Just a couple blocks from the Moscone Center, the decor and vibe of ThirstyBear Brewing is fairly typical of a contemporary craft brew pub, with warm woods and exposed brick. However, in addition to their nine beers (including two rotating seasonals), they feature a cocktail program (I didn't try them) and Spanish tapas. It's a nice stop for a good beer.
115 Mason St San Francisco, CA 94102 - (415) 345-8484
Est. April 1, 2009 (Feb 1, 1998 on O'Farrell St. location) - Building constructed: 1907
Previous bars in this location: Bradley's Bar
Web site: unionsquaresportsbar.com - facebook
In the center of the 21 Club -- some say at ground zero of the Tenderloin -- stands Frank. On the wall to the left, there is a very complimentary Central City Extra article about Frank, and when he catches you looking at it, he is quick to point out that he did not put that up there. The article talks about how Frank has not only owned and run the quintessential dive bar for 40 years, but how his place has served as a sort of unofficial community center for the neighborhood. Later in the evening I'll see something like this first hand, as an elderly woman named Donna engages Frank in a somber conversation behind the bar, and he eventually moves to the cash register, and returns stashing two bills into her hands. "You game me some breathing room," Donna says to him, as she makes her way to the door.
When I came back a few days later, April is working the bar. She tells me that the article got several things wrong -- that Frank's been here 30 years, not 40. Another article I find says that it was once a transgender bar named Rossi's. April tells me she drank at 21 Club for eight years before she worked as bartender. She and multiple others tell me how much rougher it is now with other neighborhood joints closed, and this corner of Turk and Taylor so dominated by drug dealers that even the street people are scared to come in. There have been shootings and murders just outside the front door.
Three blocks up the street, where there is now just a parking lot, from 1950 until 1963 the Blackhawk Nightclub stayed open late hosting the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillispie, and Dave Brubeck. Count Basie squeezed 16 players onto the small stage on night. Later in the 60s, a few steps north on Hyde, Wally Heider Studios churned out recordings by Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Credence Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. At that time Turk Street was lit up by the blinking blade signs of the nightclubs and sex shops.
I'm staying at boutique hotel just a block away. A block the other direction there is a touristy BART stop and a Nordstrom across the street. But there's not much left on this block of Turk except for the drug dealers and a well-fortified convenience store. Yet the 21 Club remains a great little bar -- "the diviest bar in the Tenderloin," Esquire called it, while naming it one of the top 100 bars in the country. The cast of characters, inside the bar and outside it's large windows, make it a can't miss bar stop. But it is Frank who really makes the place, the regulars tell you -- and enough hipsters stray in from the shows at the Warfield to fill Yelp with reviews echoing that sentiment. "Frank is the soul of the Tenderloin," says a local theater owner in the article on the wall. "And the 21 Club is a window on the world."
Comstock is a rare, felicitous combination of a great, old, historical bar site with a top notch craft cocktail menu. The building was constructed on the Barbary Coast just after the great quake, and the Andromeda Saloon opened there in 1907. The original owners are said to have been local boxing promoters, who once employed Jack Dempsey at the door, and welcomed Jack Johnson as a customer. The current bar features various vintage boxing photos in homage to this history. The antique, belt-driven ceiling fans, looking like there were lifted from some Jules Verne contraption, date back to 1916. The original 20-foot mahogany back bar is still there, and now topped by a statue of Emperor Norton. Also remaining, though one hopes no longer used, is the tile urinal running along the base of the bar.
The latrine bar appears to have been a mid-19th innovation devised largely to combat competing taverns from stealing their customers away with free drink tokens during an outhouse break. "According to historian Brian Rea, a barkeeper in San Francisco was livid ab out losing a constant trickle of patrons to a competitor, lured away from his bar by boys giving out tavern tokens by the outhouse. The owner devised a trough that ran the length of the bar so that drinks need never leave the saloon for a pee." (America Walks Into A Bar - Christine Sismondo)
The Andromeda Saloon survived through prohibition as the Andromeda Cafe (still dispensing alcohol, but only for "medical" purposes) but eventually was remodeled in 1977 and renamed the Albatross Saloon. The Albatross was purchased in 1985 and renamed the San Francisco Brewing Company. "Allan G. Paul, while living on Telegraph Hill, developed an obsession with Barbary Coast history and unique, micro-brewed beer. Paul bought the Albatross Saloon in 1985 and renamed it the San Francisco Brewing Company. It still housed all the historical pieces from its early days, but had his addition of antique-style micro-brewing, which brought beer in brass pipes straight from the basement, where it fermented and self-carbonated, into a pint glass." (Wikipedia) The San Francisco Brewing Company closed in Nov 2009, and the space was purchased by the current owners, from Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, who named it in honor of the Nevada silver discovery that boosted San Francisco's fortunes in the second half of the 19th century.
