San Francisco's Most Venerable Watering Holes
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.
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.
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 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."
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.
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.
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.