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The Best Places to Play in S.F. in 2018

Off-the-grid galleries, dark and sexy jazz clubs, and kiddie sing-alongs: a city’s worth of welcome diversions.

SLIDESHOW

Shih Chieh Huang’s Guardian of the Disphotic, at the Exploratorium.

Photo: Matt Edge

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Fraenkel Gallery

Photo: © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Courtesy of the Artists, Fraenkel Gallery, S.F., and Luhring Augustine, N.Y.

(2 of 9)

August Hall

Photo: Drew Altizer Photography

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Classical Workshop

Photo: Jackson May

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Champagne Bar

Photo: Jordan Wise

(5 of 9)

The Game Parlour

Photo: Courtesy of Game Parlour

(6 of 9)

Barebottle Brewing Company

Photo: Courtesy of Barebottle Brewing Company

(7 of 9)

Emporium SF

Photo: Courtesy of Emporium SF

(8 of 9)

The Museum of Ice Cream

Photo: Katie Gibbs

(9 of 9)

Read more Best of San Francisco 2018 here.


ARTS AND CULTURE

Concert Venue: August Hall
420 Mason St., 415-872-5745
Like an overserved 21-year-old barfing in the ladies’ bathroom, Ruby Skye nightclub needed to be put to bed. Thankfully, when it reawakened this spring, it had been transformed into August Hall, an upscale music venue, bar, and restaurant. The new 1,000-capacity venue has been lovingly restored with 32-foot-high ceilings and art nouveau touches—including the 100-year-old artists’ portraits on the stained glass windows of the balconied second story—that give it a whiff of sophistication. And if the stench of Ruby Skye is finally gone, some of the spirit remains: A solid initial slate of performers (booked via Live Nation) included Courtney Barnett, DJ duo Classixx, and Shakey Graves, making this a welcome addition to the local music scene.
Runner-up: The Chapel

Live Theater: African-American Shakespeare Company
762 Fulton St., Ste. 306, 415-762-2071
Sherri Young may have founded the African-American Shakespeare Company 24 years ago, but in 2018 it felt more relevant than ever. Following years of haggling over theater space, Young stabilized the company last year by securing two top-notch facilities—the Marines’ Memorial Theatre and the Herbst Theatre—and boosting attendance, enabling a full 2017–18 calendar. Young and artistic director L. Peter Callender’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire this spring mined Tennessee Williams’s story of delusion and sexual violence in a deeply profound and human way—surely one of the most timely artistic statements made on the Bay Area stage this year.
Runner-up: The Curran

Art Museum: SFMOMA
151 3rd St., 415-357-4000
Everything that makes SFMOMA such an indispensable institution was on display during the museum’s major winter-spring show, Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules. Seminal figure in American modern art? Check. Loans from similarly august institutions, including the Tate Modern in London and New York’s MoMA? Check. Priceless local holdings gifted by deep-pocketed local collectors (in this case, Phyllis Wattis)? Check. The end result: a dizzying 16-room, 170-piece exhibition that showcased an A-list artist’s premier works and simultaneously went so far over the top that no sane visitor could possibly hope to take it all in at once. Two years into the museum’s rebirth, the only thing it hasn’t quite mastered yet is restraint.
Runner-up: The Legion of Honor

Fine Art Gallery: Fraenkel Gallery
49 Geary St., 415-981-2661
There’s a strong case to be made that photography is San Francisco’s artistic medium of choice. And for nearly 40 years, Fraenkel has represented the best of the best. (Among its stable of artists are Diane Arbus, Richard Misrach, and Garry Winogrand.) And yet to think of Fraenkel simply as a photo gallery is to sell it criminally short: This spring, the venerable gallery presented the U.S. premiere of three works by sound artists George Bures Miller and Janet Cardiff (whose The Forty Part Motet was a hit at Fort Mason in 2015), including the interactive installation piece The Poetry Machine, a refashioned Wurlitzer organ rigged to play a selection of poetry by Leonard Cohen with each stroke of a key. A totally unexpected—and fulfilling—experience, and one in keeping with Fraenkel’s entirely unique artistic vision.
Runner-up: Gagosian Gallery