The lighting in the current day Comstock is a romantic glow, and the cocktail emphasis is on classics very well made. Food options are largely upscale versions of dishes that sound like they may have been on the menu in the old Barbary Coast days. It's one of the oldest bar spaces in the city and one of the most pleasant.
The Old Ship Saloon is not a particularly interesting bar as it stands today, but it has one of the more remarkable histories of American bars. It's origins can be traced back to 1849, when the three masted whaling ship the Arkansas ran aground on Bird Island (now Alcatraz). The ship was towed to Yerba Buena Cove and set on a beach with several other ships abandoned in the gold rush. The area became increasingly landfilled, with the ship below what would eventually become the corner of Pacific and Battery -- one of any number of Barbary coast ships now buried under the San Francisco streets.
By 1850 locals had come to refer to it as "the old ship," and in either 1850 or 1851 Joe Anthony cut a door in the hull and opened the "Old Ship Ale House." A sign on the gangplank down to the Pacific Street Pier is said to have read, “Gud, Bad, and Indif’rent Spirits Sold Here! At 25 cents each.” (1) A rooming house for sailers as built on the deck in 1855 (by that time landfill had filled in the surroundings), and in 1859 this was torn down and replaced by a brick hotel, with a bar that continued under the name of The Old Ship Saloon. The hotel was destroyed in the great earthquake in 1906, and the current building was constructed in the space in 1907.
During the 40s it was notorious for the brothel upstairs, largely serving WWII servicemen. It is unclear exactly what names the bar has operated under for all of this time, but it was named "Bricks" for much of the 20th century and re-named the "Old Ship Saloon" in 1999 by Bill Duffy, who purchased the place in 1992.
Despite being able to trace its history to 1851 in some sense, given that it neither consistently retained the name nor is located in the same physical structure, I do not count it as quite the oldest bar in San Francisco (see my entry on The Saloon for a discussion). But it is nice to see that recent owners have restored the old name and revived the history with various old photos and artifacts on the exposed brick walls. The saloon now serves pretty typical cafe/pub food and drinks to a white collar working crowd.
Along with the fine craft cocktails of Smugger's Cove, and the old school showiness of the Tonga Room, the Bamboo Hut, along with Trad'r Sam, complements the tiki options of San Francisco with the essential neighborhood dive style tiki bar. The drinks are okay, which is to say, substantially better than your average divey tiki bar, it is happily dark, and the menu and decor are fully invested in the theme. The dominant feature is a large tiki head that is said to have been from Sacramento's Coral Reef Restaurant and date back to the late 40s. Some might consider it a bit too nightclubby and a bit too young to be merit the description of "dive," but the various characters from the sketchy neighborhood clinch the matter for me. It's a fun place.
I don't know how you could really compare a place like this to a place like, say, Smugglers Cove, but this bar is probably my favorite in San Francisco. It is officially named Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe. In various places I have read that it has been an Arab themed place with bellydancing, a Chinese joss house, a speakeasy, a lesbian bar, jazz club, a place made to look like a bull ring, and a bohemian art bar. In 1968 Specs Simmons, an old Boston sheetmetal worker cum political activist, took over the place and filled it with oddball memorabilia. It has a reputation for attracting a range of characters, although they no longer include the girls from the old strip club upstairs, and as if cued for some historical re-enactment on this slow Tuesday evening, one fellow set to playing the old stand-up piano while a Fagin sort of character nodded his beard and top hot sleepily at the corner table.
Simmon's daughter has made a nice little short film on Specs himself, and though I did not meet him, one imagines that perhaps Specs' gritty personality (along with the fairly inconspicuous entrance) keeps the place seeming genuine, rather than gentrifying into some overly precious tourist attraction. And while it seems to host various characters of modest means, it feels a bit too literate and worldly to be classified as a great dive. But like most of the very best of bars, it is both instantly welcoming and not exactly like any other bar in the world.
Good cocktails in a bar that opened just after the depression (originally Tony Nicco's Café -- see history). The place had remodels in 1949 and 2000, and somehow came out of that with a swanky, late 60s, mid-century modern look.
