WHILE Paris has its boulevards and Miami its beaches, San Francisco’s lure is its labyrinth of back alleys, those mysterious midblock detours that seem to offer, in equal doses, the promise of discovery and the slightly scary possibility of getting lost — really lost.
Built in haste after the discovery of California gold in 1848 and rebuilt in a bigger hurry after the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco is riven with all manner of concrete crannies, quaint cobblestone back ways and remote waterfront hide-outs like the Ramp, a sunset margarita spot whose front deck literally drops into the bay. In the tradition of a city whose literary legacy includes both the Beats and Sam Spade, those out-of-the-way addresses also include hipster bars and Zagat-rated speakeasies like Bix, an alley-front favorite whose Jazz Age ethos includes tuxedo jackets and torch songs.
Indeed, unlike many cities that have built over or ignored their old service streets, San Francisco has embraced them, with tourist-friendly spots like Belden Lane downtown, which is home to a row of restaurants specializing in everything from Spanish food (B44) to vodka (Voda). Cast an eye down pretty much any alley near the Union Square shopping district and you’ll find a different national cuisine, including French (Café Claude, Anjou), bar-top bar food (Azul), Vietnamese (Le Colonial) or Irish (the Irish Bank), though much of the “eating” there seems to be the liquid variety.
But there are also less obvious places found throughout the city, including in such tony neighborhoods as Laurel Village, near Pacific Heights, where Sociale, an elegant little restaurant, is hidden in a vine-laden inlet off Sacramento Street. Telegraph Hill, meanwhile, has Julius’ Castle, which is literally pitched on the edge of a cliff, while in the area around City Hall you can hunt for the Hotel Biron, a tiny wine bar on Rose Street, where imaginary musical instruments adorn the walls. The nook known as South Park is so cloistered that it’s accessible only by side street. And unlike the television show that shares its name, South Park is pretty, quiet and home to several sweet little spots, including the South Park Café, a one-rose-to-a-table French restaurant.
Finding such places is half the fun, but also potentially treacherous for a direction-challenged gumshoe like me, for whom a trip to the deli can turn into an episode of “Man vs. Wild.” Still, in the spirit of spring break, I recently took to the side streets of San Francisco to see if I could get lost, in a good way. I began my exploration on the type of night that would have made Dashiell Hammett happy: fog, mist and visibility somewhere between lousy and none. In other words, typical for March in San Francisco. (Or August. Or May. Or December ... )
The first stop was a pair of downtown side streets, Natoma and Minna, whose names have become well known to night-life-hungry dot-commers. Located in the SoMa district — so named for “south of Market Street,” the city’s main drag — the area just off Second Street is home to a cluster of white-candle, D.J.-happy establishments. Among the more popular are 111 Minna, a gallery with a liquor license, which often becomes an impromptu boogie room as art fans get tipsy, and John Colins, a beer-and-banter bar that attracts singles and anchors a trio of night spots on Natoma.
None was harder for me to find, or harder for me to get into than Harlot, a selective bar and dance club that opened last year along a bleak stretch of Minna Street. The velvet-roped Harlot takes its name from the 19th-century streetwalkers that were said to work the same alley. Prostitutes and alleys are a common theme in the lore of San Francisco: both Natoma and Minna are rumored to be named for ladies of the night, as is nearby Maiden Lane, where another tucked-away lounge, Otis, does a steady business in bright-hued cocktails behind stained-glass windows.
There were no working girls in attendance the night I tried to enter Harlot. But there was a working doorman. I was flying solo, and single men are about as popular at nightclubs as teetotalers at a tequila convention. Rebuffed, I retreated, but returned a couple of days later during a more relaxed happy hour to find a Gothic-inspired lounge: black walls, seminude portraits and a selection of nasty-looking insects framed on the wall. The bartenders had spiky hair, and the music was already thumping at 6 p.m. I felt as old as the hookers who inspired the place, and walked out past a crowd of attractive young women talking excitedly about an Internet start-up.
Other alleyway establishments revel in a different kind of nostalgia, including Bix, where bartenders in white tuxedo jackets serve cocktails in glasses left chilling in shaved ice on the bar. Blessed with soaring ceilings and a doting staff, Bix is regularly packed with anniversary couples and first-impression daters, soaking in the jazz and sucking down local oysters. I did both, cheered on by Bruce the bartender, who had the line of the night: “They say oysters are aphrodisiacs, but it’s not true,” he said. “I had two dozen last night, and only eight worked.”
