Sunday, December 21, 2008

San Francisco's Most Venerable Watering Holes

In which we provide an at-a-glance guide

One of the things I most enjoy about living in The City is the feeling that one is living in and among -- and being in some small way -- a part of, history. The bars and taverns listed below help that feeling greatly.

Tadich Grill

Financial District: California between Front & Battery
The Tadich is not only the city's oldest restaurant and bar but is also one of the oldest businesses in California. Famous for its specialty dish, Hangtown Fry -- a fried oyster omelette -- and its seafood, the Tadich is the ultimate three-martini lunch spot for the city's old school power brokers.

Old Ship Saloon
Jackson Square: Pacific at Battery
Run aground on Alcatraz Island in 1849, the three-masted sailing ship, Arkansas, was later beached on the north shore of Yerba Buena Cove. Then, in 1851, a businessman named Joe Anthony cut a door in the side of the hulk's hull and opened the Old Ship Ale House. Soon, landfill had locked the ship in place and a sailor's home was built on her deck. In 1859, part of the ship that still showed above ground was removed and a brick hotel built in its place. The structure underwent several incarnations, including a speakeasy and brothel. In 1999, the place underwent a complete overhaul -- which, the bar's website claims, included "nice, clean bathrooms." This is probably why a visit here can be a little disappointing. With such great history behind it, one would expect to feel history here. Yet, perhaps due to this scouring, all one really feels is that one has entered just another sports bar, despite the presence of a Clamper plaque out front.

Old Clam House
The Bayview: Corner of Bayshore & Oak
A bit out of the way but worth the trip. The Old Clam House is real, Olde School, German-Irish San Francisco.

The Saloon
North Beach: Corner of Grant & Fresno, near Columbus
This place is a right royal dive of epic provenance. It's a good place to hear live blues and cloyingly loud jazz. The bartenders are curt to the point of rudeness and if you're not careful you can get shivved by a Hell's Angel. Great place.

The Elixir
The Mission: Corner of 16th & Guerrero
A saloon with a real Old West feel, the Elixir once used to sport a little cigar store up front. A good friend mine, Ed, works the bar there on many nights and is a veritable fountain of neighborhood gossip.

Financial District: Sacramento near Montgomery
Never been there. They tell me it's nice. Today it's a high-end restaurant under the queeny rubric "Jeanty at Jacks."

Sam's Grill
Union Square: Bush between Kearny & Montgomery
Authentic 19th century San Francisco, though there's not much action at the little bar which is mostly used as a service bar.

The Palace Hotel (and if you don't know where that is you shouldn't live here)
Named after the painter Maxfield Parrish, whose "Pied Piper of Hamlin" mural adorns the back-bar, Maxfield's was originally called "The Pied Piper." The original Piper, along with the original Palace Hotel and most of The City, was destroyed in the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. During Prohibition, Maxfield's pretended to be an ice cream parlor, while serving drinks to "gentlemen" in a secret room in the back. Today it's a good place to see in-town and out-of-town power brokers.

Fior d'Italia
North Beach: Mason near Francisco
Billed as the West Coast's oldest Italian restaurant, Fior d'Italia did yeoman's work by serving meals in tents after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 destroyed the building. Good, solid Italian fare though a little pricey.

The Little Shamrock
Inner Sunset: Lincoln at 9th Ave.
While phony-baloney "Irish pubs" have multiplied like gerbils in the last several years all over The City, there are still a few legitimate blarney bars around where one can enjoy a little gift o' the gab with one's pint. The Little Shamrock is one of them, and one of the best.

Schroeder's Cafe

Financial District: Front between Sacramento & California
San Francisco's original Bavarian Alps dining experience, Schroeder's is decorated with colorful murals that would make Heidi herself proud. The place boasts a lively bar which is packed at lunchtime with businessmen dying for a liquid escape from the office.

House of Shields

Financial District, New Montgomery across the street from the Palace Hotel
One of the late great Charles McCabe's favorite watering holes -- though, admittedly, these were legion -- the House of Shields is all old smoke-stained wood, tile, and brass. It's now frequented by a bit of a downscale crowd that includes your bike messenger types. Also, the new owners have committed a capital sin by not being open at lunch. But go for the decor at least once.

The Hotel Utah
South of Market: 4th St. at Bryant
This saloon was first opened by a family named Deninger who commissioned furniture makers in Belgium to design and build the ornate back-bar and has been the haunt of scallawags of all stripes -- "gamblers, thieves, ladies up to no good, politicians, hustlers, friends of opium, goldseekers, godseekers, charlatans, police, fancy miscreants," as the Hotel's website says. I used to go there for punk rock shows in the 1980s. In this place, authentic, eccentric San Francisco abides.

