Show tunes and strong drinks at martuni’s, one of san francisco’s last piano bars – san francisco chronicle cane sugar vs refined sugar

You start with a martini ($9) or, if it’s your first drink of the night, you spring for the proprietary martuni ($10), the only difference being the brand of gin (seagram’s or burnett’s) or vodka (nikolai or three olives). Of all the possible martini follow-up questions, your waiter will ask only: “lemon twist or olive?” olive, you say — actually, make that extra dirty.

Martuni’s is a piano bar — a genre in decline, just short of an anachronism. Once ubiquitous in san francisco, the piano bar in its heyday was largely a variant of the gay bar. In the ’70s and ’80s there was the white swallow on polk street (now cabin bar & lounge), the galleon (its space in the castro soon to re-open under the horsefeather team) and sutter’s mill (a nomad of the financial district, relocated five times in three decades). Like many gay bars of their era, they’re gone now.


Your extra-dirty martuni arrives. For a drink that’s supposed to be doused in olive juice, it barely tastes briny.Extra-dirty martuni still, you have ordered more wisely than your friends, who are now confronted with goblet-size helpings of the creamsicle martini ($10), which tastes like tropicana with a hearty dose of torani vanilla syrup, and the sugar-rimmed peach fuzz ($10), eerily evocative of haribo peaches gummy candy.

You find yourself ordering a second round — a lemon drop ($10), a cosmopolitan ($10). One friend goes big with a platinum martini, at $13.50 the priciest drink on the menu, made with martuni’s top shelf: either russian standard platinum vodka or bombay sapphire gin.

Are you going to sing? Your friends boomerang the question back: are you going to sing? Eavesdropping, your waiter motions toward the gold-plated piano. “I’ll take you up there if you’re shy,” he offers. Half the fun of martuni’s is debating whether you’re going to work up the courage to go up to the piano.

But suddenly it’s 10:30 p.M., and there’s a line of singers forming next to the accompanist, and it looks like you may have missed your chance.Your waiter it’s no longer amateur hour. The back corner is now colonized by san francisco conservatory of music students. A man in a red satin shirt who looks to be in his 80s captivates the room with a lively rendition: “ you’re just too good to be true … can’t take my eyes off of you …”

The standards of the karaoke bar — “don’t stop believin’” or “ice ice baby,” which you’re welcome to croon down the street at the mint — are not the standards of the piano bar. And the performers of the karaoke bar have nothing on these people here tonight. Bereft of teleprompters, the martuni’s singers have either brought their own sheet music or are singing from memory. They riff, in real-time exchanges, with their crowned accompanist. (until 1993, the mint was a piano bar, too.)

Not all of tonight’s singers are great. There’s the guy who has now gotten up to sing three times. Doesn’t he have a friend who can cut him off? Even some of the talented singers can get a little bit carried away, too much vibrato, “american idol”-style.Your waiter

Then again, with drinks this strong, martuni’s patrons can’t be held fully accountable for their actions. And still there are moments of rapture. When, around 11:30 p.M., one of the conservatory students takes the microphone, her classmates shush the tables around them, and the bar’s din softens. “at last,” by etta james. The singer launches its opening phrase with rocket power. Conversations cease. Your friend, by now two creamsicles deep, begins to weep. You feel profound relief that you never got up to sing. And you flag down the waiter for another extra-dirty martuni.