San Francisco› Nightlife
Our Rating Neighborhood Chinatown/ North Beach Hours Thurs–Sun 8pm Phone 415/891-9744 Prices $85–$130. Reservations required. Web site The Speakeasy
An extraordinary night out, The Speakeasy is both a time warp and a head trip. The moment you check in at an easy-to-find location, you're in the Prohibition era, your smartphone is shut off, your bar tab is opened so you never have to handle a modern credit card, and you're handed a map to the "secret" party location around the corner. Once inside, you're dropped into August of 1923, in the middle of a multi-room event in a labyrinthine underground cabaret/casino disguised as a Chinatown laundry. The characters, speaking in the snappy patois familiar from Joan Blondell films, intermingle with the audience but never rope you into the action—you're their proverbial fly on the wall watching their interconnecting tales unspool over the night. You're free to follow the characters pretty much wherever they roam—the biggest magnets in this functional, expensive-looking complex are a bar (a good place to begin and get your bearings), a casino (you can play, but not for real money), and a vaudevillian stage show, with six-piece band, in an Art Deco showroom (the lightest on plot, where the non-singing characters may pass through to catch acts). But I suggest you make the one-way mirror into the showgirls' dressing room your nerve center, since much of the drama seems to trace back to there. The acting is strong, the variety performances on pitch, and you'll meet a changing array of archetypes on their own meaty trajectories, including the past-her-prime chanteuse who descends into a drug stupor, the callow World War I vet plagued by flashbacks, the bereaved mother on a mysterious hunt for a certain showgirl, and the two-timing club owner and his world-wise wife—among many others. Give up all hope of following all the stories to completion because the cast and crew of about 80 are following a 1,500-page script; for a fuller picture, you'd need a second visit, and after completing this transporting and, yes, delightfully disorienting three and a half hours, you'd be glad to make one.
After the show ends, the space re-opens as Club 1923, where for just $10 you can drink, fake-gamble, and catch cornball stage acts without tripping over the attendant drama. At both events, you're strongly encouraged to wear at least a hint of period attire, which may put some casual tourists at a disadvantage (Tip: You can find good period hats to approximate a '20s look nearby at Goorin Bros. at 1612 Stockton Street). No jeans, t-shirts, or casual clothing.