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Thursday, January 27, 2011

On the Hunt for the Best Jukebox in the Haight

Posted By on Thu, Jan 27, 2011 at 10:30 AM

click to enlarge The juke at Aub Zam Zam
  • The juke at Aub Zam Zam
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 Haight might be the best place to start a serious jukebox search. With its strong ties to the musical past, the rich history of impromptu park concerts, and easy Amoeba Music scores (plus hippies and crust punks!) it has more classic jukeboxes than most neighborhoods in San Francisco. Here are some highlights from the Upper and Lower Haight.

1. On a brisk Wednesday evening at retro Upper Haight bar Aub Zam Zam, Frank Sinatra came crooning through the classic jukebox. It could have been a whole lot worse. In the many options on any given jukebox, Sinatra ranks pretty high; he's not the Offspring or some other crappy '90s throwaway.

One thing Aub Zam Zam has going for it: the juke absolutely fits the tone of the location it sits within. A dark and moody spot, with a rounded plush red vinyl bar and whiskey bottles stacked high, the Zam Zam has a decidedly nostalgic vibe. And its jukebox fluidly continues this theme with a mix of classic 1930s jazz, blues, and swing peppered with '60-era pop. The pages flip to albums by Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Otis Rush, and assorted girl groups. But while the album choices are good, Aub Zam Zam lacks much variety outside of retro classics -- it'll be tough keep a listener hanging on all night.

Juke rating: Two drinks.

2. Just up the road on Haight Street, mere steps from the seedier entrance to Golden Gate Park, sits Murio's Trophy Room, another joint with a juke fitted to its style. The no-fuss bar offers lean, straight-forward punk records by the Cramps, MC5, the Clash, and GBH. There is also a healthy offering of second- and third-wave ska records.

Murio's juke is highly regarded by the Yelp set; its merits are listed in nearly every review. Comments range from the mild and oft-repeated "kickass jukebox" to the definitive, "the jukebox is my hero."

The casual cool of a stringed lights-strung room filled with ample and fun song choices means Murio's can be a destination spot for a hazy evening, not just a stepping stone.

Juke rating: Five drinks.

3. The nearby Gold Cane Lounge also has a juke that can stop hard drinkers in their tracks. The crowd is often a bit older and a bit more grizzled, as is the machine. But Gold Cane makes the list because it boasts a golden combination: good music and diverse options. Any jukebox that offers Wanda Jackson and Smog, the Kinks and the Melvins, Prince and Fugazi, deserves to be listed.

Juke rating: Three drinks.

4. Down Haight Street, feeling a world away in body and spirit, there's the ultimate jukebox at Molotov's. Punks flock to the cement-floored spot, at least partially because of its jukebox's excellent '80s-through-present day hardcore selection. But Molotov's doesn't just supply the standard (but still enjoyable) punk classics: your Sex Pistols, Clash and Dead Kennedys. It goes further, into Battalion of Saints and Void territory, where jukeboxes often fear to tread. And mixed in with the hard-edged punk, there's old school rap albums from NWA and Public Enemy. You'd be hard pressed to find a better CD jukebox in the neighborhood.

Molotov's too has earned a following of Yelpers singing its jukebox praises. Eric Y. says "Perhaps the best jukebox in town." Agreed.

Juke rating: Five drinks. 

That rounds out the Haight'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 Mission in search of jukes, sock full of quarters in hand.


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