Live the Live Life at the Ten Best San Francisco Music Venues
By Tom Molanphy
San Francisco Local Expert
The power of live music to make folks feel good is on full display at a host of San Francisco night clubs. If listening to bands and vocalists show off their skills is how you like to spend an evening, you'll find that San Francisco does things right. Multiple options let you tap into the venues that 10Best readers favor, like Biscuits and Blues, or you can get a taste of the city's offerings by visiting places like Bottom of the Hill, which is known for its Rock music. While many venues on the local music scene are clustered in the Union Square area, know that terrific places to hear live music can be found throughout San Francisco.
And the sounds of San Francisco are as eclectic as the restaurants and the neighborhoods. The city is legendary for the Chinese fare of Chinatown, the Italian cuisine of North Beach, and the Latino food of the Mission. But the musical offerings are just as delicious. Whether you're in the mood for rock, pop, reggae, classical or country, San Francisco is a city big enough to attract world-renowned acts but small enough to still have backroom bars where locals can croon to their hearts delight. Whatever type of music gets you in the groove, we promise our San Francisco list will help you find it.
10 Bimbo's 365 Club
Just as in the days when Rita Hayworth kicked things up as chorus girl Rita Casino, this San Francisco mainstay embraces grand 1930s style while maintaining a contemporary edge. Each night's artists are unique, and the place features everything from the best in local jazz to big band tunes and hot pop performers like Chris Isaak and Jewel. Call for show schedules and ticket prices. And, don't miss the latest incarnation of Dolfina, the world-famous "Girl in the Fishbowl!" And Bimbo's hasn't missed a beat with the latest cocktail craze going on in San Francisco. If you like your music with a finely made drink, head to Bimbo's. (415-474-0365)
Up front, a large bar welcomes good-natured patrons, many of whom stop in frequently for camaraderie and tasty drinks. In the rear room, most of the musical action takes place. There, a pianist regales folks with pop classics, show tunes and anything singable, and crowds join in with eager voices. The quality of performance is quite good, even with the accompaniment of many creative martinis, and time spent is certain to be fun for male or female, gay or straight. From Sunday to Thursday, tunes begin around 9:30pm; on Friday and Saturday, they start at 5:30pm. For a taste of what San Francisco used to be, head to Martuni's. (415-241-0205)
For great rock 'n roll, make a point to catch top-notch live acts at Slim's, including a number of on-their-way-to-the-big-time bands. The first floor features a stage and small dance floor, while the upper level offers a small balcony for watching drummers and guitarists do their thing. Hip-hop, rock, jazz, Latin, and reggae are in order, given the day, and both local and well-known bands perform. Bar and dining menu available. Slim's has a long history of hosting some of the classic names in rock and roll. If you want to impress true rock and roll fans back home, tell them you caught a show at Slims. (415-255-0333)
7 Biscuits and Blues
This evocatively named club offers a slice of Memphis right in the Bay area. And luckily, the name isn't just a gimmick. The place has a reputation as one of the best blues clubs in the country. Plus, the kitchen serves up hot biscuits, catfish, and chicken to eager patrons as they partake of sweet jazz, Memphis-style, of course. And visitors will love the location, just off of union Square, smack dab in the middle of all kinds of restaurants and late night activities. If you think great food and great music make a memorable pairing, make it a Biscuit and Blues night. (415-292-2583)
6 Bottom of the Hill
This club's a standout in a town filled with great clubs. Its intimate environment attracts a host of hip folks, and the place reverberates with the sounds of live rock and alternative music. In fact, international, regional, and local artists have caused "Rolling Stone" to give the place an enthusiastic thumbs-up. A pool table and an outdoor patio offer pleasant diversions, and if you're hungry, the small, tasty menu includes standbys like hamburgers, chicken, and pasta. Unlike some of the other venues that cater almost exclusively to tourists, visitors from out-of-town will be sure to rub elbows with some authentic locals at the Bottom of the Hill. (415-621-4455, 415-626-4455)
5 Harry Denton's Starlight Room
If your taste in nightlife tends towards the classy, dress to impress, and step into the 1930s-era glamour of Harry Denton's. The chic club is known for incredible live music, elegant decor, suited doormen, and a brief, upscale menu. Nightly rhythms are provided (Thursday through Saturday) by the best local swing and jazz artists; earlier in the week, DJs are standard. Since the club sits atop the Drake Hotel, you're sure to get spectacular views of downtown and the bay. And you may just spot some celebrities too! If you need that signature event to top off your San Francisco vacation, you can't go wrong with a trip to the Starlight Room. (415-395-8595)
4 Boom Boom Room
It's all about blues music at this Fillmore Street club, which also throws in soul, R&B, and gospel for interest and good measure. Regulars often follow-up a spin around the large dance floor with a drink at the bar, indulging in one of the club's killer cocktails. In fact, focus on music and dancing is the main draw, although you may want to check out the great photographs lining the walls. Since the place is open every day until 2am, you'll be able to take in a large share of fun for a good price. And if you need dinner, Japantown and all its savory offerings is right across the street. (415-673-8000)
3 Great American Music Hall
A great destination for groups, Great American Music Hall offers guaranteed good times, complete with live entertainment and drinks. Comedy acts grace the stage many nights, and live musical groups are a constant as well. The decor hearkens back to the days of the California Gold Rush, and the two-level venue offers dancing on the first floor and a bar with a small dining menu on the second floor. What makes GAMH unique is its ability to feel like both a big-time concert hall and an intimate venue. Check their website for special concert dinner events, always a popular ticket. (415-885-0750)
2 Pier 23 Cafe
More known for its live music than its food, Pier 23 is THE nightlife spot on the Embarcadero. The Embarcadero has enjoyed a real renovation over the last few years, so visitors could easily plan an entire day around a live show at Pier 23. Start off with a delicious local breakfast at the Farmer's Market, which offers a large selection of organic bites and snacks. Work your way down the Embarcadero with a visit to the newly redesigned Exploratorium, which has enough free exhibits around its exterior to while away several hours. Grab dinner some seafood at Pier 39 for sustenance, and then dance the night away at Pier 23. (4153625125)
1 The Plough and Stars
What makes San Francisco unique is its diversity, all packed within forty-nine square miles, and The Plough and Stars is a great example. For a full day of fun, wander up and down Clement Street, popping into dim sum joints or thumbing through paperbacks at legendary Green Apple Books. Top off your night with live Irish music and a creamy pint of Guinness at the Plough, and you've had a true San Francisco day. The Plough and the Stars have been featuring live Irish music for years, so you'll be sure to enjoy a professional production of authentic Irish music. ((415) 751-1122)
About Tom Molanphy
The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom! Tom has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 2000. He teaches writing, journalism and literature at the Academy of Art University in downtown San Francisco. His latest book, Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life, is available through Outpost19.
Read more about Tom Molanphy here.