Storefronts lining Polk St.
Happy hour at the Hi-Lo club
Polk to Larkin; Bush to Union
Once a grimy love-it-or-leave-it neighborhood of liquor stores and massage parlors, this strip of Polk is getting more polished by the minute, even luring down the coiffed blonde blowouts of Russian Hill. Take Hi-Lo Club (1423 Polk St.), the watering hole that opened last summer and serves flannel-clad patrons classic cocktails on turf that not long ago was claimed by resident pimps (not that they’re gone).
“Lower Polk Gulch is all about old-meets-new school,” says Hi-Lo co-owner and 17-year Polk Gulch resident Lori Martens. “I love the eclectic mix—I mean, there’s still a skeezy lingerie shop across the street!” On the next block, packs of postgrads pile into Playland (1351 Polk St.), which recently replaced Kimo’s (once loved for its drag shows) with a slick dance floor where sweaty high-heeled twentysomethings grind the night away. To the right, the Grubstake diner (1525 Pine St.) still serves up greasy burgers until 4 a.m. To the left, men line up at the new Peoples Barber & Shop (1259 Polk St.) for beard trims and straight razor shaves. “The last time Polk was this lively at night was the ’70s, when it was all gay bars,” Justin Mulford, a co-owner of Hi-Lo, chimes in from behind the bar.
During daylight hours, upscale eateries tempt those on the flip side of Polk’s own high-low divide—aka California Street. The new Et Al wine bar (2255 Polk St.) features sophisticated light bites like smoked trout roe and duck cassoulet, accompanied by an esoteric wine list whose selections can cost triple digits. “I want to see someone rehydrating with rosé after a workout sitting next to someone on his way to the opera,” says owner Ceri Smith, who sees a boozy rendition of high tea spiked with vermouth in Et Al’s future.
Add to that Gioia’s wildly popular pizzas (2240 Polk St.), the soon-to-open Blue Fog Market (1552 Polk St.) and Blue Barn Gourmet (2237 Polk St.), and hangover breakfasts in sunny spaces like Toast (1601 Polk St.) and La Boulange (2300 Polk St.). Everyone is patiently awaiting the promised improved bike lanes, as well as the reopening of Lafayette Park this summer after its $10 million facelift. Until then, a slew of new boutique gyms, like California Yoga Co., Push, and BreakAway (1830 Polk St.; 2162 Polk St.; 1645 California St.), will have to do.
But the signs of mass gentrification (new Trader Joe’s on Hyde and California, high-rise condos) do have longtime locals biting their nails. Says Martens, “I just hope all this new money coming through doesn’t take away the funkiness. We like a balance here.”
Affordability: B (rent for a two-bedroom apartment, $2,500; cost of a two-bedroom, $855,000)
Walkability to amenities: A (Almost everything you could want is on Polk Street, which is mainly flat)
Public transportation: B+ (Muni lines a-plenty: 1, 10, 12, 19, 27, 47, 49; a 10-minute bus ride to BART)
Weather: B (Summer forecast: 65 degrees, mostly sunny)
Safety: C- (The rate of robberies, drug crimes, and sexual assaults increases as you venture farther south)
The bummer: Not a stage, gallery, or mike in sight
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Mission Creek: Because it's the new locavore mecca
Hayes Valley: For a livable MoMA
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Burlingame Terrace: Because maybe Pleasantville isn't lame after all
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.