San Francisco: An Offbeat Guide

There's more out there than the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf. Next time get a Japanese massage, play Lo Ball poker, or nibble some Sushi.

February 1974By Comments

THIS GUIDE TO SAN FRANCISCO, though admittedly idiosyncratic and possibly incomplete, is lovingly conceived, enthusiastically researched, and respectfully submitted. Maestro! a little traveling music please!

Visiting San Francisco is inevitably up-beat, while life itself is frequently down-beat. The result can be a shrill spread of jangled nerve ends just below the skin, an awful confusion in and around the stomach, and legs so overworked they dangle from the torso like tattered flags. Revival is in order. In fact revival’s a necessity if enervation rears its ugly head late in the afternoon and the evening promises dinner at The Blue Fox, dancing at the Orphanage, Irish coffees amid bohemians and Tiffany lamps at Vesuvio’s, and a wee hours appointment with a bottle of wine in a room overlooking the Bay. At such times Dr. Feelgood prescribes (not what you think) the Kabuki Hot Springs.

On Geary Street in the Japanese cultural center, the Springs offer different accommodations for men and women. Men enter from a quiet, carpeted locker into a large room with a wooden ceiling and contrasting brown tile on the floor. The walls are done in blue, grey, and white tile and decorated with designs of broad blue, yellow, and red stripes which flow from corner to corner in dazzling swoops and curls. Along the far wall stand a few solemn shower stalls and a long row of nozzled hoses also used as showers. Along the opposite wall sits a row of bright orange steam cabinets, generally unused. In the middle, made of sky-blue tile, waits the hot Japanese bath, hotter than any home tub, with two jets of water for use as a whirlpool. Nearby, in the center of the room and fashioned from the same blue tile, is a circular bath about eight feet in diameter holding very, very cold water. Near it and immediately to the right of the entrance is a sauna, quite large with one wall mostly of glass which looks out on the baths. This thoughtfully provided window prevents claustrophobia, a disease that can become epidemic in the intense heat of an enclosed sauna.

Get into the hot bath slowly, working up to total immersion, maybe spending some time in front of one of the water jets. (Both the hot and cold baths are kept filled to the brim, so a tangential pleasure to entering them is the sound of gallons of water rushing over the edge onto the floor.) Then the sauna. Wait there until your body is completely wet with sweat. Then wait a little more. Then, leaving the sauna, set a determined course, reach back for that speck of courage hidden deep within us all, and plunge into the cold bath. Agony! Ecstasy!

The use of the baths is three dollars for as long as you care to stay. However, for another seven dollars you can have a massage shiatsu style. It begins badly when you’re given a preposterous pair of Japanese undershorts to wear during the massage. After that it’s all gravy.

It’s a pressure massage—no rubbing or oils are involved. The masseuse (or masseur; which you get seems to depend on the luck of the draw) is relentless. She starts with the neck and shoulders, poking and pressing so persistently and hard that—the truth must be told—it’s sometimes painful. She kneads your back, uses her knees to compress your waist; she stands on the soles of your feet, she pops your knee, she pops every joint in a finger with one whiplike pull. She twists your neck, caresses your eyes, digs in under your shinbone and on and on and on. When it’s over you find yourself loosened, relaxed, but energized. And the effect lasts for hours.

For women the same services are available but there is no large communal room. Instead each woman gets a small private room with a hot bath and a steam cabinet. A rather diminutive sauna is also available. It is a little embarrassing, after reporting on the glories of the men’s accommodations, to admit to the spartan qualities of the women’s. But the consensus is that what happens still feels good no matter what the surroundings.

Kabuki Hot Springs, 1750 Geary, 922-6000. Open noon to midnight.

The Best Place To Drink Scotch

IN SAN FRANCISCO, A PENINSULA holding out against the sea, Demon Rum has always—Prohibition Be Damned!—been easier to find than fresh water. And San Franciscans have decided that is as it should be. Texans may creep into dark barrooms whose heavy drapes over black windows shield the drinker from the righteous, inquiring eye of the passing world; San Franciscans opt for brightly lit, highly polished barrooms with huge windows and tables close by so the drinker may sit among glasses and friends and watch, in the passing world outside, all those not quite so lucky just this minute as he is. Bright drinking, after all, is right drinking.

Still, there may be times, even in San Francisco, when a mood demands a clean, well-lighted place in which the outside world plays no part. At such times, and really at other quite different times, only the Edinburgh Castle will do. From the outside it looks unpromising. There is nothing but a small sign to suggest that a bar is there at all. The entrance is a short hallway that leads past the kind of small concern whose clientele must be mysterious as the nomadic Mongols—a gift shop selling Scottish imports.

But the door at the end of the hallway opens onto a long, wide room with a ceiling two stories high. Along the right wall is a row of heavy wooden tables and benches; along the left is a long wooden bar polished to a high shine; and behind it are rows and rows of sparkling bottles, a huge mirror running the length of the bar, a parrot who has almost figured out how to open his own cage, and rows of tap handles carrying the insignias of a heart-warming variety of British beers. Straight ahead is open space where the barmaid, when she hears the call, does Highland flings. In the very back and up a few stairs is a large area, itself the size of many bars, devoted entirely to very serious dart games. On weekends a bagpiper plays, but it is a tribute to the taste and discretion of the Scottish owners that he plays for only five minutes every hour or so, just enough to keep your teeth on edge.

