The Nudie Foodie
The first time I went to a strip club, I was so nervous I spiked my morning coffee with a pour of Baileys. I was anxious because I didn’t know what to expect: Would the clientele be trench-coat-wearing men with slack jaws and red eyes? Would the surfaces be sticky? It was 10 a.m. on a Friday, and I had to go to work. The plan was to hit up the Gold Club for its $5 Friday lunch buffet around noon, which had seemed like a good idea, thanks to its affordability and the obvious street-cred appeal.
Turns out I had nothing to be nervous about. The Gold Club dancers were awesomely talented. My friends and I kept looking at each other, eyes wide, as we mouthed, “How can we learn to do that?!” watching Scarlett or Sierra hang upside down at the top of the pole – toned abs and, yes, boobs, stretched in our direction. And the food... well, the menu had its ups and downs, but $5 for an all-you-can-eat buffet and some skillful pole dancing was a freaking good deal. We emerged from the darkened club into the glare of a SOMA afternoon, deeming the experience one of our better work-time lunches ever.
A few years have passed since my first foray into San Francisco’s tit scene. Since then, I’ve taken a pole dancing class (I bruise too easy to be a pole-star, sadly) and launched into food writing. With a heightened palate and a critic’s sensibility, it seemed like the perfect time to return to the Gold Club and give its Friday lunch deal a once-over. But what’s a good review without context? San Francisco has no shortage of strip clubs, though relatively few serve more than flesh – something I learned as I called about 10 of them, asking after their food menus (I’m guessing it’s a question they don’t often get).
But I locked down four spots – two with free lunches, and two with full menus – for a head-to-head (boob-to-boob?) comparison. There’s the Gold Club, of course, up against the less-frequented Hustler Club, which has a lunch buffet on Thursdays and Fridays. Then there’s the Condor, which opened in 1964, going up against the shiny new Penthouse Club & Steakhouse, an establishment claiming to be as much about the food as the pole.
Get your dollar bills ready - it's time to get hungry!
THE GOLD CLUB
Unlimited Friday Lunch Buffet.
The scene: Packed at 12:30 p.m. Equal parts start-up guys giggling at the dancers and dudes in baggy jeans and chains appraising the talent.
Don't miss: the fried chicken.
Skip: the too-sweet Chinese food.
The talent: Disappointingly little pole work, but some shining moments of booty popping.
Hot tip: Watch the buffet for the guy bringing out fresh chicken – you want that baby right out of the fryer.
Arriving at the Gold Club, we secure a spot in the upstairs balcony and some Miller Lites ($4) before hitting the buffet. A fresh batch of chicken has just been served up, and I load up on a succulent looking breast, nodding to the dancer gyrating on the warm-up stage. Also available: mashed potatoes, salad, gooey-looking Chinese mall food, and a cut-up turkey sandwich. I take my first bite of chicken and the crust is crisp, salty, and flavorful. The interior is seriously juicy, certainly rivaling some of the better fried-chicken joints in the city. As for the dancers, we seem to have missed the serious pole A-team. We’re especially put off by a skinny dark-haired dancer whose primary move is humping the stage. But, other dancers make up for her disappointing set with some great song selections (the Black Crowes) and some really excellent booty popping.
LARRY FLYNT'S HUSTLER CLUB
Unlimited Thursday and Friday Lunch Buffet.
The scene: Eerily similar to the creepy-sedated vibe of mid-level strip clubs you see in movies or HBO shows. Think big, oldish dudes with very small strippers sitting in their laps.
Don’t miss: The red velvet cupcakes (what?!).
Skip: everything else.
The talent: More sad than sexy. Generic dance music, Quaalude-level enthusiasm.
Hot tip: People aren’t really paying attention to the buffet. Get your $5’s worth – take a cupcake (or two) to go.
