A short stroll from our Painted Lady, past the modern metal pagoda, teak shutters and noodle restaurants of Japantown, we hit Fillmore Street, the backbone of the Fillmore Jazz District. The neighborhood, formerly an ethnic ghetto through the late 1800s, became a business center after the 1906 earthquake destroyed Downtown San Francisco and shops had to relocate. In the early 1900s, Japanese immigrants moved into town seeking work and achieving new-found success in the United States. When President Roosevelt relocated Japanese Americans to internment camps in 1942, the vacant homes and storefronts attracted a new wave of migrants: African American workers moving to the Bay Area to work in the shipyards, and they brought with them their art, music and unique culture. And The City’s jazz district was born.
The district is home to the historic Fillmore Auditorium, which has played host to the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Cream, Pink Floyd, and a slew of other world-famous musicians and featured in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as the center of the 1960s counterculture scene in San Francisco. The main thoroughfare also features a series of jazz and R&B clubs, boutique shops and grungy bars, each with libations to compliment the varied decor. It is in this neighborhood, along this stretch of live music venues tucked into fading brick facades and across from The Fillmore, that we found Rasselas Jazz Club.
This small, tightly-packed club features live music seven nights a week, a varied bill that includes classic and modern jazz, blues and Latin and such musicians as Tracy Chapman, Kim Nalley and Pete Escovedo. The event calendar on their website hasn’t been updated since September, but you can find more relevant information on their recently updated Facebook page. But whatever night you decide to go, you are guaranteed to see a musical performance that only adds to the sultry ambiance and the smooth taste of your favorite cocktail. The interior is dark: dark wood, dark brick, dark lights, dark dresses, each table colored with a small candle that flickers and reflects on the lounge’s brick walls. They have a full bar and a small but interesting wine list; you can also bring your own bottle for a $15 corkage fee. But try the syrupy-sweet Tej, an Ethiopian honey wine.
When we arrived, the place was packed with an elegant looking crowd, and the din was light and happy. The hostess took one look at our party of six with no reservation, smiled, and did some prompt rearranging to fit us in toward the back. The tables are close together and filled to the brim, making the experience that much more intimate. Service is relaxed, so if you’re in a hurry, try elsewhere. This is a place where people sit and linger, enjoying the music and the atmosphere, and appreciate the undisturbed experience. The restaurant features Ethiopian food, and while they do have a bar/appetizer menu with plates such as sliders and pita chips, the real gems are the traditional dishes. We ordered two vegetarian combos, the kitfo (a spicy steak tartare), the doro wat (chicken simmered in a berbere sauce of chili pepper, garlic, ginger, basil and cardamom) and a drunken chicken (grilled in tequila, ginger, garlic and lemon juice over turmeric rice), each for around $15 (this is San Francisco, after all!). The traditional dishes all come with injera, a soft, spongy flatbread that is slightly on the bland side but is fun to eat. Sauces are thick and can be as spicy or mild as you prefer, and it was great to be in a place where “spicy” actually meant it. My husband and I opted to eat our entire meal with our hands, scooping up chunks of meat and the various vegetable stews with the injera that lined the plates (we never miss the chance to eschew flatware!). The steak was juicy and flavorful with a rich, heavy flavor, and the chicken was so tender it nearly fell apart on the plate, and the proportions were ample enough to fill even the hungriest of our crowd. Copious amounts of food make it almost impossible to have room left for dessert, but Rasselas does feature baklava and tiramisu, if you need something to top off the meal.
Many people stop into this small jazz club for the bar scene and the live music, but with relatively reasonable prices for flavorful, spicy Ethiopian dishes, the menu is definitely worth a look. But perhaps most significantly, Rasselas is the perfect place to don your 30s-style cocktail dress and silk fedora, sidle up to the bar, order a slick-sounding martini and pretend to be celebrating life in the Golden Age of Jazz.