A pint of English beer is 80 cents. Fair enough. But only a numbed cretin would not order at least one Scotch while there. For those who order Scotch no matter where they are, the place is heaven. The Castle will have your brand no matter what it is; and it may be the only establishment in this bar-conscious town to serve unblended Scotches. Q.E.D.

The Edinburgh Castle, 950 Geary, 885-4074. By the way, around the corner on Larkin the Edinburgh Castle runs the best fish ‘n chips counter in town.

I Don’t Know Much About Fish, But I Know What I Like.

THE STEINHART AQUARIUM CAN BE a very perplexing place. You enter by way of a small courtyard where right in the middle stands a statue of two dolphins doing something very strange. Further on beside the doorway, a small sign warns, “Visitors must be fully clothed.” THIS, unfortunately, MEANS YOU!

Inside the aquarium it’s fascinating, though mystifying, to speculate on what high jinks made such a sign necessary. It’s true that at the height of the love generation effervescence, wide-eyed long hairs murmuring psychedelic catch phrases tended to stand transfixed before the tanks of exotic, brightly-colored, undulating fish. For someone standing there in the darkness, with the only light coming from the recessed rows of tanks, most of them large as VW vans and fil!ed with an awesome assortment of unworldly creatures swimming around, getting in each other’s way, staring through the glass into the darkness—well, in the midst of all that, it’s just possible someone couldn’t keep his shirt on.

Those tanks hold over 750 different species and about 10,000 finny citizens both naturalized and native born. Although that’s too diverse a holding to describe in any detail, everyone has his favorites. If you’ve got a powerful feeling I’m about to tell you mine, you’re right: the octopus. He waits in a corner tank suffused with orange light. Often hiding behind or among rocks, he occasionally will grip the glass with a tentacle (if grip is what tentacles do to glass} while the rest of him, surprisingly elegant and graceful and, of all things, warm-looking, floats (if that’s what an octopus does} serenely while the free tentacles flutter and wave in the water like the lithe arms of ballerinas.

Steinhart Aquarium, in the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, open 10 to 5, until 9 during the summer. Admission $1 or less depending on age, free on the first day of the month. The loca! dolphins, lovable and intelligent things that they are, are fed at 10:30, 12:30, 2:30, and 4:30.

Up Against the Wall

The Mission District is an area of San Francisco that has traditionally been inhabited by the somewhat poor, by Latins, by pensioners. It is almost never visited by travellers, rarely visited by San Franciscans who live in other parts of the city, but the Mission has readily apparent charms. It survived the 1906 earthquake more or less intact and there has not been too much new building there, so the streets are lined with beautiful and idiosyncratic examples of Victorian architecture, though some are a little the worse for wear. The weather is the best in the city, often blue skies and sunshine when everywhere else is ridden with fog. And on the side of a dingy storefront on an obscure corner of an obscure street, exposed to the ravages of wind, rain, sunlight, and the felt markers of passersby, is one of the best paintings anywhere in the city.

The painting, untitled so far as I know, is approximately 15 feet high by 60 feet long, incorporating not only the wall’s overlapping slats but also a sliding garage door and its iron runners. It is divided into a series of panels, like a cartoon, and the people represented are caricatures with dog’s faces and cartoon-like, angular limbs and bodies. Each panel portrays an aspect of Latin life in the Mission: Men and women stand in line waiting for food stamps, others dance to a band of saxophones and timbals; men in overalls, dog mouths grinning, walk arm in arm from a factory; cops load a group of downcast hounds into a paddy wagon; families wait patiently at a community health clinic; a sharpster, cigarette dangling rakishly from his canine jaws, saunters by flipping a gold coin. Turn from the painting and, if you’re lucky, you may see those same scenes happening around you. The painting with its strange mixture of realism and caricature, with its brilliant yellows and reds and oranges and with its somber blues, is an expression of both the vitality and the desperation of the culture that inspired it. Trapped inside a museum, isolated from the street life it portrays, the painting might not seem so natural or so elegant as it does on its obscure wall.

Michael Rios painted it. He lives in San Francisco. His work is on the southeast corner of 23rd Street at Folsom.

The Secret Rites of Sushi

SUSHI IS A JAPANESE DISH that doesn’t look like much, just a piece of raw fish (the mind at first recoils: Raw Fish?) resting on a two-bite-sized rice cake with a thin layer of Japanese horseradish in between. Once the rice has been prepared, which is done in huge batches well ahead of time, making a plate of assorted types of sushi takes about a minute. But making sushi, simple as it would seem, is in fact a disciplined study learned at the feet of a master and practiced through a long apprenticeship. What the pupil learns is not for the rest of us to ask. The important thing is the eating; there’s a difference between good sushi and passable sushi that’s apparent even to someone who’s never before had either one.

