San Francisco: an idiosyncratic guide
"Soma" is a contraction of "South of Market" (an obvious rip of "SoHo" in New York). It refers only to stuff north of Divsion street (obviously, all of the Mission is technically south of Market Street, but it's just called "The Mission", not Soma). There's a trend among real estate scum to call part of Soma near the bay "South Beach", but let's just flush that.
Soma is an industrial neighborhood that's accumulated many discount outlets, night clubs and (increasingly expensive) loft apartments over the years, though it still retains that bleak industrial feel. Soma isn't that big an area really, but the "cool" places are scattered a bit, so you may need to do some walking through apparent wastelands to get from one to the other. So this section is more like an "allow me to point out some things on the map" session, rather than a walking tour or anything like that.
Buried in this neighborhood is that odd little oval you see on the map called "South Park" (between 2nd and 3rd, a few blocks east of Bryant). If you're there in the afternoon you might stop in at the Cafe Centro, but be forewarned that this is the middle of what's sometimes called "Media Gulch" (Wired, Macromedia, etc). It used to be that you'd be surrounded here by people shmoozing about positioning their website with extra whizzy content to suck in big money advertisers and conquer the world. Things are a little more relaxed now.
South Park itself has a set of really killer monkey-bars. They don't build stuff like this any more... little Johnny might kill himself, and little Johnny's divorced parents might sue.
Also on South Park: Pepito's, one of the contenders for best burritos in SF. (Not sure what I'd vote for myself... Azteca's on Church near Market, maybe.)
Let's consider 3rd Street: over on the west (well, really north-west, but you know what I mean) side you'll find some pretty slick things, like the new SF Museum of Modern Art, between Mission and Howard (See reference). Around the corner from the SFMOMA is the small, but not uninteresting "Cartoon Art Museum" (Reference). And across the street from SFMOMA is another exhibit space called Yerba Buena (Reference), with a small park attached (which has the SF Marriot looming over it, like an irradiated jukebox from a Japanese monster movie).
If you're in need of food in this area, you've got a few options but you'll need to look a little bit to find them:
Moving east on 3rd Street, over on Harrison near third, there's a night club "City Nights", which these days is a place people love to hate, but then it is 18 and over. Reference.
On the other end of 3rd Street, out east, you'll find Happy Donuts, an excellent example of a funky-but-not-too-sleazy 24 hour donut joint at King street. They do sandwiches, also. And further up ahead, 3rd Street will lead you to the dark-hulking mass of the Lefty O'Doule bridge. You're not allowed to climb up on this. Really.
A bit further south, on fourth street at the corner of Bryant, there's a bar by the name of The Hotel Utah. This is a small, funky place with a nice vibe to it, with some decent food on the menu, and an odd balcony squeezed into the tight performance space on the side. They haven't, to my knowledge, booked any live bands there I've wanted to hear in the last year, but maybe that's the fault of my knowledge... anyway, they do a lot of indie/alt rock. Reference.
A few doors over from The Hotel Utah is the once-and-future industrial-goth night club: the former "Trocadero" yclept "The Glas Kat", and current home to the long-running "Death Guild" (Reference) and "Bondage-a-Go-Go" (Reference) events.
San Francisco's remaining libertarian bookstore: "Laissez Faire Books" is at 938 Howard St., up on the second floor. This is one block over from Mission, a little south of 5th St. Reference.
And if you're in the need of a hiding place to retreat to, tucked away down the nearby alley by the name of Mary, where it intersects Natoma, is The Tempest -- a bike messenger/punk/metal bar.
I guess at this point I should mention that around 6th Street or so, over to the west by Mission St, there's a serious scumzoid region. This is one of the few places in the city that you really might not want to be late at night. On the other hand, the adventurous might be tempted to go dancing at Club Six at 60 6th Street, and the food at Tu Lanh's has grown on me in recent years: this is a very popular hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place (warning: not for the MSG adverse). And there seems to be a new wave of hipster bars opening on this strip...
Also, around the corner from Tu Lanh's at 1007 Market Street, you can find the Luggage Store Gallery up on the second floor. The Creative Music series on Thursday night is one of the longest running events of it's kind in the Bay Area.
Back over on Folsom near 6th Street, there's a large well-regarded dance club with a ravey reputation: "1015 Folsom" (Reference).
Just a little further south on Folsom, around Seventh St, you'll find the BrainWash, which may be the best coffeehouse/Laundromat/restaurant/performance space in the country. They've got some pinball games (alas, now only 3 ball games, but they're in better condition than they used to be), good coffee, and decent food (I regret to report that the excellent "Burger of Doom" has been dorked out into California cuisine though), and on many nights live music with no cover charge. Nifty industrial/deconstructionist architecture.
Incidentally, I notice there's a small Hostel across the street from the Brainwash called the Globe, which might be worth a look.
On Folsom at 8th Street is "Leather Etc." Big selection of fetishy stuff. A lot of it is kind of tacky, but if you can find what you're looking for here you'll probably want to buy it here... it'll be the cheapest.
Over on Eighth Street, near Folsom, there's a leather store that I've come to appreciate lately: "Mr. S Leathers" (Reference). This is a pretty gay male oriented placed but it's worth a look even if you're not a pretty gay male. As you'd expect, it's a lot heavier on the boy toys than some place like Good Vibrations, but the really impressive item here is the Black Leather Roses. It has also opened up a companion store, the woman-oriented "Madame S" (Reference.
If you go West a little, on Howard Street, between 7th and 8th Street, you'll find Stormy Leather, an excellent, very classy fetish oriented store. Reference below. Closes at 7pm.
Back over on Folsom, at 1190 Folsom (between 8th and 9th) You'll find the Cat Club. A medium size place (narrow but long, with a front and back room), which has been home to some industrial-goth events... (e.g. on the first Friday's of the month, there's "Strangelove" -- ).
East of Folsom, at 9th and Harrison, you'll find The Stud, the gay bar that this particular non-gay person is most likely to hang out at. Reference Good pinball machines. And Michael can dance.
Stompers Boots, at 323 10th Street not far east of Folsom Street: Small store with a large collection of men's boots both fetish and practical (if there's a difference). Reference.
And still further south in Soma you get to the 11th street strip, between Folsom and Harrison: the traditional night club zone. The best of them is probably The DNA Lounge (corner of 11th and Harrison), under the direction of ace-geek "jwz". Reference).
Across the street is a small yellow joint called Butter which I've never been to, but has a rep for serving traditional TV dinners in the classic aluminium trays.
Now that the Paradise Lounge appears to be closing, I'm not sure what to pick as second-best club in the area. I'm not a fan of Slims, myself (huge, clean-cut, with near zero personality) though on occasion they'll surprise me and book an interesting band.
I have trouble keeping track of what's going on with the place on the south-west corner of 11th and Folsom (is it still called "V/SF"?), but that would be a possibility.
There are smaller places around like the Holy Cow (ye shall know it when you see it) on Folsom Street near 11th. No (or low?) cover dancing, so don't complain about the music.
One block south of the DNA Lounge on Harrison, at 398 11th Street is "The Eagle", a well-regarded gay biker bar.
If you need some food down there, there's a bunch of restarants around. The italianish place next door to the DNA is okay, and there's various food places over on Folsom street.
Next: The Mission