Published: Jan. 17, 1992

SOMEWHERE in every great journey, there is a train. This one begins with a missed train and a found blessing.

Seven years ago, if the problems of the world added up to a hill of beans, there were a couple of hectares with my name on them. There was not a single sector of my life that couldn't qualify for federal disaster aid. At the end of one very, very bad day, I found myself sitting on a San Francisco Muni electric bus -- the 30 Stockton -- that was going absolutely nowhere. After a good 10 minutes with no power from the overhead wires, it dawned on me that I had missed my train out of the city. There would be another in 90 minutes. Great, I thought, I will just sit here in the dark on this stinking bus and rot. This was more than mere aggravation -- it was proof positive that life could not possibly get any worse.

I pushed my way off the bus and began walking back up Fourth Street away from the train station -- thinking perhaps I could find a gaping sinkhole to throw myself into. Three blocks later, I found the blessing. The green neon sign in the dusty window-box said "Hotel Utah. Tasty Food. Bar." Opening the battered Dutch door, I felt a this-must-be-the-place vibe strong enough to light up that dead Muni bus. Three hours and two trains later, I knew I had found my Lourdes, my temple of reflection, my ideal social arena and literary drawing room. I had found the best damn rock 'n' roll bar in the known universe.

Since then, the Utah -- which proudly bills itself as "San Francisco's best dive" -- has been the place for me to: hire a lawyer (once), fall in love (twice), write, fight, eat, retreat and have deep discussions on the nature of life with everyone from long-haul truckers and bordello owners to software salesmen and novelists. It also happens to be a gold-mine for undiscovered local talent. The Genuine Diamelles, the Wannabe Texans, American English, Silver Threads, LaVay Smith & the Red-Hot Skillet Likkers, American Music Club and Jerry Shelfer are just a few of the greats who have worked out on the Utah's postage-stamp stage.

It's awfully hard for a driver on Interstate 80 heading toward the Bay Bridge to not notice the Utah. The four-story landmark 1908 Victorian, dolled up in a half-dozen carnival colors, doesn't whisper -- it screams "STOP! BIG FUNHOUSE HERE!" As one would expect, the hotel's history is as colorful as its paint job.

The hotel itself -- there are still 26 rooms upstairs occupied by taxi drivers, writers and artists -- was once thought to be a hot-sheet, by-the-hour operation. And when a portion of the bar (which was a Greek restaurant before World War II) underwent remodeling recently, the workers found 1,500 ancient telephone wires -- a good hint that it was once a major-league bookie joint.

After World War II, Al Opatz -- a strapping, gregarious man who could charm the bark off a tree -- bought the bar and re- christened it Al's Transbay. For decades, it stood as a way- station of sorts for commuters and truckers waiting to get across the bridge. It was during the tenure of Good Neighbor Al, one of South of Market's original Bohemian barkeeps, that the hotel became an occasional haunt for everyone from Marilyn Monroe (during her stint as Mrs. DiMaggio) to Dirty Harry (the bar is mentioned by name in the original "Dirty Harry").

A new stage

The Utah's modern era began in 1978, when Marin County writer Paul Gaer took his cut of the proceeds from the film "The Electric Horseman" and bought Opatz out. Gaer took a laissez-faire approach to the use of the bar's little back-room stage, renting it out on a night-by-night basis to a wild and woolly assortment of groups -- from performance artists and punk bands to cabaret producers and poets. In recent years, bookers Ramona Downey (now at the Bottom of the Hill) and Patrick Winningham built the Utah's alternative-rock slate into one of the most forward-looking in the city.

Today, the complexion of the Utah changes by the hour. The daytime scene is still dominated by neighborhood warehouse workers, printers and bike messengers (although the messengers are less in evidence than they used to be -- and they no longer ride their bikes through the bar). After the grill shuts down at 5 p.m., the commute crowd waiting out the Bay Bridge backup takes over. (The clock is thoughtfully set about 10 minutes fast, a godsend for Caltrain commuters prone to tarry too long over their beers.) At night, the club kids roll through about 9.

