The Best Places to Play in SF in 2017
Goldilocks Concert Venue: The Chapel
777 Valencia St. (near 19th St.), 415-551-5157
The best concerts are in that just-right space between arena-size pyrotechnic shows and teensy bar gigs. Our favorite such joint right now is the Chapel, the 500-person Mission district club opened in 2012 inside a 1914 mortuary. The digs are something else: 40-foot arched ceilings, plus a mezzanine level with a balcony, a second bar, and TV screens showing closed-circuit footage of the show for people chilling near the back. Plus, booking is handled by Folk Yeah!, so the acts are a well-curated list of indie, psychedelic, and folk.
Runner-up: the Independent
Film Series: Modern Cinema
151 3rd St. (at Minna St.), sfmoma.org
Take the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s artistic sensibility, pair it with SFFilm’s vast collection of film, and what do you get? The best movie program in town. Modern Cinema, presented twice yearly, is three weekends of films co-curated by SFMOMA and SFFilm and staged in the Phyllis Wattis Theater. The most recent season paired the works of Werner Herzog with art films by Guy Maddin and others. All for just $12 ($10 for museum or film society members).
Runner-up: Film Night with the San Francisco Symphony
Independent Comedy Club: Doc’s Lab
124 Columbus Ave. (near Kearny St.), 415-649-6191
If two-drink minimums, $30 covers, and drunk tourists aren’t your thing, you’re in luck: There’s a wealth of smaller, independently run venues in town. Chief among them is Doc’s Lab, a 70-seat club in the former home of the Purple Onion. The space, all exposed concrete, gives off a nice vibe, the drinks and food beat the hell out of anything you’d get at Cobb’s, and the acts, whether local or touring, are reliably sharp.
Runner-up: the Setup
Music Festival: Phono del Sol
Potrero del Sol Park, 25th and Utah Sts., phonodelsol.com
Not to deny the magnitude of Outside Lands, the hipness of Treasure Island, or the spirit (and price tag) of Hardly Strictly and Stern Grove. But there comes a point at which the crowds are just too much. For that reason—along with reliably solid lineups, a sun-soaked Mission district location, and a laid-back vibe that encourages you to spread out a blanket, all for the modest sum of $29—we salute the little Phono del Sol music fest.
Runner-up: Outside Lands
Broadway Theater: The Curran
445 Geary St. (near Taylor St.), 415-358-1220
The year of our Lord 2017 was the year Hamilton came to San Francisco, so you might have overlooked a superb first season of live theater a few blocks away at the Curran, which reopened in January after a two-year renovation and proprietor Carole Shorenstein Hays’s dramatic breakaway from SHN. The jewel-box 1,600-seat theater opened with a pair of Broadway hits making their West Coast debuts—the adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s lesbian comic-book memoir Fun Home and Danai Gurira’s all-black, all-women Eclipsed, two fantastic shows the Bay Area previously might not have ever gotten—and finished with the sonic mind trip The Encounter. The ambitious programming continues into the fall, with Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music set to make its West Coast debut in September.
Art Destination: Minnesota Street Project
1275 Minnesota St. (at 24th St.), minnesotastreetproject.com
There may be no clearer sign that the art scene’s center of gravity has moved than the recent opening of the upscale Daniel Patterson restaurant Alta inside Minnesota Street Project. No longer can this be considered the boonies. In fact, MSP now houses a critical mass of this city’s most important galleries, including Altman Siegel, Nancy Toomey Fine Art, and Casemore Kirkeby. Go ahead and spend a Saturday walking through MSP’s 10 permanent galleries, all totally free, and see works ranging from the decidedly established (Larry Sultan at Casemore Kirkeby) to the downright affordable (Bass & Reiner Gallery).
