The All Shook Down blog over at SF Weekly has an article today about the Best Jukebox in the Tenderloin and their ‘winner’ turns out to be the one at the Hemlock Tavern. Their two runner-ups are the Geary Club at 768 Geary, which is described as “precisely what an outsider might imagine of a typical Tenderloin bar. It’s dim, smoky, and a tad ominous” and 21 Club at the corner of Turk and Taylor, described as “the diviest of dives” respectively. They are both quintessential Tenderloin bars (although for some reason the author of the article thinks the 21 Club borders Civic Center, wtf?), unpretentious, old-fashioned and with a clientele full of rough edges and zero vintage irony. That’s why we’re not surprised that their top pick was the Hemlock Tavern, not only because it’s free but because as they put it “compliments the usual Hemlock Tavern crowd: young, hipsterish, party-inclined”.
Jonathan Hirsch of The Tenderloin Reading Series, who is a fan of the Geary Club’s jukebox (pictured here) tells us that the jukebox at Hemlock is not at all handpicked, “you can buy one of those things out of a skymall catalogue” and that the editors at SF Weekly probably love Hemlock because it’s the kind of place they would want the Tenderloin to be, not what it actually is. Jonathan adds that if the Kum Bak Club still existed he would also add their jukebox to the list of his favorites. Unfortunately, some of the better jukeboxes in the area have gone digital (Whiskey Thieves, Edinburgh Castle), so it’s hard to find any original jukes remaining.
As a side note, thanks to the article we learned that the very first jukebox ever was installed in San Francisco 121 years ago, at the Palais Royale Saloon. Of course, it became an overnight sensation and spread around the world, although back then it was called the “nickel-in-the-slot player”. It was only around the 1940s that it came to be known as the jukebox, apparently derived from the familiar usage “juke joint”, a slang reference to bawdy house, where music was not unknown. Very similar to how I just refer to my bathroom as “neighbor’s pot den” nowadays.