Sometimes you just want to get into trouble: drink too much, dance too crazy, see the sun rise on a workday, do some ill-advised flirting, steal a kiss (or more) in a bar bathroom, follow a shot of Patrón with a cocaine back. It isn't too hard to get into trouble in this city, where the only rule seems to be that there are no rules (except that last call's at two, sigh). But sometimes you need a little push and a little unpredictability to explore the outer reaches of your comfort zone. A few weeks here and you already know a hundred places to get your drink on: swanky places, divey places, places with good music or music so bad it feels good. It's hard to remain anonymous, however, when you're sipping Fat Tire and smoking spliffs on the same outdoor patio you visit every Friday, or ordering Maker's on the rocks from the bartender who's best friends with your last lover. And when it comes to enjoying a bit of mischief, anonymity is key. You need the unknown. A puzzle unsolved. A night stretching out before you whose story has yet to be written the most important element being that its setting has yet to be, well, set. Which is where I come in.
Just call me Nancy Drink, Cocktail Detective. My mission? To scour the city for bars of mystery: those places you've passed but never entered, places whose very names are enigmas, and places so random, so hidden, so far away or just plain weird that you've never heard of them at all. The places where no one would think to look for you.
This story starts with the enigma that is the Western Addition ... oh sorry, NoPa. Which is it? The "scary" neighborhood of yore? Or the latest example of gentrification? Judging by Club Waziema, a charming Ethiopian restaurant and bar that's a favorite of locals and virtually unknown to everyone else, the answer is both. There's something decidedly laid-back, eclectic, and a little low-key that is, a little Western Addition about the place, with its red and white velvet wallpaper, low lighting in front, and a back room with a pool table that feels more like a hostel rec room than a hipster bar. But the family-run business is keeping up with the neighborhood's growth, and hints of NoPa are creeping in: for example, the menu of microbrews listed alongside Ethiopian imports (skip the malty stout if you're not a fan of Old English 40-ouncers; try the harrar instead). Still, this place isn't exactly on the scenester radar yet and it's better for it. You're really here for the fantastic eat-with-your-hands food and the spot's off-the-beaten-path, what-happens-at-Club-Waziema-stays-at-Club-Waziema feel.
543 Divisadero, SF. (415) 346-6641, www.clubwaziema.com
FORBIDDEN ISLAND TIKI LOUNGE
With a name like Forbidden Island, I figured this must be just the joint to get into delightful, delicious trouble. I wasn't wrong. Sprouting from an otherwise quiet street was a beacon of bamboo and booze, with a thatched ceiling and a menu of fruity rum drinks organized by strength. Enough Banana Mamacows or Macadamia Nut Chi Chis and there's no telling what one might do maybe even something as daring as smoking on the back patio past 9 p.m., when a neighborhood noise ordinance necessitates its closure. Nahhh ... this place is still a bit too tame, a bit too Disney-does-Hawaii, for such bold moves. But a young'un celebrating a 21st birthday with a drink in a bowl could certainly do some damage.
1304 Lincoln, Alameda. (510) 749-0332, www.forbiddenislandalameda.com
BOW BOW COCKTAIL LOUNGE
What a strange, strange place. Where Forbidden Island's kitsch is calculated, Bow Bow's is completely organic. The tiny Chinatown joint has the size, shape, and ambience of a lunch counter white walls, neon, and all.