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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On the Hunt for the Best Jukebox in S.F.'s Richmond District

Posted By on Tue, Apr 5, 2011 at 8:13 AM

The jukebox at the Bitter End.
  • The jukebox at the Bitter End.
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.

Thanks partly to the diversity of its residents, the Richmond District has a lot of great bars and restaurants. The neighborhood is a confluence of Russian bakeries, Chinese markets, and Irish pubs, and the songs available on the few scattered classic jukeboxes reflect this diverse blend.

1. O'Keeffe's Bar is an Irish bar that offers plenty of Irish music in its back-wall jukebox. The sweet Irish owner/bartender will serve you pear cider over ice as the Pogues come cranking out of the box. There are also CD comps like St. Patrick's Day Compilation and Kiss Me, I'm Irish. Stuffed in between those are sleeves of albums by the Wolfe Tones and a few festive Celtic records.

But it isn't all Irish music. The jukebox plays equal opportunity with good-for-the-bar 1990s bands like British duo Everything But the Girl, grunge rockers Alice in Chains and, happily, L.A. alterna-rockers Mazzy Star.

In keeping with the theme, the bar itself is decorated by vintage Irish sports and political paraphernalia. It's a pleasantly casual atmosphere, away from the comparatively busier Geary and Clement strips in the neighborhood. The authentic song choices, and the added comfort of rock classics mixed with unexpected hits, make O'Keeffe's a bar worth staying at.

Juke rating: 4 drinks

2. Another Irish bar in the area with a decidedly livelier vibe, the Plough & the Stars has an equally authentic jukebox and interesting beer selection, but that's where the similarities split. The bar is triple the size of O'Keeffe's, with long communal tables in rows like a beer garden and a stage for live Irish acts.

The jukebox has a lot of Van Morrison (as pointed out by numerous Yelp users) and some more unusual Irish acts -- soloist Eoin O'riabhaigh, Paul Brady -- along with the usual suspects (U2). Its jukebox also has a lot of dad rock: Steve Earle, Dire Straits, Elvis Costello, which, while good, takes away from the vibe of the spot.

While the jukebox at the Plough & the Stars has an interesting selection, it's really more of a live band bar, so don't go expecting to hear many of your song choices -- there are fun Irish folk bands there most nights of the week. If you're looking for quality time with a mind-expanding jukebox, you won't find it here.

Juke rating: 2 drinks

3. Occasionally on these juke hunts I come across a box that is so middle of the road, so predictable, it's difficult to judge the quality. There is nothing offensive about the jukebox in the expansive Geary bar the Bitter End. It has everything you might expect from a standard machine: plenty of Rolling Stones, Madonna's Immaculate Collection (does every jukebox on earth have this album?), AC/DC, T-Rex, ZZ Top, and Bob Dylan. There are also a few gems like Madness, Sam Cooke, and House of Pain.

But because the bar itself is similarly conventional -- sweatshirted college kids and hardened drinkers, elbow to elbow -- and food expands beyond typical bar fare, it's a spot worthy of your precious dollars. Throw $5 in the jukebox and relive every happy bar memory you've had through a musical timeline of your drinking life: the high school hip-hop, college rock, and post-college psychedelic haze. Just don't expect any fireworks.

Juke rating: 3 drinks

That rounds out the Richmond'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 Bernal Heights 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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