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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Which Bar Has North Beach's Best Jukebox?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 22, 2011 at 8:18 AM

The juke at Tosca
  • The juke at Tosca
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.

There's something so classic and romantic about San Francisco's own Little Italy: North Beach. Despite the sometimes-obnoxious crowd it seems to attract, the hood itself exudes a warm, old-timey charm, with vintage architecture and jukeboxes that hold swing and blues songs written and recorded before many of today's bar hoppers were born. On dreary, rain-soaked afternoons, swarms of tourists and locals still flock to its dark, wood-paneled taverns, with fragrant plumes of Italian cooking wafting through the bustling streets.

1. Any bar that has a jukebox full of musical love letters to San Francisco has a special place in our hearts. La Rocca's Corner has the classic Tony Bennett album I Left My Heart in San Francisco, along with an enjoyable mix entitled San Francisco With Fond Memories. The vintage street signs on the walls are a complementary touch.

In addition to the local recognition, the jukebox also offers blues queens Ella Fitgerald and Billie Holiday, soul singer Sam Cooke, and even punk Irish acts such as the Pogues and Dropkick Murphys. There also are common, yet satisfying choices like Motown mixes, Elvis Presley, and Willie Nelson. The bar has a few of its own homemade mixes as well, which usually implies a certain level of respect for its own jukebox.

With ample seating, no-nonsense clientele, plenty of musical options, and a friendly bartender who seemed to favor Billie Holliday tunes on our visit, La Rocca's is worth hanging around. It's a good place to wait out a storm.

Juke rating: 5 drinks

2. Vieni Vieni Lucky Spot, on the other hand, lacks the charisma of La Rocca's. Its space is cold and uninviting, with strangely suburban home-style tile flooring and not much in the decorative design department. But the bar makes up for style with a nicely organized jukebox. While the offerings aren't earth-shattering, there's an interesting selection, and one that obviously had some thought put into it. The discs seemed to be grouped, tentatively, by genre.

On the out-of-the-ordinary side of things, there's a Hawaiian page, filled with records by Don Ho, Iz, and Na Palapalai. There's also an inexplicably grouped section with Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, and the Temptations -- at least they're records worth a spin. With just a few musical options, the bar has a get in, get out atmosphere. Finish off your cocktail and move on.

Juke rating: 1 drink

3. Northstar Cafe has plenty to offer -- widescreen TVs, a pool table, boisterous crowds -- but the jukebox is nothing remarkable. There are pleasurable and predictable rock 'n' roll albums from the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, some good hip-hop records, a few homemade mixes and, as SF Weekly previously pointed out, an inordinate amount of Michael Jackson.

Yelpers seem torn on the jukebox as well. Comments include from "a jukebox that would fit a frat house, circa 1992" -- which could be a good thing, depending on your musical preference -- to "quite possibly the best jukebox in the city, if not the world" (which is more than a bit hyperbolic). Northstar's box may not have many standout picks, but given the clientele, it seems to fit the mood of the bar. For that, it's worth it to hang around and hear at least a few Jackson hits.

Juke rating: 2 drinks

click to enlarge An up-close view of the Tosca's juke.
  • An up-close view of the Tosca's juke.
4. The jukebox at Tosca is what this hunt is all about. It's a true relic, a noteworthy piece of San Francisco history. Slip in a quarter, then click a button and a slim 45 flips up to play a Sinatra tune, or perhaps Dean Martin or the Anderson Sisters. It has actual records, and plenty of them -- Glen Miller, Pasty Cline, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Luciano Pavarotti among many more. While there are a few unexpected options, on our visit the box was mostly full of opera, jazz, and classic blues -- perfect for a rainy afternoon.

With plush red booths and an imposing bar, everything feels vintage and elegant inside the Tosca, including its jukebox. One Yelper summed up Tosca perfectly: "An institution. The most beautiful bar in S.F., containing its best jukebox and a good deal of its charm as well."

The jukebox is a treasure, and really worth the trip, if only to see and hear real records in a bar environment. Choose and enjoy as many tunes as you can while there, and go somewhere else for a modern music fix.

Juke rating: 4 drinks

That rounds out the North Beach'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 Richmond, both Inner and Outer, in search of jukes, sock full of quarters in hand.

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Emily Savage @TofuandWhiskey, and like us at

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