The Late Edition, Part I
San Francisco is a city with many endearing qualities, but a vibrant after-hours scene is not one of them. If you're awake and looking for something to do after 2 a.m., your choices are pretty much limited to eating and...well, I guess there's always The Endup. But what happens if you don't want a burrito or you're not interested in dancing to throbbing techno music with a bunch of cracked-on transvestites? It's a question I often find myself asking. After pestering my friends and colleagues, and even going so far as to stop strangers on the street, I decided to investigate on my own.
The first thing I set out to find was booze. Of course I would love to find some sort of late night performance art or perhaps some after-hours theater. Something provocative and high-minded would be cool and all. But the fact of the matter is that when I'm out late at night looking for something to do, it's most often after a night of drinking. When the bartenders scream out last call and bring up the lights, I'm almost never ready to go home. If there were a place to have another round or two, and maybe meet some interesting nocturnal creatures, I would be a regular for sure.
As such, I went hunting for one of the city's extremely elusive, top secret, unlicensed after-hours watering holes. Which I'm told do exist. Somewhere. Maybe.
The first place I investigated is supposedly near the intersection of Page and Divisadero. I had been assured by my less-than-trustworthy source that that's where a secret watering hole could be found, and that he had imbibed many an after-hours cocktail there himself. Sadly, over the course of our limited communication he never mentioned where exactly this place was or how to find it.
Instead, I spent three consecutive weekends staking out that corner, watching to see if any one door was getting more use than any other. I got cold, I got rained on, and, ultimately, I got nothing.
When I next found myself up late and looking for action, I decided to try something a little more on the official side. I had heard that the Otis Lounge, just off of Union Square often stayed open an extra hour or two. In fact, I had been there once before after closing time with a friend of a friend who seemed to know the owner. We didn't really need more booze at that point, but I remember a round of Fernet shots materializing at one point. Granted, I was traveling as the lone gentleman in a group of attractive women, and I assumed the bartender was just being friendly.
Of course, you know what they say about assumptions. It was only 2:15 a.m. and there were at least a half dozen people hanging out in the tiny bar. When we walked in the bartender turned to me and my two male friends and stated coldly, "We're closed. You'll have to leave." Fortunately, I had prepared myself for this possibility with a small bottle of whiskey and the address of Cairo Nights.
How to describe Cairo Nights? Technically it's a hookah bar, serving up flavored tobacco and overpriced soda among faux Middle Eastern decor. And yet, it's so much more. Tucked into an unassuming storefront on the edge of the Tenderloin, it's open late and seems to attract a crowd with a mysterious amount of energy. The guys working there are boisterous and friendly. The music is loud and the TVs play nothing but soccer games and European infomercials.
More to the point, Cairo Nights is cool and weird and open until at least 3 a.m. Smoking is allowed – at least from a hookah – and it's dark enough that you can get away with a little BYOB as long as you are discreet. How the city hasn't found a way to screw this up yet is beyond me.
Inspired by my visit to Cairo Nights, I set out again the following week to uncover another secret bar. This time I knew the name and location. I even knew the person I was supposed to mention to the doorman when he checked me out through the peephole. Armed with this information, I set out to the eastern edge of the Mission just after 2 a.m. I found the door with the peephole and did the secret knock. And then...nothing. I tried again. Then I tried the next closest door. Then I tried a door on the other side. I called out a tentative "hello" in the direction of the building's one dark window. Absolute silence. I think I even heard a cricket chirp.
I had been so sure I’d succeed that I had convinced a carload of friends to come with me. I had anticipated a round of early morning drinks with toasts in my honor. Maybe something like, "To our great friend, who has shown us the warm, booze-filled underbelly of our great city." Instead, I now faced four drunk, disappointed guys who were threatening to leave me on the corner while they went to get burritos. I had to act fast.
"Who wants to see some boobies?" I asked as I climbed into the backseat. With that simple, yet happy image planted in their brains we sped off in the direction of Kearny and Broadway.
North Beach turns into a ghost town after last call, but The Lusty Lady was lit up like the Vegas strip. The people who work there are exceptionally friendly and the clientele seem to be giddy with pleasure. And why not? In a city consumed with sexuality, the Lusty seems to be mostly concerned with having a good time. I handed a wad of dollar bills to my friends and sent them toward a wall of unmarked doors, where about a dozen other people were popping in and out like some X-rated version of Laugh-In. Before following suit I decided to wander the premises.
The Lusty Lady basically offers three variations on the porn theme. Behind some of the doors are TV screens showing a selection of hard core porn movies, presumably for people who don't have Internet access. There is also something called Private Pleasures, which allows one-on-one interaction with one of a rotating cast of girls. The strange part about this is that the girl has a microphone, which she uses to entice customers as they walk past her viewing booth. I actually thought she was a mannequin, so I almost jumped out of my skin when she popped up out of her artfully arranged S&M tableau and bellowed at me to come inside the pleasure booth at once!
The main draw at the Lusty, of course, is the "girlquarium." You step into one of the private booths and put anything from a quarter to a $20 bill into the machine. A blind goes up revealing two or three totally naked girls doing a lazy sort of stripper yoga in a small, mirrored room. You can talk to them if you want or ask them to perform a particular trick or move. If you cram enough people into one of the booths or do something weird, they will even talk about you among themselves. The whole thing is strange and funny and gross and surprisingly casual. I can't say that I'll be a regular there, but if you have some out-of-town guests and you're looking to blow their minds at 4 a.m., The Lusty Lady would be a good place to start.
And so it is hard to say whether or not I achieved my goal. I never found the secret bars, and the only booze I drank after 2 a.m. was store bought. I did, however, see some weird things and talk to some strange people. I stayed out all night in San Francisco and never once had to resort to entertaining myself by eating a burrito. Best of all I have stories to tell, images of naked breasts etched in my mind, and a reason to keep wandering the streets of San Francisco late into the night.
If you find yourself out on the street after last call and you're all about the exotic stuff, check out The Lusty Lady or Cairo Nights. And if you're all about the booze – and you know where any of those secret bars are – for god's sake, let me know! However, if you're all about the food, check back in next week as I face the facts and turn my undivided attention to after hours dining in SF.