other’s company. And there’s a reason for that: the patio space is unbeatable. There are plenty of tables, shaded structures, enough room to have a dance party without accidentally spilling your neighbor’s drink, and, of course, palm fronds to add a bit of tropical ambience.
Indie Venue: The Independent
628 Divisadero St. (Near Grove St.), theindependentsf.com
There are a lot of indie shows in this town at a lot of venues, but the Independent always has the feel of a private concert. Its ’70s-style decor and maximum capacity of 500 make for an intimate, almost house-party atmosphere, but the music (with acts that vary from reggae giants groundation to indie rocker Father John Misty to house master DR Bakermat) is a veritable mini-Coachella.
Runner-Up: Swedish American Music Hall
Comedy Club: Cobb’s Comedy Club
915 Columbus Ave. (Near Lombard St.), 415-928-4320
Getting big names is one thing, but finding the local talent to warm the crowd up is another. But it’s not just the onstage production that’s on point at Cobb’s. This venue has customer service down pat. You’re seated based on group size and space, and servers seamlessly navigate the darkness to deliver your booze. And while some gripe about the two-drink minimum, we applaud it—comedy is infinitely funnier with a little buzz.
Runner-Up: The Punch Line
Music Festival: Treasure Island Music Festival
Let’s be clear: We’re not arguing that outside lands is not epic. But the festival groupies grow in number year by year, the tickets are sold out within minutes, and it gets cold at night in Golden Gate Park. Which is why Treasure Island Music Festival is vastly superior: there are significantly fewer people (18,000 versus 100,000), the lineup is still amazing (Modest Mouse, Outkast, and Alt-J have all graced the stages), and October on the island is vastly superior, weather-wise, to August in the park. Plus, there’s a Ferris wheel and a silent disco—how are you going to say no to that?
Runner-Up: Outside Lands
Dive Bar: The Riptide
3639 Taraval St. (Near 47th Ave.), 415-681-8433
Slightly sticky floors? Check. Cheap beer? Check. Free snacks? Check. Fireplace? Well, now you’ve just taken it to a new level. This cozy Sunset bar meets all the dive requirements, including free popcorn and impromptu bingo. It’s just as easy to strike up a conversation with your fellow patrons as it is with your bartenders, and the hearth keeps the place toasty during those fogged-in evenings.
Roller-Skating: Church of 8 Wheels
554 Fillmore St. (at Fell St.), 415-752-1967
Ah, roller-skating—one of those activities that never quite left the disco era. And Church of 8 Wheels will transport you right back to the “Boogie Fever” days. Inside the old Sacred Heart Church on Fillmore are the flashing lights, disco soundtrack (think Jackson 5 and the Soul Train theme song), and folks dressed in sequined attire. The old-school skates (rented out for a flat fee of $15) are quite forgiving, enough so that you can get in on the roller-dancing that takes place on Saturday nights. Don’t worry: there are plenty of other people falling on their butts, too.
Runner-Up: Richard Humphrey Roller Dance
Date Bar: The Social Study
1795 Geary Blvd. (Near Fillmore St.), 415-292-7417
There are a few things a good date spot needs, and the Social Study checks all of them off the list. This tiny hole-in-the-wall wine bar feels like a chic loft party: a DJ spins old-school hip-hop vinyl; the bartenders keep an eye out to help you snag the best seating in the house; and the cozy two-person tables with seats that come out of the wall make for a very intimate setting.
Runner-Up: DeVil's Acre
Booze Festival: SF Beer Week
Forget the Fort Mason boozing expos where the focus is more on getting sloshy than on enjoying the craft. If you want to actually remember an alcohol-infused festival, you’ve got to pace yourself—and dedicate your week to it. Every February, SF Beer Week lets you get in your salute to sour beers, brew-it-yourself courses, tap takeovers, special releases, and, of course, highly necessary hair-of-the-dog brunches without overindulging too early in the game (this is a marathon, people) or having to throw elbows to get a drink.