Art Destination: The David Ireland House
500 Capp St., 415-872-9240
That crack in your ceiling? The squeaky floorboard? That’s art—at least it is at 500 Capp Street, the longtime home of the late influential conceptual artist David Ireland, who treated his Italianate-style Mission district house as his masterwork. The home, which was purchased shortly before Ireland’s death in 2009 by Carlie Wilmans, has been painstakingly preserved and in 2016 reopened as a living shrine to and museum of Ireland’s work. Lately, it has begun displaying works by visiting artists—a recent show included pieces from K.r.m. Mooney, Forrest Bess, and the zeitgeisty conceptual artist Anicka Yi. A museum, gallery, and reminder not to stress over home improvement, all in one.
Runner-up: Minnesota Street Project

Pop-Up Gallery: Gallery Wendi Norris
8 Octavia St., 415-346-7812
Since shuttering her longtime SoMa art space, Wendi Norris has largely done away with the gallery model: Instead she’s launched site-specific exhibitions at Crissy Field (María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s If I Were a Poet), inside the atrium of Minnesota Street Project (Val Britton’s hanging paper sculpture The Shape of Change), inside the de Young (this summer’s upcoming Ranu Mukherjee show), and at an as-yet-unspecified location for new works by Eric Siemens. And then there was Jim Campbell’s Day for Night, the 11,000-LED work atop Salesforce Tower that Norris cocurated, one of several major development projects for which she’s served as arts consultant. Norris is one of our most important local tastemakers, and in its newest incarnation her practice is mobile, adaptable, and energetic—a fitting description for her artworks and her city.
Runner-up: Haines Gallery

Off-the-Grid Music Venue: Jazz Chez Hanny
1300 Silver Ave., 415-552-2729
The long-running Sunday-afternoon salon hosted by Frank Hanny in the downstairs “knotty pine rumpus room” of his Portola home is about as intimate as a concert gets: just the musicians, a few dozen people in the audience, and the sun beginning to gently set outside. The prevailing attitude here is entirely free of pretense: Donate what you will; bring a bottle, maybe, or don’t. Stick around and chat, or just vibe on the tunes and relax. In a place where a night on the town has become prohibitively expensive, it’s nice to know that a few things remain (almost) free.
Runner-up: The Lost Church

Arts Festival: San Francisco International Film Festival
sffilm.org
Since coming under the direction of Noah Cowan in 2014, SFFilm’s annual festival—long a magnet for the best in independent film—has emerged as a major stop on the industry festival circuit. That injection of Hollywood glitz, this year embodied by Charlize Theron, hasn’t muted the event’s quirkier side, though: Among the centerpiece films in 2018 was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, an Oakland-set satire partially funded through an SFFilm grant.
Runner-up: SF Sketchfest

Niche Museum: Cartoon Art Museum
781 Beach St., 415-227-8666
A move from SoMa to Fisherman’s Wharf last fall means this well-curated collection is now geared primarily toward out-of-towners. But locals shouldn’t be scared off by the digs. The new space is filled with deep cuts and rare prints from big-name graphic artists including Jim Starlin, the artist responsible for the Avengers: Infinity War characters currently shattering box office records at your local multiplex.
Runner-up: The Tenderloin Museum

Jazz Club: Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio
39 Fell St., 415-384-9365
If it weren’t for the doorman posted up outside this unassuming spit of Fell between Polk and Van Ness, there’d be little to tip you off to what’s going on behind the curtains at this semisecret lounge that Jay Bordeleau (Maven) opened in late 2015. What a surprise you’re in for, then: cover-free music six nights a week, a bar-bites menu served until midnight, and a straightforward and solid drink menu—cocktails are $12 each. During the after-work happy hour, more attention tends to be paid to the bar than to the music, but on weekends—say, after a big show at SFJazz—the focus rightfully turns back to the stage.
Runner-up: Black Cat

