San Francisco has been a city of taverns, pubs, saloons, and watering holes for a century and a half, and in all that time these pinnacles of interactive vice, gin-fueled activism, popular culture, and political discourse were bound to absorb their fair share of the local history. Here are some of the most phantom-friendly, genealogically abundant saloons in town.
San Francisco Brewing Co.
155 Columbus (at Pacific), 434-3344, www.sfbrewing.com
Like Li-Po, the Saloon, and Specs, its equally venerable neighbors, the Brewing Co. dates back to the Barbary Coast days and, as such, is one of the city's oldest watering holes. Originally the Andromeda Saloon, it was once a rowdy-enough joint to require the bouncing services of future heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey. (Later, in 1939, the feds cornered “Baby Face” Nelson in the establishment's ladies' room.) Converted into one of the first brewpubs in the country in 1985, the bar boasts an interior with its original skylight, stained-glass doors, and brass-trimmed solid mahogany bar.
The Little Shamrock
807 Lincoln (at Ninth Avenue), 661-0060
Back when Golden Gate Park was a stripling and the Sunset was nothing but shifting sand dunes, the Little Shamrock was the sole stopover between civilization and the edge of the continent. It opened in 1893 as the park was preparing to host the city's first World's Fair, and between the construction crews and the thirsty travelers making the long journey out to Topsy's Roost at the beach, the place flourished. (The free lunch and 5-cent schooners of beer might've helped.) It also survived the 1906 earthquake and several decades of rambunctious good times, and today the original building is a pleasant place in which to relax in a comfy armchair and sip a cocktail.
1000 Great Highway (at Fulton), 386-8439, www.beachchalet.com
Architect Willis Polk is best known for his brown-shingled homes on Russian Hill and the “hanging glass” Hallidie Building at 130 Sutter, but this dramatic 1925 colonnaded structure on the Pacific's rim is equally noteworthy. In 1937 the WPA added a wraparound mural by Lucien Labaudt featuring whimsical portraits of prominent locals — William Randolph Hearst snapping photographs, Harry Bridges pushing a wheelbarrow — and after World War II the Veterans of Foreign Wars took it over for a time. Now the Beach Chalet is a beautifully restored brewpub/restaurant with dramatic vistas from the second floor and a fine museum downstairs.
The Purple Onion
140 Columbus (at Jackson), 956-1653
During its late-'50s/early-'60s heyday, the Purple Onion (and its North Beach neighbor, the hungry i) presented a memorable array of vocal and comedic talent on its cozy stage several steps below Columbus Avenue. Lenny Bruce, the Kingston Trio, a singing and dancing Maya Angelou, Phyllis Diller (making her stand-up debut), and the Smothers Brothers (recording their first album, Live at the Purple Onion) were among the acts that made the place famous. Bud Steinhoff opened the Onion in 1952 (the name was suggested by fellow showman Enrico Banducci) and ran it until his death 37 years later. Current owner Tom Guida has reintroduced comedy to the club's entertainment lineup, making that minuscule yet historic proscenium available to a new generation.
Buena Vista Café
2765 Hyde (at Beach), 474-5044
Anyplace that introduces Irish coffee to an entire nation deserves all the veneration it can get. One evening back in the 1950s, Chronicle travel columnist Stan Delaplane and bar owner Jack Koeppler tried to reconstruct the glorious elixir Delaplane had been served at drizzly Shannon Airport a few days earlier. After several (presumably ever jollier) attempts, the proper balance of potent whiskey, soothing sugar, hot coffee, and cold whipped cream (often described as “the four basic food groups”) was achieved, and fogbound San Franciscans had a new reason to go on living. Nowadays the Buena Vista serves nearly 2,000 Irish coffees per day, and it's indeed a pleasure to while away a drizzly afternoon with the fortifier at hand and the panorama of the bay visible through the big front windows.