Beer Bar: Hopwater Distribution
850 Bush St. (Near Taylor St.), hopwaterdistribution.com
If you’re being honest, you probably don’t know that much about beer. You know the difference between a pilsner and an IPA, but when faced with a chalk wall covered with an infinite number of options from all over the West Coast, you probably have some questions about what makes one pale ale different from another. Enter Hopwater distribution, Bush Street’s bustling beer spot, with a reasonable 31 brews on tap (all from California) and bartenders who are never too busy to give you a taste and discuss flavor notes. In other words, it’s the unpretentious beer bar you’ve been looking for.
Folk/Bluegrass Venue: The Chapel
777 Valencia St. (Near 19th St.), 415-551-5157
Occupying a historic, 100-year-old building that was once a mortuary, the Chapel is anything but lifeless. the cozy and intimate Vestry Bar offers supreme libations, and the hall itself, with its 40-foot ceilings and bright red curtains, creates a warm atmosphere and sound, complementing singer-songwriter acts like Christopher Owens and James McMurtry.
Runner-Up: Great American Music Hall
Cocktail Bar: Trick Dog
3010 20th St. (Near Florida St.), 415-471-2999
There is such a thing as too much hype, but even with the steady buzz surrounding this two-and-a-half-year-old cocktail joint, it doesn’t disappoint. The drinks are always inspired (who thought of pairing bourbon with mango, ginger, and lemon?), the food hits the spot (who would have thought that a kale salad would be great drunk food?), and the atmosphere has that trendy polish without being pretentious. So what if there’s a crowd? Make some friends!
Dance Venue: Mezzanine
444 Jess St. (Near Minte St.), mezzainesf.com
Spinning music that makes your eardrums buzz is a skill, but managing the space in which that music is played is an art. You’ve got to take light shows, extra speakers, and lots of dancing into consideration, which of course Mezzanine has done. And it welcomes the best eardrum-buzzing artists: from Sbtrkt to Kaskade to Keys n Krates and Skrillex.
Runner-Up: Public Works
Sports Bar: Kezar Pub
770 Stanyan St. (Near Waller St.), 415-386-9292
It doesn’t matter how many flashy new sports bars open up in this city; Kezar is still the spot for die-hard homers. It’s been there since Kezar Stadium was still hosting games (Niners would come by after for beers) and is chock-full of 49ers memorabilia. They’re so serious about their sports here that they post their TV schedule online. But let’s be real: No sporting event is complete without wings—something that Kezar happens to be very, very good at.
Runner-Up: Hi Tops
Karaoke Bar: The Mint
1942 Market St. (Near Buchana St.), 415-626-4726
Warning: the Mint’s karaoke is not for the faint of heart. This is the kind of joint where the few with real pipes come to belt. If you’re feeling nervous about getting up onstage yourself, take solace in liquid courage: there’s a two-drink minimum to perform, and the martinis ($7.75) are stiff. The bar’s song catalog is one of the largest in the Bay Area, which means you can sing anything from Billy Joel, the Smiths, and depeche Mode to Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, and, of course, some Britney Spears.
Runner-Up: Encore Karaoke Lounge
Fresh Air Plans
Bay Cruise: Adventure Cat Sailing
Forget the gasoline-guzzling bay cruises crammed with tourists and hop a catamaran with adventure Cat Sailing. Picture it: You’ve got a glass of Lagunitas in hand, and you’re sitting on the open netting with the Bay gliding gently underneath and sweeping views all around, with Mike Snow, the xx, and even Journey as your background music and never more than 40 people on board. It’s like your own private yacht party for the low price of $40 to $55.
Runner-Up: Captain Kirk’s San Francisco Sailing
Campsite: Angel Island, Site #6
Every campsite on Angel Island has beautiful Bay views, but site 6 takes the cake: 180 degrees, from the eastern span of the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. Watch the marine layer crawl in over the bay waters while you bask in the sun (weather on the island is more akin to Marin’s than San Francisco’s). Only snag is, you have to reserve the site six months out, via Reserve America.