A few years back, it was not uncommon to see someone just sprung from the Hall of Justice -- and still wearing the plastic jail bracelet -- snoozing on one of the benches in the back room while the black-leather rock crowd made merry up front. Now, the city's largest homeless shelter (just on the other side of the block) picks up most of that clientele. And the greatest threat facing Utah wild-life is the sudden over- abundance of clean-scrubbed twentysomething post-preppies who turn out in force for some of the bands.

At 9:30 on a recent Saturday night, a good quarter of the crowd cooling their heels in front of the massive Civil War-era mahogany bar -- waiting for the Hesla-Robinson Big Band to go on -- looked as though they had come straight from alumni night at Phillips Exeter Academy. These In-Betweeners are a sad lot. The women, all turned out with near-identical Dorothy Hamill haircuts and Hermes handbags, are in that terrible purgatory between post-deb parties and Junior League lunches. The men, dressed to the teeth in full L.L. Bean, are in limbo between broker trainee and senior securities analyst. Pity them -- but not too much.

A good night at the Utah is like going to a raging house party with a couple of live bands -- in your grandfather's attic. Although the management has been on something of a cleaning jag lately, the place still looks like an all-night antique shop: license plates of various vintages from you-know- what-state, vintage boxing photos left over from the Al's Transbay era, a mid-'50s group photo of MGM stars, painted- glass panels salvaged from 40-year-old pinball machines, two small mermaids snared at the Marin Flea Market and several miles of blinking Christmas lights. Those who know better than I swear the lights' effect is quite moving -- after the fourth martini.

The elks' club

The two elk and two deer waxing stoic above the scene were personally shot by Opatz and used for years as hat-racks. (They also provided inspiration for the Utah's Party Moose logo.) As for the string of headless dolls mounted on the wall, there are enough stories to fill a thin book. The consensus version goes like this: Dolls of this design were commonly used to smuggle heroin early in this century and, to remove the goods, the heads were chopped off. The story goes that these particular dolls were salvaged from a trash bin in a Chinatown alley. According to Gaer, the dolls were a gift from a very eccentric San Francisco City College teacher.

The performance area, the 12-seat balcony and the bathrooms (great cartoons and unprintable puns) all have been tastefully remodeled in the past year. The changes are a mixed bag. The balcony, which affords the best view in the house, has been sumptuously redone with marble and recycled hardwoods. And few people will miss having to walk across the stage to get to the lower bathroom. But, out of consideration for their musically inclined patrons, they should have left the piano in the bathroom.

After a rousing Spike Jones-meets-Leon Redbone a cappella set by the Genuine Diamelles, the Hesla-Robinson Big Band fires up at 11 p.m. with a walloping, punchy version of "Take the A Train." The 13-piece swing band is so big the first echelon of horns spills off the stage and down the stairs. In such an intimate space, the full-blowin' effect is not unlike being strapped to the front of the 20th Century Limited as it roars open-throttle down the main line. People are packed three-deep along the narrow bar, shouting like pork-belly brokers to be heard above the music. When the band plays Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls," a preppie twentysomething couple up in the balcony embraces and begins turning slow arcs across the oak floor. The two black-leather kids sitting nearby stop talking motorcycles, lean over the rail and give bandleader Timmie Hesla the thumbs-up.

Perhaps you don't see what's so hot about a bunch of post- punk, post-collegiate swingers grooving to a quintessential Lawrence Welk standard in the back room of an old saloon on a Saturday night. It's certainly not the the biggest or the flashiest nightspot in the city.

But if you do see what's so special -- about a watering hole that can cling proudly to the past with one hand while rocking into the future with the other -- there is a place for you here, most assuredly.

The Hotel Utah
500 Fourth St., San Francisco
Admission: $2-$3
Details: Live music nightly at 9 or 10 p.m.
(415) 421-8308

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