San Francisco was crazy during the ’60s the 1860s, that is. Back then the city’s beer halls and saloons were fueled by the gold-lined pockets and salty tongues of sailors, pimps, con artists, and whores. The city is actually pretty tame compared with how it used to be. Prostitutes no longer hang naked from windows, and bartenders have stopped drugging clients and selling them into indentured servitude on the high seas. About all that’s left from those early dens of debauchery are a few brass rails and some nice pieces of carved mahogany, to be found in the city’s oldest bars. Although many of the original bars at these establishments perished in fires, as soon as the ashes settled, people picked up the pieces and got right back to boozin’. The Saloon, Buena Vista, and Little Shamrock are your best bets for wetting your whistle above the same wooden counters where gold miners and shanghaiing sailors once drank.
The Buena Vista (2765 Hyde, SF. 415-474-5044, www.thebuenavista.com), which concocted the first Irish coffee, rates as San Francisco’s second oldest bar. An 1889 photo of the business shows its former location, across the street. When that building was damaged by the 1906 earthquake and fire, the café moved to its present spot, taking its rich mahogany bar with it.
Proud to have been a speakeasy during prohibition, Cafe du Nord (2170 Market, SF. 415-861-5016, www.cafedunord.com) which opened its doors in 1907, before hooch was outlawed retains its scary escape tunnel, now dead-ended, and has the nicest original, hand-carved bar you’ll find in any Bay Area basement.
A local historian from E Clampus Vitus, a secret SF historical society, scoured old city directories and traced boozing on the corner of 16th and Guerrero streets, where Elixir (3200 16th St., SF. 415-552-1633, www.elixirsf.com) currently hangs its sign, back to 1858. The place has gone through a number of hands it was called Swede’s from 1865 to 1885 and was leveled with the rest of the hood in the fire of ’06, but it’s always been a bar. Of course, during Prohibition it was officially know as a soft drink parlor.
The Hotel Utah (500 Fourth St., SF. 415-546-6300, www.thehotelutahsaloon.com) which was once called Al’s Transbay Tavern, appeared in Dirty Hairy, and served President Richard Nixon, Joe DiMaggio, and Marilyn Monroe has been a bar since 1908. Its back bar, obtained through a Fitchburg Brewery promotion, was shipped around Cape Horn in 1913 from Belgium and is thought to date back to the 1850s.
The wood booths and paneled ceiling at House of Shields (39 New Montgomery, SF. 415-975-8651, www.houseofshields.com) have been there since 1908, when the watering hole first opened for business. A tunnel, left over from Prohibition, connects the place to Maxfield’s. And the men’s room has a urinal roughly the size of a refrigerator they don’t seem to make ’em that big anymore.
Last year the Little Shamrock (807 Lincoln Way, SF. 415-661-0060), an Inner Sunset bar established in 1893, put up a sign reading, "We’ve been here for 113 years and our prices prove it!" It’s true: a shot of Jameson goes for just four bucks at the cozy tavern. Its Victorian-era atmosphere, with broken velvet-upholstered parlor chairs and a potbellied stove in the dart room, will take you back in time.
Maxfield’s (Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery, SF. 415-512-1111, www.maxfields-restaurant.com) is named for Maxwell Parrish, the artist of the vibrant realist depiction of a man and his flute hanging above the back of the bar since 1909. Back in 1875 it was called the Pied Piper, and in 1906 it was gutted by the fire, along with the rest of the Palace Hotel. The owners turned it into an ice cream parlor during Prohibition one with a gentlemen’s-only club in the back.
Turns out people have been drinking for 158 years at the corner of Pacific and Battery, where the Old Ship Saloon (298 Pacific, SF. 415-788-2222, www.oldshipsaloon.com) now stands. The plaque posted there by E Clampus Vitus tells you so. As the story goes, in 1849 the ship Arkansas crash-landed on Alcatraz Island. (UC Berkeley has a journal from one of the passengers.) The ship was towed to the shore of Yerba Buena Cove and, as the bay filled in, became landlocked on what became Pacific Street. In 1851, Joe Anthony, a Brit, cut a hole in the ship and posted a sign reading, "Gud, Bad and Indif’rent Spirits Sold Here! At 25 cents Each!" The ship was dismantled as a brick building was constructed around it. That burned down and was rebuilt in 1906. The east side of the building still proclaims the name of the business and its owner from that time: "Old Ship Saloon, Henry Klee Prop."
Everyone seems to agree that the stinky dive know as the Saloon (1232 Grant, SF. 415-989-7666, www.sfblues.net/Saloon.html) holds San Francisco’s oldest bar. The place also boasts the city’s first water-installation request on record dated Oct. 8, 1861, made by Ferdinand E. Wagner, and fulfilled by the Spring Valley Water Co. In the 1850s, Wagner ran a fruit stand in the building, selling German toys and Christmas ornaments on the side. In 1861 he turned the shop into Wagner’s Beer Hall. Strong timbers and the volunteer firefighters who went out of their way to protect the scarlet women living upstairs saved the building from the 1906 earthquake and fire.
With its ornate bar dating back 100 years, belt-driven ceiling fans, and tiled floor, the San Francisco Brewing Co. (155 Columbus, SF. 415-434-3344, www.sfbrewing.com) is the salooniest spot around. Drinks first flowed over the bar in 1907, when the place was known as the Andromeda Saloon, according to a member of E Clampus Vitus.
The dinky alley spot known as Spec’s 12 Adler Museum (12 Saroyan Place, SF. 415-421-4112) first became a bar in 1919, but it’s been in operation on and off since then. The current owner has filled the place to the gills with historical memorabilia well, junk to immerse you in the city’s past.
Established just before the Volstead Act in 1919, Tosca Cafe (242 Columbus, SF. 415-986-9651) moved to its current location in 1946. During Prohibition it operated as a restaurant, but the owners continued cooking brandy in the basement, which they served on the sly to customers as the wink, wink house cappuccino. You can still order it by that name today. *