Museum Party: After Dark at the Exploratorium
Embarcadero at Pier 15, 415-528-4360
Some of us drink to forget, some of us to lose our inhibitions. But at the Exploratorium’s weekly Thursday-night grown-ups-only party After Dark, we drink to learn. The museum’s 650 gizmos, displays, and hands-on exhibitions may be geared toward the kiddos, but they pair amazingly well with a margarita and the newfound sense of wonderment contained therein. (The laser-animated Infinity Room, while also good with booze, is probably best with edibles.) And this year adults can buy an After Dark membership, granting unlimited access to the weekly throwdowns plus special bar lines.
Runner-up: Thursday Nights at the Asian Art Museum

Speaking Series: Curran: Show & Tell
445 Geary St., 415-358-1220
Carole Shorenstein Hays’s Curran theater already stages some of the best shows in town. Now it has just about cornered the market on speaking engagements, too, with its recently launched Show & Tell series. For a debut, the theater welcomed former FBI director James Comey to talk about the election, Trump, and his turn in the national spotlight; later guests included former White House photographer Pete Souza and playwright David Henry Hwang (Soft Power, M. Butterfly). Actress and playwright Danai Gurira (Black Panther, Eclipsed) is expected later in 2018, continuing a mix as varied as the theater’s celebrated productions.
Runner-up: City Arts & Lectures

Culture Remix: Classical Workshop
473 Broadway, 415-772-9002
The lights are low inside the swanky North Beach nightclub Monroe as a couple of scruffy kids shuffle in. Minutes later, the curtains part, the patrons begin to applaud, and the scruffy kids take up their violas and launch into a rococo composition by W.F. Bach. So it is at Classical Workshop, the nearly two-year-old creation of Joaquin Navas. Each Wednesday night, Navas invites classical musicians—often students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as well as visiting players—to play a no-cover recital from 9 p.m. to midnight, a high-low culture clash that’s both authentic-feeling and culturally refreshing.
Runner-up: SF Opera Lab

Underground Comedy: Nightlife on Mars
217 Kearny St., 415-693-9588
Consistently solid lineups of local stand-ups plus not-infrequent drop-ins by touring acts in town to play Cobb’s or the Punch Line make the weekly downtown show at Murphy’s Pub (hosted by Joe Nguyen, Red Scott, and Natasha Muse) the best place to bust a gut without shelling out for a two-drink minimum. A recent move from Thursday nights to Saturdays keeps some of the after-work crowd away, but honestly, that’s a good thing.
Runner-up: The Setup


NIGHTLIFE

Nightclub: The Great Northern
119 Utah St., 415-626-7001
The latest project from the team behind the Monarch has inherited the mantle as San Francisco’s best place to get turnt—while preserving a shred of dignity. The design district club (formerly called Mighty) reopened in 2016 with an overhauled aesthetic it calls Future Deco and an 80,000-watt Void Acoustics sound system. What sets the club apart from its rivals, however, is the relief from club-induced claustrophobia it provides: A massive dance floor (the venue is 7,000 square feet) and 30-foot-high ceilings mean revelers are entitled to a little personal space, while lounges and couches provide seating for even the non-VIP set. Perfect for when you want to get hot and sweaty, but not actually that sweaty.
Runner-up: 1015 Folsom

Date Spot: Black Cat
400 Eddy St., 415-358-1999
Leather booths, brick walls, sultry jazz swirling above the hushed murmur of couples’ whispered conversations: Is this an ad for Courvoisier or what? Nope, it’s downstairs at the Black Cat, the supersexy Tenderloin restaurant, bar, jazz club, and mood setter. The menu was relaunched earlier this year under Tu David Phu (Gather, Chez Panisse, and the popular Vietnamese pop-up An), the cocktail program overhauled in May by Chris Amirault (of L.A.’s Otium at the Broad museum). Still, you don’t need to overthink things: Martini, very dry, a half dozen oysters, and all the possibilities of the night open up before you.
Runner-up: The Speakeasy

Late-Night Café: The Game Parlour
1342 Irving St., 415-571-8569
What began as a love of weekly game nights for Brian Lew turned into a business this year: In May, Lew opened his Inner Sunset café, featuring hundreds of classic and obscure board games. A coffee bar (helmed by co-owner Benson Chiu of Swell Cream & Coffee) and a menu revolving entirely around waffles (try the crunchy-chewy mochi Belgian style) should give you enough fuel to make it through a four-hour Settlers of Catan marathon. Already it’s become a popular late-night student hangout: Doors stay open until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Runner-up: Straw

