Photo Booth Love

San Francisco Chronicle 2/13/2002
by Chrissa Banner


Photo caption: Photo booth at the Elbo Room: A little private time for looove. SF Gate photo illustration by Alex Marsh

There's always been a quirky romance about photo booths. Their faux wood paneling and speckled Formica take you back in time instantly, and the close quarters of the single-occupancy booth mean things get cozy fast. For couples, the privacy can be an irresistible invitation to steal a quick kiss between photo flashes.

Which is why this Valentine's Day, we suggest you cross one item off your date itinerary and hit a photo booth instead. For a couple bucks you get a unique keepsake of the day and an excuse to put your arm around your sweetie. Because after the expensive dinner is finished and the box of chocolates is empty, that's really what the holiday's all about.

They aren't in the yellow pages, so to save your precious time we did the legwork and scouted out San Francisco's best photo booths.

What We Looked For

Each of the booths we visited has a distinct personality, a combination of the booth's venue, the mood behind the curtain and the quality of the photos. You'll notice we deliberately stayed away from sticker booths. While they have their own zany merits, a certain mystery is lacking with the open kiosks and tiny pictures framed by cavorting cartoon hamsters. We also focused on locations that fit into the itinerary of a romantic date. We think it's a promising trend that since the demise of Woolworth's, the habitat of the photo booth has shifted to the intimate confines of bars and nightclubs. The wonderful novelty store Uncle Mame's had a selection of wigs and props to use in its photo booth, and though it's now sadly closed, you can still follow the example. Grab some props of your own, or take a cue from the movie "Amlie" and wear your Zorro costume.

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, we gave each booth a Make Out Factor rating, which you're encouraged to test personally. If you're single, the folks at Annie's Cocktail Lounge offer a compelling word of advice about why you should still look for a photo booth when it comes to romance: "Finally, you won't have to wonder if you should call that hot cutie you shared the sixth Jack and Coke with; be safe! Take home evidence!"

The Photo Booths

The Fellini Booth: Two vintage booths grace the crowded aisles at the Muse Mcanique. This museum of antique arcade games perches above the ocean a level down from the Cliff House. The collection manages to be both delightful and grotesque, including a mechanized farm scene, a gypsy fortune teller and the maniacally cackling Laughing Sal, who frightens small children and seems to have gone mad from being imprisoned in her glass box for so many years. You'll be happy to escape the carnival of cacophony into the relative calm of your booth. One strip of four black-and-white shots is $3 -- a little overexposed for our taste, but another visitor was heard to exclaim, "See how good everyone's skin looks?" Maybe so, if you like the luminous starlet look, but nevertheless, girls, wear your lipstick.

MO Factor: Medium. The setting is charming, but the hubbub is a little distracting. Slip outside instead for a private moment above the crashing waves at the edge of the cliff. 1090 Point Lobos Road, (415) 386-1170.

The Film Noir Booth: The built-in booth at the Elbo Room on Valencia wins the prize for most flattering photo. Another black-and-white vintage machine, this one produces a balanced range of tones against a dramatically dark backdrop, with results that are glamorous and downright sultry. Hang a right at the entrance of this unpretentious club to find the photo nook. The price for a four-up photo strip here is the best in town, a mere $2.

MO Factor: High. The booth is tucked away in its own secluded alcove, and you can go in feeling confident that your pictures will look great even if your hair gets a little messed up in the process. 647 Valencia Street, (415) 552-7788.

The Rock Star Booth: Swing upstairs to the balcony to hit the photo booth at Lucky 13. This one is a $3 square-format, four-shot color Poloroid, the only contemporary booth on our tour. Its interior lacks intimacy and atmosphere, with its bright lights and partially open sides. However, once you've gotten your picture taken, it's just a few steps to a balcony seat where the lighting is dim and red-tinged. The bar is also known for its excellent beer selection and eclectic jukebox, a mix of new and old-school punk, metal and rock records. Both these amenities and the general attitude of Lucky 13 more than make up for the lack of ambience behind the curtain.

MO Factor: Medium. 2140 Market Street, (415) 487-1313.

The Pinup: The photo booth experience at Annie's Cocktail Lounge was our overall favorite. The sign over the door sets a "let's be bad" vibe from the start, depicting a devilish Bettie Page babe sprawled in a martini glass. Inside are red-painted walls, zebra-print curtains and a decorating scheme that includes velvet Elvis paintings and a skull motif. The wicked dcor belies the comfortable mood of the bar, which has a friendly staff and laid-back karaoke on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Walk around the bar to the pool table room to find the photo booth. This one has a brushed-aluminum exterior and a collection of sample photos, many of which feature owner and bartender Annie herself. The price is steep for your strip of four black-and-white shots -- a cool $4. But it may be worth it; the resulting pictures have a faintly sepia tone and the sharpest details of all the booths we tried.

MO Factor: High. You've got five long minutes to kill before your pictures are developed, and Annie's just puts you in the mood. 15 Boardman Place, (415) 703-0865.

For further photo booth inspiration: listen to "Photobooth" by Death Cab For Cutie; check out the Annie's photo gallery; see "Amlie," "A Hard Day's Night" or Fellini's "La Dolce Vita."

Contributed by Brian