[Best of the Santa Clara Valley 1997]

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Best of Downtown San Jose

Backlash
By Goth: "Backlash" nights draw a full black-clad house at the Cactus Club.

Best Signs of (Night) Life
Not to rain on the party of the folks who used to make themselves feel good by labeling San Jose as a suburban Top 40 cultural backwater, but things are germinating somewhat differently in these parts these days. In fact, the newer generation of punks, goths, mods, swingers and fetishists of all varieties seem to be flocking here, away from the rarefied, attitude-laden atmosphere of EssEff. After a decade of downtown club growth, San Jose's SoFA has a club night for most every subculture. Two of the most successful are Backlash and Swing-a-Ling. The former--going strong for nearly two years--draws a black-clad gothic and industrial crowd. The latter started as a Tuesday night experiment with swing dancing and became so popular that the club owners moved it to Saturdays. Neither demi-monde revolves around best-selling bands or artists frequently shown on MTV. Yet both boast packed houses, great word-of-mouth and no signs of slowing down.
Backlash, Thursdays at the Cactus Club 417 S. First St., San Jose (408/491-9300)
Swing-a-Ling, Saturdays at the Usual 400 S. First St., San Jose (408/535-0330)

Best Semi-Private Picture Show
Renting a video and watching it on a 15-inch TV set at home really isn't the best of entertainment experiences. Movies were made for the big screen and THX sound, but not everyone enjoys being crammed into a mega-plex with a million squealing teenagers. That's why the UA Pavilion Theaters are a treat. These state-of-the-art screening rooms are hardly ever full, even on a weekend night. The chairs are tall and comfy, the aisles are generously wide, and the management has thoughtfully installed snack bars and restrooms on each of the three floors. Never a line for popcorn or the ladies' room, and always a clear sightline (except possibly for the wildly popular midnight movies). Low turnout probably isn't good for the Redevelopment Agency-subsidized UA's business, but it's fabulous for anyone tired of huge crowds clapping in time with the theater's promo reel.
201 S. Second St., San Jose (408/277-0114)

Best Imitation of George of the Jungle
Many fashion statements are ephemeral--popular one minute, gauche the next. But rabbit-fur shorts, shaggy boots and glitter headbands never go out of style . . . at least when they're worn by the SoFA district's legendary Caveman. No fashion slave to Vogue and Details, the Caveman gets back to Jurassic basics in a risqué furry loincloth, updated with a wash of sparkles. The Caveman struts his stuff on the dance floors of downtown clubs and sometimes can be seen in the stands at Shoreline Amphitheater. According to legend, this paleolith has mastered the art of the no-pressure proposition. With a style all his own and a reputation as "mostly harmless," this wild guy has certainly made his mark in the urban jungle.
South First Area nightclubs, San Jose

Best Head Trip
Imagine a gently crumbling Italian courtyard perched on a precipice by the sea. The castle walls sag from the weight of years, and moss trails down the cracked stones. Worn patches in the marble plaza reveal aged bricks, and somewhere in the background, water flows softly over rocks jutting out of a hillside, and birds call across a cerulean sky. Is this some kind of romance-novel fantasy vacation? No, it's a hair salon in the middle of the downtown entertainment district. What's more amazing is that this restful villa used to be a narrow, boxy, cramped little shop selling pointy shoes and raver gear. Donovan's Hair Studio is an illusionist's dream of trompe l'oeil murals and faux finishes. Leaning back into the sink for a wash is the closest you'll get in downtown San Jose to reclining into a waterfall.
380 S. First St., San Jose (408/294-3080)

Best Romantic Accouterments
Whether it's the first time or the millionth, whether it's Mr./Ms. Right or Mr./Ms. Right Now, romance can always be enhanced with some attention to atmosphere. Two Virgins Gourmet Foods & Wine knows how to get people in the mood for, well, just about anything that involves sweet nothings. This lovely little boutique carries a discreet selection of fine wines, a case full of decadent chilled chocolates and many petite kits for homemade savory snacks. Most importantly, it features tables upon tables full of elegant candles, candelabras and other gorgeous knickknacks to scatter tastefully about a bedroom.
37 S. First St., San Jose (408/280-1955)

Andrew Cathcart
King of Tart: Andrew Cathcart of Agenda pours a transcendent Lemon Drop.

