Rocking Out

Striking a new chord in the Polk Street bar scene

The times are definitely changing on lower Polk Street. You'll still see magnificent-breasted transvestite prostitutes and shady characters nodding from dark alleys, but you also can class it up at the Lush Lounge (formerly the Polk Gulch Saloon) at Post.

"That bar was trash," a customer named Michael says of the old saloon -- and yes, he used to hang out there. Now, all is kitsch and dainty cocktails like the Key Lime Martini, a milky green ambrosia that tastes remarkably like the pie of the same name, only boozier. On a Saturday the air is tinged with CK1 as piano maestro Larry O'Leno tickles the ivories on a stage 15 feet above the bar. Photos of immortal divas gaze down on a stylish, mixed gay crowd as a few brave souls step to the mike. Not everyone came to sing, though.

"The only reason I come here is to meet beautiful women," says Dan, mingling with a pair of drunken young lovelies. They kiss Dan, then each other. They're about two cocktails away from kissing the floor.

"I like this bar," says Lovely No. 1. "It's cozy, there's freaks up onstage, and my favorite fucking people are here. Do you want to see my tits?" she asks.

If given a choice ... well, we weren't.

Of course, campy lounge tunes and impromptu mammary displays aren't for everyone. Polk still has a thriving gay scene, but the freshest new thing would be the string of rocker bars that runs clear to Russian Hill. Just up the street from Lush, the Hemlock Tavernmay be the funky hat capital of San Francisco. Among the sightings: cowboy hats, beanies, a newsboy cap, and a leopard-print head-warmer. John, the guitarist for the Coach Whips (he's playing the second set in the back room), has no hat, but his hairstyle -- bangs that reach nearly to his nostrils -- may be the funkiest headgear of all.

Out on the smoking patio, Jeff recalls the bar's previous avatar, the Giraffe. "It was this grungy, stinky, old-school gay bar," he says. "And I'm heterosexual, by the way." Of course. "The first time I came in, a bear was working the bar. I walked up and he was like, "Aahhoooohhh!'"

At least the bear didn't flash any bosom.

Meanwhile, up at Pine, even Kimo'shas abandoned its long-running drag shows in favor of still more rock. Tonight, the Librarians rule the muggy, garagelike upstairs lounge. After the set, tattooed rockers pour onto the street, taking over the bus stop and smoking like chimneys. In other words, it's a rocking little scene. Up at Clay, the Red Devil Loungehosts a Rolling Stones cover band (as if the world needs such a thing). As a result, we continued another block to the city's hottest new sasquatch bar, the Bigfoot Lodge.

If you meet Rainy the bartender here, be warned: She may buy you a shot of whiskey, then slap your face repeatedly for no reason whatsoever. (In all fairness, she did let us slap her back.) Beyond that, Bigfoot's a groovy little spot, with log cabin-style walls, faux redwoods atop the bar, a gigantic fake Bigfoot standing in the corner, and a genuine DJ crew spinning '80s rock. The crowd ranges from clean-cut Russian Hill locals to Tara, who's wearing bunny earmuffs and bouncing like tomorrow will never come.

"I can't say that I rock out this hard everywhere," she says. "I usually try to play it more cool. But because I know this posse [the DJs], all these little freakers ..."

Tara bounces off without finishing the sentence, but she's made her point.

 
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