Cheering on San Francisco

Next stop, kitschville
A cable car passes the Fairmont Hotel, home of the Tonga Room. What’s a holiday without Styrofoam lava rocks?
(Ken Newman Photography)
Special to The Times

Until I moved to San Francisco, I thought holiday travel destinations came in three flavors: the London of Carolers-in-Victorian-Costumes-Bring-Us-Some-Figgy-Pudding, the New York of Miracle-on-34th-Street-and-Rockettes-in-Reindeer-Antlers and the tropical paradise of Anyplace-I-Can-Drink-Cocktails-and-Avoid-the-More-Dysfunctional-Members-of-My-Family.

Even after relocating to this coast, I continued to make the annual holiday trek to the wilds of northern New Jersey, filling the airplane’s overhead compartment with an assortment of gifts I had evidently chosen for their heaviness and breakability. Not until I finally gave up my transcontinental holiday journey to the East Coast — my heavy, breakable carry-ons having expanded to include a small child — did I discover that, although it’s untraditional, San Francisco is filled with yuletide pleasures.

In fact, it’s San Francisco’s very untraditional-ness that makes it such a refreshing place to spend the holidays.

That’s not to suggest that my adopted city ignores the holiday in favor of some nondenominational, diversity-inspired celebration of winter solstice (although, if that’s what you’re in the mood for, you’ll have no trouble finding several). The city’s ballet companies put on the full quota of “Nutcrackers,” of course. But in this town, at least one of them will rent you a tutu and let you dance along. And sure, San Francisco has plenty of carolers. But rather than raising their voices in praise of the wassail cup, ours are more likely to be singing something called “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas.”

And if all this unconventional merriment isn’t enough incentive, consider your pocketbook. The fact that everybody else is heading off across the ocean or the continent means that San Francisco-bound travelers can find December deals on airfares and hotel rooms. Even the venerable Fairmont Hotel has a Christmas package that includes accommodations as well as dinner and a retelling of “A Christmas Carol” by the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens, for $339.

These days, when I think about holiday travel destinations, I think about the Gay Men’s Chorus singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and about comedy and cashew chicken in Chinatown, and I don’t think of going anywhere else. And you might not want to either, whether you make the trip this year or save it all up for next.

Indeed, for those of you who are ready to take your holiday travel beyond “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” the following is my very personal, very untraditional Does-This-Tutu-Make-Me-Look-Fat? guide to Christmas in San Francisco.

‘Black Nativity’

I don’t care if you’re the most steadfast secular humanist or adamant atheist on the planet, 10 minutes into this gospel play and you’ll feel like testifying. “Black Nativity,” written by Langston Hughes, is a soul-shaking mix of gospel and dance, and unless your congregation included Aretha Franklin and Alvin Ailey, it’s unlike anything you ever experienced in church on Christmas Eve.

When I was in the church choir, the angels wore cardboard wings, the shepherds dressed in their fathers’ bathrobes and Mary’s head covering began life as somebody’s shower curtain. We sang “Hark the Herald” and “Joy to the World,” mostly off-key. In “Black Nativity,” the angels are dressed in glittery robes of lime green and pink, the shepherds wear dreadlocks and sing like Marvin Gaye, and Mary — impressively limber for a woman heavy with child — dances.

Hughes wanted “Black Nativity” to make the audience members feel as though they had wandered into a Harlem church on a Sunday morning, and Act 2 is nothing less than a big, rousing gospel service. Deacons, identifiable by the enormous gold badges pinned to their lapels, wander the audience shaking hands, and church ladies in fur-edged hats rattle the rafters with their musical voices. It’s an hour of rhymed preaching and vocal pyrotechnics that’s so contagious, even those of us who stood around in our cardboard wings pretending to hit the high notes will be compelled to let out a few unrestrained “Hallelujahs!”

Through Dec. 19. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St.; (415) 474-8800, . Tickets $25-$32.

Christmas Jug Band

Take half a dozen unreconstructed hippies (including ‘60s icon and legendary harmonica player Norton Buffalo). Add a few kazoos, a washtub bass and a couple of guitars. Throw in some red plaid shirts, and spice it all up with an assortment of holiday songs like “Santa Claus Want Some Lovin’.” What you have is a recipe for the Christmas Jug Band.

These self-proclaimed kings of 100% acoustic folk-skiffle-swing and holiday high jinks have been playing Christmas concerts since the mid-'70s, coming together in what the band refers to as “a momentary lapse of sanity that became an annual holiday tradition.” The Christmas Jug Band usually plays one or two dates in towns just outside San Francisco (in Mill Valley and Berkeley this year); it’s worth the hour or so drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge to see the performance in the little Marin town of Nicasio.

