BAR CRAWLER: Dashing through choice karaoke dens
BAR CRAWLER Until last week, I'd never set foot in a karaoke lounge. It wasn't exactly on purpose; it was just something — like using dryer sheets and eating those little lathed carrots prepackaged with swimming pools of ranch dressing — that never occurred to me.
This is not a story where, by the end, I uncover a newfound talent and become an instant rock star. Turns out, karaoke is hard — and commands a hardcore following of seriously legit singers. But after one whirlwind karaoke tour of the city, I found that it can be tons of fun for the rest of us too.
A friend enlisted for guidance and moral support assured me the first stop on our Friday night list would be mellow. So mellow, in fact, that when we entered from the still-light evening, about six people were watching a surprisingly spot-on rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miz. Next, a potbellied beer-in-hander stepped up for some Led Zeppelin. The patrons were singles and couples, none of the giggly groups of girls I expected. The lights, however, were just what I expected: over-the-top and outdated all at once. The tables were sticky and the drinks were predictably terrible (but cheap). The overall experience seemed like a cozily trashy movie-scene karaoke pastiche.
1150 California, SF. (415) 775-0442. www.encorekaraokesf.com 
Though this be-spangled Mid-Market spot reprised Encore's small, watery drinks, there was nothing cozy about it. The Mint is on the tip of everyone's karaoke tongue, so it was packed almost beyond maneuverability with fratty types and hipsters galore, who were too busy huddling in little beanie-topped clusters to pay attention to the stage: no fun for veteran singers of big booming anthems, but potentially good for first-timers.
I hadn't yet worked up the courage to sing, but my friend joked that if nothing else, I could do "Bicycle Built for Two." Well, no shit: 40,000 songs to pick from, and someone with mismatched thigh-highs and a fuzzy panda hat beat me to it. Galvanized, I submitted a slip for "American Pie," which I figured might arouse the passion — or, at least, compassion — of even the most blasé in attendance. When I wasn't called in 30 minutes, I took it as a signal to duck out with my dignity intact.
1942 Market, SF. (415) 626-4726. www.themint.net 
Next, we headed to Japantown for a more authentic experience. Festa fit that bill, according to our one companion with bona fide Tokyo chops. It's a surprise to walk into Festa — with its twinkling LED stars, cityscape wall motif, and lustrous dark décor — from the deserted second floor of Japantown's mall-like Japan Center. With five bartenders for an intimate 30 seats, Festa definitely has an upscale vibe. Most of the women wore heels and cocktail dresses, and the cocktails were likewise elevated, both in price and quality. It took a Bellini, lychee martini, and sake-tini to precondition my vocal chords.
The song list was extensive but lacked my planned-on Don McLean classic — which seemed out-of-place anyway amid such a demure crowd. Billy Joel's "Entertainer" popped into my head because it's light and mercifully fast. With hardly a wait, I was twanging, left leg trembling, a good half-octave below where my voice stops sounding like a woman's and starts sounding like the Marlboro Man's. I got a rush of mercy applause and swept my friends out the door.
1825A Post, SF. (415) 567-5866. www.festalounge.com 
More than a week passed, and I was ready to go it alone. For a low-key bar with a neighborhood vibe, 500 Club is perfect. Karaoke Sundays start when the afternoon light is still streaming through large windows and a Tecate on the crowded benches feels just right. Audience participation — including some friendly heckling — is big here, and the singers heckle right back. Be warned: the front row, which is nearly every seat in the joint, is something akin to Sea World's splash zone. You may be personally serenaded, implored to sing backup, or even humped a bit — all in good fun.
500 Guerrero, SF. (415) 861-2500. www.500clubsf.com 
Pandora begs a reference to the overstuffed box, and it's appropriate: this bar has it all — in a good way. Bins brim with cymbals, tambourines, silly hats, and other props. Candy Land and Jenga top a stack of board games. Flat-screen TVs flash the night's basketball scores. A disco ball sprinkles light over sleek silver couches, low coffee tables, and a posh lit-up bar.