North Beach has been the center of San Francisco's rambunctious nightlife ever since the Gold Rush days, and today several excellent neighborhood saloons uphold this venerable tradition. Some offer live music, some serve food, many are boisterous, and a few are merely moody, but each one reverberates to its own particular beat. Covering all of them in one night is probably inadvisable, so we've narrowed it down to seven.
San Francisco Brewing Company
155 Columbus (at Pacific), 434-3344, www.sfbrewing.com
Begin the evening in this heritage-rich Barbary Coast saloon (established 1907) where Jack Dempsey was once employed as a bouncer and Baby Face Nelson was apprehended by the FBI. The original mahogany-and-beveled-mirror bar is a fine spot to sip the house-brewed Emperor Norton Lager or Alcatraz Stout.
255 Columbus (at Kerouac), 362-3370, www.vesuvio.com
The glorious old bohemian bar, with its stained-glass windows, mezzanine seating, and overwhelming, ever-evolving décor, is your next stop. Beatifically located next to City Lights Bookstore. Give a listen to Charlie Parker on the jukebox while you down a pint of Anchor Steam and discuss Rimbaud.
12 William Saroyan Alley (at Columbus), 421-4112
Up the alleyway across Columbus is this ancient, dimly lit seafarer's saloon decorated with amazing and unearthly artifacts from around the world. Postcards from homesick regulars are in a shoebox on the bar for your perusal, and huge wedges of Monterey Jack (carved on some antique contraption out of Two Years Before the Mast) are available for purchase. Beer No. 3, coming up.
1232 Grant (at Vallejo), 989-7666
Now head up Grant — the Vieux Carré of the West Coast — and settle in at San Francisco's oldest watering hole (established 1861 or thereabouts). Live music bounces off the well-worn walls and encourages the dancers who crowd the place on weekends. Time to switch to bourbon.
1434 Grant (at Green), 362-7023
Grab a seat on the patio and watch the world amble by at this perpetually packed landmark. Young urban professionals are the plat du jour, if you're into that sort of thing. Yeah, I'll have another bourbon, on the rocks this time.
Golden Boy Pizza
542 Green (between Grant and Stockton), 982-9738
Even if Golden Boy isn't officially a saloon, you can still sit at the counter and order good draft beer or a glass of jug wine, and anyway, by this point in the evening you'll need a nice thick slab of the establishment's fragrant focaccia pizza to help you make it through the night.
Gino & Carlo's
548 Green (at Grant), 421-0896
Conclude your revels with a wobbly game of pool in the back room, with its autographed photo of Frank Sinatra and other memorabilia. Few bars offer a friendlier vibe, and the jukebox ain't bad either; it's the perfect place for a nightcap. Now take two aspirin, drink a gallon of water, and get some sleep.