A professional lounge lizard's guide to the Bay Area's top nightspots

Published: June 16, 1989

. . . sleep all day
It's the only way
I'm a parasite
I creep around at night
Night club, I'm a member of the night club . . .
-- "Nite Klub," the Specials

YEAH, that's me all over. If they handed out medals for hanging out in rock clubs and juke joints, I'd have more brass on my chest than Ollie North, Omar Bradley and George Patton. I've been on safari in clubland for so long that I even know how it will all end:

I'm standing at the Pearly Gates, trying to con my way past the toughest club doorman in the world. "Are you sure you're on the guest list?" St. Peter sneers. He opens up his ledger and begins to read, his voice dripping with contempt: "A decade of misspent youth. Several thousand nights wasted in honky-tonks and hip clubs. What service to mankind could you have possibly performed in such an unwholesome environment?"

''But, but . . . I told people where to go."

On any given weekend night, hundreds of drinking establishments present live music around the Bay Area -- and most aren't worth the price of a short beer. But a handful of nightspots, for one reason or another, stand out.

Whether you're cruising on a skateboard or in a stretch limousine, there's a destination waiting for you: a place to go when you're dressed-to-impress or dressed-for-distress. A place to reinvent yourself in whatever image you choose. Here's my short list of the very best the Bay Area has to offer.


THE HOTEL UTAH. Want to meet new and interesting people? Broaden your social outlook? Pull up a bar stool with the bike messengers, low-rent lawyers and long-haul truckers who call this rustic South of Market watering spot home. The club's motto is "Party Like a Wild Animal" -- and patrons live up to it every weekend. Moose heads on the wall. Patsy Cline and Black Flag on the jukebox. A piano in the bathroom. Live local music most nights. Quite possibly the best bar on the continent. There is an exact replica of the Utah in heaven. And it is reserved for those who have been very, very good. 500 Fourth St., San Francisco. (415) 421-8308.


CLUB REGENT. A hotel supper club in the classic tradition. If Desilu Productions had to reconstruct Ricky Ricardo's Tropicana Club today, it probably would look something like this. Linen on the tables, solicitous waiters at your elbow and a swinging big band on the stage. The room has been cursed with uneven bookings -- from the stellar Johnny Otis show to the bush- league Violet Fox Band. The current show, featuring the Keta Bill Band, is a step in the right direction. The kind of nightclub you could take your mother to without apology -- as long as your mother doesn't wear black leather. Fairmont Hotel, 170 S. Market St., San Jose. (408) 998-3960.


THE I BEAM. This Haight Street dance hall has been showcasing cutting-edge music for more than a decade. The first -- and still the best -- modern music dance club in San Francisco. The live-music nights are always standing-room-only -- because there is no seating. Dance nights at the 'Beam used to be much more of a multisexual, multiracial tribal stomp; the scene's become more segmented over the years. If you're in the mood to do that funky groove thang amid a thousand (mostly) friendly strangers, definitely do the 'Beam. 1748 Haight St., San Francisco. (415) 668-6023.


THE OMNI. This club's patrons do not applaud; they beat their bare chests, throw their shaggy heads back and bay for more. Pure heaven for the young 'n' grungy set that digs bands with names such as Armament, Contempt, Violence and Pestilence. Nothing like being in a sweaty sea of leather and flesh and wondering if the guy next to you is going to start chewing on his beer bottle. 4799 Shattuck Ave., Oakland. (415) 547-7655.


THE CACTUS CLUB. Loud, young and hot. This 6-month-old no- nonsense rock bar is home to the college crowd and the former scenesters who used to haunt Muzzie's and the Laundry Works. At the moment, the Cactus is about the only reason to believe that real, kick-out-the-jams alternative rock will survive in downtown San Jose. What the remodeled adult theater lacks in ambiance and creature comforts, it more than makes up in quality bookings -- everyone from Graham Parker to the Frontier Wives. The best place in the city to let your hair down -- and about the only place in the city to put your Mohawk up. 417 S. First St., San Jose. (408) 280-1433.


THE KENNEL CLUB. Another rock 'n' roll dive done up in flat black paint. Good bar and good local bands in the worst neighborhood you'd ever venture into for a show. On any weekend night, you'll find the real wildlife outside the club. Hint: the Do-City Barbecue joint across the street (the place with the bulletproof booth) is four-star. Wimp option: taxi in and taxi out. 628 Divisadero, San Francisco. (415) 931-1914.


DNA LOUNGE. This club's setup is sort of a hybrid -- the center-island bar of the Kennel Club and the horseshoe-balcony of the Omni. Every seat in the house is prime territory. My only complaint is the lack of a dance floor. Like most of my favorite haunts, the DNA is a dark, dank rock 'n' roll cave that rarely begins to shake before 11 p.m. A required stop if you're honky-tonkin' along the 11th and Folsom strip. Be careful to leave your blazer and tie in the car. And be careful where your leave the car. 375 11th St., San Francisco. (415) 626-2532.


