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Pole Position: The Subjective Guide to San Francisco Strip Clubs

Photography by Aubrie Pick

You pass them every day. Local history is built on them. In honor of our licentious past, and in a sincere effort to separate the women from the girls, one writer gets $500 from 7x7—and permission from his wife—to embark on 
a highly subjective tour of local strip clubs.

I’ll level with you: I’m not much of a strip club guy. I went to one for my bachelor party, but I’m hardly a regular. That said, I dig the idea of tawdry San Francisco, blinking lights, hired flesh, and slick-talking doormen. Luckily, there’s no shortage of grit on any after-dark walk down Broadway. The strip just east of Columbus is also the last vestige of our Barbary Coast past. So I ventured forth to write this story with just one piece of intel, a fact that continues to surprise nudie-bar neophytes: San Francisco law prevents any club that serves alcohol from being fully nude. That’s right, gang. It’s heinies or Heinekens. You must choose your poison.

I’ve passed the Hustler Club on Kearny Street a hundred times, always peering down the steep, street-level stairs and chuckling over the fact that two of the four TVs visible from the curb perpetually play The People vs. Larry Flynt. But when I actually enter, it becomes clear that the movie is about as much Hustler action as I’m going to get.

Not only is the titular magazine nowhere to be found, but as a club that serves alcohol, the explicit visuals that earned the rag its raunchy reputation are in short supply. Sure, the dancers—slim, foxy, and solicitous without being overbearing—take their tops off when working the pole, but that’s it.

The Hustler Club prides itself on being one of the classier topless joints in town—“Not like that disgusting Roaring 20s,” boasts one dancer. The scene at lunch when I stop in for a turkey, apple, and brie sandwich isn’t exactly the University Club, but it’s clean, well-staffed, and patronized by a small, middle-class crowd.

I come back after work one evening for the full experience—a $100, three-song lap dance in the back room. After treating one quasi-off-duty dancer to a $2 mimosa and suffering through some inane small talk, I bolt to chat up the very sexy Kelli from London. I’m an immediate sucker for her dark skin, punky haircut, and charming accent. To the VIP room we go.

I’m dismayed to learn that for my C-note, the foxy Briton will not be taking her top off. Nonetheless, she’s an able, cheerful dancer who gamely grinds her way through three pop songs. Despite the lack of flesh, she sets the bar high.

Just down the street from Hustler, the Lusty Lady is a place unlike any other on Earth. Not only did the club unionize in the late ’90s—check out the documentary Live Nude Girls Unite for a great look at some good old-fashioned rabble rousing—but it’s now a worker-owned co-op, the only one of its kind. Unlike the city’s other strip clubs, the main event here is a peep show that you watch from behind glass in a booth the size of a broom closet—for a mere dollar per minute. True, the booth smells of disinfectant (hey, it’s better than the alternative), but the dancers cut the inherently lowbrow atmosphere with a playful dose of sex-positive feminism.

I actually like the peep show, though the Lusty Lady clientele certainly rates higher on the lurking perv meter than the fresh-faced crowd dropping hundos over at Hustler. Sporting my trench coat—it was raining earlier, I swear—I find it hard to shake the feeling that I could easily become one of them.

Be sure to dodge the wads of used Kleenex littering the floor of some booths—and for Bettie Page’s sake, lock the door behind you. Once inside, I get the fullest of monties from a variety of quite attractive ladies.

And I should emphasize the word variety. Should your tastes run toward the milquetoast strip-club beauty (slender, blonde, plastic, and cooing), the decidedly burlesque Lusty Ladies might not be for you. But if you stand at attention for healthy curves, the odd piercing, and natural knockers of every sort, you’ll find plenty to like down at the peep show.

Next up is easily the city’s most famous club: Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater at O’Farrell and Polk. The theater, started by Jim and Artie Mitchell, has been at the vanguard of erotic entertainment since 1969. From their seminal porn flick Behind the Green Door starring their dancer Marilyn Chambers to public battles with Mayor Dianne Feinstein in the ’80s to Artie’s 1991 murder (at the hands of his brother), this is ground zero for SF skin.