Preshow Drinks: The Riddler
528 Laguna St., 415-589-7002
Heading out for a big night at the ballet, the opera, SFJazz, or the Nourse? The best spot in Hayes Valley for a preshow drink and nosh is the Riddler, Jen Pelka’s new champagne bar. The small, quirky space features an oversize portrait on the wall of Jacqueline Bisset (as Miss Goodthighs from the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale) and a collection of vintage champagne buckets. Small bites include the popular tater tot waffles and a handsome charcuterie board; bubbles are sold by the glass, half bottle, bottle, and chambong. (It’s a thing.) To be clear: This is not at all a budget-friendly spot, but then, you’re off to the opera, right, Mr. Moneybags?
Runner-up: Barcino

Rooftop Bar: Charmaine’s at the Proper
1100 Market St., 628-895-2055
More than 120 feet above the snarl of Market Street lies one of the most adventurous cocktail bars in town, from which the city’s skyline opens up like a glittering jewel box. Walk around the rooftop patio and catch a glimpse of the Transamerica Pyramid soaring between two buildings; in the other direction, Twin Peaks’ rolling hills rise above the Mission; Salesforce Tower, of course, looms over all. The view is only improved with a drink like the Salem Saberhagen, a concoction of St. George Terroir gin, orange muscat, pineapple, honey, and lime. After braving the often hour-long line to get up here, you may never want to come down again.
Runner-up: El Techo

Tiki Bar: Del Mar
2125 Lombard St., 415-345-8663
The keepers of this recently launched Marina district hangout are clear in their messaging: Del Mar is a tropical bar, not a tiki. To which we say: So what’s a $300 punch bowl doing on the menu? Semantics aside, Del Mar has much going for it that our other tiki establishments might take note of: a drink menu that won’t immediately give you a cavity, a bit of natural light (shock!), a retro-mod-kitsch vibe that’s strong but not obnoxious, and…swing chairs! Del Mar may not be a tiki in the truest sense of the term, but it’s the kind of place we’d like to see more of.
Runner-up: Smuggler’s Cove

Sports Bar: Tabletop Tap House
175 4th St., 415-369-6100
The former Jillian’s at the Metreon, which reopened as Tabletop Tap House this May (with an emphasis on arcade and board games), isn’t likely to win accolades from those who’ve spilled beer cheering on the Giants, Niners, Sharks, and Warriors at neighborhood spots like Kezar, Mad Dog in the Fog, or the Double Play. But this SoMa joint has something going for it that those old warhorses never will: space. As in seating for 650, plus a 50-foot projector and 28 screens. Which means that when it comes to packing it in for a big game, no one does it bigger. Bonus points for being one of a distressingly few joints in town to show boxing and MMA fights.
Runner-up: Kezar Pub

Brewery: Barebottle Brewing Company
1525 Cortland Ave., 415-926-8617
Housed in a former granite-cutting warehouse in Bernal Heights, Barebottle’s massive industrial-rustic facility turns into a giant tailgate party on weekends, with a food truck parked out front, ballgames on the TV, and cornhole games galore. But the nearly two-year-old space is first and foremost about the beer: 17 brews on tap, including some invited in as a prize for winning one of the brewery’s home-brewer contests, alongside insta-classics like the since-departed Galaxy Dust IPA and the current Coolwater Cologne.
Runner-up: Cellarmaker Brewing Company

New Dive: The Rumpus Room
10 6th St., 415-780-5651
What a relief to find that a new Mid-Market bar can manage to feel both neighborly and ever so slightly elevated. Such is the case at the Rumpus Room, the new Tenderloin joint opened this spring by Roxzann De Marco (formerly of Amnesia). A kind of art deco/moderne aesthetic pervades the small, darkened space, classing it up just a smidge without letting it get too out of touch with its surrounding neighborhood (the ultra-gritty stretch of Sixth Street just below Market). Details like golden matchbooks and cheekily designed coasters are a delight. This is the kind of place with Bud on draft for $3—but there’s also a $7 house paloma that’s not too shabby. To anyone opening a dive in San Francisco in 2018 and getting it right, our hats are off—not that that’s a rule in here or anything.
Runner-up: Recovery Room