Runner-up: 49 Geary
High-Culture Remix: SF Opera Lab
401 Van Ness Ave. (at McAllister St.), 4th fl., 415-864-3330
At one point not long ago, in a desperate attempt to encourage millennials through the door, the San Francisco Opera encouraged tweeting during shows. With the Opera Lab, however, the 94-year-old institution may have finally hit on a winning formula for luring in the youngsters. The program’s second season, with its dressed-down vibe, peaked with The Source: Ted Hearn’s electronic-music oratorio, whose libretto was composed entirely from the contents of Chelsea Manning’s leaked emails, was among the most powerful, if unusual, things we saw all year.
Runner-up: San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox
Immersive Theater: The Speakeasy
It’s easy to get lost, both metaphorically and literally, inside The Speakeasy. In the “immersive theater experience” that was rebooted last fall, a cast and crew of 81 act out a dizzying web of plots in a 1920s-era nightclub. Keeping track of the characters and story lines is near impossible (the script runs some 1,500 pages), but the costumes, sets, and drinks are enough to make The Speakeasy one of the most memorable—if booziest—nights out in town.
Runner-up: Epic Immersive
Literary Remix: Word for Word
Z Space, 450 Florida St. (near 17th St.), 415-626-0453
The 20-year-old organization continues to breathe new life into the printed word by publicly reading, adapting, and staging the works of today’s finest writers. In 2017, through its Off the Page readings—the first step toward theatrical productions—the all-women group read pieces by George Saunders, Emily Dickinson, and Ron Rash. Look elsewhere for flashy set design and high-tech flourishes; Word for Word is all about story.
Runner-up: Shipwreck at Booksmith
Art Museum: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 3rd St. (at Minna St.), 415-357-4000
The names speak for themselves: Matisse and Diebenkorn, Bruce Conner, Edvard Munch. But what sets SFMOMA apart from its otherwise worthy competitors is the sheer depth of its collection. Even over the course of a half dozen trips, visitors might easily find that they’ve only skimmed its surface. Meanwhile, the Pritzker Center for Photography continues to burnish its reputation as perhaps the finest in the country. Until further notice, SFMOMA remains the champ in this category.
Runner-up: Asian Art Museum
Erotic Extravaganza: Vau de Vire Society
What do you get if you cross a Cirque du Soleil acrobat with a Las Vegas showgirl, then have her cut loose to avant-cabaret tunes? A Vau de Vire Society performer, of course! Mike and Shannon Gaines’s bawdy, sophisticated outfit has been titillating Bay Area audiences for a decade, whether at the renowned Edwardian Ball, at one of its kinky New Year’s Eve shows at the Armory, or at Soiled Dove, a ribald tribute to the Barbary Coast. A Vau de Vire show delivers equal measures of eroticism, athleticism, and wit, served up with panache.
Runner-up: Hubba Hubba Revue
Dance Club: Monarch
101 6th St. (at Mission St.), 415-284-9774
Audiophiles obsess over the Void Acoustics sound system at the subterranean Monarch, one of the top speaker systems in the country. Pregame at the upstairs bar while watching sexy acrobats loosen up the crowd, then descend to the urban underground room to let loose. Freak, twirl, jive, and grind beneath exposed piping, or unleash your inner go-go queen onstage. Rinse (with a cocktail) and repeat.
Cocktail Bar: Evil Eye
2937 Mission St. (near 25th St.), 415-814-3779
With the number of talented mixologists in San Francisco approaching the number of Lyft drivers, singling out the best cocktail bar is no easy task. But Evil Eye, which opened in the former Savanna Jazz last June, is a worthy choice. Owner and bartender Matthew Norris has crafted deliciously unexpected concoctions like the not-too-Trader-Vic’s-y Drunken Sailor (coconut-infused bourbon, white rum, grapefruit, falernum, cinnamon, and lemon). Plus the decor is tasteful and elegant without being precious, and the light pouring in the front window keeps the atmosphere from being too cave-like.
Runner-up: Stookey’s Club Moderne
Dive Bar: The Summer Place
801 Bush St. (at Mason St.), 415-441-2252
The ingredients that make up a great dive bar are indefinable, perhaps even mystical. Whatever they are, the Summer Place has them. Weird name (taken from a now-forgotten 1959 film)? Check. Deep-urban location (the corner of Bush and Mason)? Check. Flotsam-and-jetsam-of-the-naked-city clientele? Check. This joint is not as bottom-of-the-barrel as some dive bars, but it does what a great DB is supposed to do: It transports you to its own weird and wonderful world.
