San Francisco is a town that was built on bars. Saloons popped up almost as soon as settlers arrived, and a few of the originals (very few) have actually survived the constant change of our ever-changing city. The Saloon, The Old Ship Saloon, The Little Shamrock, Elixir, Vesuvio Cafe, Molloy’s in Colma and a few others are still standing (in one form or another), serving libations to lucky, thirsty patrons.
The poster above is proudly hung on the wall at Ray’s Hearth in the Richmond, and if you take a close look (click on the image to make it larger), you will notice how few of these drinking establishments are still in existence. Here is a (very personal) list of some of my favorite bars that ain’t around no more.
The Gold Dust Lounge
formerly at 247 Powell Street, near Geary, Union Square
This downtown classic was as much a Union Square mainstay as the cable cars that ran outside on Powell Street. Locals and tourists alike loved the friendly, funky vibe in the Gold Dust. The best prices on Irish Coffees, Margaritas and Champagne anywhere! Open at 6 am, it was a hangout for working class and business types. And they offered live music 7 nights a week. Over the years, visitors like Tony Bennett, Janis Joplin (owner Jimmy Bovis almost didn’t serve her!) and legendary columnist Herb Caen (who had his own stool) dropped in to join the fun. Powell Street hasn’t been the same since they were forced to shut the doors after nearly 47 years in existence. Change, for change’s sake.
The good news? For the original Powell Street location- none. They were contentiously, famously displaced for a chain women’s retail store. But, the Bovis Family has set up at a new location on Fisherman’s Wharf at 165 Jefferson Street. Same good drinks, live music, and a beautiful ambiance that mirrors the original. http://www.golddustsf.com
formerly at 1024 Kearny, near Broadway, North Beach
There was the Greek Taverna on Columbus, and then there was Plaka. The joint was loud and boisterous, the air filled with the sounds of classic Greek bouzouki music. As teens, we went to Plaka, with the owner’s daughter, Georgette. Sure, we were underage, but it was a different day, and Hey Natives! When did YOU first drink at a bar back in the day? Uh-huh. Anyways…we’d get a bit of liquid courage working, in the form of glasses of Ouzo, and we’d join the dancers circling the floor, having no idea what in the hell we were doing. But you jumped in the line, held hands and tried to follow the lead of the guy with the handkerchief in the traditional Kalamatiano dance. Then it was time for the amazing feats of wonder as a man lifted a fully-loaded table with his teeth and danced around the floor! And a few times, with a woman on the table!! Insanity! How did you show appreciation? By winging plates on the floor, or breaking full stacks of dishes, of course! The photo below is the late John “Papou” Stewart (Studianis), my daughter’s Grandfather-in-Law, in action! Plaka Taverna owner Gus Derdevanis held court over the wildest nightclub in North Beach. Nothing like it this side of Athens.
The good news? None. The location is just another available office space. And there are no old-style, plate breaking Greek spots in the Bay Area (that I know of), much less in North Beach.
Jay’N Bee Club
2736- 20th Street at York, Mission District
The Jay’N Bee was a noisy neighborhood bar, and one of our regular lunch stops when I was a young moving man working for Bekins Van & Storage, out of the warehouse only a few blocks away at 20th and Alabama. The place was packed with lots of SFPD, with workers from the Mission District factories, and yes, with furniture movers, all sitting inside or on the patio, grubbing on the great Merchant’s Lunch. For a reasonable price, you got a multi-course Family-Style spread that included a complimentary bottle of vino- red or white- served in a Calistoga bottle! And yes, besides the wine, they poured a nice stiff drink at the bar.
The good news? After sitting vacant for years, new management reopened the joint and, by all accounts, seems to have captured some of the down-to-earth spirit of the original Jay’N Bee. Reasonable drinks, good pizza, patio open, nice down-to-earth vibe. No place to park your truck, though. Not at lunchtime. But they aren’t open until 4 pm, so it’s a moot point.
formerly 5160 Mission Street, near Geneva, Outer Mission/Crocker Amazon
I grew up in the Excelsior District. My brothers and sister and I went to grammar school with all of the Balma kids at the now-defunct Corpus Christi Grammar School. Their dad, Gene Balma, ran the only bar I remember seeing my mother frequent regularly. Was Mom fond of the booze? Quite the contrary. Mrs. Cruz was as close to being a teetotaler as you would ever meet. But she went to Gene’s almost every week. For one reason: Gene made The. Best. Roast. Beef. Sandwich. Ever. Seriously. We would park in the lot behind the Bank of America, use the back entrance of the bar, and Mom would have us sit patiently, among the incredible collection of figural liquor bottles that Gene had displayed, while he would cut fresh Sourdough hard rolls, dip them in his secret ingredient au jus, and pile on the thinly-shaved beef. Wrapped in wax paper, we almost couldn’t wait to get them home! Miss you, Mr. Balma! And those sandwiches…
The good news? None. It’s currently the office for a Pentecostal church.
