Some say it’s a nightlife tradition that’s gone the way of barbershop quartets and burlesque. Thanks to clubs, concerts, and karaoke, San Francisco’s piano-bar scene has been steadily diminishing over the past couple of decades, much to the dismay of lounge and jazz fans all over the City. But for those whose idea of a great night out is listening to a musician pour his heart out over a beautiful baby grand, there are still options. You just have to know where to look.
The bars and restaurants that host today’s piano acts now need to get creative to compete with the karaoke bars and keep the crowds coming back. While a handful still showcase the traditional solo pianist armed with a massive repertoire of standards, other establishments are offering sing-a-longs that welcome both amateur and professional vocalists, or novelty acts such as dueling pianos.
These venues may be few and far between. But whether you’re looking for a mellow evening of Cole Porter, or want to get up and belt out “My Way” accompanied by a seasoned pro, there is something out there for your enjoyment.
The last “real” piano bar. Some consider Martuni’s the only true piano bar left in San Francisco. Owner Skip Ziobron, who has owned this sultry, dimly lit bar since 1996, does not play piano himself, but has a knack for hiring talented musicians. Martuni’s is known for its welcoming open mic, which allows both amateur singers and pros, including those from local theater as well as Broadway, to exercise their vocal chops. On any given night, you’re about as likely to hear a seasoned diva theatrically croon “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as you are to hear a married tourist nervously serenade his bride of 25 years with “The Way You Look Tonight.” It’s a small space, so everyone in the audience, perched on high bar stools sipping martinis, gets a good view of the entertainment. And the drinks are stiff enough so that even you, yes you, might attempt a turn at the microphone. (4 Valencia Street, 415-241-0205, www.martunis.ypguides.net)
The kitschy night out. At Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub & Restaurant near Union Square, pianists compete for the audience’s attention — and tips. Their weapon of choice? Twin baby grand pianos facing one another in defiance. Throughout the night, patrons submit song requests, along with wads of cash, and two of the three pianists on hand (a third is always waiting in the wings as a back-up) turn everything from pop tunes to standards into something original, memorable and often humorous. The musicians banter back and forth between themselves and with the audience, cracking jokes and sometimes getting snarky. If you don’t like a song that’s being played, you’re encouraged to out-tip the original requester to change things up. In turn, the pianists can segue from a Billy Joel medley to a Chopin roundup with ease. The only caveat is the small space can get very crowded on weekends, so get there early to snag a coveted table. (243 O’Farrell Street, 415-954-0777, www.johnnyfoleys.com)
The class act. In a city where jeans and T-shirts are now regularly seen at the opera, it’s refreshing to be in a place where men wear suits and ladies are decked out in fancy attire. If you appreciate high-class amenities such as coat checks, handmade cocktails and tuxedoed waiters, head to Big 4 Restaurant & Lounge on Nob Hill, named after the Central Pacific Railroad’s Big Four tycoons. Here at this sophisticated venue in the Huntington Hotel, it’s all about the dark wood, soft lighting and the subdued tones of a solo pianist caressing the keys. The beloved standards he churns out are befitting of every special occasion, from first dates to golden anniversaries, people come to celebrate in this landmark location. (1075 California Street, 415-771-1140, www.big4restaurant.com)
The jazzy date spot. You might come to Sheba Piano Lounge, in the heart of the historic Fillmore jazz district, for the delicious Ethiopian food and “African nights” cocktails. Or you may come for the eclectic assortment of entertainment, from Afro-Cuban jazz trios and solo violinists to, of course, piano players like Jesse Schwartz, Sharman Duran, and Eric Wiley.
Live music is offered seven nights a week at Sheba, which was opened in 2006 by Netsanet and Israel Alemayehu. The authentic Ethiopian fare itself draws a crowd (yes, you’ll be eating with your hands), but it’s the intimate atmosphere and talented acts that keeps patrons lingering until the wee hours. After dinner, sink into a comfortable leather coach in front of a roaring fireplace, and enjoy one of the most laid-back nights in the city. (1419 Fillmore Street, 415-440-7414, www.shebapianolounge.com)