Hotel Bar: The Big 4
1075 California St. (at Taylor St.), 415-771-1140
The watering hole—if such a plebeian term can be applied to it—of the ultra-swanky Huntington Hotel, the Big 4 has so much Oxford men’s club ambience it feels like it came out of a Merchant Ivory film. The location opposite the august Pacific-Union Club is suitably elevated, the appointments appropriately luxurious, the beverages impeccable. One does not enter such a sanctum sanctorum in search of [discreet, withering cough] novelty cocktails. A perfectly made Tanqueray martini will do nicely. That will be all, Jeeves.
Runner-up: the Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake
View Bar: Cityscape Lounge
333 O’Farrell St. (at Taylor St.), 46th fl., 415-923-5002
There are plenty of S.F. bars with drop-dead views. But if you haven’t checked out the recently reborn Cityscape Lounge in the Hilton, do yourself a favor and head to the edge of the Tenderloin. The almost 360-degree panorama from the 46th floor is jaw-dropping. But the real showstopper is the view straight up Taylor Street to Grace Cathedral and the big hotels atop California Street, which you’re practically level with.
Runner-up: Top of the Mark
People-Watching Bar: House of Shields
39 New Montgomery St. (at Stevenson St.), 415-495-5436
Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, age cannot wither nor custom stale the infinite variety of drinkers in the House of Shields. OK, “infinite variety” might be an exaggeration, but this wondrous old bar really does have one of the more eclectic crowds in town. There’s a local contingent (which because of the heterogeneity of the New Montgomery hood is itself unpredictable), a tourist contingent, and a stimulating mixture of old-time San Franciscans and bohemians. In business since 1908 and completely restored in 2011, it gets bonus points for having the most massive and imposing urinal in town.
Soccer Bar: Maggie McGarry’s
1353 Grant Ave. (near Green St.), 415-399-9020
We’ve never actually watched a soccer game at 4:30 a.m. at Maggie McGarry’s, or even the marginally more civilized hour of 7. But we have stumbled in there at 9 a.m. once or twice, and quite a few times at noon, and we can report that this popular Irish watering hole in the heart of North Beach draws plenty of die-hard English Premier League fans—mostly Arsenal supporters, according to bartender J.J., with Man City next. Since bars can only start pouring booze at 6 a.m., J.J. says the “drinking starts hard” then—mostly Irish coffees, Bloody Marys, and beer. Olé, olé olé olé! Runner-up: Mad Dog in the Fog
Neighborhood Bar: The Owl Tree
601 Post St. (at Taylor St.), 415-359-1600
There are even more great neighborhood bars in San Francisco than there are great neighborhoods. What sets the Owl Tree apart is its hood: The Lower Nob Hill Apartment Hotel District is on the National Register of Historic Places because it has a higher density of six-to-eight-story apartment houses than almost anywhere else in the country. It’s the Naked City, S.F.-style, and the Owl Tree is one of the few remaining bars serving it. Yes, it draws some tourists from Union Square and some hipster connoisseurs of urban dives, but a lot of its clientele are working joes and janes from the neighborhood.
Runner-up: Philosophers Club
Kitsch Bar: The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
950 Mason St. (at California St.), 415-772-5278
The beloved old joint almost died a few years ago, but, helped by an appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover—in which he proclaimed it “the greatest place in the world”—the kitsch palace not only survived; it flourished. It doesn’t hurt that the drink menu was recently revamped: The famously strong two-rum mai tais are now made with fresh juice and way less sugar. Any place where you can guzzle a Scorpion through a two-foot straw cannot be allowed to go to Davy Jones’s locker.