formerly 453 Cortland Avenue, Bernal Heights
Bernal Heights was my hood for a short time, and as anyone familiar with the neighborhood knows, Cortland Avenue is the heart of Bernal. There were two bars up on the Hill: Wild Side West, an LGBT-friendly hangout on the South side of the street (still there and a great bar!), and Skip’s Tavern, on the other side. A Niner bar. A Giants bar. A working class bar. Period. To describe Skip’s as “untrendy” would be an understatement. But it was a cool live music venue. Bands played original Jazz, Rock and Blues sets 7 nights a week. I loved walking over from our house on the East slope, sitting at the big horseshoe-shaped bar, sucking down a cold one or three, and listening to the night’s jam session. Unfortunately, some ASCAP lawyers sued the owner, Bill, for copyright infringement, and he pulled the plug. “Too much trouble.” A another unique dive bar bit the dust.
The good news? Skip’s has been resurrected as The Lucky Horseshoe, and they have live music, so that’s a good thing. http://www.luckyhorseshoebar.com
The Peer Inn
formerly at Pier 33, The Embarcadero
When I worked at KMEL in the late ’80’s, early 90’s, the morning show would gather to do our next-day show preparation at one place: a waterfront bar near the station called The Peer Inn. The Papadakis Family- George, Annie and son Gus- hosted you for a really nice lunch, liquid and otherwise. The Greek chef would occasionally yell “Skata!” at you through the open pass-through from the kitchen. Eddie and Babe, two Teamster forklift operators that worked on Pier 33, would come in for a bracer or three. Annie would eventually put out sweaty slices of salami and cheese as appetizers (yes, we’d eat them all), and bartenders Siobhan and Ava would pour nice stiff Embarcadero-worthy drinks. The bar dice would come out and it was noisy, dice cup slamming hours of Liars Dice, playing for dollars and rounds of drinks and bragging rites. And, sure, we even got a little show prep done.
The good news? Not sure. Butterfly, a Polynesian/Asian/Fusion restaurant is there. An interesting menu. I haven’t tried it yet. And i’m pretty sure that the Teamsters from Pier 33 don’t have lunch there. http://www.butterflysf.com
formerly at 64 Townsend Street at Colin P. Kelly (a WW2 hero), in what is now known as South Beach
Before there was an AT&T Park, and before there was the growth of high-rise high-rent apartments and the tony restaurants and drinking establishments that have popped up in the area, the Southeast end of the city was deeming with warehouses and trucks and industry that fed off the bustling port. San Francisco was the Maritime City and South Beach was filled with bars that cared to working-class longshoremen, Merchant Marines, stevedores and Teamsters that worked the ships and warehouses. I was a lumper (read: hired work horse) for a restaurant supply company and my driver (who was intimately familiar with every bar from North Beach to Dogpatch) introduced me to Bouncers. The walls were covered in souvenirs from all corners of the globe. Behind the bar was a framed poster of Daisy Duck, posed in a classic saloon-style reclining nude pose. I had an Oly for my coffee break, and ate some of the best salmon jerky made by a sailor who was three- no, check that- easily five sheets to the wind. Unforgettable.
The good news? None. More empty office space that a greedy property owner is ready to cash in on. Daisy would be ashamed.
formerly at 619 Market Street at 2nd, Downtown/Financial District
This was one of the many great hofbraus in The City (of which only two- Lefty O’Doul’s and Tommy’s Joynt remain). But Hoffman’s Grill was much more. The look of the place was Old San Francisco, with it’s tiled floors, brass lamps, stained glass, and an Old-World vibe that is hard to fake. The owner, who sometimes worked the bar, was from Bavaria, and it was a kick chatting with him and listening to the German accent. One visit, he brought out the best bar snack ever: oysters on a half shell! (Not sure if that was a regular thing, but it was memorable) Hoffman’s served good cold draft beer in those big round bottomed chalice-shaped glasses (like the giant neon one on top of the Hamm’s Brewery). And tiny bottles of the German digestif Underbred hung from the back bar, ready to settle your upset stomach. This brick-front classic was destroyed in the 1906 quake, rebuilt, and sadly, was closed in the mid-80’s to allow an office building to be built around it. The building exterior has landmark status, but that doesn’t bring back the turn-of-the-century feel inside a once-great saloon.
