Beyond the ‘Stro is a new Queerty/GayCites series exploring popular San Francisco districts outside the Castro where LGBT folks mingle with our non-gay counterparts. This week’s column looks at Polk Gulch and its neighboring Nob Hill.
Most people might assume that the Castro has always been San Francisco’s main gayborhood, but that wasn’t always the case. Before the 1970s, San Francisco’s gay community hung out on in the Polk Gulch district, and to this day Polk Street is home to the oldest operating gay bar in the city.
Fittingly enough, spending time in Polk Gulch is the closest you’ll get to going back in time. Despite the fact that the neighborhood is quickly transforming, the LGBTQ businesses here retain an old-school, no-frills vibe. The bars are dive-y in the best sense of the word, meaning the drinks are cheap and strong. The Gangway, the oldest gay bar in San Francisco, opens at 8 in the morning. So by noon, the fish inside its fish tank are not the only ones who’ve had too much to drink.
Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is a disco den with drag shows of the highest caliber. Here, you can spend plenty of fun nights that you’re bound to forget especially because using your smartphone and taking photos is frowned upon. The Cinch Saloon looks like your grandpa’s living room, where men and women of all ages congregate by the bar, around the pool table, or out in the patio in the back which is typically open before 10 p.m. And it’s not just gay men who have a soft spot for Polk Gulch. Diva’s Nightclub is the preeminent trans hangout in the city, with live shows and karaoke.
It’s not only the night owls that will find Polk Gulch alluring. The area and the nearby Nob Hill neighborhood have their fair share of restaurants that will satisfy even the die-hard foodies. The lesbian-owned Brenda’s French Soul Food is a must-try. They don’t take reservations, but you shouldn’t have to wait too long if you get there towards the latter half of brunch. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to order from the brunch and the dinner menu.
Then there’s Farm:Table, a quintessential California restaurant that updates the menu daily via Twitter, which has its headquarters right down the street and employees swarm the area’s eateries. Even though the menu is constantly different, Farm:Table’s commitment to serving only the freshest ingredients never changes. If it’s warm out, have an alfresco meal on 620 Jones’ stunning rooftop patio.
For an intimate, candlelit dinner, check out Chambers Eat + Drink, the swanky restaurant inside the iconic Phoenix Hotel, which was founded in the 1980s by noted openly gay San Francisco hotelier, Chip Conley. The poolside ’50s motel is now the ultimate rock ‘n roll hangout where David Bowie, Johnny Depp and Kurt Cobain have all stayed. Just think of it as San Francisco’s version of the ACE Hotel, except it’s authentic. The Phoenix was actually once described by Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as “the most sexually, intellectually, and culturally stimulating hotel in San Francisco.”