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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Which Mission Bar Has the Best Jukebox? We Go on the Hunt for Good Tunes

Posted By on Tue, Feb 8, 2011 at 8:12 AM

Spotted at the Phone Booth: A real, old-fashioned jukebox.
  • Spotted at the Phone Booth: A real, old-fashioned jukebox.

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 divide among Mission dwellers is strong. There are the older families that have lived in the area for generations, then the hip twenty- and thirty-somethings who moved in more recently.

The latter half are the ones who can often be found crawling from bar to bar, dance party to live show. And in the haunts of this colorful crowd comes a variety of music choices -- though not one quite as diverse as one might assume. There are definitely standards on all the old music boxes of Mission bars, but each has its own musical twist. Let's explore this large and mythic San Francisco neighborhood:

1. Delirium is a dive bar that also seems to divide people -- either you love it, or you think it's the most hipster-swarmed joint in the neighborhood. I've heard both views from many people, and am still on the fence. Whatever your take on the crowd and décor (attractive, dirty) the jukebox is definitely in tune (ha) with the bar. It's hip, real hip: Black Lips, Turbonegro, the Bronx. Along with the newer noisy rock bands, there are also a few standby forever-hip records -- Faith No More, Bauhaus -- along with some regrettable, no longer cool CDs -- The Hives, Hot Hot Heat. There's definitely enough interesting music to keep a drinker entertained for part of the night, but not enough variety of sounds to make it your last stop.

Juke rating: Three drinks.

2. Doc's Clock, however, ups the ante. Its jukebox has similarly cool-kid albums from Jay Reatard, Wavves, and King Khan & Barbecue Show, but there also are some fun old-timer tunes from the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, along with the slightly unexpected: the Ska'd for Life compilation, Dead Milkmen, and local favorites Two Gallants.

The atmosphere at Doc's Clock is similarly eclectic. There is tabletop shuffleboard and pinball machines, plus the drinks are strong and decently priced. You can sip a $5 bloody mary or $1 PBR during happy hour while enjoying jukeboxed music by the Ventures, Modern Lovers, Pinback, or Rocket from the Crypt.

Thanks to the good tunes and comforting atmosphere, it's a place you wouldn't mind parking for the night. Plus there's bowls of party snacks, so you won't be wanting for food.

Juke rating: 5 drinks.

3. Upon entering the Phone Booth, an unassuming dive on Van Ness at 25th, "Teenage Kicks" by the Undertones suddenly kicked on. "This is a very good sign," said my bar-hopping companion. Agreed. And that was just the start. It's another good sign when the jukebox is constantly in use, lurched over patrons with one arm on the box, eyes squinting as they choose new tracks. This was the case for the entire duration of my visit the Phonebooth -- a constant stream of coins dropped into that little slot.

The juke's variety was excellent, and the mix included old favorites and brand new artists -- meaning they obviously attend to their juke with care. Offerings include Pulp and Broken Bells, the Slits and Nikki Minaj, X and X-Ray Spex, Dolly Parton and Peaches. If that partial list doesn't whet your whistle, keep in mind they also have some TLC for good measure.

The jukebox at Phone Booth is pretty much always in use, which means you can be assured a good stay.

Juke rating: 5 drinks.

4. Kilowatt has a jukebox, and there are some quality options, but overall the choices are mostly middle of the road. There's some good classic rock, classic punk, and classic metal, along with a few newer choices (Mastadon and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings).

The bar itself is enjoyable: laid-back, cheap, and amiable. But the jukebox, by neighborhood comparison, just isn't all it could be. It lacks a spark, a flavor, something to distinguish itself from other nearby offerings. There is an album or two that I'd enjoy staying for -- Metallica's Kill 'Em All being one of them -- but not enough to keep me drinking.

Juke rating: 2 drinks. 

5. During our stay at Pop's Bar, we heard at least three tracks from the soundtrack to the seminal 1980 film Valley Girl. That record is full of seriously good new wave -- Sparks, Modern English, Josie Cotton -- and made for a great listening party.

The bar is dark and inviting, with dogs at your feet, a photobooth, and a pool table for maximum entertainment. There's an alternative underbelly feel, which is perfectly played out on the jukebox with punk records like the Germs and Minor Threat, and even ska-punk local favorites Operation Ivy. Speaking of ska, there also was an English Beat record.

On the more mainstream, hard-rocking tip, Pop's offers Motorhead, Motley Crue, and Joan Jett. But besides the perhaps expected, there's also the refreshingly unexpected: Little Richard, the Repo Man soundtrack. Which means you should stay at Pop's as long as possible, if only to discover the next unanticipated song to come on the jukebox.

Juke rating: 5 drinks. 

That rounds out the Mission'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 infamous Castro 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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