No place, however, is more old-school than Alfred’s Steakhouse, which is tucked away on Merchant Street, near Chinatown. Alfred’s was founded in 1928 and looks as though it hasn’t changed much since. The walls are red, the carpet is faded, and the steaks have names. The waiters wear ties, the booths are bigger than your average compact car, and a “Notice of Prohibition” is posted next to the bar. Anyone needing proof that that law is no longer in effect need only check Alfred’s menu, which features more varieties of Scotch whiskey than an Edinburgh stag party. Wines are in abundance, too, including a $2,199 bottle of 1989 Château Pétrus, which was only about $2,190 more than I wanted to spend.
I chose instead a couple of house specialties — a Blue Moon and a Priscilla, both decidedly more macho than they sound — each served in Alfred’s cocktail shakers, which resemble giant baby bottles.
After pacifying myself, I stumbled outside and soon found myself in the heart of North Beach, a jumble of strip clubs and Italian restaurants and bars and cultural throwbacks. Into that category falls the lovely Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, which sits on a nub of a street, Saroyan Place, across from the City Lights Bookstore, where Ginsberg howled and Kerouac is still considered alive and well.
Neither museum nor cafe, Specs is a catch-all, home to both never-say-die bohemians and newly minted college graduates. The décor is classic clutter, with low wood benches and a beat-up piano at the back where a piano player regularly serenades any who will listen. I did — he played a fine version of “As Time Goes By” — and I felt the time doing just that, very pleasantly.
Around the corner and up a steep alleyway is 15 Romolo, on the ground floor of a low-rent hotel. The night my wife and I showed up, we were the only people there, but there was much to appreciate: a dark wood bar, colored bottles behind frosted windows, empty turquoise booths and a jukebox stocked with everyone from Curtis Mayfield to the Clash. My wife and I finished our drinks and headed back into the night. We walked down the hill to the bustle of North Beach and hopped a taxi home, following a wide street past many of the back ways, and hidden hideouts and secreted saloons we’d seen. (And, no doubt, some we hadn’t.)
There was fog, natch, and mist, and visibility somewhere between lousy and none. Typical. But on this night, San Francisco seemed anything but.
EATS OF SAN FRANCISCO
Here’s a sampling of the out-of-the-way spots to be found on the side streets and alleyways of San Francisco:
The Ramp, 855 Terry Francois Street; (415) 621-2378; www.ramprestaurant.com. A popular spot with local college students and former dockhands alike, with a large outdoor deck and a view of the bay; $7.50 margaritas are a specialty.
Bix, 56 Gold Street; (415) 433-6300; www.bixrestaurant.com. A speakeasy-style hideout — jazz, gin and gentlemanly service — whose only entrance is off an alley. Pacific oysters ($13.75 a half-dozen) and ginger gimlets ($10) are ordered early and often.
The Irish Bank, 10 Mark Lane; (415) 788-7152; www.theirishbank.com. A genuine-looking pub whose patrons and pleasant vibe spill into the patio outside. Guinness, naturally enough, is on tap ($5.50), as is Irish stew ($9).
Sociale, 3665 Sacramento Street; (415) 921-3200; www.caffesociale.com. Tucked away along a street of high-end boutiques, Sociale serves Italian cuisine both indoors and out, under a pair of lovely striped awnings. The fried olives ($8) are a treat.
South Park Café, 108 South Park Street; (415) 495-7275. About the only thing open late on a sleepy little urban oval. The prix fixe is $34 and gives you the choice of everything from red beets and remoulade to venison and vegetable couscous. Closed Saturday lunch, all day Sunday and Monday dinner.
Harlot, 46 Minna Street; (415) 777-1077; www.harlotsf.com. One of the city’s more fashionable places to be, and be seen, and everything that entails, from pricey cocktails to bottle service to a V.I.P. room upstairs.
Alfred’s Steakhouse, 659 Merchant Street; (415) 781-7058; www.alfredssteakhouse.com. The picture of the cow on the menu says it all: this is steaks taken seriously. Whiskey, too; the menu includes a San Francisco rye, Old Potrero ($14) found in only a few other places, and Scotches from the Isle of Skye ($11) and the Isle of Mull ($6 and $10), among other places.
Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, 12 William Saroyan Place; (415) 421-4112. Beer, wine, whiskey and a piano. Plenty to look at, and plenty of people to talk to. Even if you don’t want to.
15 Romolo, 15 Romolo Place, (415) 398-1359. Located under a grungy looking hotel, Romolo has a reputation as an in-the-know place. The standard alcoholic accouterments, but the jukebox is a standout.