Patio Bar: Valley Tavern
4054 24th St., 415-285-0674
The Irish pub Valley Tavern bills itself as the friendliest bar in San Francisco; at a minimum, it’s got the friendliest patio. The bi-level backyard is tree shrouded, with picnic tables and all sorts of nooks and crannies where you can either sidle up to some new friends or find a little privacy with old ones. Mounted TV screens are plentiful, although the sound is mercifully turned off outdoors; instead, during the day the sunny quietude of Noe Valley filters through the trees, giving the patio a sort of cozy, sleepy Sunday-­afternoon feeling.
Runner-up: Americano

Beer List: Old Devil Moon
3472 Mission St., olddevilmoonsf.com
Of all the details that pervade the witchy tavern Chris Cohen opened in late 2016, perhaps the biggest giveaway of his perfectionism are the pint glasses—at 16.75 ounces, they’re meant to hold a full pint, plus the perfect head. Then there’s the custom-built draft system, the beer-engine-powered cask tap, the animated beer list projected onto the chalkboard behind the bar, and on and on and on. The most important, though? Cohen and his team of certified Cicerone barkeeps have the best-curated, most adventurous beer list in town, 20 rotating handles featuring the likes of Sante Adairius, Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, and Hermitage Brewing Company, making ODM a true beer nerd’s Valhalla.
Runner-up: The Monk’s Kettle


REVELRY

Grown-up Arcade: Emporium SF
616 Divisadero St., emporiumsf.com
Step into Emporium, the converted movie theater that reopened last November as a 21-and-up Dave & Buster’s. With wall-to-wall vintage arcade games (Ms. Pac-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and cult favorite Tapper) plus air hockey, billiards, and all manner of blinking, bleeping gizmos; a 50-foot screen; and a well-stocked bar, you’ll be hard-pressed to peel yourself away until your fistful of tokens runs dry.
Runner-up: Free Gold Watch

Tourist Trap for Locals: The Museum of Ice Cream
1 Grant Ave., 855-258-0719
Greet this Instagram-optimized candyland with skepticism if you must. But we dare you to not take a selfie diving into the swimming pool full of sprinkles. An extension announced in March made tickets ($38 a person) available through September. Trust us, it’s worth it for the likes.
Runner-up: Alcatraz: the Breakout at Madame Tussauds

Walking Tour: San Francisco City Guides
100 Larkin St., 415-557-4266
Think San Francisco has been overrun by the ultrarich? We suggest amending that view via San Francisco City Guides’ totally free “Billionaire’s Row” walking tour of upper Broadway. Whether it’s ogling industrialists’ mansions or peeping an off-limits Diego Rivera work, there is simply no better way to gorge on local history.
Runner-up: San Francisco Architecture Walking Tour

Art Class: Printmaking at 3 Fish Studios
4541 Irving St., 415-242-3474
Husband and wife Eric Rewitzer and Annie Galvin, whose cuddly I Love You California prints have become practically ubiquitous, not only create some of the most locally beloved work around; they also teach printmaking at their Outer Sunset outpost, 3 Fish Studios. The class is an all-in $150, which covers materials and use of the pair’s 48-inch monotype press. But the real draw is the company—Rewitzer and Galvin are the most encouraging pair you’re likely to find in the world of art.
Runner-up: Spark Arts

Cheap Thrill: Midnight Mystery Ride
midnightmystery.org/sanfrancisco
There are no push notifications, no email alerts, no Twitter hashtags. On the third Saturday of each month, a bare-bones website is updated with a new starting point, usually a bar. That’s more than enough info to lure dozens of cyclists out for a flash-mob midnight spin across San Francisco, destination unknown. Rides typically clock in at about five miles and are easy enough for beginners.
Runner-up: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass


CHILDREN’S PLAY

Kids’ Art Class: Sketchbook Studio
3316 22nd St., 628-444-3137
Two art majors opened this studio in August, offering after-school classes and camps inspired by big-name artists. In one class, students study Marc Chagall’s dreamscapes and re-create their own dreams through magazine cutouts and illustrations. Another focuses on Gustav Klimt: Kids make family portraits using Klimt-style designs.
Runner-up: ArtWorks Fine Art Studio

Bike Riding: McLaren Bike Park
2050 Sunnydale Ave., mclarenbikepark.com
Thanks to the popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things, all things ’80s are back—including BMX, which makes it just the right time for the new off-road bike park opened last fall in the southeast corner of the city. Here, pint-size riders can take on dirt jumps, berms, and turns designed for all skill levels. And beginning this summer, the park will stay open until 8:30 p.m.
Runner-up: Golden Gate Park Loop

Music Show for Kids: Breakfast with Enzo
610 Old Mason St., enzogarcia.com/shows.html
Enzo Garcia knows how to get kids’ toes tapping with his banjo, jaw harp, guitar, accordion, and musical saw during his weekly shows at Sports Basement. He also brings a bag full of jingle bells for kids to make their own music. Most important of all, though: His music is easy on the ears for Mom and Dad.
Runner-up: SF Symphony Concerts for Kids

Swimming Pool: Hamilton Rec Center
1900 Geary Blvd., 415-292-2111
And you thought you had to head for the suburbs to find water slides. Many city folks don’t realize that this heated indoor Rec and Parks pool has a pair of slides that twist and turn before throwing you into the water with a big splash. There’s also a shallow kiddie pool for the littlest ones.
Runner-up: Sava Pool

Toddlers’ Playground: Curiosity Grove
California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Dr., 415-379-8000
This quiet corner of Cal Academy was revamped last fall, with a couple of key improvements: You’re no longer required to wait in line to get in, and new flooring means you can now leave your shoes on. It’s a great place for parents to relax while kids put on a puppet show and gawk at Madagascar hissing cockroaches.
Runner-up: Koret Playground

Toy Store: Jeffrey’s Toys
45 Kearny St., 415-291-8697
For several years, downtown San Francisco was left without a proper shop where kids could dream on the latest Lego sets and model trains. Thankfully, that changed last fall when Jeffrey’s—the alleged inspiration for the Pixar film Toy Story—reopened. The new location might be a tad smaller than the original, but there’s still hours of browsing fun to be had.
Runner-up: Ambassador Toys

Outdoor Playground: Helen Diller Civic Center Playgrounds
55 Larkin St., 415-831-2700
A spiraling rainbow catwalk and a bouncy pathway of rope lead the way up to the top of a tall and fast slide at this City Hall park that reopened in February. The structure is called the lenticular cloud, but kids are more likely to call it their magic spaceship. There are also loads of swings—from baby bucket swings to a tire swing to one shaped like a flying saucer.
Runner-up: Moscone Playground

Hands-On Museum: Randall Museum
199 Museum Way, 415-554-9600
After a $9 million remodel, this Corona Heights gem reopened its doors in February with new exhibits to spark curiosity and foster creativity. Big kids can make their own wooden jigsaw puzzle with a laser cutter in the Garage, while toddlers can explore a carpeted “tree house” climbing structure.
Runner-up: Children’s Creativity Museum

Library Event for Kids: Drag Queen Story Hour
San Francisco Public Library, sfpl.org
What’s better than Mom or Dad reading a book? How about a drag queen dressed in heels, ball gown, and feather boa telling a tale with dramatic delivery and grace? These special story hours have occurred several times a year at libraries around the city since 2015 and are meant to give kids positive queer role models and tap into the imaginative gender fluidity of childhood. Look for new dates in the fall and winter.
Runner-up: Rock the Bike Smoothies

Skating Rink: Church of 8 Wheels
554 Fillmore St., 415-752-1967
Do your kids know how to shoot the duck? This groovy roller-skating rink housed in a former church has become more family-friendly thanks to a new session on Saturday afternoon, when kids pay half price, and all ages are welcome on Friday nights. It sure beats attempting to learn on the city’s hilly streets.
Runner-up: Yerba Buena Ice Skating Center

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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