Runner-up: Trad’r Sam
Hinterlands Bar: 7 Mile House
2800 Bayshore Blvd. (near Geneva Ave.), Brisbane, 415-467-2343
Sometimes you just want to get the hell out of town…or close to it. In that case, there’s no better destination than the venerable 7 Mile House. One of San Francisco’s original roadhouses, the bar has a colorful and disreputable history. Located just south of the San Francisco city and county line, it’s a rollicking old joint that features a variety of blues and R&B bands at night, a Sunday barbecue and jazz jam, and a full kitchen serving a reasonably priced combination of old standbys and Filipino specialties like adobo. And although it may seem like a schlep to go all the way to Brisbane, the 7 Mile House is less than five minutes off 101, making it easier to get to than a lot of places downtown.
Runner-up: Sam Jordan’s
Best Patio Bar: El Rio
3158 Mission St. (near Cesar Chavez St.), 415-282-3325
Mission Street’s El Rio is not only the best patio bar in town; it’s a place that epitomizes the best of San Francisco. To be out in its big open backyard on a sunny Sunday with a margarita and a plate of barbecue, listening to a hot salsa band and watching the deliriously heterogeneous crowd—LGBTQ, straight, black, white, Latino, Asian—is one of this town’s great pleasures. There’s a pool table, shuffleboard, and a jukebox, and you can bring your dog—what’s not to like?
Runner-up: the Royal Cuckoo
Brewery: Sunset Reservoir Brewing Company
1735 Noriega St. (near 25th Ave.), 415-571-8452
Opened in 2015 by Hilary Cherniss (Devil’s Teeth Baking Company), SRBC doesn’t boast the most ass-kicking triple IPAs in town, though the five housemade brews on tap, including the Foggy Lager, Little Red, and the Brown Ale, are all smooth and satisfying in their own rights. What makes it stand out, rather, is the fact that the Noriega Street outfit is just what the doctor ordered in this drab stretch of the Avenues—resisting the “Instagram Me!” vibe that dooms so many other operations to mere hipster novelty. It’s an unpretentious brewpub in an unpretentious neighborhood, a place to come in out of the fog and grab a bite after a kids’ soccer game. We’ll drink to that.
Grown-Up Playland: Spin
690 Folsom St. (at 3rd St.), 415-636-5995
If you haven’t been to Spin, the one-year-old SoMa “ping-pong social club,” picture an enormous nightclub: VIPs in the back, Shepard Fairey art on the walls, DJs spinning pulse-thumping tunes. Then add a dozen ping-pong tables. We admit: There’s a lot here that’s ripe for mocking, starting with its techie clientele, its marketing-team-approved hip decor, and its fluorescent-drink cocktail menu. It’s even got an app (of course). We won’t deny any of that. But get over it, because goddamn, it’s fun to get drunk and play some ping-pong.
Runner-up: House of Air
Cooking Class: 18 Reasons
3674 18th St. (near Dolores St.), 415-568-2710
This nine-year-old Mission district cooking school has become a San Francisco institution thanks to tried-and-true standbys like twice-monthly classes on knife technique, its two-hour “rapid” courses, and practical-knowledge classes like Real Vegetarian Food and Cook Once, Eat All Week. But what really sets 18 Reasons apart from its competitors is its rotating stable of obscure courses you’ll find nowhere else—Malaysian coastal cuisine? Flavors of Azerbaijan? Indian teatime? It’s got them all. Now under the guiding hand of chef Mike Weller, formerly of Le Cordon Bleu, the school also hosts a series of winemakers’ dinners featuring well-known chefs that are all open to the public.
Runner-up: San Francisco Cooking School
Art Class: WorkshopSF
1798 McAllister St. (at Baker St.), 415-874-9186
The best art class in the city operates less like an episode of Bob Ross and more like an Etsy-track incubator. Aspiring makers and DIYers can learn how to build apothecary shelves from a local woodworker, dye curtains using the shibori technique, trim and stitch risky leather accessories, or perfect the sweeps of calligraphy lettering at the approachable McAllister Street workshop.
