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a city by city guide to the best indie clubs, bars, record shops and local bands

San Francisco, USA
By Lila Chwee

San Francisco is a city beyond compare. Having lived here for over 25 years, you definitely come to appreciate it more and more each day. It's arguably one of the best places to live on this little planet of ours, but I am biased. San Francisco became a boomtown in the 1850s with the discovery of gold and soon grew to be an important trading location and industrial capitol. Then the great earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed the city's major infrastructure, but the city did not get buried in the rubble and ash. We soon emerged with a greater spirit and determination to rebuild and bring it back to its former glory.
   In the 60s, San Francisco came into prominence again with the Summer of Love and that counter-culture backlash revealed itself in the flower children roaming the streets of Haight/Ashbury and proclaiming "free love". By the 70s a mass wave of immigrants came from all over the world, but especially from Italy, Asia, and Latin America. So it was that the neighborhoods known as North Beach, Chinatown, and The Mission became a fixture in the identity of the city. Richness in diversity of cultures, languages, traditions, and food make it a very special place.
   If you love to eat, SF is the place to visit. We have delicious cuisines from all over the world. Your tastebuds will be delighted to no end. We have an excellent public transportation system, with the MUNI and BART and though I may complain about its lateness sometimes, it does manage to get me to where I want to go, eventually. At only 7 miles across, you can traverse it from one end to the other in about 2 hours. The weather can be a bit unpredictable at times, but I always remind visitors to dress in layers, no matter what time of year you are visiting. But for the most part we have fairly moderate temps with no real extremes in hot or cold. It can get chilly at night, so always bring a cardy! The skyline is possibly one of the most recognizable ones with the brick red Golden Gate Bridge and triangular shaped Transamerica Building. It can be a very romantic city as well, especially in the evening when the infamous fog creeps in and blankets the city in a misty, dreamlike reverie with the twinkle of the night lights shimmering through.
   The people are for the most part easygoing with a liberal non-judgmental view of the world. I've talked to many Europeans who describe SF as the most European feeling city they've visited. I think it comes down to our attitudes and approach to life. We have lovely green areas, like Golden Gate Park and the Presidio and we are near beaches too. But I wouldn't advise a swim unless you have a wetsuit. It's definitely a city first and foremost though, with all the metropolitan/cosmopolitan allure of museums, concerts, theater, and shopping galore! I would be amiss here if I didn't include some of the not so pleasant aspects of SF. Like all major cities we have to deal with homelessness, poverty, crime, and inequities between the rich and poor. While it encompasses a city atmosphere, I wouldn't equate it to the hustle and bustle of a New York City. We take things a little bit slower on the West Coast and take time to enjoy our surroundings. San Francisco is a city in the best sense of the word and I don't think I could call any other place home, nor would I want to.


330 Ritch Street, Thursdays, 10pm onwards, $5 (21+)/$8
Popscene is the longest running indie club in San Francisco. It was the brainchild of Aaron Axelsen, DJ at Live 105 radio, and he blends in a healthy mix of 60s soul, girl bands, Britpop, and current indie darlings. They have under 18 nights for the young 'uns and regularly have guests DJs from touring bands. Popcene is also good about bringing bands over from the UK for their first American appearance.

155 Fell, every third Friday, 9pm-2am, $8 before 11pm, $10 after
Blow-up is an Indie-Pop-Disco-Noir nightclub, complete with cutting-edge music, record release giveaways, and all of the trappings that come along with the nightlife.

Club Loaded
155 Fell, every first Friday, 9pm-2am, $8 before 11pm, $10 after
"This is the hippest dance party ever thrown in your uncle's rec room, where rock kids and electronica kids come together in fabulously dressed debauchery." -- BPM Magazine

DNA Lounge
375 Eleventh Street, days, times and prices vary
DNA is one of the oldest dance clubs in the city and has an eclectic mix of music and "theme" nights to satisfy almost anyone.



Bimbo's 365 Club
1025 Columbus Avenue
Bimbo's is a wonderful step back into time. It once was a speakeasy in the 1940s during the height of prohibition and was known for the Bubble Girl who would sit high a top a huge champagne glass surrounded by bubbles. Sadly, those days are gone and what remains is a stylish club with a lot of noir attitude and history.

Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell Street
GAMH is probably my most favourite place in the city to see a show. The acoustics are wonderful and never muffled or echoey. The interiors are gorgeous as it used to be a brothel in the 1900s with high golden gilded ceilings and little theatre boxes flank the stage area.

333 Eleventh Street
Slim's is the kind of club that you go to because a good band is playing there and not for its aesthetics. The venue is basically a box with poles in the middle, which is an annoyance when trying to see said bands. Sometimes the sound is not so great either, but you put up with quite a bit to see your fave band.

Cafe du Nord
2170 Market Street
Cafe du Nord is a cute, little bohemian type venue. It's a longish room with the bar and pool table on one side and the stage area on the other end. The atmosphere is like a smokey poets' bar, but without the smoke or the poets:

The Fillmore
1805 Geary Boulevard
This place is a venerable old club that has seen legends like The Beatles play in its hallowed halls. The main floor space is just about right for a biggish type venue such as this and the crystal chandaliers do add a nice touch with their blue glow.

Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th Street
B.O.T.H. is a rock venue first and foremost. It's a tiny spot, holds about 100-150 at most and if there is someone you want to see there, get your tickets super quick!

Thee Parkside
1600 17th Street
Free oyster BBQs, $3 Friday night shows? Why not go? This venue hosts country, rock, metal bands, really anything you can think of. As their motto states: “the wayward home for like-minded audiophile geeks, freaks & miscreants of all types.” (CC)

12 Galaxies
2565 Mission Street
With 6,000 square feet of space, 12 Galaxies is almost as big as the universe, where you can catch Monday nights’ Bodog Battle of the Bands on the main floor or look down from above on its mezzanine on artists such as The Moore Brothers or burlesque show The Devilettes. They also have two lounges, a pool table, video games, and food to get caught up in until time and space make no sense. (CC)

Make-Out Room
3225 22nd Street
One big room for one big sound. DJs spin electronica, funk, hip hop, you name it, including “Nickel Bag of Funk” every Friday. And if you’re a band, you can send in your own MP3s on their website to book a show. Its website lists bands that have played there, including the Decemberists, Erase Errata and Loquat. (CC)


The Pig & Whistle Pub
2801 Geary Boulevard
The P & W is a great British pub that serves up decent pub grub and the drinks are affordable. The jukebox selection is awesome and trivia nights are fun!

The Edinburgh Castle
950 Geary Street, 5pm-2am
This pub is probably the most authentic British/Scottish pub you'll find in the city. They have great trivia nights as well as author readings and musical offerings from local bands. Ideal place to go especially after catching a show at the Great American Music Hall across the street.

Mad Dog in the Fog
530 Haight Street
Mad Dog is located in the lower Haight district of the city. This pub has a fine array of English beers and ales with a wee garden at the back to enjoy your beverage. Fantastic trivia nights and football (aka soccer) matches draw in the crowds.

Levende Lounge
1710 Mission Street
This place is a more upscale bar in the Mission District that serves up a fine cocktail and small plates, eg tapas style cuisine. You might want to put on your fancy dress if you decide to go.

Hemlock Tavern
1131 Polk Street
The Hemlock is just about the complete opposite to the Levende. It's the dirtier, dingier, darker sister if you will. Located in the sometimes scary Tenderloin District this bar offers a more real bar experience. It can get quite loud and crowded on a weekend night.

Red Devil Lounge
1695 Polk Street
This is just as the name implies. Inside it's decorated in a plush red velvet, but not in a cheesy Vegas sort of way. The atmosphere is quite pleasant, especially upstairs at the little tables. They have monthly art showings as well as a plethora of bands performing nightly.

Lucky 13
2140 Market Street
With one the best jukeboxes in town, Lucky 13 is covered in old local music venues posters that glow in the dark. While located just within the gay-friendly Castro district, it’s full of straights wearing lots of black who think bad luck is good luck. (CC)

199 Valencia Street
Bikers, hipsters and richies slumming it all mash up into one raucous crowd in this bar’s huge outdoor beer garden, the largest in the city. Barbeque is offered and you may get a glimpse of the famous Tamale Lady, who sells (what else?) tamales for a few bucks. They also have a sick beer collection, pitchers or pints, and killer Bloody Mary’s. Best way to blow a whole Sunday afternoon. And if you can’t leave, they have a hostel upstairs with rooms for $30/night. (CC)

