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10 Small Music Venues in San Francisco That Are Good to Go

San Francisco Travel Insider Guides
by Kim Schultz Sep 15, 2012

I’VE SEEN MANY ACTS at The Independent, Great American Music Hall, and The Mezzanine, each with unforgettable moments, times that solidify exactly why I love living in SF. It’s the small venues that bring me experiences like being three feet away from Snoop Dogg and his blinged out microphone — big venues just can’t compete. Here’s to the little guys!

The Independent

This small club — smack in the middle of Divisadero strip — holds 500, and its stage is set so you get an unspoiled view from anywhere in the room. I’ve seen “the Indy” packed to the brim with everyone dancing (and sweating) to thumping big bass. It’s the type of place where you can find yourself in front of Beck, Green Day, MGMT, or Big Boi one day, and discovering unknown indie / electronic acts the next. Where you can be just a foot away from Mos Def and his cute bow tie, singing “Ms. Fat Booty” on his ’50s-style microphone.

This is the only venue where I’d rather be on the dance floor than up in VIP.

The Mezzanine

Not that long ago, the area around Sixth Street wasn’t the kind of place I’d usually want to go all dressed up on a Saturday night. More recently, it’s become the “place to be.”

The Mezzanine

The Mezzanine

The Mezzanine is a large warehouse filled with lounge couches on the second level and an epic dance floor on the first. It screams sexy, upscale, and trendy.

But what really creates uniqueness here, is the large film screen and video installations used during live performances. Favorites seen here: Simian Mobile Disco, Chromatics, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Glass Candy.

Café Du Nord

Café Du Nord is an underground, cozy, intimate club that holds at most 200 people. On entering, you immediately head downstairs into a basement-like area that feels like your own personal secret space.

Grab a seat at the 40-foot hand-carved mahogany bar. Enjoy the dim lighting and chat up the person next to you; you never know who you might meet here. The stage area is filled with little coffeeshop tables where you can enjoy a cappuccino or a glass of wine and be serenaded by the likes of Jackie Greene from just a few steps away.

Bottom of the Hill

While there isn’t much nightlife popping off in Potrero Hill, Bottom of the Hill is definitely a destination spot and every SF music-loving local knows about it. (It’s one of our faves!) Although the max capacity here is 250, the venue has a more open and spacious layout than Du Nord. It may appear a little rough around the edges, but the vibe is friendly and laid back. The walls are filled with random trinkets collected over the years

Bottom of the Hill feels like hanging out at your best friend’s house, just with 200 other strangers. I’ve made many new friends on the outside smoking patio, arguing over which EP is better of whatever indie band we’re about to see live. Favorites that have visited here: Poliça, Cold War Kids.

Rickshaw Stop

Grab your black-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, and plaid shirt. From the outside, this place might not appear to be anything special, but the Rickshaw Stop is a favorite among locals. Head up to the mezzanine level for a great view of the stage, or get there early to snag a spot on the comfy couches upstairs.

The space feels very intimate (and it’s pretty dang small) without being claustrophobic. I think I witnessed one of the best dance parties ever when Sleigh Bells played here a few years back. Make a friend, get sweaty and dance. Added bonus: skeeball and foosball upstairs!

The Saloon
The Saloon

The Saloon

This place is the dive bar of your dreams. Don’t be alarmed if some of the patrons look like they’ve been here since the bar was established…in 1861. They probably have. This is part of the charm.

Well, that and the free live music every night. Located in the heart of North Beach, it doesn’t get much better than this: cheap drinks ($3 shitty vodka and PBR on tap), free music, and some of the friendliest people in town.

Bimbo’s 365

I’m embarrassed to admit that after living in SF for nearly seven years, my first visit to this iconic venue was just a few weeks back. But when one of my favorite artists, Beck, announced a last-minute pop-up show at this tiny venue, I called an industry friend immediately to help me get tickets. I was completely enamored the moment I walked in. The bartenders still wear white coats; the bar is lined in old wood and gold, with chandeliers hanging above the dance floor. There’s tiered cocktail seating, large semicircular booths, and checkered floors.

Throw Beck into the mix and it’s just another amazing Thursday night in SF thanks to small venues that play big acts. Not sold yet? Rumor has it that, occasionally, you can catch a live mermaid swimming in the fish tank behind the main bar.

The New Parish

As the young-people exodus continues from SF to Oakland for cheaper rent and more space and parking, they’re bringing with them a host of delicious restaurants, cool bars, and great music. The New Parish is definitely one of the main attractions. The balcony area upstairs allows guests who don’t want to be down in the mix a comfortable spot to watch bands with a birds-eye view.

Other perks include plenty of ventilation, an outdoor smoking area, and being close to BART. I’ve seen mostly hip-hop artists here, but the New Parish books shows from folk to comedy to reggae. Favorites seen here: Mobb Deep, Too Short, Phonte, The Dream, Father John Misty.

Great American Music Hall

Don’t freak out if you see crackheads, homeless people, and strippers right outside the door — you’re in the right place. Head through the doors of GAMH and your world is transformed into one of SF’s grandest environments, complete with ornate balconies and Victorian design elements.

Great American Music Hall

Great American Music Hall

Built in 1907, right after SF’s most famous earthquake, this venue has some major history. Every time I visit GAMH, I imagine the flappers, gamblers, and swanky city dwellers that once frequented this spot back in the day. While the 5,000-square-foot concert hall holds 600, the venue still hosts dinner and show nights.

Hemlock Tavern

Simplicity is key at the Hemlock and I wouldn’t ask for anything too fancy here — the bar is intended for rock n’ roll, beer, whiskey, and tattoos. Walk straight through and head to the back door where you’ll find the tiny performance space which houses mostly rock, punk, and metal.

Once a local, indie hangout, it seems like word might have gotten out because now it’s packed on the regular. I’d recommend visiting on a weeknight — otherwise be prepared for a line. Ask for Pete the bartender. He’ll hook you up.

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