Runner-up: Beyond Canvas
Bowling Alley: Presidio Bowling Center
93 Moraga Ave. (at Montgomery St.), 415-561-2695
There are other, flashier alleys in San Francisco, but the Presidio Bowling Center is just about the only bowling-first, traditional set of lanes left standing. Still, mere nostalgia isn’t its only charm. There are 50 beers and 19 wines to choose from at the bar, and an imminent $750,000 renovation will provide non-bowlers with a patio and a bay view and upgrade the site’s Leave It to Beaver–era kitchen.
Runner-up: Mission Bowling Club
First-Date Spot: Urban Putt
1096 S. Van Ness Ave. (at 22nd St.), 415-341-1080
The attention to detail is stunning at this steampunk-inspired miniature golf wonderland, opened in 2014 inside a former Mission district mortuary. Each of the 14 holes is its own work of art; the facility employs a team of four repairmen to keep all those cranks, gears, levers, and sensors up and running. A full restaurant and bar upstairs, with a second bar on the first floor, makes it a one-stop date night option. And at just $12 per round per adult, it’s practically a cheap date, to boot.
Pickup Soccer: SoccerFours
SoccerFours is not “pickup” in the head-to-the-park, come-what-may sense. You have to register. It costs eight bucks an hour. But what you get is a highly competitive yet welcoming game. Many players are superb, but no one willing to hustle is made to feel out of place. The male-to-female ratio is not out of whack, and play is high-energy but not reckless. With four players per “team,” everyone gets involved. It’s how the beautiful game should be.
Runner-up: Lunch Soccer on Meetup.com
Batting Cage: San Francisco Baseball Academy
3010 Geary Blvd. (near Blake St.), 415-742-4890
With the recent closures of cages on Clement Street and on Treasure Island, the city that gave the world Joe DiMaggio was very nearly without a place for kids to hone their hacks. Thank God, then, for the San Francisco Baseball Academy, opened in 2016. The facility is housed in the art deco former Bridge Theater on Geary, still recognizable outside by its marquee, if not inside, where the 400 seats were removed and four cages and a bullpen were installed. This isn’t one of those county-fair coin-op setups, either: Most batters face live pitching from one of the place’s staff of collegiate players.
Runner-up: Batters Box SF
Walking Tour for Locals: San Francisco City Guides
Keep your money in your pockets: The best walking tours in San Francisco are free. The volunteer-led San Francisco City Guides boasts more than 100 history and architectural tours that together cover much of the city—including a few that offer participants entry into seldom-seen quarters, like the monthly tour of the Diego Rivera mural Allegory of California at the former Stock Exchange Tower, typically closed to the public. Without exaggeration, this is the best deal in town—just remember to throw a tenner in the envelope at the end.
Runner-up: Wild SF Walking Tours
City Hike: Lands End
Eastern trailhead: 32nd Ave. at El Camino Del Mar, 415-426-5240
For pure grandeur, no walk in San Francisco beats the Lands End hike. The mile-plus Coastal Trail offers jaw-dropping vistas across the mouth of the Golden Gate strait to the Marin Headlands, back toward Baker Beach, and out to the Farallon Islands. Along the way, you pass fascinating sights like Mile Rock, where a glorious wave-swept lighthouse once stood; the eroded cliff along which Adolph Sutro’s scenic Ferries & Cliff House Railway once puffed; and the still-visible remnants of various shipwrecks.
Runner-up: the Embarcadero from AT&T Park to Fisherman’s Wharf
Little-Known Park: Grandview Park
14th Ave. at Moraga St., 415-831-2700
Ask even a knowledgeable San Franciscan where Grandview Park is, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. That’s a shame, because this four-acre hilltop park at 14th Avenue and Moraga Street in the Sunset district—known by locals as Turtle Hill—is one of the city’s gems. There’s not a lot to do here except climb up the lovely set of 160 mosaic-decorated steps and look at the view, but the view is so stunning it doesn’t matter. From the park’s 666-foot summit you can see all the way up the coast to Point Reyes. To the west, the Sunset stretches out to the Pacific; to the east is a majestic view of Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks, and downtown. Runner-up: Candlestick Point Recreation Area
Indoor Play Space: The Coop
303 Linden Ave. (near Grand Ave.), South San Francisco, 415-200-7786
This new kid on the indoor-playground block opened in late 2016. Presented with a massive ball pit, slides, climbing structures, a pretend-play area, and even a dance floor, the little ones may never want to leave. At a minimum, they should get nice and tuckered out. Wi-Fi and a cappuccino bar (coming soon) can keep the parents powered for the duration.
