In terms of simple landmass, San Francisco is a pretty small town. You can ride your bike from one end of the city to the other in less than an hour. But try to squeeze the entire city into a single night of bar hopping and you quickly come to realize how much ground there actually is between the ocean and the Bay. West Portal to North Beach before last call is a serious hustle, especially if you stop and drink at half a dozen watering holes in between.
In fact, I don't recommend it. That much velocity combined with that much booze is a recipe for the spins, not to mention a small fortune in cab fare. The only reason to do it is if you enjoy the feeling of inebriated disorientation – or you're on a hunt for the best jukebox in the city. For me, I spent the better part of last Friday night dodging the former while in heroic pursuit of the latter.
Narrowing down any list into a "best of" is bound to be an exercise in subjectivity, but at least with jukeboxes there are some broadly defined parameters. First, a jukebox is not an iPod. It is not designed to highlight anyone's extensive knowledge of rare screamcore b-sides or host a secret trove of J-Pop power ballads. The whole idea behind a jukebox is to take 100 or so albums and put them in a public place where they will ideally appeal to the largest possible cross section of people. Scratch that – the largest possible cross section of drunk people.
Which brings us to the second law of jukeboxes: the music should appeal to people in all stages of sobriety. More to the point, the music on a jukebox should appeal to a room full of people actively looking to part ways with their sobriety. There are plenty of great albums that do not meet this standard. For example, Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue. Or The Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions. Or anything by Leonard Cohen. Arguments can and should be made for the greatness of these recordings, but none of them are what you want to hear when you're three sheets to the wind and well past any hope of eloquently expressing yourself with words.
Which brings us to the third and final law of jukeboxes – one that I was mostly unaware of until I set out on this quest. According to what I found, there should always be at least one album from the following genres – classic rock, metal, hip hop, country and soul. The percentages may vary, but I found this to be true at every bar I went to that night. Also, for some reason, every single jukebox apparently has to have a copy of The Pixies' Doolittle. A great album, to be sure, although I have no idea why that was the one common thread among the dozens of jukeboxes I checked out.
And so, without any further ado, I present, in no particular order, the best jukeboxes in San Francisco.
This is one of the best dive bars in the city that most people have never been to. That's because it's way the hell out on Geneva Avenue, wedged into a neighborhood that can only be described as outer SF State. But it is worth the trek because The Broken Record basically qualifies as a destination bar. They have pool, ample seating and what looks like delicious, greasy bar food. Even better, they have one of the best selections of bourbon this side of Kentucky. The bartender proudly informed me that he "knew all of them by heart."
As for the jukebox, it offers a solid selection of metal, classic rock, vintage soul and a nice sprinkling of outlaw country and indie rock standards. Highlights include Turbonegro's Apocalypse Dudes, Judas Priest's Screaming For Justice, The Best Of The Temprees, and Dr. Octagon's Dr. Octagonecologyst. WTF? award for the most random album on the jukebox goes to the Counting Crows' August And Everything After...
The Silver Spur is a cozy little neighborhood bar in the Outer Sunset. There's not much going on in that part of the city on a Friday night, and as a result The Silver Spur was only about half full. Everybody in the bar seemed to be on a first name basis with the bartender, who handed out MGDs to the pool players and often refused their money. Also, everybody in the bar seemed to be a dude. In fact, the place had a sort of "man cave" aesthetic to it, and I got the feeling that a lot of these guys are only a short walk from their apartments.
As is fitting for a bar that serves as an extension to the living rooms of so many bros, the jukebox at The Silver Spur is full of rock n roll, of both the indie and classic variety. Highlights include Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti (both discs), The Best Of Faith No More and Queens Of The Stone Age's Lullabies To Paralyze. WTF? award goes to Cher's Greatest Hits.
I always forget how many great bars there are in the TenderNob. Summer Place epitomizes what I like about this neighborhood; the pleasant mix of sleaze, ethnicity and hipster detailing that you don't find anywhere else in the city. A funny old Chinese grandma tended the bar, and I'm guessing she owns the joint because Summer Place seems to have used the owner-employer trick to skirt the rule about smoking indoors. I sat at the bar and watched her mix three Bloody Marys by hand. She took drink orders with a sly grin and called everybody "honey."
While I was waiting for some friends to join me, "Sweet Caroline" came on and the whole room sang along with the chorus. This played back-to-back with Metallica's "Master Of Puppets" and no one skipped a beat. The crowd was a mixed bag and the jukebox seems to reflect that. Highlights include Jane's Addiction's Ritual De Lo Habitual, De La Soul's The Grind Date, The Best Of Hall & Oates and Shuggie's Otis Inspiration Information. WTF? award goes to Madonna's Greatest Hits.
The Philosopher's Club got an automatic DQ because they recently switched to an internet jukebox. Internet jukeboxes don't count because they include a whole lot of nothing and not much of anything. They're expensive and frustrating to use when you're drunk.
That said, my friends had already ordered a round by the time I made my way over to the Touch Tunes machine, so I slid a bill into the slot and rocked the early crowd at this West Portal watering hole.
When we walked into The Phone Booth I heard Bad Brains' cover of "Kick Out The Jams" blasting from the speakers - a good sign. The bar was hot and smoky and crammed with knick-knacks - also a good sign. The space itself is not very big - basically just a pool table and some chairs, with the jukebox stuck on the wall at the end of the bar. This made it possible for me to order a drink and check out the record selection at the same time, which was a nice. I had to use my time efficiently since we were getting close to last call.
With no time to waste I threw back a shot and started flipping through the jukebox's stiff cardboard pages. Out of all the bars I went to that night, The Phone Booth impressed me the most with its musical variety. Their long list of jukebox highlights includes Thin Lizzy's Jailbreak, The Best of The Stranglers, The Dead Weather's Horehound, MGMT's Oracular Spectacular, The Tings Tings' We Started Nothing, The Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady and tons of punk and new wave classics. No real left field picks either. Props to whoever is running things over at The Phone Booth.
We finished off the night at what I would say is still one of my favorite bars in the city. Maybe it's because I've spent so many nights there shooting pool on their lopsided table or curled into one of their uncomfortable booths. The Uptown is where I first learned to appreciate the concept of a dive bar. It's also probably one of the first places I stood drunkenly contemplating a bar's jukebox selection in the early hours of the morning.
Not much has changed at The Uptown over the years, including the songs on the jukebox. You'll still find Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, and The Rolling Stones. It's kind of like the template that all other jukeboxes should be cut from. I was totally smashed at this point, but if my hazy memory (and my nearly illegible notes) serve me correctly, highlights include Tom Waits' The Heart Of Saturday Night, A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory, The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St., and of course, The Pixies' Doolittle.
With the night over and my liver sufficiently pickled, I stumbled out onto Capp Street. I was thinking about all the good music I had listened to that night. Although I had made a valiant effort to drink my way across the city, I knew that I could not have possibly covered every well-stocked jukebox in San Francisco. Romolo in North Beach has a great jukebox. Club Waziema on Divisadero has one too - and awesome wallpaper to match.
Perhaps this journey is not over, but has only just begun. If that's the case, then I can only leave you with a quote from The Eagles. Their greatest hits album should be on every jukebox in America, ready to serenade the legions of gin-soaked bar patrons looking for rock 'n' roll poetry in the lights of a shopworn nickelodeon.
So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit one more time.
This is a simple case of voting with your dollars. If you go to a bar and they have a good jukebox, put some money in and play some songs. That way the owners know that the glowing machine in the corner is worth the real estate - and everybody else in the bar will know that, deep down, you really love The Counting Crows.