In San Francisco the finest sushi maker is Katzuo Wada who runs the Waraku Sushi Bar. His is probably the plainest restaurant of any note in the city: a formica counter, a few nondescript tables and chairs, and really nothing more. This, too, is fitting, for there is nothing pretentious about eating sushi; in Japan sushi bars provide the same kind of quick, cheap lunches and late night snacks that hamburger stands do here. But there is that discipline behind the sushi-maker. Mr. Wada, a short, barrel-chested man about the size and shape considered desirable in guards on football teams, may treat his customers politely, with indifference, or rudely, or with a rapidly changing combination of the three. Mr. Wada is no doubt secure in the knowledge that in his own country he would be considered an artist.

Artist or not, he makes good sushi. Part of the trick is preparing the rice so that it will stick together in the small cakes while remaining light and pleasant to taste. It takes several hours to prepare, requiring cycles of heating and cooling and the addition of such condiments as sugar, rice vinegar, bonito, and seaweed (which is used to flavor the water the rice is boiled in.)

The fish, though raw, is carefully dressed and seasoned. At the Waraku a $2.50 plate of assorted sushi, a good first step for the novitiate, will include among others shark, octopus, sea bass, tuna (delicious enough to save for next to last), and shrimp.

Waraku Sushi bar, 1716 Buchannan. Open 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sushi is an excellent appetizer. After the Waraku, if you’ve gone around dinner time, it’s nice to float a few doors up the street to the Hisago at 1762 Buchanan for a Japanese meal. The decor here is almost as plain as the Waraku’s, but the food is excellent, the service expert, and there always seem to be interesting people to look at sitting at the other tables.

Poker at Artichoke’s. Artichoke’s?

AGONY OF AGONIES! IN SAN Francisco at last, airplane taxiing to the terminal. But what’s this? A long face? A gnashing of teeth? Then the muttered explanation; Merely making a connection. An hour and a half to kill, but how? From the airport, it’s half an hour into town, half an hour back, six to ten dollar cab fare each way. Hardly worth the effort or the money. Apparently all that remains is a long wait in the airport, while just a frog’s jump away lie all the beauties, indulgences, hot spots, depravities, Chinese restaurants, foggy streets, obscure shops, and well-lighted bars of the Pacific’s less than virginal princess.

Well, one thing to do instead of hanging around the airport is play poker. Directly across the freeway from the airport, less than a ten minute ride except during rush hours, lies the small town of San Bruno. It has, in accordance with California law, exercised its local option to allow poker parlors within its corporate boundaries. This decision, to the surprise of those with apocalyptic visions of what happens when you’re soft on sin, has not produced a strip of gin mills, honky tonks, and clip joints; rather there are a few clubs dotted along the main street of this rather quiet, middle-class town. Among these clubs by far the best is the Club Artichoke, more commonly known as Artichoke Joe’s. There is a club and there is a Joe, but stories vary about the Artichoke part. Seeing Joe, a bullet-shaped, burr-headed, stubby-fingered Maltese gambler, makes one realize that questions of such magnitude are not asked casualIy by strangers.

Until a year ago, Artichoke’s place was a remarkable old barn and stables. The barn is now a pretty good bar with the original barn floor and beams and long wooden pegs in the walls holding ancient bridles and saddles and wagon rigs. The stable area used to hold the poker tables. Today the bar is the same, but Artichoke has built a new connecting building for poker. Huge wooden beams line a high-roofed, bright room about two-thirds the size of a basketball court and with a basketball court’s polished wooden floor. Sixteen round green tables, each of which can accommodate eight players, are surrounded by a wooden rail surrounded in turn by gawkers and by players waiting for a seat, two indistinguishable types. A cage against one wall for buying and cashing chips; the rising wisps of tobacco smoke; white-shirted runners carrying silver trays with beer mugs and sandwiches; the constant tik-tik-tik-tik of chips; the floormen whose denim aprons are filled with money, chips, decks of cards; and the air slightly heavy with the psychic ozone of casual, controlled poker player’s tension. Go just to have a drink and watch even if you don’t want to play. But this is how the playing works.

They play Draw Poker and Lo Ball there. Lo Ball, in which the lowest poker hand wins, is the more popular game and is played, at Joe’s, for higher stakes than Draw and with freewheeling and reckless abandon. At the cheapest table (“the baby game”) a minimum buy-in is $20 although most players think an original stake of at least twice that gives them a better chance. At other tables the buy is higher, sometimes much higher. Lo Ball is always dealt by a house dealer who also rakes a small percentage of the pots for the house.

The minimum buy for Draw Poker is $10. The deal is passed around among the players. The house takes no money from the pots but charges each player 60 cents every half hour.

Both Lo Ball and Draw are table stake games. You must bet or fold before the draw; after the draw, you may check without folding. Checking and then raising is specifically allowed. Other house rules are more esoteric and both the floormen and the other players will patiently explain them. And, as the sign says, “Ladies Welcome.”

Artichoke Joe’s, 676 San Mateo Ave., San Bruno, Calif. Take San Bruno exit west off Bayshore Freeway. Since poker players do not take kindly to being disturbed for anything short of Armageddon, Artichoke Joe’s has no telephones. Open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.

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