Best Lemon Drop
To say that Andrew Cathcart makes a good lemon drop is to say that Michelangelo tagged the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Under the most luxurious circumstances (read: when it's slow), the Agenda Lounge bartender starts by chilling the glass with ice water. When it's sufficiently frosty, he carefully coats the inside of the vessel with sugar. Then, with his back to an eager audience, he squeezes the lemons one by one, purging their essence into the shaker with massive forearms. To this nectar, he adds a generous squirt of vodka and shakes and pours. The result is a drink so treacherously smooth, it should be served to no one without a responsible escort for the evening.
Agenda Lounge, 399 S. First St. (408/287-4087)

Best 10-Minute Vacation
Tahoe too far away? Yosemite packed with tourists? Unbeknownst to many, a quiet natural reserve is tucked deep into downtown's back pocket. The formerly polluted and poorly developed Guadalupe River flows north past the Children's Discovery Museum and the San Jose Arena on its way to the bay. The Guadalupe River Walk, a wide path alongside the river, has many spots for contemplation. A few joggers are the only distraction from the gentle sound of running water and the occasional cries of birds such as kingfishers, ducks, egrets or a rare osprey drawn to the salmon who swim the Guadalupe Expressway. It's a peaceful respite from the workaday world and the perfect place for an alfresco lunch on a sunny day--especially at the wide terrace opening directly onto the river at the corner of San Carlos Street and Park Avenue.
Guadalupe River Park, San Jose

Best Local Equivalent of Ellis Island
Okay, there is no Great Hall or Statue of Liberty. But the teeming masses do congregate outside the INS center, better known as Robert F. Peckham Federal Building, seeking legal permission to stay in the land of the free. Today, engineers and college students outnumber peasants carrying odd bundles on their backs, but like generations of immigrants before them, these seekers must overcome extreme obstacles and hardships--the INS paperwork and voicemail system, for example--to get this far. A patriot might look at the long line and feel proud that so many still believe in the old-fashioned American Dream of building a life out of nothing but hard work. A cynic might see opportunists looking for a piece of American handout pie. The fact is, many in attendance on a given day have waited since before dawn or slept overnight to stake out a spot in line. They endure hot sun or pouring rain to wend their way through a bureaucracy in pursuit of legal guarantees they can live and work in America. A torch-bearing Lady Liberty? No, but there is that Robert Graham statue--two girls, with no clothes on--testament to the fact that the pursuit of freedom can sometimes cost you the shirt right off your back.
280 S. First St., San Jose

Best Feature on the Urban Horizon
Many economists believe that it is the Silicon Valley-based information-technology boom--even more than Bill Clinton's industry-friendly policies--that is driving Wall Street's numbers into the ethereal realm and contributing to the world's wealth in unprecedented ways. While that may be debatable, it is absolutely certain that high tech is making good things happen locally--even if there are some troubling details that warrant close attention. This year's symbol for the tech boom? The derrick above the Technology Museum. From the first radio broadcast to the hottest new Internet software development, the Santa Clara Valley has been the capital of the Information Age. And although an overzealous city picked up the tab for what should have been an industry-funded project, at least we'll soon have a place to properly celebrate Silicon Valley's place in history.
Park Avenue and Market Street, San Jose

Best High-Tech Equivalent
of a Whistle on a Plow
The Ruff Street Traffic Court building is one of the gloomiest places in the world, let alone the valley. Inside its one-story stucco walls is a long, slow-moving, endless line: poor people with tickets they couldn't pay for that have gone to warrant, fresh-off-the-boat immigrants who are utterly confused over what they did wrong and why they're there, and young guys who got caught with a beer can in their car and are going to be paying for it for years. Naturally, a financially troubled crowd like this needs to keep an up-to-the-minute watch on their stock portfolios. During one visit, the Silent Radio electronic message board hanging over the counter was indeed giving the latest figures from Dow Jones.
Santa Clara County Municipal Traffic Court Facility 935 Ruff Dr., San Jose (408/299-2233)

Best Indie Pop Shop
Set lists on the wall, wacky window displays, rows of seven-inch singles on the shelves, Radio Free Records is pop nrrrd heaven. Alison and Ethan run this shop in the Dohrmann building, pushing any product banished from radio play--a store where K., Teen Beat, Siltbreeze, Kill Rock Stars, Matador and Ninjatune are priorities. It's also a beehive of indie activity, where iconoclastic shoppers and musicians congregate and banter with the loquacious Alison.
325 S. First St., San Jose (408/998-0512)


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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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