Update: While stories abound about how The Saloon was saved from the 1906 earthquake, after I wrote the post below a commenter brought to my attention a fairly compelling bit of evidence, on the back wall of Spec's, no less, that these stories are in error. Given that the current building housing The Saloon appears to have been constructed in 1907, I now consider the Little Shamrock to be the oldest bar in San Francisco. This position is based on a somewhat arbitrary decision that to cout as the same bar, an establishment must have remained the same building, so there is certainly ample room for disagreement on my position, even if all my facts are correct. In any case, The Saloon is a fine, old establishment.
"The Saloon," Wikipedia says, "is the oldest bar in San Francisco, opened in 1863, and also the only bar to survive the 1906 Earthquake." The bar itself says it was opened Oct. 8, 1861, apparently as "Wagner's Beer Hall" (sfweekly), and this seems to be the more reliable date. I've found no word on when it became officially named "The Saloon." I have read elsewhere that it is considered to be the 6th oldest bar in the United States, however I would refer to Brookston's fine list of the oldest bars in America, which places it 34th.
What constitutes the "oldest bar in San Francisco" depends on how you define a single bar. If it is simply how long a certain location (not any particular building) has hosted a bar, then the oldest is probably the "Old Ship Saloon," which is currently in a 1907 building constructed where the original Old Ship Saloon was cut into the side of the grounded ship The Arkansas in 1851. That is assuming also that you consider it a single bar even if it has been known by different names (the Old Ship was "The Brick" for much of the 20th century). There are some references online to the San Francisco Brewing Company (now The Comstock) dating back to 1861, but these appear to be in error (The Comstock location was constructed as the Andromeda Saloon in 1907).
If you hold that the oldest bar is the one running longest under the same name then the picture gets much more cloudy. This is usually ignored in the claims of bar age. I have not found when "The Saloon" was first known by that name, nor any clear evidence that it has steadily remained that (it seems dubious during prohibition, and even after, when many states outlawed using "saloon" in the name of any bar). The "Little Shamrock" had that name by the mid 1890s (officially 1893, though I believe it was 1894 -- see outsidelands). The Old Ship is not a contender by this standard, as it reverted to the original name only in 1999. And if places like The Saloon and Little Shamrock had stretches under other names, the oldest consistent name might belong to one of the other bars established shortly after the great fire, such as John's Grill or House of Shields, both of which were founded in 1908.
Personally, I am willing to overlook a few years under different names, brief interruptions (longer during prohibition), but I feel that to be the same "bar," the current business has to be in the same basic physical structure as the past versions. Thus I agree with those who consider "The Saloon" to be the oldest in the city.
It certainly looks the part, and does not suffer from over indulgent maintenance and beautification. It is very much a dive, and pours the cheap, strong drinks of a dive. It is owned by Myron Mu, who made a living as a French horn player before taking over for his father, who bought the place in the 1950s. It features live music 7 days a week, and maintains a long-time reputation as the best blues club in the city. At the time that I visited it with a couple friends on a Tuesday evening it was fairly dead. But the evident age of the place, the temporarily silent stage area, and the enticing divey-ness all lay in silent testimony to many rollicking times and amusing stories to be heard.
I had to check out this upscale barbeque place based on a friend's describing them as having "good, smokey Manhattans." They did, and pork plate that I had was very tasty as well.
The only shortcoming for me is that the place is small and busy, which limited its ability to feel relaxed and intimate. That may be picking nits and is probably inevitable for a small space in the financial district with a Michelin star chef. But judging it as a bar, this puts it just a notch below my highly recommended ranking.
The DNA Lounge is a fairly large nightclub and live performance venue that caters to alternative crowds, including "Death Guild," which is claimed to be America's longest running goth night. During the second half of the 90s DNA Lounge was owned by three people including comedian Rob Schneider, and peaked in its popularity, with secret shows by performers like Prince and Metallica. In 1999 the club was purchased by well known open source software developer "jwz" (Jamie Zawinski), who closed it for extensive remodeling and re-opened it in 2001, keeping a blog on his clashes with city hall and other experiences owning the club.
Even during alternative theme nights like Death Guild, Trannyshack, and bootie, with many people dressing the part, the vibe is fairly casual and open (the night of Death Guild I attended on this evening included people in jeans, sandals, and even tie dye). There are two floors, two stages, and two DJs, and of course the vibe and crowd vary widely with day of the week.
375 Eleventh St San Francisco, CA 94103 - (415) 626-1409
Est. Nov 22, 1985
Previous bars at this location: Chaps (leather bar)
Web site: dnalounge.com - facebook
Articles: wikipedia - yelp