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"Where are the clowns?" I asked the bartender.
1351 Polk St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
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Before you curse me for putting "Send in the Clowns" in your head, let me explain. I recently went to Playland, the new bar in the space that Kimo's used to occupy. Everything I read about the place had promised a "fun-house themed" ode to S.F.'s storied amusement park. I figured there would be a lot of primary colors, probably a popcorn machine, and maybe even a gigantic clown face that regurgitated vodka slushies into your cup. Let me be the first to tell you that there was nary a hurdy-gurdy in sight. The closest thing to a carnival delight was some chick with a beard nursing a beer at the corner table.
Once I got over my disappointment, I looked around and realized that whoever designed the bar had — gulp — taste, and if you looked hard enough, you could discern little playful touches.
Before I get into the actual place (I know, boring, right?), let me introduce the larger theme of this essay, which is my friend's visit to the Galápagos Islands, and the 175-year-old tortoises living there. She had just gotten back and was telling me some interesting tidbits as we sat on the stools at Playland. There is a bird there known as the blue-footed booby, and you can buy a T-shirt that says "I Love Boobies." I had never thought of the souvenir possibilities of the Galápagos Islands. In fact, I always sort of pictured three or four people per trip, surrounded by goofy-looking animals. Then everyone loads onto a hydroplane and heads back to Ecuador. Getting an "I Evolved at the Galápagos Islands" keychain didn't figure into my fantasy. (I have also at times entertained the idea of putting Charles Darwin in a car with a bumper sticker that says "I break for pigeons," but that would really only crack up evolutionary biologists, so what's the point?)
About those stools we were sitting on as we discussed her trip: They don't look like the seats in a roller coaster. They are just stools. The bar is two levels, but the upper level was closed when we where there. The bottom, at first glance, looks like a hunting lodge, because there is a big, taxidermied head of a steer on the wall. Everything else is painted a rustic brown. But look closer, gentle reader, and you will see old-fashioned colored light bulbs in green, red, yellow, and blue dotting the ceiling. When the sun finally sank, the place looked hella cute with these lights on. Other subtle carnival props were tucked up in the rafters over the door and windows.
I looked at the drink list and saw something called a bumper car, which was really just a sidecar, and a drink called a cotton candy martini, which sounded disgusting. "We are still experimenting with that," said the bartender, who refused to make one on the grounds that it was gnarly. My pal settled on a Guinness and continued telling me about her trip.
"They are about as big as that table," she said, pointing behind her to illustrate the size of a giant tortoise. They can live up to 180 years, which means she was probably looking at tortoises that were there the same time Darwin was. They just sort of sit there, as things that live for 200 years tend to, although they do get a bit excited when given fruit. You can tell if a tortoise is excited because it moves its mouth in a chewing motion.
"Sailors used to take them on voyages," she continued, telling me that since a tortoise can survive for an entire year without food or water, they made for great meat storage on a ship (sniff!). My heart was already going out to those poor beasties when she added that they can survive even after limbs have been lopped off one by one for meals, so the story got even more tragic. It was almost too much for my brain to handle, so I devised an alternate theory, which is that a creature who just likes to sit there might not be too unhappy in the hold of a vessel for a year, away from the elements. Also, that an animal who rarely moves doesn't have much use for feet. After I told myself this, all was right with the world.
I took a bathroom break at this point, and I have to say that Playland has some mighty clean lavatories. This won't last long, of course, because they are situated at the corner of Polk and Pine, but enjoy it for now. The neighborhood is less seedy than it used to be, with Nob Hill slowly encroaching ever further down the rise. A woman in a North Face jacket with a baby in a stroller even poked her head in for a bit, no doubt wondering where the clowns were.
We finished our drinks and realized we were hungry for Indian food, so we paid and moseyed out the door. Overall, this is a good new bar in the ever-evolving Tenderloin (see? I tied it all together). You might even see some boobies.
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