The Tenderloin's Best Jukebox? We Go on the Hunt at 21 Club, Hemlock Tavern, and Geary Club

Categories: Juke Hunt
hemlock tavern by derrick low.jpg
Derrick Low
The pretty much amazing jukebox at Hemlock Tavern
The heyday of authentic jukeboxes is long over. With many bars installing those nasty touchscreen digital Internet boxes, the old school record-flipping kind of jukebox is a dying breed. And this is in the town that originated the concept of jukeboxes back in 1889. So what denotes a quality juke these days? It's subjective, but there are some key signifiers: diversity of the records and mood-setting capabilities. In this column we seek out and celebrate the remaining machines. We also measure their success with a one to five drinks scale, based on how long you'll want to linger and listen.

The Tenderloin gets a bad rap. Sure, there are often people stumbling through the streets. The sidewalks aren't always terribly sanitary. But the eclectic downtown neighborhood also has many great bars, a glut of late night pizza, and colorful crowds to go with it all. Some of the better jukeboxes in the area have gone digital (Whiskey Thieves, Edinburgh Castle), but a handful of the original jukes remain, hiding out like precious relics in the dim corners of certain dives:

1. You can pretty much guarantee that any night you drop in to Hemlock Tavern, you're going to hear good music. Not only because the refurbished and spacious bar hosts superb local and touring bands every week, but also because the jukebox, which boasts both local and touring bands, perfectly reflects the clientele. On any given page flip, the juke has a healthy smattering of musicians young and old, loud and louder. The centerfold page alone features discs by local garage rockers Thee Oh Sees and the Fresh & Onlys alongside Bikini Kill's singles compilation (a personal favorite), and a disc from revered '70s/'80s punks Bad Brains.

The jukebox compliments the usual Hemlock Tavern crowd (young, hipsterish, party-inclined), there's good variety -- and here's the kicker: it's free. As long as there's not a DJ spinning, you can push-button songs on the Hemlock's excellent jukebox to your heart's content.

Juke rating: 5 drinks

2. The Geary Club is precisely what an outsider might imagine of a typical Tenderloin bar. It's dim, smoky, and a tad ominous. There's a video hunt/trivia quiz game on the narrow bar against the wall, and the archetypal jukebox sits to the right as soon as you push open the swinging door. Predictably, the jukebox has a ton of classic 1960s and '70s rock albums perfect for air-jamming while you sip Jack Daniels: Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, the Doors. Then there are crooners like Sting, Paul McCartney's solo works, and the worrisome Jimmy Buffet.

There also are discs that lean towards country rock, or rockabilly (though many came out before that term was invented), such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Popular picks at the Geary Club include the Traveling Wilburys, Heart, and the Beatles, all of which suggest the patronage of this bar. The box also has some nice, less obvious choices like Etta James, the Shirelles, and Fats Waller, along with plenty of 1980s hits. Another good sign: the jukebox is almost always in use, and I'm told the bartenders occasionally throw down change for patrons to pick songs that keep the mood going.

The ambience at the Geary Club may perhaps be lacking, but the album choices are pretty solid, and there are games to be played.

Juke rating: 3 drinks

3. Bordering on the Tenderloin and Civic Center, the 21 Club is not on the loveliest of corners. The crowd at this diviest of dives tends to be an assortment of after-work folks, seasoned drunks, and the generally downtrodden. It's an interesting mix -- as is the jukebox. One Yelper described the mood as "some angry vet arguing with some professional drunk about which Cat Stevens song to play on the fucking jukebox."

So let's start with the good -- the aforementioned Cat Stevens, Merle Haggard, Lou Rawls, and the multiple Motown and 1960s girl-group compilations. Strangely, there are two Lady Gaga albums, and sadly, a few of those "Now That's What I Call Music" pop culture trash bins. Another Yelper was impressed with the Conway Twitty availability on the jukebox. Then there's Foreigner, which was playing the last time I popped in. But that's perhaps neither here nor there.

It's certainly a dive, and there are a few great song options on the 21 Club's jukebox, but there's nothing to really keep you in this musky, claustrophobic space once you've downed your second beer. It'd be best to start a night here, choose the right fucking Cat Stevens song, then move on.

Juke rating: 2 drinks

That rounds out the Tenderloin's jukebox offerings. While other bars in the hood may have traditional machines or feature the digital monstrosities, our selection is meant to highlight the particularly noteworthy of the bunch. Next up: we hit the upper crust of bar 'hoods, North Beach, in search of jukes, sock full of quarters in hand.

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Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Emily Savage @TofuandWhiskey, and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.

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