Runner-up: Imagination Playhouse
Kids’ Movies: Sing Alongs at the Castro
429 Castro St. (near 17th St.), 415-621-6120
Get ready to belt out your favorite tune at this historic theater that hosts family-friendly sing-alongs of favorites like Frozen and Moana. Dressing up as your favorite character is highly encouraged, and every guest gets a goodie bag full of props to up the interactive element.
Runner-up: Outdoor movie night at Pier 39
Family Sleepover: San Francisco Zoo’s Wild Nights
Sloat Blvd. at Great Hwy., 415-753-7073
Enjoy a zookeeper talk, a night hike, and snacks, then pitch a tent and camp on Patas Lawn at the San Francisco Zoo. Awake to the rustling of the animals and eat breakfast before you depart. Bonus: Get your hand stamped and return for more fun when the zoo reopens for the day. Kids must be eight or older to participate.
Runner-up: California Academy of Sciences’ Penguins + Pajamas
Kids’ Playground: Hilltop Park
LaSalle Ave. at Whitney Young Cir., 415-831-2700
This little-known park in the Bayview reopened in December after a $6.9 million renovation, and the results are delightful. The skate park—the first in San Francisco—has been completely remade, and the park’s 70-foot yellow sundial, the largest in the city, has also been restored. The playground is now a landscaped, state-of-the-art facility with a wooden play structure, long concrete slides, and metal climbing structures. It’s a little off the beaten path, but Hilltop Park is definitely worth an excursion.
Runner-up: Joe DiMaggio Playground
Beach for Kids: Aquatic Park Cove
Northernmost end of Van Ness Ave., 415-561-7000
The ideal beach to take kids to is one where you can get distracted without worrying that some sneaker wave will carry your progeny away. Aquatic Park, the little man-made cove on the northern waterfront, is so calm, and its water so shallow, that you can let your children splash with a minimum of anxiety. The promenade above the beach has just been renovated, and there’s an outdoor shower and bathrooms just steps from the beach.
Runner-up: Crissy Field
Children’s Theater Series: Bay Area Children’s Theatre
221 4th St. (at Howard St.), 510-296-4433
It’s never too early to expose the kids to live theater. And for those unwilling to shell out for Hamilton tickets, Bay Area Children’s Theatre is a nice alternative, offering productions geared toward kids ages 3 to 12. The 2017–18 season brings shows like Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site: The Musical for the youngest audiences and Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka for the older crew.
Runner-up: San Francisco Children’s Musical Theater
Youth Gym: AcroSports
639 Frederick St. (near Willard St.), 415-665-2276
This abandoned pigeon roost turned state-of-the-art gymnastics facility is the ideal place to send kids who long to run off and join the circus. AcroSports features 10,000 square feet full of gymnastics equipment and circus rigging for classes like tumbling, trampoline, aerial arts, contortion, circus arts, and clowning. Refreshingly, AcroSports also offers open gym time for kids with special needs and financial assistance for qualifying families.
Runner-up: San Francisco Gymnastics
Scary Outing: San Francisco Dungeon
145 Jefferson St. (near Mason St.), No. 500, 855-753-9999
The San Francisco Dungeon is a Fisherman’s Wharf institution where you’re immersed in an hour-long walking tour of replicas of historic San Francisco haunts, guided by creepy characters. A new drop ride, Escape Alcatraz, simulates jumping from the prison island into the waters of San Francisco Bay. Best for kids over 10: The special effects can be a bit too much for the little tykes, and maybe even for some moms and dads.
Runner-up: Madame Tussauds