"People come here because there's a good sense of family," says Keith, a regular who's originally from Oahu. "People walk in, and if we don't know them we invite them in, introduce them to everybody. It's small enough that we can do that."
Granted, if you've walked in during the monthly "Bay Area Pau Hana," you'll probably have a hard time meeting every last soul among the young, boisterous crowd of 150 or so. Jennifer, a Santa Clara Hawaiian, digs the relaxing vibe, "And you can eat sushi at the restaurant [Isuzu], too." Ryan, whose parents are Hawaiian, calls Hukilau "a little bit of home in San Francisco," while Renee, who's not Hawaiian, likes the punch.
"By the end of the night, you'll know everyone here," promises Genji.
"I'm Henry," says Henry, as if on cue.
"You see what I'm talking about?" Genji says.
Of course, Hukilau isn't the only place to get your drink on in Japantown, where the bars tend to be ethnicity-specific but still mixed, with a definite Asian flair. Upstairs from Hukilau, you'll find the elegant, Japanese Romeo 5 Asian Art Cafe & Bar. Amid banks of video monitors, pale wood floors, and sleek furniture, you can peruse the work of local artists and sample a vast selection of sakes and Japanese-style cocktails.
Or, if you're Phil, you might choose a good old-fashioned scotch.
"Japanese people drink a lot of scotch," Phil says (not that he can be counted among them -- he's Vietnamese). Phil says he's a regular. "A big-time regular," adds Sachiko, the incredibly fine bartender who, according to Phil, has been teaching him Japanese. "She taught me how to say "please' and "thank you' and "chu shite,' which means, "Can I have a kiss?'" Phil says.
Whether he's learned any other phrases ("Do you mind if I sleep on the right side of the bed?") will remain a mystery, because 1) that's Phil and Sachiko's business and 2) the night is young, and we're off to the Miyako Mall's ultraswank Kabuki Karaoke Club. Here, a largely Chinese crowd belts out swooning, romantic-sounding tunes amid spinning disco lights and cushy booths with leopard-print pillows.
"You going sing some song?" asks the bartender. Unfortunately not -- time is flying, and we still need to visit Sonic Thai Karaoke across the street, where the décor is high-tech, the crowd Bangkok-dense, and the trance music deafening. It barely registers when a young Laotian hipster says, "This is my first time here," then disappears into the crowd.
Downstairs at Rookie, you'll find a quieter aura, plus some of the coziest barstools in the entire Bay Area. The delectable, Chee-to-shaped shrimp chips alone are worth going for. Beyond that, Rookie is a good place to meet Koreans, such as Suh. "The other one [Sonic] was full," she explains, as her friends sip strawberry lemonade-flavored soju (a Korean liquor). Still, she could have done worse: Rookie offers one obvious end-of-the-night bonus. "I like that they have this kind of big thing," she says, referring to the gigantic, futonlike couch she's sprawled on. "It's very comfortable, you know?"