As I settle into a seat in the second row in front of the main stage, it’s obvious why. These dancers are by far the most enthusiastic, engaged, and preposterously hot of any I’ve seen yet. The club has an old-timey vibe with all manner of unused side stages and a Wild West brothel set along one wall. The tiny snack bar—no booze here, only Snickers—could be straight off a Little League field.

The crowd of watchers varies. One middle-aged guy appears to be listening to a Walkman; another plays the part of the grinning baller. After taking in a handful of top-drawer, fully nude dances, I’m accosted by a pair of lithe, blond beauties who inform me that we are about to play.

But negotiating with them is hardly play at all. The price for a lap dance is a moving target. And as soon as we agree on the many details—$110 for a fully nude dance of “don’t worry about it” length—they immediately start selling up. Not a minute in, they commence imploring me for private rooms and trips to the ATM. When I decline any more than we’ve arranged, the pair grow distracted. The dance ends quickly; neither is nude. I leave promptly, an unhappy victim of tandem topless gouge. A fitting end I suppose, considering the club’s hardcore reputation.

The following night around 10 p.m., tanked up on obscure bourbon from Heaven’s Dog, I have loads more fun at what I thought would be the dodgiest club on my list: Crazy Horse, a bastion of mid-Market minge nestled on skid row.

Cruising down the sloping floor of the former movie house, my buddy and I settle into a pair of theater seats alongside the main stage’s runway among a large crowd. My pal is promptly chatted up by Tracy, whose lacy black bodysuit and moody, sultry mien is more lost noir heroine than stripper. That appeal solidifies when she takes it all off to the woozy sounds of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.

Noting a rare couple seated next to us, I turn to chat them up. They’re in town for a week from Orlando and spent the previous night at the Crazy Horse too. The woman, a randy 50-something in chunky glasses who claims to play for both teams, urges me to spring for the $100 private dance. Her favorite dancer is Mya—a feisty raven-haired beauty with an enhanced bustline—but I make my play for Skye, a pretty blonde in an elaborate black thong and a salmon-colored cardigan. (“Doesn’t your wife have a sweater like that?” asks my buddy.)

Eager to help me with my research, Skye gives me the best lap dance of my tour. The full-contact, fully nude dance is flirty and fun, making what can be a truly strange experience (I’m still not totally sure why men pay for lap dances) into light, sexy play. I must confess that the cardigan—and OK, what’s beneath it—kind of does it for me.

The next night, I aim to sink my teeth into a different kind of flesh—thus my patronage of the Gold Club’s Thursday night prime rib special for just $15.95. The slab of meat is enormous, and the buttery potatoes and mixed vegetables are easy enough going down with a glass of Fat Tire. The patrons at the low-lit club are middle-agers who look like they’re in town on business.

Perhaps the club’s most memorable aspect is its host, Frankie, a first-rate gentleman who’s attentive to his customers, ably fielding questions, and even recommending Leena—a sunny brunette with fearsomely large breasts—as my best bet for a lap dance.

After a leisurely dinner, my buddy and I move up to the front row to spend the last of my expense account. Some dancers pay us nice attention as we slip singles beneath bra straps and into garters. Others are oddly uninspired, though I can’t tell why, as we’re the only guys seated at the stage and handing out money. I spend the last of my cash in tips, and we head for the door.

In retrospect, it might have been me who was uninspired that final night of the tour. After three clubs in as many nights, I’d begun to weary of the routine: the nagging feeling I wasn’t spending enough money, and the clear fact that even deep pockets would net only a relatively shallow experience.

By way of entertainment, strip clubs offer only a short erotic charge, one borne on the novelty of getting an eyeful and a fleeting touch of a strange, naked lady in front of you. But when bare flesh is de rigeur, all other attendant signifiers of desire take on added heft. You begin to wonder: What does this woman like? What sort of music is she into? How does she dress when she’s not here taking it all off? What makes her laugh? All of these questions are largely, and deliberately, left unanswered.

After five clubs in quick succession, I find myself hungry for a quiet night in. With my wife. Who wears her cardigans with cords and sneakers, which has a unique allure all its own. What’s more, I already know what she likes: Joni Mitchell, Jane Austen, and me.

For a club-by-club breakdown of prices, ambiance, and services, click here.

 

*Published in the February 2011 issue of 7x7. Subscribe to 7x7 magazine here.