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You've Come a Long Way ... Maybe

Coconut Grove
Ersatz Tropic: The recently refurbished Coconut Grove houses more fake palm trees than an Elvis movie.

A blow-by-blow tour of San Francisco's supper clubs

By Larry Smith and Christine Triano

One dined so well in San Francisco in those days. Such heaping platefuls of fresh shrimps. ... Such abalone chowder, such savory and melting sand dabs, salads so crisp, vegetables in such profusion, and pies so deep and flaky. Such dago red, fruity, sharp and warming! And all for 35 cents!

--Early 1900s writer Mary Austin on Coppas, a Bohemian sort of supper club

We smoked cigars, donned our late-night best and ordered our cocktails stirred with top-shelf liquor. We made our way through appetizers poised atop pomegranate coulis, discerned the faint hint of fennel in our roasted beet salad and inquired whether the polenta was made with milk or butter, or both. By the time it was over, we emerged pan-seared and over-roasted, smoked up and roped off--and definitely on the rocks. But make no mistake, there are sites to be seen and experiences to be had in the realm of those things called supper clubs.

Just what makes a supper club earn its title? The criteria are nebulous at best; think some combination of live music and fine dining and you'll be close enough.

Back in their heyday, supper clubs were elegant, exciting night spots. Imagine the grand dames of cocktail chatter--Bette Davis wrapped in mink stole, Dorothy Parker steeped in irony--and warm and smoky rooms full of ambiance and the sounds of a 15-piece orchestra. Be it 1927 or 1957, the phrase "supper club" conjures up images of an idealized past, one where a guy would take his date for dinner and dancing, and then live happily ever after. Roll credits.

"The '30s idea of a supper club was a place where you could go for the evening-- have dinner, go dancing-- just check your coat at the door and you're out for the night," explains Julie Ring, owner of Julie Ring's Heart & Soul and without doubt the First Lady of San Francisco supper clubs, having been in the business since 1984 with Ring's, followed by Julie's Supper Club and Miss Pearl's Jam House.

Welcome to 1997, where the reality does not quite match such notions of the supper club of yesteryear. Today, supper clubs fill an array of niches, from fine dining destination to singles stomping ground to tourist trap. "Now everyone is getting into the supper club thing," Ring adds. "It's trendy now, which is fine, but it does make me kind of mad when people just add it to their names without it meaning anything."

Why does such a range of establishments choose to describe themselves as supper clubs when they in fact have little in common? "It's just a buzzword to make people feel like they are part of something hip," says a friend, Elona. "But it really doesn't mean anything--it's like 'soccer mom.' "

Maybe true. But something distinguishes the clubs we visited, in that they all strive to be more than just a club or restaurant. They seek to satisfy all night-out needs in one way or another. Some fail miserably. Others, fortunately, can and do succeed at this ambitious mission.

There were the places we loved, places we had bad dreams about and places we chose to drop from our list for various reasons.

But most of the supper clubs found in San Francisco fall into the sensible center. You're apt to get a good meal, hear some decent-to-often-quite-good tunes, spend a little more money than you'd like to, but certainly feel like you are, once and for all, steppin' out. Inside these sometimes comfy, sometimes grumpy zones, young people can pretend they are old, old people can pretend they are young, and no one will shoosh that toxic smoke pouring from your painted lips.

The following are the results of our intensive, highly unscientific tour. Our chart is designed to give you a snapshot of each supper club. We set the tone with The Scene--ambiance, decor, crowd. The Style tells you what people are wearing, which, of course, is high on everyone's list. Eats & Drinks--well, you can probably figure this one out. The Sounds gives you an idea of not only what music you might hear, but what type of conversation you might overhear. The Icing--hey, we do try to find the good, or at least the ironic, in all things. And, finally, don't leave home without The Tip, a bit of advice hard-earned in the smoky trenches of San Francisco's supper clubs.

Our two-week tour left us tired, full and lusting for a good New York­style pizza and a six-pack. But you? Let's just say the city needs you, baby. So brush off that little black dress. You've some supper clubbing to do.

Bakers' Dozen
Click on each supper club listed below for the unadulterated dish on a specific spot.


Coconut Grove

Cypress Club



Julie Ring's Heart & Soul

Julie's Supper Club



Sol y Luna


330 Ritch

Up & Down Club

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From the March 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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