Runner-Up: Rob Hill Campground
Beach: Ocean Beach (South End)
Great Highway and Sloat Blvd., parksandconservancy.org
Don’t stop at Beach Chalet. Keep driving, a little further, until you find the tiny parking lot just past Sloat Boulevard. Exit the car and stake your claim anywhere on this end of the beach. Why is it better? The bluffs above offer a bit of wind protection, the surf rolls in smoothly without fail—heck, even the sand feels a little bit softer.
Runner-Up: Baker Beach
Picnic Spot: Marx Meadow, Golden Gate Park
John F. Kennedy Dr. and 30th Av., sfrecpark.org
It’s not every picnic spot that can accommodate casual picnicking and blowout birthday parties alike, but Marx Meadow can. Each of its eight picnic tables has a charcoal grill saddled up beside it, beer and wine are welcome, and there’s a shared grass meadow in the middle for lawn games. Bonus points: the park’s disc golf course wraps around the site, perfect for a quick game without straying too far. But if that’s not enough, you’re more than welcome to bring in a bounce house or food trucks with additional permits (fees range from $32 to $158).
Runner-Up: Hellman Hollow
Playground: Lafayette Park
Sacramento St. and Gough St., sfrecpark.org
Newly renovated Lafayette Park is basically every kid’s wildest daydream come true. The fenced-off kids-only area has four slides for varying ages, a 17-foot-tall tower (aka a kid-size skyscraper), tons of crawl spaces, swings, and climbing nets, a wooden footbridge, and a mini–rock climbing wall. Neutral tones and rock outcroppings make it feel like a natural landscape, and the ground is covered in every parent’s favorite—recycled rubber.
Runner-Up: Dolores Park
Natural Park: Fort Funston
Great Highway and John Muir Dr., nps.gov
Where within city limits—nay, the entire Bay Area—can you hang glide, bird-watch, walk your dog, and horseback ride in the same place? Answer: nowhere but Fort Funston. And the long list of activities is only complemented by views sweeping down to the Pacific and a network of trails winding through the rolling sand dunes.
Runner-Up: The Presidio
Dog Park: Corona Heights Dog Play Area
Roosevelt Way and Museum Way, sfrecpark.org
This isn’t some semi-walled-off dust bowl smashed beneath the freeway overpass. This is a dog park with sweeping city views—securely fenced off and containing an army’s worth of dogs for your mutt to socialize with. If T-Bone is more of a wanderer, let him roam the surrounding hillside—it’s far enough away from busy streets that you can feel at ease.
Runner-Up: Upper Douglass Dog Park
Hiking Trail: Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve
Medical Center Way and Parnassus Ave., mntsutro.com
There are 80 acres of undeveloped land smack-dab in the middle of the city—tucked right behind the UCSF Parnassus campus—that go largely unused. Cloaked in a forest of eucalyptus above and ivy below, the Mount Sutro Open Space reserve’s meandering trail system is navigable and well kept (thanks to UCSF), but you’ll lose all sense of being in a metropolitan area when the sounds of Muni buses are replaced by birdsong. The cherry on top? Tourists have no idea how to find it, so it’s a locals-only urban escape.
Runner-Up: Presidio Coastal Trail
Vista Point: Grandview Park
14th Ave. and Noriega St., sfrecpark.org
On a clear day, you can see all the way from the Farallones to the Transamerica Pyramid from this solitary hilltop in the Sunset, which also offers prime viewing of Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach getting tinted purple and pink at sunset. It’s a trek to get up there—but the two giant flights of steps from the Moraga Street base help deter the crowds.
Runner-Up: Corona Heights Park
10k Run: Presidio 10
Things that can’t be beat: pancake breakfasts, the views while running across the Golden Gate Bridge, and a late start time. The Presidio 10 checks all those boxes. The race begins at 8:30 in the morning, so you’re definitely not starting in the dark, and the start line is on the edge of Crissy Field. there’s a pretty decent hill right at the get-go, but the laid-back vibe of the race means you’re not obligated to sprint up it. Then, as mentioned, there are the stellar Bay views from the bridge. And just as you finish (usually), the fog breaks up, right on time for a breakfast of champions: scrambled eggs, sausage, and pancakes—all before 10 a.m.
