Best Sake Sipping
48 S. First St., San Jose. There are a few sushi restaurants in the area that have some version of a sake lounge as part of their establishment, but Koji is the only dedicated sake lounge in the South Bay that is a bar first and foremost. Koji sells more than 25 different brands of sake, ranging from premium high-end stuff to more moderately priced brands. They also offer an assortment of cocktails with sake or shochu (another popular Japanese spirit) as their base, but the premium sake brands (Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo) are only sold straight, and chilled, so that their flavors can be properly enjoyed and not watered down with other ingredients. To go with the sake, the Koji menu features Asian-fusion finger foods: a Kimcheese dog (kim chee and nacho cheese served on a baguette), Nori fries (fries topped with special seasoning and seaweed) and Spam musubi (Spam, rice and seaweed). (AC)
Best Underwater Bar
301 S. Market St., San Jose. At one point, this little corner of the Marriott Hotel was known as the “fishbowl” because it was surrounded in glass. When they made it into a bar, they decided to keep the underwater theme and gave it blue overtones, bubble lighting and coral at the bar, and called it “Tanq.” The bar really does make you feel like you’re inside an aquarium. Tanq serves an eclectic variety of cocktails, but be sure to try the popular “Kiss the Fish” for $25, which is served in a fish glass big enough for two people. It is made with vodka, rum, curacao, pineapple juice and homemade sweet and sour. As far as finger foods go, the Ahi tuna poppers are an appropriate choice. (AC)
Best Place to Forget About Finals at SCU
3200 The Alameda, Santa Clara. Just across the street from the new business building at Santa Clara University, the Hut is an enduring constant for decades of students looking for a night’s relief from studying. The bronco on the sign out front pays homage to the school’s mascot. Inside, comfy booth seats can be found adjacent to the generous bar. A dance floor in usually packed with undergrads and grads several nights of the week. Off to the side, a large patio hosts the spillover from indoors.
The ceiling of the Hut is plastered with signed dollar bills and business cards. School lore says that when you make your first dollar in your first job after graduation, you can come back, sign it and pin it on the wall along with a business card. Drinks are inexpensive ($4-$7), and there are drink specials offered most weeknights. Whether you are a student or just want to feel like one again, the Hut provides a collegial respite. (LW)
Butch Escobar started producing comedy shows for purely selfish reasons. When he started hitting up open-mics eight years ago, he’d have to trek to Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento—anywhere but here. The South Bay offered the San Jose Improv and Sunnyvale’s Rooster T. Feathers—both showcase venues, not exactly conducive to still-experimenting up-and-comers like Escobar, whose blunt unaffected brand of comedy quickly distinguished him in the Bay Area stand-up scene.
“So I said, ‘Fuck that,’ and started opening up rooms … for just regular comics who were not trying to be flashy and do comedy cause it might get them laid,” says 36-year-old Escobar, whose biker-gang-bearded visage you might recognize from a Citibank commercial a few years back.
The Morgan Hill-born, San Jose-bred funnyman began putting on his own shows and open-mics at literally dozens of venues over the years. In trying to get enough of his own practice, he gave his comedic peers more chances to get onstage. That behind-the-scenes role made Escobar one of the most influential figures in South Bay comedy. More than a few local jokesters call the guy their “big brother in comedy.” What started as self-serving turned into something more altruistic and left a lasting imprint on South Bay comedy, which now enjoys a reputation as down-to-earth and welcoming compared to the cliquey alt scene in San Francisco. Escobar’s monthly show, “Unfiltered Underground,” consistently draws hundreds to the Improv at 8pm every second Wednesday of the month to watch the eclectic mix of top talent and newcomers. (JW)
Best Place to Eavesdrop on Local Politicians
88 S. Fourth St., San Jose. Every politician has his or her favorite haunt, but there’s no place in Silicon Valley that offers as many opportunities to watch electeds hold court than Flames Eatery, located just next door to San Jose’s City Hall. George Shirakawa Jr. used to frequent the joint, sometimes charging more than one tab in a single day. Of course, Shirakawa’s meals are part of the reason he’s now spending all of his days in The Joint. (JK)
Best Drag Show
Tinker’s Damn Divas
Tinker’s Damn, 46 N. Saratoga Ave., Santa Clara. Seventeen years running and with no signs of slowing down, the drag show at Tinker’s Damn never fails to be a fun, strange experience. The entertainment starts at 10:30pm and ends sometime before last call (depending on how many performers show up that night). This intimate, no-frills affair takes place in the back of Tinker’s Damn with only a white curtain for decoration. The drag queens take turns lip-synching popular songs. (I saw a very passionate rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” by a drag queen in a Wonder Woman outfit.) The audience of about 25-50 doesn’t hold back, and the mostly male crowd will take turns spontaneously dancing with the singers, and even shove some money in their shirts. Everyone just has a blast. (AC)
Best Place to Rest a Moscow Mule on a Frozen Bar
51 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos. Gardino’s reinvented itself last year when owner Pete Jillo ripped up the restaurant and started from scratch. The cuisine is solid Italian, but the real hallmark of the restaurant/lounge is its wraparound bar lined with a solid sheet of ice. In addition to providing a perfect ice rink for small-scale curling, the bar ensures that the tastiest of ginger beer beverages stays nice and cool in its brass mug. (JK)