The Buena Vista
The Wharf: Hyde at Beach, across from the Hyde St. Railroad terminus
Any saloon that holds claim to be the birthplace of the Irish Coffee is bound to be touristy. Never mind. Go for the Irish, and stay for the view. It's a nice respite when you're down at Aquatic Park, perhaps perusing model ships at the Maritime Museum, or after you've had a swim at the Dolphin Club.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Save Paul's Hat Works

In which we take up a cause

Yes, it is very uncharacteristic of Travels West to take up a cause. But sometimes a blog's got to do what a blog's got to do.

It has come to our attention that the venerable hatter, 90-year-old Paul's Hat Works on Geary BLVD (that's GAH-ree; say it right!) is on the ropes and in danger of shutting its doors. Owner Michael Harris, who has been at Paul's for some 36 years, is in despair and fears his business is not long for this world.

It's not that hats aren't selling. They are. The Britney Spears / Kevin Federlein faux fedora axis has been responsible for selling many. The problem is, most of these hats, though stylish, are cheap knock-offs of real fur felt fedoras, trilbies, derbies and homburgs. Paul's, however, only sells top quality hat stock at prices to match. Paul's is also way out of the way -- way out in the Richmond -- not exactly a prime location for high-end, downtown haberdashery.

But listen, you can buy one hat every five or ten years that lasts a lifetime, or you can buy one hat every six months that falls apart in three. This season, give the gift of fine, well-made headgear from Paul's, and show your friends what a real lid is really about.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Beacon Beckons

In which we shed a little light on the weather
If you want to start an argument, or perhaps even a fistfight, in San Francisco, sing the praises of the city's newest skyscraping condo, One Rincon Hill. This towering megalith, which looms over the western foot of the Bay Bridge, has been decried as the ruination of San Francisco's famous "skyline." They forget that San Francisco's famous skyline, as we know it today at least, really only dates back to the building boom of the 1970s and '80s, and that most of those then new skyscrapers -- especially the now iconic TransAmerica pyramid -- were considered the ruination of the city's previous famous skyline (or, rather, "hill line").

Never mind. At first I too was in the One Rincon hater's camp. But, just as the TransAmerica Pyramid grew on Herb Caen, One Rincon has been growing on me (if somewhat less famously). Now I find it hard to imagine looking out at the Bay without "the finger," as it is sometimes called, flipping me the bird. True, the thing does obscure views of the elegant and silvery Bay Bridge, but nevertheless I've grown accustomed to it.

And recently, One Rincon won a few more goodwill points with me with the introduction of a weather beacon atop its tower. The beacon shines different colored lights depending upon the weather forecast. One Rincon's designers thought up the following mnemonic device to help 'Fricans remember what prediction each color indicates (thoughtfully transcribed in the San Francisco Chronicle by the inimitable Carl Nolte):

Glowing red, warmer weather ahead

Shining blue, colder weather in view

Going green, rain foreseen

Amber light, no change in sight

If I have but one complaint it's the beacon is not quite bright enough. This may have to do with the fact that they are trying to be "green" by using low-energy LED lights. But that is but a peccadillo. It's a frivolous thing, the beacon. In reality it serves very little purpose. (No one will plan his day by the it.) But frivolity -- and a shining beacon -- is what's most needed in these dark and serious times.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Sutro Sunset

In which we share some snaps

Sutro Tower, once considered an eyesore and now thought of as a landmark and a even as a navigational aid, snapped coming over the Bay from Jack London Square on the Ferry.

These "horses," as we like to call them, line the wharf of the Port of Oakland. Some say they look more like Imperial Walkers. In the sunset they reveal a rare but industrial beauty.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

It's Bombay

In which we sympathize with victims of terror in far-away places

As The Hitch points out, for some of us it will always be Bombay, never Mumbai, just as Mayanmar will be forever Burma.

For a chilling account of the recent unpleasantness in Bombay, India, read this piece on, and see how the brave and loyal die to preserve the pampered and meek. And for a moving account about how when the going gets tough, tough waiters pour champagne -- and in the proper glass, thank you -- read this piece in the London Daily Mail. I'm not often a fan of the often rabid right winger, Pat Buchanan, but today the old bastard came through with a solid analysis of the history of terror, from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on, in the context of the Bombay attacks, and offers some sound advice on not over-reacting.

Fly Like an Eagle

In which we look back a bit
One of my boys from the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary took this snap during the Festival of Sail, upon which we reported some while back. It's just such an amazing photo that I had to share it.

Take a look at that flag: it's about 1 and 1/2 times the height of the ship's freeboard. In other words, it's enormous.