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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

#2074 - 21 Club, San Francisco - 2/27/2013

In the center of the 21 Club -- some say at ground zero of the Tenderloin -- stands Frank. On the wall to the left, there is a very complimentary Central City Extra article about Frank, and when he catches you looking at it, he is quick to point out that he did not put that up there. The article talks about how Frank has not only owned and run the quintessential dive bar for 40 years, but how his place has served as a sort of unofficial community center for the neighborhood. Later in the evening I'll see something like this first hand, as an elderly woman named Donna engages Frank in a somber conversation behind the bar, and he eventually moves to the cash register, and returns stashing two bills into her hands. "You game me some breathing room," Donna says to him, as she makes her way to the door.

When I came back a few days later, April is working the bar. She tells me that the article got several things wrong -- that Frank's been here 30 years, not 40.  Another article I find says that it was once a transgender bar named Rossi's. April tells me she drank at 21 Club for eight years before she worked as bartender. She and multiple others tell me how much rougher it is now with other neighborhood joints closed, and this corner of Turk and Taylor so dominated by drug dealers that even the street people are scared to come in. There have been shootings and murders just outside the front door.

Three blocks up the street, where there is now just a parking lot, from 1950 until 1963 the Blackhawk Nightclub stayed open late hosting the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillispie, and Dave Brubeck. Count Basie squeezed 16 players onto the small stage on night. Later in the 60s, a few steps north on Hyde, Wally Heider Studios churned out recordings by Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Credence Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. At that time Turk Street was lit up by the blinking blade signs of the nightclubs and sex shops.

I'm staying at boutique hotel just a block away. A block the other direction there is a touristy BART stop and a Nordstrom across the street. But there's not much left on this block of Turk except for the drug dealers and a well-fortified convenience store. Yet the 21 Club remains a great little bar -- "the diviest bar in the Tenderloin," Esquire called it, while naming it one of the top 100 bars in the country. The cast of characters, inside the bar and outside it's large windows, make it a can't miss bar stop. But it is Frank who really makes the place, the regulars tell you -- and enough hipsters stray in from the shows at the Warfield to fill Yelp with reviews echoing that sentiment. "Frank is the soul of the Tenderloin," says a local theater owner in the article on the wall. "And the 21 Club is a window on the world."


98 Turk St, San Francisco, CA 94102 - (415) 771-9655
Est. 1971
Previous bars in this location: Rossi's
Web site: facebook
Reviews: central city extra - soapboxdespot - yelp - sfbarexperiment - KALWfoundsf

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