Sweetwater Music Hall
The second iteration of this beloved Mill Valley club in Marin County opened only in 2011 and features fine dining, patio eating and a 300-seat nightclub in an old Mason’s lodge. The original Sweetwater was a friendly, 80-seat closet that served as the Marin music community’s living room for 30 years, where Jerry Garcia and Elvis Costello jammed once with James Burton, the fabled guitarist for Elvis Presley. The new, improved edition regularly attracts impromptu performances by neighbours such as Bob Weir, Sammy Hagar or Bonnie Raitt, effectively retaining the informal, homey atmosphere of the predecessor, booking a mixture of local musicians and touring acts.
• 19 Corte Madera Avenue, Mill Valley, + 1 415 388 1700,sweetwatermusichall.com. Check website for schedule
Photograph: C Flanigan/WireImageThe hallowed days of the 60s, when giants walked the tiny stage –Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix – were long gone when the upstairs dance hall (where promoter Bill Graham established the San Francisco rock scene) reopened in 1985 with velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers, but the ghosts still haunt the room. The walls of an upstairs bar are covered with framed posters from those historic shows and the hall has flourished many nights a week, presenting top acts – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did a memorable run of more than 20 shows in 1999 and big stars regularly underplay the market so they can work the Fillmore.
• 1805 Geary Street, +1 415 346 3000, thefillmore.com. Check website for schedule
Bimbo’s 365 Club
The Cribs performing at Bimbo’s 365. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty ImagesA grand relic from the golden age of nightclubs, Bimbo’s 365 Club was opened on its present site in 1951 by the former operator of the city’s top speakeasy during prohibition, Bimbo Giuntoli, and his family have maintained the venue in gleaming, pristine condition ever since. All the supper-club acts of the 50s and 60s worked the room – from Louis Prima to Glen Campbell. Bimbo’s grandson Michael Cerchiai now books a steady stream of bands at the gilded 750-seat club with its parquet dancefloor and men’s room attendant, once home to The Girl in the Fishbowl, which was re-created for The Chris Isaak Show.
• 1025 Columbus Avenue, + 1 415 474 0365, bimbos365club.com. Check website for schedule
The Kooks at Slim’s. Photograph: Caro Ramirez/ABACA USA/Empics EntertainmentOwned by a partnership formed by rock star Boz Scaggs, who kept a studio for many years in the alley behind the club, Slim’s started out life as a rhythm-and-blues roadhouse, but quickly adopted a broader musical palette that ranges from punk rock to indie rock, from blues to hip-hop, booked by savvy veteran Dawn Holliday, who also produces the massive annual free music festival Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate park every October. The 600-seat club features a broad array of touring musical acts five or six nights a week – including The Damned and The Afghan Whigs – and is the keystone club on a nightlife strip on Eleventh Street, where club-goers throng the sidewalk on weekend nights and dine at a street-food park on the corner.
• 333 Eleventh Street, +1 415 255 0333, slimspresents.com. Check website for schedule
Great American Music Hall
The Black Lips performing at Great American Music Hall. Photograph: Victoria Smith/Retna Ltd./CorbisBuilt the year after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 demolished the neighbourhood, this baroque gilded hall was once a fancy restaurant and a bordello, as well as home to famed fan dancer Sally Rand in the 1930s. Converted to the Great American Music Hall in 1972, the club concentrated on jazz for the first decade – Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Carmen MacRae, Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter – before expanding into wider genres. Van Morrison frequently played the elegant 450-seat room with the marble pillars and wrap-around balcony when he lived in the area during the 70s and 80s. Taken over in 2002 by the partnership that also manages Slim’s, the Music Hall offers a steady diet of high-calibre names in rock, folk and pop music in an elegant setting – David Crosby, Richard Thompson and Suzanne Vega to name but a few.
• 850 O’Farrell Street, +1 415 885 0750, slimspresents.com. Check website for schedule
Flavor Flav and Chuck D of Public Enemy performing at Yoshi’s. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty ImagesOnce only a small room off to the side of an Oakland sushi restaurant, Yoshi’s now operates two primetime nightclubs in major urban redevelopments – Oakland’s Jack London Square and San Francisco’s Fillmore Street, once a jazz corridor, recently brought back to life with a second Yoshi’s as the anchor tenant. The 350-seat Jack London Square venue opened in 1997. Both locations continue to serve fine Japanese food in dining rooms adjacent to the club, but the showrooms are magnificent and, since the 2007 opening of the larger San Francisco club, the programming has opened up to include all kinds of soul, rock, R&B and hip-hop, in addition to top-flight jazz and Latin performers. Dave Masom, TV’s Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, who has a supper club act, and 80s pop star Taylor Dayne are some of the eclectic performers. Oakland has featured Stanley Clarke, Jack Jones, Cassandra Wilson and Allen Toussaint.
• Jack London Square, 510 Embarcadero West, +1 510 238 9200,yoshis.com/oakland. Fillmore Street, 1330 Fillmore Street, +1 415 655 5600, yoshis.com/sanfrancisco. Check website for schedules
Photograph: Henrik KamSF Jazz impresario Randall Kline opened this $64m centre for jazz performance in January 2013, after more than 30 years of presenting his gypsy jazz festival at various locales around the city. Designed by architect Mark Cavagnero, the three-storey building with the syncopated exterior and glass-sided ground floor was an instant landmark. The main showroom with the supersonic Meyer Sound system is a modern, high-tech marvel and the building also includes a cafe and smaller lounge for more intimate performances. The musical menu is not strictly jazz, featuring forays into acoustic pop and experimental music, poetry and soul singers. Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks recently performed a tribute to jazzman Fats Waller here, probably one of the greatest jazz concert halls in the world.
• 201 Franklin Street, +1 415 920 5299, sfjazz.org. Check website for schedule
Freight & Salvage
Ramblin’ Jack Elliot at Freight & Salvage. Photograph: Hali McgrathA couple of acoustic music-minded billionaires helped fund the $13m remodel that turned this old auto shop on Berkeley’s culture gulch off Shattuck Avenue (across the street from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre) into one of the finest folk-music emporiums in the country. In a spacious room that seats 400 and is panelled with distressed wood pulled from the original building, the biggest names in acoustic music work the room – including Greg Brown, Kathy Mattea and Jim Kweskin – having risen through the ranks playing one or two of the club’s previous, more humble, locations, which have been running since 1968. The new building includes upstairs rooms for music lessons and conferences, making The Freight an authentic culture centre.
• 2020 Addison Street, Berkeley, + 1 510 644 2020, thefreight.org. Check website for schedule
Sam Flax perfoming at The Chapel. Photograph: Beth LaBerge/flickrThis hive buzzes in the centre of the Mission District’s throbbing nightlife scene, an immediate focal point of hipster happenings since its 2012 opening. The showroom is a former chapel with a peak-roof and large balcony in the rear, in a sprawling complex that once housed a funeral home. Techies throng the Chapel Bar, show or no – large, sliding wooden doors reveal the showroom from the bar when the show is on. The Vestry Restaurant feeds the audiences. Indie rock bands from San Francisco and across the country crowd the schedule.
• 777 Valencia Street, + 1 415 551 5157, thechapelsf.com. Chapel Bar open 7pm-2am nightly
Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church
• 1286 Fillmore Street, +1 415 673 7144, coltranechurch.org. Services every Sunday midday-2.30pm
Joel Selvin is a San Francisco-based music critic and author