The good news? It depends. The brick facade is still there. It’s an outlet of San Francisco’s oldest bakery (and their cafe), Boudin. So, if you like a decent clam chowder in a really tasty Sourdough bowl, this is your spot. https://www.boudinbakery.com
formerly 630 Clay Street near Kearny, Financial District
Turk Murphy. Do you know the name? Well, music fans, Turk was the Greatest San Francisco Jazz Trombonist of All Time. Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t know of a lot of other trombonists besides Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and New Orleans’s own Trombone Shorty, and I’ve never seen any of them. But back in the day, we had the giddy honor of watching, and listening to, and dancing to the great Turk Murphy and his Jazz Band at his club on Clay Street, Earthquake McGoon’s. It was such an outstanding nightclub, with was seating upstairs along a rail that overlooked the dance floor. Turk’s band rollicking with the loud, happy sound of Dixieland Jazz up on the stage. Dancing, boozing, happiness. And as a bonus, downstairs was the Magic Cellar, where pro magicians dazzled you. I’m not a big “Magic” fan, and saw one of the best mind-reading tricks ever. Pisses me off, it was so good. Earthquake McGoon’s eventually moved to Pier 39 but that didn’t have the syncopation of the dancehall on Clay Street with the magic cellar.
The good news? None. Ironically, it’s a dialysis clinic.
formerly 1940 Taraval Street between 29th and 30th Avenues, The Sunset
There will always be a place in my heart for the Sunset District, the place where some of my favorite people were raised (my wife being one of them). And it’s also the former home to one of the most laugh-provoking pubs that I ever spent a dollar in: a place called The Lost Weekend. When you walked in the door, past that glass brick front, the first thing you noticed was what, at first glance, seemed to be a piano. Okay, it’s a piano bar, right? Wrong. That’s an ORGAN, and Lost Weekend was the best Organ Bar I’ve ever seen. The organist could play everything, with a playlist that was heavily laden with Standards, but he would not let a then-current Rock song stop his flow. And there was one particular Regular, an older lady, who probably had Opera training in her past, that would hit notes that shook the glassware. Lost Weekend offered good booze, live music like no other, a hang with the fine Sunset Natives, and the funniest night out ever. I miss hearing “White Room” on a Wurlitzer. But, maybe that’s just me.
The good news? It is currently the Parkside Tavern, a nice, friendly local’s hangout with good food and live music (but no organ sing-a-long. And that’s okay.) http://www.parksidetavernsf.com
formerly at 504 Broadway at Kearny, North Beach
Enrico Banducci was the father of the hippest trip in all of The City: the coffee house and bar that had his name above the sidewalk seating on Broadway, Enrico’s. He was like a Beatnik Cher. One name was enough to ID the beret-wearing barman. He founded another San Francisco legend, the hungry i on Jackson (where Enrico brought in up-and-coming talent like Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce), and then decided to open The City’s first ever sidewalk cafe. A place so cool it was featured in one scene of, arguably, the coolest San Francisco movie ever, with the coolest star: “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen. We used to snag a table, and try to look cool. and spend an evening watching the parade pass by. The parade ain’t what it used to be.
The good news? None. Like Steve McQueen, only cool memories remain. It’s a sad empty hulk, a ghost of it’s hip heyday.
formerly at 71 Third Street at Market, South of the Slot (SoMa, for the uninitiated)
Third Street was always Skid Row when I was growing up. But closer to Market were a couple of classic San Francisco saloons, hangouts for Newspaper men (specifically Examiner staff, due to the proximity of the Hearst Building, up on the corner. The Chronicle crew went the M & M Tavern on 5th and Howard- a whole ‘other story) One was Jerry & Johnny’s. The other? Breen’s, which had the most beautiful back bar. Big long bar, maybe the longest I’ve ever seen. The photo below doesn’t do it justice. Breen’s was also a decent Hofbrau. The bartenders and waiters wore white coats and ties. And they served Anchor Beer on tap, which was kind of a rarity, at least at bars I usually visited, which leaned towards Bud and Lucky Lager. But that bar. When Breen’s closed I believe that Henry Africa (Remember him? Of Fern Bar fame?) bought it. But I’m not sure where it eventually landed. Ripping that bar out is like ripping someone’s heart out. Another classic, replaced by….
The good news? None. It’s unrecognizable and the original building is gone, replaced by a monolithic extension of UC Berkeley.