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Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
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Beauty Bar
2299 Mission (at 19th Street), 285-0203. Open Monday through Friday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. (happy hour 5 to 8 p.m.), Saturday and Sunday 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Polly Esther's
181 Eddy (at Taylor), 885-1977. Open Thursday 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Cover: $10 after 9 p.m.

Beauty Bar is the kind of place people like to talk about. Not after they've left, but while they're standing right there in it. Opinions are many: The tiny bar is "pink," "adorable," "fripperious," "tongue-in-cheek"; it will enjoy favor for about three months; it is a Tonga Room for the younger generation.

"It's ironic glamour," says Rosemary Pepper, 30, an editor at the Web zine Maximag, as she sips her Bombay Sapphire and tonic on the naugahyde couch in the back room. "It's great. I love it. I live for this shit. I want to live here."

Dropping by Beauty Bar is a little like visiting your grandmother's house -- that is, if your grandmother serves martinis and whiskey sours, and plays a steady mix of lounge music and boozy, Animal House blues. The mostly twentysomething patrons wear leather jackets or kitschy Christmas sweaters. A few sip their cocktails under '50s-style hair dryers, each with a tiny ashtray in the armrest.

To Danielle Spinetta, though, Beauty Bar suggests just how far behind the East Coast San Francisco night life really is. "Here we are, six years later, trying to catch up," says the former New Yorker, 29, a district manager for the Gap. "Why does it take San Francisco six years to open a Beauty Bar?"

Well, we might not be that far behind (New York didn't get its Beauty Bar until 1995), but nonetheless: East Coast-style theme night life has arrived. Beauty Bar S.F. exudes the unique, Kennedy-era loveliness of a certain bar on East 14th Street, an "institution of New York night life" (Philadelphia magazine), a "Bar of Gold" (InStyle), the "hyperhip" (Elle) Beauty Bar ... well, you get the picture.

"I thought this was a great concept and I thought it could be duplicated in other places," says co-owner Paul Devitt, who opened the original Beauty Bar in a former hair salon. Encouraged by his New York bar's success, Devitt (who also owns restaurants in Philadelphia, as well as Manhattan's drugstore-themed Barmacy) and a partner loaded a moving truck with hair dryers from an old Long Island salon and headed west, dropping the idea more or less intact into the heart of San Francisco's Mission District.

Of course, not everyone feels Beauty Bar is the best fit for Mission Street, which has only recently begun to see spillover from the bustling Valencia Street bar and restaurant scene. "I think there's a little backlash and people that are like, 'That's kind of stupid' or 'Why are you doing this here?' " says Devitt, who's considering opening Beauty Bars in Los Angeles and Miami. "But overall, for every person that doesn't like it, probably 10 people come up to me and say, 'This is fabulous, I love it, we're so happy you're here.' I thought San Francisco was a good place to try it out. I think it's going to be a success."

Skipping entirely over the mid-to-late '60s and early '70s -- that hairy, unwashed era with its tendencies toward civil disobedience and psychophysical experimentation -- we arrive at the city's other recently opened, New York-based duplicate retro club, Polly Esther's. The Live 105 van is parked out front. Inside, a huge pair of platform shoes are suspended above an actual -- though not original -- Herbie the Love Bug. A young couple boogies on the electric-lit Twister dance floor, while a hundred or so more people dance on the 1,000-square-foot, handicap-accessible disco version nearby. From above the Sweathogs locker tribute, a DJ bellows: "If you're not wearing any underwear, scream!" A mural reads, "San Fran Fever."

At least it doesn't say Frisco.
With its built-in Partridge Family bus, its Brady Bunch cutout wall, its bar menu featuring Scooby Doo Steak Sandwiches and Cheech and Chong's Burritos (this one's a fatty), Polly Esther's is more '70s than the '70s themselves could ever have been.

The style continues downstairs at the '80s-themed Culture Club: a Purple Rain Dance Floor, a giant Rubik's Cube, a mural of Bruce Springsteen's bluejean-clad ass. The young, largely suburban crowd goes wild, hooting with delight at each long-forgotten tune (The Bee Gees, Abba, tracks from Grease) -- just as young, largely suburban crowds undoubtedly go wild at the club's 12 other locations nationwide.

A journey through the Polly Esther's Web site (www.pollyesthers.com) reveals that the details may vary but the theme marches on. The Polly Esther's Washington, D.C., page promotes a Rubik's Cube Bar (and gives directions from Virginia and Maryland); the Philadelphia page features a Partridge Bar; in Austin, it is a Partridge Bus parked out front.

Polly Esther's also hosts corporate events ("Why not introduce your clients to a slice of San Francisco night life?") and children's parties ("Show the kids that Mike and Carol are tuned into the generation!"), and will cater both to locals and the out-of-town, convention crowd.

It seems to work. After all, in an environment as self-consciously ridiculous as this, how could a person help but feel cool? The good-time, non-dangerous vibe won't appeal to everybody: "This place is a little cheesy," says Christian Bonham, 24, from the Mission. "It feels like the Hard Rock Cafe gone awry."

But then again: "I was here when it was [Club] 181 many, many, many times, and this place blows its doors off," says Jennifer Allen, 26, of Pacific Heights. "It really does. It's got so much more character and style and energy, honestly, than anything in the city. For anybody that is willing to experience and accept and love the '70s and '80s, anyone who can appreciate this kind of thing, this is it. There's nothing else in the city that exists like this. Nothing close to it.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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