3139 16th Street
DJs spinning indie rock favorites straight up or mashed live in the small backroom of this loud bar usually overrun on the weekends with hipsters coming from around the Bay Area. On the weekdays, it’s quieter with more local Missionites, when you can have at the pool table or kicking jukebox. (CC)

The 500 Club
500 Guerrero Street
The giant neon martini glass beckons you onward to this hip bar with a kick-ass jukebox of old vintage rock and new indie tracks, rockabilly bartenders, a pool table AND a sweet pinball machine. Sometimes described as place Charles Bukowski would like. (CC)

Record Shops

Amoeba Music
1855 Haight Street
Amoeba is the greatest, most amazing, fabulous, brilliant, beyond compare place to find all your musical needs or wants. If you are a music fan you MUST visit this place! I guarantee you will fall in love with it as so many others before you and will not, repeat WILL NOT leave this mammoth musical mecca without being weighed down by all your purchases.

Streetlight Records
3979 24th Street/2350 Market Street
This has two locations in the city and though I haven't been in awhile since Amoeba opened, but back in the day you could find rare vinyl and CDs. Smaller, quaint, more like your traditional indie record shop.

Recycled Records
1377 Haight Street
This place is on Haight Street and used to be one of many small indie record shops that lined the street, but those days are gone and Recycled remains the lone one these days. It carries a large selection of vinyl rock and jazz.

Mod Lang
6328 Fairmount Avenue
Last but not least is Mod Lang, the fine purveyors of the newest European indie imports to hit our shores. They used to be located in Berkeley, but have found a new home in El Cerrito, which is a quick BART ride away. Not a SF location, but kids you can not get more indie than this record shop.

Groove Merchant
687 Haight Street
Should it be fun to search through lots and lots of vinyl to find that particular track? Catering to DJs, Groove thinks so and almost always has somebody spinning in the store to prove it. (CC)

Aquarius Records
1055 Valencia Street
Around since 1970, this small record store caters to discriminating tastes i.e. those who know music and have a clue. Not a behemoth like Amoeba in the Haight, it caters to those with discriminating tastes in indie, punk, metal and electronica. Try to beat them at naming the most obscure band ever. (CC)

Local Bands


The Lovemakers
This band has the local buzz on the street at the moment. They "make electronic/rock dance music with a passionate fury. At times aggressive and mythical, other times painfully honest, their music is rich in pop hooks, melody and drama."

minipop is a band I discovered as an opening act for Ivy or was it Fountains Of Wayne, either way they were the most British sounding American band I'd heard in a long while. Now they have a female vocalist and make pretty atmospheric pop.

Love Like Fire
This is a new band, who play fun, bouncy, catchy pop tunes with a punk underbelly.


SF Weekly or The Bay Gaurdian

These are free newspaper weeklies that can be found at most coffee shops, cafes, or grocery stores. It has the latest listings in movies, shows, openings, attractions, or events in the city that week.

SF Station
This website offers a bunch of information about what is happening in the city, including concerts and art events with its events calendar. It also lists addresses and locations for music venues, clubs, restaurants, cinemas and anything else you could ever want to know. (CC)

601 Irving Street
Wishbone is the most precious little shop filled to the hilt with goodies of all sorts, from stationery to badges to tea-making accessories to cards to jewelry to bags to candy!

Flight 001
Flight 001 is the ultimate place to visit to satisfy all your indie luggage needs. They have hip retro looking clutches, bags, totes, carry alls, and luggage of every size. The fact that the interior of the store is shaped like the inside of a 747 is just a bonus and the attendants are also quite cute.

This Japanese stationery shop is located inside Japantown, a large complex on Fillmore Street devoted to all good things Japanese. If you are into Sino cuteness this place is the spot to visit. All the stickers, erasers, pencils, pens, origami, Totoro dolls, or journals/notebooks you can imagine.

Pirate Shop
826 Valencia Street
Plundering the treasures of San Francisco, you will need to go to this shop, which has glass eyes, quills and parrots for that pirate in you. All proceeds go to the 826 Valencia writing project, providing drop-in tutoring, after-school classes, workshops, storytelling events, assistance with student publications to kids under 18. (CC)

Additional reviews by Christine Cordner

If you'd like to recommend a club, bar, record shop, band or any indie delight for inclusion in the Indie Travel Guide, please email us. If we've included a link to your band/shop etc, it would be lovely if you could link back to us. Thank you!

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