Runner-Up: Giants Race
Bike Rental: Ferry Building Bike Rentals
We all want to play tourist once in a while, but we don’t want to look like tourists. Enter Ferry Building Bike rentals: rental bikes without the company branding smeared all over the frame and handlebars. And it’s not just one rinky-dink variety of bike—the company offers mountain bikes, road bikes, and hybrids for any type of two-wheeled adventure. rentals are $30 to $36 a day; order online for a 10 to 20 percent discount (and to beat the rush).
Runner-Up: Bay Area Bike Share
Endurance Race: Men’s Health Urbanathlon
For the CrossFit athletes who populate this city, running in a straight line for 26.2 miles doesn’t quite cut it; they want to jump, crawl, dip, dive, and dodge their way along the route. The Urbanathlon comes through: With challenges like Walk the Line testing your balance, Rush Hour your stamina (and style), and the Wall how much upperback and arm strength you really have, it puts all those months of trx training to the test. This year’s race takes place November 22; the registration fee is $90 to $150.
Runner-Up: Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon Diversions
Craft Space: Workshop SF
1789 McAllister St. (Near Baker St.), workshopsf.org
There are a lot of craft spaces in this city, but learning how to make soap isn’t too practical an answer to the occasional weeknight ennui. Which is why the Workshop SF’s classes are so brilliant: they emphasize creative skills that are easy to integrate into your everyday routine. A flower arrangement class shows you how to make a bouquet last longer; screen printing for newbies leaves you with rudimentary skills to start producing your own customized t-shirts; and the brew-it-yourself class sends you home with an entire case of beer—better, we’d say, than a pile of deformed crochet hats.
Runner-Up: Urban Bazaar
Bowling Alley: Presidio Bowling Center
93 Moraga Ave. (Near Montgomery St.), 415-561-2695
You don’t mess with a classic. twelve regulation-length lanes, that old corny turkey graphic, arguably the best chicken strips n the city, and good beer—that’s all you need to have a good bowl. And this alley is one of those special places in San Francisco that feel like they got lost in time— its interior is a time warp back to 1989, when the center opened—but it also has modern comforts, like Lagunitas on draft.
Runner-Up: Mission Bowling Club
Kids' Birthday: House of Air
926 Old Mason St. (Crissy Field Ave.), 415-345-9675
Imagine a warehouse packed with trampolines—sounds like the set of Nickelodeon’s Guts. Well, it’s real—yup, that’s over 8,000 square feet of trampoline space—and the place does a bang-up job on birthday parties. It pro- vides table settings for 10, dis- count rates on extreme Pizza, and bouncing areas for younger kids (ages 3 to 6) and “flyers” (7 to 97— let’s be honest, this is fun at any age). and when they get bored with just jumping, there’s a trampoline dodgeball court and air skateboarding to wear them out.
Art Class: 1 AM’s Art of Graffiti 1.0
Forget the hour-long drink-and-paint classes, where imbibing takes precedence over original artistic expression. How about a class that teaches you about the art on the streets of San Francisco? First Amendment Gallery’s Art of Graffiti 1.0 ($69) walks you through the history of tagging, techniques like bubble lettering, working out your personal style on a whiteboard, and finally putting the spray can to work (legally) on the streets of SoMa. It’s a four-hour class, but you walk away with a newfound appreciation for the art form.
Runner-Up: Beyond Canvas
Dance Class: Rhythm & Motion: Essential Rhythms
Dance classes can be intimidating, but Rhythm & Motion’s essential rhythms, held at ODC Dance Commons, is not. Instructors don’t care about your getting the choreography down pat as much as they do that you’re actually having fun. There’s lots of whooping and hollering to the beat of Bruno Mars and Michael Franti—while you lather up a sweat (and stop caring about how you look in the mirror). And once you’ve got the moves memorized, you can graduate to the Fusion rythms class, which kicks it up a notch.
