Distillations: Uncovering a Lost San Francisco at Club Deluxe

What do the thousands of us who pack into this smallest of destination cities every year think we're getting into?

The activists and the idealists came to San Francisco because this is a place where protests once happened on a mass scale, but anyone who comes for that now is going to be deeply disappointed that they can only get 30 people to stand in front of City Hall and demand an end to injustice and/or war. Even on a weekend. They expected Liberals Who Care instead of Liberals Who Dine.

The young techies squeezing in to work in Mountain View and Silicon Valley move here because that's simply what one does. Like New York 100 years ago. Some of them had no idea the rent would be this high. Some of them don't understand the irony that the promise of the Internet to make “location” meaningless is exposed as fraudulent by the very people who come here to build the Internet. They just want to make a goddamn living without having to be constantly picketed by Liberals Who Care.

I came here by accident. I was following a girl, and she got a job here. I was embarrassed to admit it, so for the first five years whenever anybody asked me, “Why did you move to San Francisco?” I said, “It's an old story,” then leaned in close and whispered, “I'm searching for the Lost City of Gold.”

I do not recommend doing that. I really should have stopped after three years.

Here was my delusion: When I first came to San Francisco, I thought for sure it was going to be filled with small bars and coffee shops offering an eclectic assortment of free live music, night after night.

You probably know by now that I couldn't have been more wrong. Bars and coffeehouses like that exist, but for reasons I don't understand they're rarer here than a quiet activist.

So I was thrilled to find Club Deluxe, a bar practically at the historic corner of Haight and Ashbury, that's exactly the kind of place I imagined when I thought of “San Francisco.” God was I naïve.

Well okay, not “exactly.” Deluxe's only bar food is pizza, and while it's really, really good gourmet pizza, that hadn't been part of the packaging I envisioned. I'd imagined a higher-level commitment to mixology, as well … yeah, I'm that guy. The drinks at Deluxe are on par: The house “Spa Collins” (lemon, mint, ginger, gin) was tasty and the bartender made me a surprisingly smooth Manhattan with rye whiskey from the well, but I'd always imagined a place like this having a bartender who says, “Let me make you something special,” and Deluxe is one of the places where they don't do that.

But the room, my God, was stolen from my pre-San Francisco unconscious: wood-paneled walls holding pictures of antique instruments around a stage just big enough so that there's hardly a bad seat in the house. The performance area is separated from the bar area by a wall with openings to see through, and the sound just carries around in a relaxed atmosphere that reminds you: It's just a freakin' bar, have a good time.

Deluxe is one of those rare non-concert hall performance spaces that works just as well for bluegrass as for jazz. Any kind of music that doesn't require an elaborate setting, that can just plug in and go, will probably work there. In several visits I have yet to see a mismatch, or pay a cover.

Deluxe is exactly the kind of bar I can, and will, visit routinely when I'm not trying so hard to have a good time; when a nice drink and good live music is all it will take to make me happy.

The funny thing, for me, is not just how rare bars like this turn out to be in San Francisco, but just how common bars like this are in other cities. I came here from Rochester, N.Y., where I could name you plenty of bars that made live, free music a staple, and I came to Rochester from places around the country, and the world, where it was standard fare for the nightlife.

Here they're comparatively hard to find.

There are so many reasons we should have more of them: Berkeley is the epicenter of the folk music scene in the U.S.; the Bay Area has an active bluegrass and old-time music circuit; there's a strong culture of house concerts around these parts.

But, somehow, the soil here is less fertile for the casual live-music bar than it is in smaller, less glamorous, cities around the country. I don't know why — maybe the DJs drove them out? — but we're all the poorer for it.

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