From gulping down alien brains to dabbling in glow stick art, FLASH PARKER uncovers the City by the Bay’s wild side.
On my way to California, I thought I might learn a thing or two about vinification, build my own surfboard, or rub shoulders with a celebrity chef. I never imagined for a moment that I would ride a concrete sewer slide, unlock my passion for glow sticks, crash an underground dinner party, or stay out late eating alien brains, yet here I am, tucked into a cozy corner of the Hemlock Tavern (www.hemlocktavern.com) in the alt-fab Tenderloin, surrounded by mustached coolios and pithy fauxhemians in ripped-jean jackets, while a band called the Society of Rockets whispers symphonic pop melodies into my ears.
Yet all stories must start somewhere.
I live for a good sunrise, and I start every trip to San Francisco with a wakeup call from the Marin Headlands, where the views of the Bay Area and the Golden Gate Bridge are sublime. Today, however, a gloomy pall hangs over the bay as a fierce tempest looms, which forces me take refuge in The Mission, where I get preoccupied with fishing a pair of worn-out loafers from the bottom of a consignment shop bin. The shoes should complement my crumpled flannel shirt, stone-battered jeans, and weather-beaten hair nicely. I decide to finish drying out at the City Lights Bookstore (www.citylights.com), where I’ll be better equipped to reconfigure my day.
City Lights, nuzzled among the strip clubs, skyscrapers, and trattorias of North Beach, remains an emporium of difficult-to-find titles, radical charm, and counter-culture charlatans. Here I meet Atticus, a twenty-something gent with a wispy mustache, and a predilection toward Philip K. Dick novels. We strike up a conversation and, after listening to me lamenting over my failure on the bay, Atticus asks me if I want to see a side of the city previously unknown to me. In exchange, Atticus asks that I buy him lunch.
After checking out “gourmet Asian street food” at Slanted Door, the restaurant of Bay Area food legend Charles Phan, we headed to the laid-back, blue collar charmer that is the Double Play dive bar in Potrero Hill, and the quirky Lovejoy’s Tea Room, an out-of-place yet quizzically at home Victorian relic with a sensational tea list and curious food menu.
What I hadn’t heard of was an underground supper club. “I got us an invitation to a guestaurant,” Atticus says. We were to be guests at a clandestine dinner party. Such events, often hosted at last-minute locations by celebrity chefs, are taking San Francisco by storm. Atticus and I roll up on a Victorian home in Haight-Ashbury, and descend upon the dining room with a group of strangers. The fellas at STAG (www.dinestag.com) have hosted foodie events in alternative radio stations, elevator shafts, private homes, and parking lots in their efforts to exert force over the world of clandestine dining. These events are some of the most popular in the country for good reason—where else could you find rhubarb cheesecake, and candied egg yolk with a milk chocolate sorbet, but at a chef’s private party?
The food was one thing, but the experience of sharing gourmet meals with a community of like-minded strangers in a wholly unique environment takes everything to another level.
We eschew the line at 111 Minna (www.111minnagallery.com), and dive deeper underground. The exhibits at 111 Mina rotate every six weeks, bringing fresh contemporary art to the masses. As we roll along the rolled steel bar, Atticus delivers his next surprise. “It’s time we create our own art,” he says.
We enter an open space called Club 6ix (www.clubsix1.com), where it seems like 100 people have gathered to sling paint at one another. Atticus hands me a paintbrush, tunic, and frosty Pabst Blue Ribbon. Over the next hour NoMe Edonna walks us through an art lesson; the goal here is to paint as many 8-foot murals as possible before 11 p.m. If we fail, we fail—the idea is to let our creative spirits soar, and have fun doing it. Atticus hands me a stack of glow sticks. “Crack them open,” he says. “And see what you can create.” What I create is deniably art and undoubtedly a mess, but it makes me—and everyone else too—feel good. There’s an almost total lack of pretention in this space, unlike in cities like Los Angeles or New York.
For every underground supper club, public painting party, and municipal pillow fight, there is a mixology class taking place somewhere in the city. Atticus takes me to school at the Bourbon & Branch Beverage Academy (www.beverageacademy.com), where the bartenders from the city’s famous speakeasy pass on a few tricks of the trade over two-and-a-half hours. Before long I know my way around a hi-ball, hawthorn strainer, syrups, biters, and mixers. By the end of the course I’m feeling confident in my skills; I write a list of ingredients on a cocktail napkin, and ask Atticus to help me carry a few bottles.
And here we are, holding court in our little corner of the Hemlock Tavern. I’m mixing drinks for Atticus and his friends, anxious to know what they think of alien brains. An alien brain hemorrhage is a combination of peach schnapps, Irish cream, blue curaçao, and grenadine syrup.
We pass out shots at Butter (www.smoothasbutter.com), the white trash purveyor of Tater Tots and Beanie Weenies, and one of the most popular bars in town (I order a Prom Night Punch and suggest you do the same).
Atticus insists we put our feet up at Beauty Bar (www.thebeautybar.com), the Mission staple that hasn’t decided if it’s a club or a beauty parlor, sprawled out in a salon chair with my head in an old 1980s dryer. We even manage to visit 1015 Folsom (www.1015.com), a dance club that has been popular with locals for a day and an age. The night is still young.