This is home turf for most of these guys, and the shows at Rancho Nicasio have a nice family feel. Rancho Nicasio is the kind of restaurant that has stuffed elk heads above the bar and prime rib on the menu, and its waitresses are completely uninterested in impressing you with their knowledge of esoteric vegetables. In other words, it’s a fitting place to see a bunch of guys play Christmas songs on instruments that can also be used to launder clothing.

Like the waitresses at Rancho Nicasio, the Christmas Jug Band doesn’t even pretend to hipness, which can be liberating. Last time I saw them, I danced with my husband, Ken, to “Jingle Bell Rock,” with my 9-year-old son, Alex, to the all-kazoo version of “Let It Snow” and — with no embarrassment whatsoever — by myself to a rousing version of “S-A-N-T-A” (sung to the tune of “Gloria,” which Van Morrison fans will recall).

Shows at Rancho Nicasio (1 Old Rancheria Road, [415] 662-2219) take place at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19. Tickets $12-$15; kids younger than 8, $8. For information on the band, (415) 383-0629 or .

‘Kung Pao Kosher Comedy’

During the years that I spent my Christmas Eves re-enacting the birth of Jesus in fake wings, my Jewish husband was participating in a time-honored Hebraic Yuletide ritual: dinner at a Chinese restaurant. San Francisco comedian Lisa Geduldig has come up with a concept you don’t have to be Jewish to love: “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy,” which blends two great Jewish passions: comedy and chow fun.

It’s held in the cavernous basement banquet room of Chinatown’s New Asia restaurant and includes large helpings of Chinese food (a seven-course dinner is offered) and Jewish comedy (plenty of jokes about overprotective mothers).

The comedians — four in one night — take turns airing their neuroses and pondering childhood angst while the audience munches on egg rolls and Sichuan beef. The food is good. (“Better than we ever had on Christmas Eve,” my husband claims.) And so are the comedians. (“A whole lot funnier than my Uncle Mort,” he says.)

Worth becoming a holiday tradition, even if you grew up with a mother who actually let you outside without a jacket.

Dec. 23-26 with headliner Judy Gold, a Comedy Central regular. New Asia restaurant, 772 Pacific Ave; (415) 522-3737 or (tickets) (925) 275-9005, . Tickets are $36 (cocktail show) and $54 (dinner show).

Gay Men’s Chorus

“There are grown-ups sitting on Santa’s lap,” Alex observed the first time we attended this annual concert. “And the elf is wearing a dress.”

Despite these departures from tradition, the Christmas concert of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus balances reverence and camp.

The chorus performs every year in the Art Deco Castro Theatre and sings its way through Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and (in case there are Druids in the audience) winter solstice.

The boys (as they sometimes refer to themselves) are partial to dangly earrings, sing in German and in Latin and rattle their car keys during “Jingle Bells.” For the finale, everybody sings along to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Frosty the Snowman,” led by the heavily made-up male nuns of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. It’s a terrific evening of holiday cheer, diversity and pancake makeup.

Performances are at 7 p.m. Dec. 16 and 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Dec. 24. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St.; (415) 865-3650, . Tickets $15-$20.

The Tonga Room

Sure, you could have Christmas dinner in a traditional hotel restaurant complete with turkey and all the trimmings, but if you do, it’s unlikely anybody will serve you a smoking drink.

There’s enough tiki kitsch in this restaurant, which is on the ground floor of the Fairmont Hotel, for an entire suburb’s worth of rec rooms — fake lava rocks, thatched roofs, a seating area on the forward deck of a pirate ship.

The cocktails are served in glasses shaped like Polynesian deities and in coconuts with little plastic mermaids perched on the edges. And every half-hour, lights flash, thunder sounds and tropical rain falls into the lagoon in the center of the restaurant. (The Tonga Room was once the Fairmont’s indoor swimming pool.) During dinner, a musical combo floats out on a sampan and plays Barry Gibb medleys, while AARP couples and kids swarm the dance floor.

The food is standard Chinese/Polynesian fare. “What’s good?” my husband once asked our waiter. “Not the duck,” the waiter replied. I stick to the chicken satay and to the Tonga’s Triple Delicacy, largely because it sounds mildly indecent (although it’s just your basic shrimp, beef and chicken in black bean sauce). The Tonga Room isn’t about the food. It’s about drinks called Zombies and Borneo Fogcutters, and collecting those little umbrellas, and believing — at least for as long as two or three of those tropical rainstorms — that you’re spending Christmas in Hawaii.

Entrees $18-$37. Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., (415) 772-5278; .

‘Dance-Along Nutcracker’

For anyone who has ever pirouetted around the bedroom in a slip, — and who hasn’t? — there’s the “Dance-Along Nutcracker.”

