Startup culture and surges of absurdly lucrative tech money have sunk their bland bougie tentacles into California's most historically eccentric, experimental, and sexually inclusive city. Still, old school pockets of strangeness have managed to hold ground and new bastions of cheap, DIY leanings keep cropping up in neighborhoods from SoMa to the Dogpatch to the Mission. Chances are if you're visiting SF and aren't flush with tech-bro cash you'll probably be looking for that more plebe-y experience, filled with drifts between freakish antique enclaves, full-blown dives, and fog-strewn beaches. This is your guide to that.
Kick things off with a foray into the dusty freak show that is the Musée Mécanique. Laffing Sal, a 30s-era red-haired, freckled nightmare of Chuckie-level creepiness, will greet you with a maniacal laugh at the entrance. She's one of over 300 19th- and 20th-century curiosities in the collection. Owner and collector Dan Zelinsky, who services the building on roller skates, operates many of the comparatively modern machines by hand, like the Hammer, a "test your strength" carnival classic. Everything is coin-operated and nothing costs much more than 50 cents, a rarity in this Silicon city. Don't miss the tramp art miniature carnival with a Ferris wheel fashioned entirely out of wooden toothpicks by former movie set designer Jack Harrington during a fourteen-year sentence at San Quentin, just north of the city.
BIZARRO ARCADE GAMES AT FISHERMAN'S WHARF
Alternatively: Vinyl binge in Bernal Heights, first at Thrillhouse Records—the volunteer-run shop offers an extensive collection of punk records and doubles as an indie label—and then at Bird & Beckett, known for its small but well-curated selection of classics.
Everyone has their favorite taco place in the Mission, but don't listen to them (unless they agree with us). The best taco spot is El Metate—the name a reference to the grinding stone used to make tortillas in traditional Mexican cooking—located in a bracingly bright yellow building, and, so, is hard to miss. Its owner, Francisco Hernandez, grew up in his grandmother's restaurant in Guanajuato, Mexico. When he moved to the US in 1965, he took her recipes with him, including her rendition of chicken mole—arguably the most authentic in the city, as are his fresh, fried fish tacos.
OBLIGATORY BUT NECESSARY TACO STOP IN THE MISSION
More to do nearby: Hit up 500 Club, a dive within a twenty-minute walk, a local's hangout for generations in part because of its prime placement beside Clare's Deli, which delivers directly to barstools. If it's a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, you could also get a ride to Nob Hill for a trippy dip into Audium, which specializes in "sound sculpture"—a.k.a., a pitch-black listening party that verges on full-blown sensory deprivation.
Vesuvio Café, a relic of the beat phenomenon and a prime example of the neighborhood's telltale Renaissance Revival architecture, has changed very little to accommodate the local influx of tech bros. Absinthe is still the drink of choice. Community activists still converge within to plot their next rallies. And panels of stained glass throughout filter sunlight as though to cloak the whole cavernous space in a quasi-drunken state. Yes, Vesuvio has taken on something like museum status, one of many stops along a Jack Kerouac tour of the city, but in its prevailing dankness, it hasn't lost the poetic edge that drew Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Bob Dylan to it in the first place. On that note, cut across the street to City Lights Bookstore before midnight to peruse the shelves appropriately tipsy.
DRINKS IN NORTH BEACH
Opened in 1973, the EndUp is San Francisco's oldest after-hours bar and the city's inimitable queer club. The music leans underground under the auspices of locally famous house and techno DJs. The cover gets steeper the later you roll through, but at this time of night it's where virtually everyone converges, despite or because of the emphasis on Gatorade as a mixer at the bar, for rehydration purposes of the excessively inebriated.
DANCING TILL DAWN IN SOMA
More to do nearby: 1015 Folsom, a sprawling, multilevel, multifaceted club, plays mainstream dance music and hip-hop till 3. If a 3 AM last call is too early, house DJs spin at Public Works, a gallery-by-day, until 5 AM.
Take turns napping in a car on the half-hour trip out to Sea Cliff. If you're feeling a little wobbly from the night, take your time picking through the rocks along this steep climb to the Lands End Labyrinth, a circular maze perched on the edge of a cliff. The space is considered so sacred by San Franciscans that a local doula has taken it upon herself to rebuild it every time it gets destroyed by vandals, an act she regards as religious. It gets chilly out here on the tip of the Bay, so zip up your jacket while watching the morning roll in.
COMEDOWN AT THE LANDS END LABYRINTH
The regulars at Clooney's Pub are diehard. Owner Dan Clooney used to open his doors at 8 AM, until he noticed a slew of barflies waiting outside one morning. When it kept happening, he started opening at 6 and now the regulars start calling, frantic, if the doors aren't open at 6:01. Some come for the Irish breakfast, some come for the Irish coffee (often, minus the coffee). Shots and pints pour freely and there's a decidedly Cheers vibe to the early-morning crowd. This is that spot all nightcrawler San Franciscans find themselves in at least once at sun-up, if not more frequently than they'd care to admit.