A North Beach Kind of Night

Gaucho bassist Ari Munkres sits in Caffe Trieste in North Beach San Francisco
Gaucho bassist Ari Munkres takes five at Caffe Trieste, North Beach, San Francisco.

You know that argument you have with yourself on Friday night where you’re melted to the couch in an overworked daze with no intention of ever moving again, and all you really want in this whole world is to drain the last of that Trader Joe’s red blend and watch depressing French films on Criterion Channel until the day finally falls to its death between the icy crevasses of your soul — but you’ve told a friend you’d show up to his gig? 

Don’t let your inner sadsack win that argument. It’s always better to go out, always better to see your friends, to strap on the high heels and slap on the aftershave and kick it all up a few notches. Especially when your city is finding its night-crawling feet again after years of semi-shutdown and exodus. It’s time to think about living. 

And if you’re a mere bus ride across town from North Beach, San Francisco, you really have no excuse. 

Yet a few weeks ago, sitting on that wobbly 1 California crawl up the Polk slopes that peak at Grace Cathedral then plunge like a roller coaster down into the narrows of Chinatown, all I could think was: I must be crazy. I’m exhausted. I’m antisocial. I look like crap. I’ve got nothing to say to anyone. Why am I doing this? 

I was doing this because my Scottish friend Paul was playing with his new band at Maggie McGarry’s on Grant Street, and I wanted to see who he was when not in a shell suit at 6:30 in the morning, dashing his takeaway coffee out the cafe door to his next construction gig. I told him I’d show, and my word is my word. 

Somewhere around the Powell Street stop, though, I decided to stop moping and face the night with a transformed spirit. I’m not that tired and anyway the real gift of nightlife is that you never know what’s going to happen — especially when you think you do. 

And sure enough, walking up south-of-Broadway Grant Street, I’m almost to Kerouac Alley when I run smack into Ari Munkres, bassist for local gypsy jazz legends Gaucho, whom I haven’t seen since before COVID.  

We repair to the old Beat haunt Caffe Trieste on Grant and Vallejo for drinks and post-pandemic catch-up. 

“We all lost a few years, Jen,” says Ari, shaking his head. “I mean, what’s The Zen of Losing a Few Years?”

I get a boost from him looking so at home in this midcentury-holdout Italian coffeehouse — smart hat, smart specs, freshly pressed shirt — but he has to hustle on to Gaucho’s standing gig at the dark, elegant Comstock Saloon over on Columbus. I decide to follow him over so I can grab a prosecco and check out a few tunes. 

At Comstock I’m able for the first time since 2019 to wave hello to renowned Gaucho jazz guitarist Dave Ricketts. The band also has a standing gig Thursday nights at DecoDance over on Polk and Sutter. I have yet to drop by this divine-looking neo-Deco speakeasy, but it’s on my SF bucket list. 

The band is in top form, and tunes like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” find a willing audience among young internationals sinking vermouth concoctions in high-walled booths. I’d love to stay, but I’ve got to get moving if I’m going to hit all the spots before seeing Paul’s band. 

Overhead view of drinkers seated on Kerouac Alley San Francisco
Drinkers enjoy Kerouac Alley outside City Lights Bookstore.

The crowd at Vesuvio a few doors up has gotten steadily more boorish and careerist over the years but even taking that into account, on a Friday night it’s ridiculous. 

Yes, Vesuvio with the panoramic Kerouac Alley view from its upstairs gallery and all its boisterous junk on the walls and lived-in anti-splendor – it must have been a riot in Dharma Bum days. Nowadays you can have a go at wine-fueled existential speculation here, but it’s not easy when the next three booths over are loaded with drunk Wharton grads who believe they’re going to alter the course of human destiny. 

The strange thing is, if they get seed funding for their nose-picking app or their self-driving toaster oven, they may do just that. But should they, friends, should they? Screaming about Tesla and crypto over the 2000s power pop revival hits on the sound system, checking TikTok for instructions on how to have a good time? 

One young man sits on his own across from me, glass of wine, reading the standalone paperback of a Henry Miller short story. I don’t want to bother him but must affirm the choice. He is friendly enough – how often do some of us, after all, read in public hoping someone will attaboy our taste in authors and strike up a conversation? Guilty as charged – and he tells me the story is incredible and he got the book at City Lights. There’s hope yet. 

Specs Bar sign We Were Old School When Old School Was in Kindergarten
Specs Bar: a heretic to the Church of Innovation.

Gotta see who’s at Specs Bar across the street. As it turns out: Alan Black, former publican of the much-missed Edinburgh Castle, author and lit-scene booster, fresh back from Scotland and pulling pints. He’s restarted the Specs Social Club event on first Thursdays, where the mic is open to readers and rockers and just about anyone. 

I settle in with the regulars at the end of the bar and we end up belting out the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” like a bunch of hopeless cases. 

North Beach photographer Dennis Hearne shows his work at Live Worms Gallery on Grant Avenue
North Beach photographer Dennis Hearne shows his work.

On to Green Street’s Foreign Lens art space, but en route I’m drawn into the enviably named Live Worms Gallery on Grant, where (among others) photographer Dennis Hearne is showing his work chronicling the North Beach street and music scene. 

Tonight’s reception showcases about five other artists producing everything from jewelry to ink sketches, and the crowds are spilling out into the parklets. Overheard as I passed some women dishing on the general topic of amour: “He’s a total narcissistic asshole, you know, but the sex is incredible.” 

Are we “back to normal” yet? 

Dancers under a chandelier in the basement of Foreign Lens art space in San Francisco
Revelers enjoy Foreign Specs’ subterranean disco.

If you’re seeking a reliable basement boogie on Friday nights, Foreign Lens is your true north. Tuneful disco warps the curio-studded walls and once you’ve danced your ass off you can crash out on an antique sofa and watch the portrait painting or the body painting or the makeout action or the…

Time for Paul’s band. Back around the corner on Grant, Maggie McGarry’s is heaving with postgrads. The young women flirt in full makeup and spaghetti-strap tops, the young men hoist their beers and howl in shorts and t-shirts. It feels like the 90s again, celebratory and volatile and muggy with body steam. I can’t even get near the stage to let Paul know I’m here, it’s that crazy. 

But there he is, all in black and on the bass, looking aces, supporting the diva in Amy Winehouse and Adele covers, songs that every kid knows every word to and they sing with full throats and beer-filled bellies and bursting hearts. Hugs, tears, selfies, fists pumping in the air. They’ve made it. Made it through another lousy COVID year of higher education. 

And though I only just got here, I slip back out after 20 minutes, quitting while I’m ahead. What more heavenly note than this could the evening end on?

Postscript: You didn’t hear it from me, but if you call Flywheel, you get an actual human being on the dispatch line.

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