I was relieved to escape the tourist crush for the Buena Vista Cafe (2765 Hyde, 474-5044, TheBuenaVista.com) and calm my jangled nerves with an Irish coffee. Despite its location around the corner from Ghirardelli Square, the Buena Vista has managed to retain dignity and character — it feels like a neighborhood dive that happens to sell up to 2,000 Irish coffees a day. There's a long wooden bar with cushy stools, tables that have good views of the bay on clear days, and yellowing newspaper clippings in glass cases telling the story of the bar's most famous drink.

The Buena Vista didn't invent Irish coffee, but it did make it popular in the States. As the story goes, in 1952, San Francisco Chronicle travel writer Stanton Delaplane returned raving about a concoction he'd sampled in the Shannon airport, and the bar's then-owner Jack Koeppler challenged him to re-create it. When I took my first sip, I realized that I'd never had a proper Irish coffee before — this wasn't cloyingly sweet or too strong, but beautifully balanced. A half-inch of cold, decadent, lightly whipped cream hits the taste buds first, followed by the warm, rich coffee and a slight kickback from the whiskey (the bar switched from a private blend to Tullamore Dew in 2006, which caused a minor local scandal, but I think it works).

The drink was delicious, fortifying, and only $8; the café could probably get away with charging double that, but then only tourists would go there, and something essential would be lost. I sat at the quiet bar and thought about how fame changes a place, and how making history often means getting trapped by it. You can either buy your own hype and erect a museum to yourself ... or you can do what you do best and pour the next drink.

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