Runner-Up: Cali & Co. Contemporary
Cooking Class: San Francisco Cooking School
You’ve got roasting chicken down, but making a batch of bagels? That’s a rather ambitious venture. enter San Francisco Cooking School, with hands-on classes that tackle the bigger projects, like how to perfectly fry chicken, get the ultimate cakey doughnut, and channel your inner New Yorker to achieve a doughy bagel. And true to cooking-class form, you get to eat your creations at the end.
Runner-Up: Tante Marie’s Cooking School
Mega-Museum: De Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. (Near John F. Kennedy Dr.), 415-750-3600
When a museum brings you exhibits of global significance and appeal, like the Keith Haring retrospective or Liz Taylor’s Bulgari crown jewels, while also paying homage to locally bred talent like Janet Delaney and Richard Diebenkorn, you have to tip your hat. But it’s not just that the de Young showcases these artists; it’s how the exhibits are curated, each one tailored to educate and inspire awe without fatigue—shattering the fine-arts-museum stereotypes.
Runner-Up: Asian Art Museum
Boutique Museum: Museum of Craft and Design
2569 3rd St. (Near 22nd St.), 415-773-0303
About the last place you’d expect to find a museum is smack dab in the middle of industrial dogpatch. But it’s here that the Museum of Craft and Design serves as a tribute to all things design, from the history of Herman Miller to “craft” projects that are more along the lines of fine arts than something you’d find in Martha Stewart Living—such as the current exhibition, Hands Off, which features a chair grown into its form by a fungus surrounding Styrofoam. Plus, its Etsy Craft lab offers an array of DIY projects to spruce up your own design game.
Runner-Up: Contemporary Jewish Museum
Established Gallery: Haines Gallery
49 Geary St., 5tg Fl. (Near Kearny St.), 415-397-8114
Let’s be real here: Cheryl Haines brought Ai Weiwei to Alcatraz in the last 12 months—that’s beyond just a gallery showcase. But Haines Gallery doesn’t just supply one blockbuster show and call it a day. It also exhibits more intimate solo and group shows featuring a variety of established talent, from Andy Goldsworthy to Zheng Chongbin.
Runner-Up: Rena Bransten Gallery
New Gallery: Jules Maeght Gallery
149 Gough St. (Near Oak St.), julesmaeghtgallery.com
This spanking-new Hayes Valley gallery was hot straight out of the gate last fall, with an exhibit bringing together the works of modernist European artists like Kandinsky and Bay Area contemporaries like Tracey Snelling. Following that, the offshoot of the famed Parisian gallery brought us Zio Ziegler’s experimentations with fine art alongside Pierre Roy-Camille’s black and white canvases, then an exhibit of Janet Delaney’s photography and that of respected French photographers Paul Tourenne, Ernst Schiedegger, and Clovis Prévost—hitting a variety of artistic genres in less than a year.
Runner-up: ian RoSS GallERy
Photography Gallery: Pier 24 photography
Pier 24 (Near Embarcadero), 415-512-7424
this photography space isn’t really a gal- lery—at 28,000 square feet, it’s more of a museum. But Pier 24 functions much like an independent white box: It shows only one exhibition at a time, each a mix of renowned artists such as doug aitken and erik kessels. and the best part is that the space isn’t chock-full of people: roughly 20 guests are allowed in at a time, for a three-hour slot (you have to book an appointment), which means that you have room to contemplate the pieces in peace.
Runner-Up: Fraenkel Gallery
Movie Palace: Castro Theatre
429 Castro St. (Near 17th St.), castrotheatre.com
If you want to see that super-quirky foreign film, this is not your theater. But if you missed The Imitation Game’s theater run or are ready for your next viewing of The Big Lebowski or just want to sing along to Frozen at the top of your lungs (it’s ok, the rest of the theater’s with you), you want the Castro, baby. alongside the reruns, San Francisco’s cinematic grande dame plays host to a whole slew of festivals: the disposable Film Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and Sketchfest among them.
Runner-Up: Roxie Theater ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco