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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the Hunt for the Best Jukebox in the Castro

Posted By on Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 9:19 AM

The jukebox at the Last Call.
  • The jukebox at the Last Call.
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.

With rainbow flags flying high, the Castro is a go-to destination for tourists and locals. It's old movie houses and wine bars, Hot Cookie and Lady Gaga, street fairs and protests. The bars in this neighborhood are packed to the brim every night of the week. But while there are a few noteworthy classic jukeboxes within them, sadly, most bars have opted for the digital breed. 

1. Tucked away on an offshoot of Castro Street proper, sits unassuming and relatively diminutive watering hole, Last Call Bar. While other bars in the area are flashier, louder, perhaps even more crowded, Last Call has something on them all -- a jukebox jam-packed with female pop. Sure, the box has male-fronted acts as well (A Flock of Seagulls was playing when I walked in), but its lady contributions are plentiful. In the mood for old soul? Push the button for Nina Simone. Rather dance to modern pop? Choose from a healthy smattering of Madonna, Gaga, or Pink. There also are musical offerings from the likes of Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn. 

The bar's excellent vodka gimlet pairs nicely with those albums sounds, too. A little bit of vintage elegance, smooth dark wood surfaces, cocktails in an actual martini glass, and music spanning decades, genres. I could've basked in the glow of strong female voices all night -- if it wasn't for those pesky techno remixes patrons kept choosing.

Juke rating: 4 drinks

2. The jukebox at Lucky 13 is likely as punk as they come. Not only does it include albums of the kind (Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains), but the personality of the box is equally as punk in essence: much of it is comprised of scrappy, homemade mixed CDs. Some of the mixes come with helpful titles (Songs in the Key of Pussy) and many feature that familiar hardcore sound -- Buzzcocks, Cocksparrer, even oi music like Sham 69. The regretfully titled mix "Poontastic" actually features some great tracks by Wanda Jackson, the Muffs, and Blondie. Among the actual albums, there are at least two Johnny Cash records, par for the course in punk and rockabilly establishments.

After thoughtfully scanning the offering, a drinking companion remarked, "This is the Motorhead of jukeboxes." He had a point -- it was mean, lean, and right to the point.

One Yelp review also put it quite nicely, "In the age of touchscreen download whatever crap you like multi-media machines, Lucky's jukebox is still rocks carefully, hand-selected punk, metal, country and hip-hop that goes down smooth like a PBR tall-boy (which they serve)."

The bar definitely has its highlights too. The drinks are stiff, there's a photobooth and pinball machine, foosball and sometimes, salty popcorn. And the albums in the jukebox are often rotating, changed out for fresh mixes, which makes it a bar to return to. My only minor squabble: perhaps a bit too much of the rougher stuff.

Juke rating: 4 drinks

The juke at Sparky's
  • The juke at Sparky's
3. The biggest surprise in the neighborhood -- Sparky's 24 Hour Diner, the debatably popular late-night greasy spoon, has an old jukebox. Between rushing to order a beer before 2 a.m. and scanning the giant menu for the best possible food option, patrons can head over to the juke in the back room to choose from a pedestrian mix of jams. That's not to say its music isn't enjoyable; it has Marc Bolan, James Brown, and the B52s -- everything you'd need to keep the mood celebratory, just nothing to keep you after the meal.

Juke rating: 1 drink, and a plate of French fries

That rounds out the Castro'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 everyone's favorite, the Tenderloin, 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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Emily Savage


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