Published: April 30, 1993

WE ALL have a dream we can't shake -- one nagging vision of perfection that serves to remind us just how flawed everyday life is. I'm sure baseball writers dream of watching two pitchers throw nine perfect innings apiece in a game that's eventually called for rain. My dream goes like this: I'm walking down a city street late at night and I hear this unspeakably seductive music -- eight-to-the-bar, World War II-vintage blues -- floating out of some hole in the wall. Inside, I find a small, dark room jammed wall to wall with reformed punks -- impeccably mannered, erudite reformed punks who are drinking beer and talking 140 miles per hour about books and art and music. Hey -- it's my dream, OK?

The last time the dream became real I was sitting at the bar in the Hotel Utah. And I liked it so much I toyed with the idea of taking a room above the bar. Last week, I had a near-dream encounter. It's a good thing they don't have a hotel in that big cuckoo-clock of a building that sits above Cafe du Nord. If they did, I probably wouldn't leave the building for weeks on end . . .

The 2-year-old subterranean den of tasteful iniquity is the crossroads of a new beat scene that's steadily siphoning business away from the South of Market nightclub strip. This quiet retreat to small, neighborhood bars that showcase poetry, cocktail jazz, vintage blues and cabaret acts will never amount to a mass exodus. The crowd that goes in for raves and warehouse-size discos would find Du Nord's talent slate puzzling at best. How do you explain a club that features everything from flamenco to monologues to le jazz hot? Either you get it or you don't.

With its gilt-edged ceiling, dark wood paneling and musty oil paintings, the 250-capacity cellar resembles a speakeasy or an old hunt club. Those who are accustomed to hangar-sized danceterias will find it quite claustrophobic. The low stage -- almost tucked under the staircase -- is no bigger than a freight elevator.

When I dropped in on a recent Thursday for one of the final shows in the club's "Atomic Swing" jump-blues series, it was standing-room-only at 10 p.m. Russell Scott and the Red Hots were wrapping up a sterling set of country-blues and there was some heavy, heavy beat synergy working in the room: art students, blue-collar poets, jazz fiends and all the other literary- salon types who always haunt the Cafe plus the roots-rock clique that turns out whenever rockabilly and jump R&B are on the menu plus a smattering of middle-age neighborhood gay couples and a few bona fide O.B.s (original beatniks in their 60s). A demimonde summit meeting right off the pages of Vanity Fair.

There were enough vintage three-button suits and silk gowns in that room to stock every resale boutique on Haight Street several times over. Major fashion icons for young women: Julie London, Imogene Coca, Betty Page, Anais Nin and Clara Bow. And for young men: Ralph Kramden, Eliot Ness, Neal Cassady, Gene Vincent, Xavier Cugat and Joe Strummer.

It would be a mistake to call this nostalgia. These are young people who are creating an idealized, revisionist version of nightclub culture as it existed a generation or two before they were born. They would rather drive a 40-year-old Buick than a new Honda. And they would much rather take their style tips from 50-year-old Life magazines than from MTV. It's big band blues, filtered through '80s roots-rock. It's the Art Deco Society brought to you by a punk on a 30-year-old Norton motorcycle. It's all about saying "screw you" to a culture that measures art in electronic beats-per-minute. A cynic would say the whole scene is hopelessly contrived. Perhaps it is. But that's not the point. These people are romantics in a very un-romantic era. And for that, they have my deepest admiration.

Cafe du Nord
2170 Market St.
San Francisco
Admission: $2
Details: Live entertainment nightly at 9.
(415) 861-5016

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