Blades of Glory: San Francisco
Forget Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Visit one of the many eclectic barbershops in town and get under the skin of the real San Francisco.
Not only will you get a bang trim, you’ll learn more about this vibrant city and it’s people than you will from any tour guide.
From an authentic old-world experience downtown to a cut in the heart of Castro, we reveal the city’s top three barbershops.
Right in the heart of downtown San Francisco, this is the authentic barbershop experience. Step past the frayed awning and faded 1980’s posters of the shop front into another world bursting with character, and characters.
As one local put it, “All men should get their hair cut here. Yes it’s a little dirty. Yes it’s really old. But it’s worth it. It's only $20 plus tip you cheap bastard.”
Inside, bare strip lights illuminate dusty shelves bowing under the weight of out-of-date products. Four barbers gleefully go about their business, their customers smiling at their wise cracks.
Enjoy a traditional straight edge shave from master barber Jimmy, who refuses to reveal his age.
“You must be 105, right?” quips fellow barber Jack.
“I wish I was,” replies Jimmy, “I’d love to look this young at 105!”
The shop’s been trading for 90 years purely on its reputation. There’s no website and the number I tried didn’t work – you just walk in and get shaved or cut.
Jimmy has a solid barbering background and has even dabbled with fame (he shaved celebrities on live TV in 2005 after being named best in the bay by a local paper) but he is really all just about delivering proper shaves and haircuts.
“Forget the hip new shops that are trying to bring it back,” one customer told us after leaving.
“This shop is the real deal. I knew I was in the right place when I was asked if I wanted a 1 or a 0. You also ought to go for the hot razor neck shave. Crispy clean.”
PRICES: Beard trim: $12, or $20 with razor. Haircut: $20.
NEARBY: This is an in-and-out barbershop, perfect for sneaking in a trim between bursts of sight seeing. Don’t bother with the official tours, just cruise the cafés and ride the buses and trams - a $2 ticket will last you three hours.
CONTACT: Original Palace Barber Shop, 600 Mission St (near 2nd St), tel: 415. 986.5049 (good luck!), no website.
Ride a 1948 F-train down Market St to Castro, site of the big gay liberation battles of the 1970’s. Before delving into the heartlands check out Joe’s, the most popular barbershop in the neighborhood.
There’s a metallic, industrial feel inside. With no TV or radio, the only soundtrack is the noise of scissors and electric razors at work. Joe’s is a place of work, not comfort and there’s no cosy waiting area. Metal chairs line up and down the center of the shop, adding to the trade-like feel.
Ray Middling gets me seated in no time and clearly sees he had a job on his hands. After tidying up my face scruff, he starts on my hair, shaving the sides, and leaving it longer on top. I quiz him on that, as I usually have a buzz cut all over.
“Nah that’s boring!” he replies. “Now you’ve got some attitude… and you don’t look 14 any more!”
Ray’s been in the trade for 27 years and is a beard fanatic. His latest has been over three years in the making and he has a wealth of friendly advice on beard styling to give if you want it.
“A lot of guys don’t know how to shave straight down their jawline”, says Ray. “I always suggest using a comb as a ruler to shave against.”
While Joe’s roots are firmly planted in the gay community, its clientele is diverse.
“We get a lot of straight guys coming in here asking what to do with their beards,” says Sean Leone, another of the barbers.
“Getting rid of stray hairs on the neck hair, stopping chest hair from climbing out of your shirt, those little details make a difference, and men are beginning to realise women notice.”
Joe’s is a great combination of the traditional and contemporary: a walk-in barbershop with some of the best barbers in the business whose artistic skill will give your look extra edge.
In some salons, haughty hair stylists serve clients who happily spend $50 every other week on their appearance, but many of us are haunted by a sense of just not fitting in to such places.
Whatever your sexuality you won’t get that feeling here. Joe’s strapline is simply, “We’ll get you cut”, and they mean it. It’s the meat and potatoes of barbering but with extra-fresh gravy.
PRICES: Beard trim: $10, or $5 with haircut. Haircut: $25.
NEARBY: Enjoy the best breakfast in SF at Chow in Church St. The restaurant serves flavoursome, organic twists on American home foods. Also, check out Sean Penn in ‘Milk’, the movie about the uprising led by Harvey Milk in Castro in the 1970s.
CONTACT: Joe's Barbershop, 2150 Market Street, tel: 415.255.9096, web: www.joesbarbershop.com
Been rushing about town and need some time out? Step into the Barber Lounge.
This salon gets it just right: cool, but not pretentious, clean and airy but not over-designed, friendly, but not in your face.
Walk up the stairs from Folsom Street into a huge, loft-style salon. Feel instantly at ease in the naturally lit waiting area, where sofas sit on stripped pine floorboards. This is a place as much for relaxation as for getting cut.
The Barber Lounge is popular with men and women, and it’s homely spaciousness allows it to blend barbershop, salon, massage therapies and all kinds of pampering treatments under one roof.
Even the Original Palace’s Jimmy rates it. “Yeah, it’s a good shop, but it’s only got like five chairs in the whole place!” he told us.
Owner Greg Griffin obviously invested big when he set the Lounge up in 2006, but it’s paying off – he’s collected an enviable following of regular clients and a clutch of awards too.
Up-and-coming barber Chris Eliares is crafting a chin strap for a client when we visit. Chris credits the rise of the beard in SF to a certain local baseball player.
“The Giants’ Brian Wilson bucked the trend in football by growing a beard,” he says. “After they won in 2010, ‘fear the beard’ became our new slogan and everyone wanted a beard.”
If you’re visiting on vacation, want to indulge a little and click down the pace a couple of notches then the Barber Lounge is the place. Book ahead though – or you’ll be disappointed.
PRICES: according to barber’s experience.
NEARBY: San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art is a couple of blocks away. A jaw-dropping exhibit of Picasso and Matisse works has just closed, but there’s always good stuff coming up – definitely check the photography on the third floor. If you’re running out of notes after your visit to the Lounge, go to Moma on a Thursday evening after 6pm when it’s cheaper. www.sfmoma.com
CONTACT: The Barber Lounge, 854 Folsom Street (between 4th and 5th streets), Tel: 415.934.0411, Web: www.barberlounge.com