Compared to the Gold Club, the Hustler Club feels small. There’s only one tiny stage, and the pole is short, leaving little room for acrobatics. But the buffet is strangely similar. The fried chicken, bowl of salad greens, turkey sandwich, and Chinese mall food are all here. Hustler’s buffet suffers in comparison to the Gold Club. The chicken, in particular, is dry, lacking in flavor, and far from crisp. The truly unappetizing part of the lunch is the vibe of the room – it lacks the convivial, “gotta get down on Friday!” feeling of the Gold Club. But then we spot the red velvet cupcakes. Rich, moist cake topped with swirls of cream cheese frosting – they’re some of the best I’ve tried in San Francisco. Lunch became a significantly better experience as we turned our attention to dessert and away from the stage. WINNER: THE GOLD CLUB
All Day Menu. Entrees run $12 to $18.
Everything else is under $10
The scene: On weekends, the Condor opens its windows onto Columbus Avenue and features a live cover band. Until 6 p.m., that is, when the shades are drawn and the clothes come off. Worth it to see the drunk, aged hippies before 6 p.m., and the confused tourists after.
Don’t miss: The sliders.
Skip: The buffalo wings.
The talent: They’re all about the pole here, and the dancers have the skills to work it.
Hot tip: The bartender doesn’t work quickly. Order multiple beers at once – you’ll need them while you wait for your food. Our meal took a good 40 minutes and showed up covered in foil – apparently there’s “a kitchen down the street that serves the clubs.” The food menu at the Condor covers a lot of ground (from $18 steaks to gourmet pizzas), and leads to an interesting debate about what’s funny to eat at a strip club (tacos) versus what’s gross (fettuccine Alfredo). Overall, it seems safer to avoid the entree section entirely, so we order a selection of shareable plates: Original Buffalo Wings ($7, soggy and disappointing), “Better Than A Taqueria Tacos” (four for $8, on decent corn tortillas), and the Condor sliders (two for $8, the decided winner). The sliders suggest use of an actual charcoal grill, and the well-salted beef even manages to have a bit of pink in the middle. Most impressive, however, is the dancing. The warm-up performer of the evening is a total superstar: she climbs, flips, and slides down the pole to the floor before catching herself with her thighs over the beat of Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Tainted Love.”
THE PENTHOUSE CLUB AND STEAKHOUSE
Lunch: Everything is under $15 (one of the more reasonable, quality lunch menus in the Financial District).
Dinner: $50–$70 steaks, $160 caviar service
The scene: More club-like than other strip joints, the two-story space suggests Vegas more than dirty old men. The club has definitely done the work to brand itself as a fine dining establishment; mostly empty at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Don’t miss: Anything on the lunch menu (namely, grilled asparagus salad, burger, truffle fries, shrimp and pork tacos).
Skip: Dinner is pretty expensive. But if you’re down to make it rain, I say go for it.
The talent: There’s a good mix of pole work with dancing. The girls are nice, too.
Hot tip: In addition to a well-priced lunch menu, Penthouse has no cover and $2 domestic beers and well drinks until 7 p.m. Best happy hour deal around? I’d say so.
I was predisposed to like the Penthouse when the doorman asked me if I was there to audition. Having spent the past few meals noticing how hot many of San Francisco’s strippers are, it’s all I could do not to hug him (and the Penthouse is a classy joint, too!).
Even better: the food is delicious. The grilled asparagus salad ($8.95), featuring a sizable pile of fresh, crisp asparagus, is everything I want in a spring dish – the grilled flavor is accentuated and richened by the tang of Meyer lemon poppy seed dressing and a runny, slow-cooked egg yolk. The half-pound burger ($12.95) is perfectly salted and had a killer grass-fed beefy flavor; the truffle fries served alongside are straight-up addictive. The tacos ($9.95 for three) are good enough that we forget to make taco-strip-club jokes until later. Served on dense, fresh La Tortilla Factory corn tortillas, there are four meat choices, but the sweet, snappy shrimp and melt-in-your-mouth pork are particular standouts. “And the dancing is so much more subtle and classy than at the other places!” I say, as we turn to see a dancer on all fours, booty popping in our direction. My lunch date smirks at me. “Or maybe I’m just used to it,” I add, taking another bite of taco. WINNER: THE PENTHOUSE CLUB