Each year, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band presents what is likely the only audience-participation “Nutcracker” in the country.

“I am not dancing,” Alex told me when I suggested this event.

“I’m probably not either,” I told him. “I just want to watch everybody else.”

Getting into the act is simple: You can rent a chiffon tutu or a blinking tiara inside the door (or come dressed in that bridesmaid dress that has always looked as though it escaped from “Swan Lake”); fortify yourself with a libation from the substantially stocked lobby bar; and dance along to Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic.

During the performance, the Freedom Band plays its way through the ballet, removing the more dirge-like passages and replacing them with livelier tunes, including “Good King Wenceslas” and “Tiny Bubbles.” Whenever the sign reading “It’s time to dance along” flashes above the stage, everybody takes to the aisles to boogie, ballroom, hip-hop and samba, as well as perform those flashy pirouettes perfected in front of the bedroom mirror.

I attribute our transformation from spectator to participant to the purchase of a wand (which Alex saw as more Harry Potter than Mikhail Baryshnikov) and the rental of a tiara (because I’ve always wanted one). Ten minutes later, we were twirling around to the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

11 a.m. and 3 p.m. today at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St.; (415) 978-2787, . Tickets $14-$21.



Holiday by the bay


From LAX, nonstop service to San Francisco is available on United and American, and direct service (stop, no change of plane) and connecting service (change of plane) on America West. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $128.


The Fairmont, 950 Mason St.; (415) 772-5000 or, for reservations, (800) 257-7544, fax (415) 772-5013, . Atop Nob Hill, across from the lighted trees outside Grace Cathedral, the Fairmont is an unbeatable place to spend the holidays. Most of the rooms have real San Francisco views — Alcatraz, Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid — and from most rooms you can hear the clanging bells of the holiday-decorated cable cars. Best of all, the Tonga Room is right downstairs. Doubles begin at $199.

The Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell St. on Union Square; (415) 397-7000 or, for reservations, (800) 917-7458, . Book a room in the Grand Old Dame older building and you’ll have a view of the Christmas tree in Union Square. Go for a modern room in the tower and you can check out the entire city from the exterior glass elevator, the best free ride in town. Holiday packages begin at $149.

Hotel Triton, 342 Grant Ave.; (415) 394-0500 or, for reservations, (800) 800-1299, fax (415) 394-0555, . “Exceedingly groovy” is how Harper’s Bazaar describes this hipster hotel located right outside the gates of Chinatown and in the epicenter of the city’s meeting place for French tourists. The rooms are small but full of funky style. And it’s worth staying just to call the fanciful lobby home. Doubles start at $149. (Check out their online packages such as So Hip It Hurts, which includes a tattoo and body piercing with your room rate.)


Café Claude, 7 Claude Lane; (415) 392-3505, . Eating in Café Claude is like going to Paris, without the jet lag. The food is simple and delicious — a croque-monsieur (the French version of a grilled cheese sandwich), salad Niçoise, plates of sausages; the wine is inexpensive and good, and the waiters are French and adorable. Dinner for two, about $40.

Tallulah, 4230 18th St.; (415) 437-6722, https://www.tallulah The atmosphere in this restaurant’s multistory warren of rooms is as exotic as the sake cocktails served in the bar. And the food is as diverse as the neighborhood — Indian spices meet California ingredients meet French techniques. The menu includes tamarind consommé, tilapia and coconut ceviche, and tea-smoked game hen with pomegranate. Dinner for two about $60.

Thirsty Bear, 661 Howard St.; (415) 974-0905, . This restaurant and brewery, named for a real bear that forced its way into a Siberian bar, is an excellent place to go after you’ve worked up an appetite dancing along to Tchaikovsky. The Thirsty Bear serves its own ale, as well as sherry and Rioja wine, and a large selection of Spanish tapas — sautéed prawns in garlic, spinach with pine nuts and currants, and fish cheeks in sherry and garlic. Dinner for two about $35.



Here are some of San Francisco’s more traditional holiday pursuits.

San Francisco Symphony puts on several classic Christmas concerts, including a children’s version of “Peter and the Wolf,” this year narrated by actress Diane Baker. (415) 864-6000, .

San Francisco Ballet performs a stunningly beautiful, traditional “Nutcracker.” (415) 865-2000 for tickets, .

San Francisco Conservatory of Music gives everyone the opportunity to test out their vocal cords in the “Sing-It-Yourself ‘Messiah.’ ” (415) 564-8086, .

ODC/San Francisco and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts performs “The Velveteen Rabbit” for starry-eyed kids (and their parents). (415) 978-2787, .


San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau;

(415) 391-2000, fax (415) 227-2602, .

— Janis Cooke Newman

Get our weekly Escapes newsletter