THE OASIS. This club used to be the spot downtown for quality live rock. Although the club's commitment to live bookings seems to be slipping, the two main deejays, Melvin J. and Julius Papp, are consistently excellent. Wednesdays are still the hot nights for modern rock. The often-oppressive weekend scene tends to be much more middle-of-the-road and packed with the type of boorish folk who favor white slacks, aloha shirts and gold chains. 200 N. First St., San Jose. (408) 292-2212.


ONE STEP BEYOND. Ironic isn't it? Stan Kent and Dee Joshua were spurred to open this mammoth Santa Clara modern-dance palace because their flamboyant dress did not go over well in area watering holes. For years, the club had an infuriating dress code of its own. Now that the dress code is gone, the club still has the best-dressed young scene in the South Bay. Go figure. We're talking 17-year-olds who spend more than an hour in front of the mirror before they venture out. We're talking ashen-faced young men with sunken eyes that would spook Bela Lugosi. We're talkin' major mousse. If you're tragically hip and 17 years old, this is one of the few places to call home. The sound system is so bad, it's legendary, but the club still plays host to some of the very best alternative rock acts in the nation (Ramones, Replacements, et al). 1400 Martin Ave., Santa Clara. (408) 727-0901.


J.J.'s BLUES CAFE. Nothing fancy -- just a cozy retro-cool lounge tucked in the back of a strip shopping center, presenting top national acts dirt cheap. Sort of like: "Up Close and Personal With the Legends of the Blues." The cover is rarely more than $5, though many of the headliners command three times that much in San Francisco. A menu full of hearty food and a bar full of bona-fide blues characters. A massive improvement over the cramped and awkward San Jose J.J.'s. 165 E. El Camino Real, Mountain View. (415) 968-2277.


THE FILLMORE. The historic rock 'n' roll shrine where Bill Graham got his start has baroque charm, the best acoustic setup in the region and a stage big enough to land a plane on. How can you tell this is still a Graham operation? Because Big Bill hires the most competent and courteous young people in the business. The upstairs lounge frequently plays host to great semi-acoustic local acts. Parking across Geary at Japantown is recommended. 1805 Geary St., San Francisco. (415) 922-3455.


NIGHTBREAK. By day, it's a neighborhood clubhouse for the Harley set. By night, it's a local-music bandbox populated by the "Les Miserables" of Haight Street and the college radio crowd. Black leather and a bleak attitude are de rigueur. Outstanding selection of imported beers. Sample the house specialty, "The Sake Bomb," at your own risk. 1821 Haight St., San Francisco. (415) 221-9008.


PARADISE LOUNGE. What used to be a retro-chic lounge with a postage-stamp stage has been expanded into a new-music emporium. Three stages on two levels. Non-stop music with a nominal cover charge on the weekends. Sean Penn has been known to hang out in the upstairs poetry-den and pool hall, but we won't hold it against the club. 11th and Folsom streets, San Francisco. (415) 861-6906.


THE SADDLE RACK. For the past 13 years, this cavernous facility has been a landmark for the pointy-booted set. It doesn't pull in major touring acts often, but when it does, it's strictly top-o'-the-line such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Milsap, Lee Greenwood and Earl Thomas Conley. With a capacity for 1,200 cowboys and wanna-be cowboys, the hall is still possibly the largest nightclub in the Bay Area. If you're gonna do this scene, go whole hog: Ride the bucking-bull machine and then hit the corral where they pour shots of liquor down your throat as you recline in a barber chair. (Warning: do not perform these two activities in reverse order.) 1310 Auzerais Ave., San Jose. (408) 286-3393.


THE RAMP. To be young, well-tanned and well-moneyed in San Francisco is to know the Ramp. The China Basin boat-launching site turns into an amazing outdoor shindig for the post-prep- school crowd every Friday and Saturday night. Never a cover charge. The regular Friday night band, the Essentials, is probably the best bar band in San Francisco. 855 China Basin St. at Mariposa Street, San Francisco. (415) 621-2378.


SLIM'S. The House that Boz (Scaggs) Built. The long, narrow hall features a gourmet selection of roots-rock and blues six nights a week. We can't guarantee you'll be belly-to-the-bar with Huey, Carlos and the gang, but then again, we wouldn't be surprised, either. The Rolex of roadhouses. 333 11th St., San Francisco. (415) 621-3330.


LIPPS UNDERGROUND. For those who don't want to shut down at 2 a.m. on Friday or Saturday nights, this grotto cabaret rocks until 9 in the morning. When the witching hour strikes, the real lounge lizards slink into the Underground. Ninth and Howard streets, San Francisco. (415) 552-3466.


THE CATALYST. Take the good sightlines of the DNA, the good stage and sound of the Fillmore, and add the best nightclub food in the region, and you've got the Catalyst. You don't need any better excuse to drive to Santa Cruz. This two-tiered facility is the Notre Dame of nightclubs and a required stop for virtually every major club band touring the West Coast. 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. (408) 423-1336.

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