Since my straight younger brother was game enough to hang out at the Eagle beer bust with me when he visited San Francisco, I thought I would repay him with a night at SPiN, the ping-pong lounge in SoMa that opened last month.
Our father is freakishly good at table tennis and I don't think either of us has ever beaten the old man no matter how drunk he got at our neighborhood block party, so there was a phantom Oedipal quotient that's probably best left unprobed, but it was as fun a nightcap as I've had in a while. We brought two of his friends, one of whom used to teach ping-pong — and his father played for the Afghani national team in the 1984 Olympics — so we were well-suited to an evening of alcohol-fueled overconfidence in our backspins, doubles-style. The four of us got in a few good volleys, which is really the point when you're not itching to destroy the opposition.
Almost the size of a bowling alley — and it does resemble the feel of lanes that have opened in the 21st century — SPiN has a full kitchen churning out chicharrones ($10), njuda ragu flatbread ($16), truffle fries ($7), and seasonal flavors of cotton candy ($6), plus there's a full bar. The chain hails from New York, although there are locations in Chicago and other cities, and actor-activist Susan Sarandon is one of the movers and shakers behind this “ping-pong social club.”
But just as Sarandon's been feeling the Bern, it's pretty easy to feel scorched by the prices at SPiN, where a table costs $29.00 for half an hour — at peak time, at least, but apparently 11 p.m. on a Tuesday counts as peak. (The website says that only 5-10 p.m. on weeknights counts as peak time, which means our hour of play should have cost only $19, but receipts don't fib.) So you quickly get the feeling that, even though the leanest, scrappiest startup probably has a ping-pong table, this place is designed with tech-industry corporate events in mind. Indeed, last week alone, SPiN closed at 5 p.m. for private parties — twice. There's a slickness to SPiN, which brags about being carbon-neutral, supposedly cost more than $5 million to open, and looks like a Mr. Brainwash art opening. Conspicuous branding and a prominent DJ station are to be expected, although when I asked if the Bowie and Prince wheat-pastes were coincidental or an homage to recently fallen heroes, the staff didn't seem to know. One wall has ironic agitprop, another street art of a blazer-clad Stormtrooper talking to Darth Vader in a skinny black tie. There are succulents.
The cocktail I drank was pretty good, though. Although there were five bottled cocktails — mostly variations on Manhattans and Pimm's Cups — I ordered a Salt Lick Susan, an appealing combo of Montelobos mezcal, Cosa Nostra shrub, pineapple, lime juice, and Hawaiian black sea salt. Just don't get the Backspins Nos. 1 through 3 (which are bottled cocktails) confused with the Top Spins (which are specialty cocktails, and also numbered one through three). If you'd rather loosen your shoulder blades with something a little more sessionable, there's Duvel, Tank 7 Saison, and 21st Amendment in a can, along with one specimen from each of seven wine varietals.
Absolute cost notwithstanding, you do get a fair amount for your money. Even at midnight on a sleepy weekday, SPiN has a staffer combing the floor, picking up errant balls in a netted device like a human Roomba so that you don't have to jog across the room to retrieve them. And they're not killjoys about time, either: Someone comes by holding a 10-minute warning placard, and when it's time to put the paddles down, they're pretty lenient about letting you wrap it up (when the place is empty, anyway). There's also an irresistible tub of balls that you're encouraged to take a picture of yourself fake-drowning in, ballpit-style, via an in-house camera that emails them to you (and the use of which is free).
I tend to roll my eyes at people who get vexed by gratuities — unless someone physically lit you on fire, leave 20 percent; it's not that complicated — but I admit that SPiN is more awkward than most. Do you tip on top of the table rental along with your drinks? If so, two beers, a cider, a cocktail, and that half hour come to $84. Hardly a full night out, that. Ultimately, this is one of those places that's a ton of fun when you're not the one paying. Because the cost of SPiN leaves one's head spinning.