On a Friday, the crowd here mirrors the diversity of the jukebox, which includes both Tears for Fears and Fiesta en Centro América. A half-dozen local bohemians wait at El Amigo to be called for a table at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, next door -- "It's all about proximity," says Max -- as Manuel shoots the breeze with a pair of compadres.
"This is a cool place to hang around," Manuel says. "It's friendly, there's no fights, nobody's doing drugs. I advise everybody to come down here and have a good time." When asked if the two cantineras lindas (hottie bartenders) are part of the draw, Manuel denies that he's here to ogle. "Ah, they're all right, but right now I'm going about my business." Which is? "The drinking business, man," Manuel says as he and his friends slap high-fives.
The same business is booming, blue-collar style, at the 3300 Club, a decades-old dive on Mission and 29th streets. Inside we meet Tony, a freaky-looking cat (picture a cross between Grizzly Adams and Marilyn Manson) who says he tied Stevie Ray Vaughan in a guitar showdown back in the 1970s. "When I play with my band, the girls just throw their panties at me," Tony says, flashing a grin that's a few teeth short of complete. OK.
On another barstool, Helen isn't quite so looped. To say she's familiar with both the 3300 and the neighborhood would be an understatement: Helen recommends a trip to the men's room, where a mural of a nude woman points toward the urinal (in case you're not sure where to aim), then plugs Nap's Only, at the other end of the 'hood.
We'll get there, but first we've got a few more notable Other Mission saloons. At Mission and Valencia, there's the Odeon, the city's finest artsy-fartsy performance bar. Tonight's show features a short play titled A Visit to Mrs. Birch -- lots of English schoolgirls, spankings, and phrases such as "My dear Miss Tickletouch." Farther up Mission, the Argus Lounge is home to cow skulls, bowling trophies, and dozens of bespectacled hipsters like Robin. "It's my birthday," she says. "I'm turning 30 -- I am 30 -- and I came here because this bar kicks ass."
Across the street, El Rio is bursting at the seams, thanks to the world-beat party known as "Club Nzinga." The patio is so well known that it should be declared a San Francisco landmark. If you don't meet at least three foreigners here, you deserve a refund.
Time now to check out Nap's Only, a few buildings away, where a narrow bar leads to a sprawling outdoor deck. Hip hop blares from the sound system (Go, Helen!). "I come and kick it here sometimes," says Marty, nodding her head to the beat. "It's always off the hook." The crowd runs from crusty old-timers to youngsters such as Nikki, whose pants sag halfway to Hades as she busts moves so tight other would-be dancers can only watch in awe.
"It's inherited," says Nikki, between songs, about her abilities. "My grandmother did the jitterbug, and my mom did the '70s shit." So what kind of shit is she doing here in the '00s? "I don't know," Nikki says, giving the matter some thought. "I guess I just freestyle."