If you set out on a quest to find San Francisco's Barbary Coast, the chances that you'll end up sipping a barrel-aged cocktail beneath a fig tree in North Beach are good, but not great. You're just as likely to find yourself at a cannabis dispensary in SoMa, or staring at a sidewalk plaque marking a trail commemorating San Francisco's wild 19th-century history. While the former may sooner get you to a zen-like state, the latter is more likely to get you to that fig tree.
Originating at Mint Plaza and ending at Aquatic Park, the four-mile Barbary Coast Trail is marked by some 170 golden medallions that take you on a journey through the seedy and salacious history of San Francisco. You'll find landmark No. 127 at 478 Green St., the former home of Bocce Café — previously the Old Spaghetti Factory — and current residence of The Barbary Coast, a neighborhood restaurant and bar that pays homage to its past while taking note of current trends through its dishes and drinks.
A cloistered, pebble-paved walkway leads you past the side of the building to the entrance. Taking the narrow trek to the stone-ensconced doorway feels a bit like entering a tucked-away pirate's cove. On the other side of the door, however, you'll find an expansive, sky-lit dining space featuring exposed ceiling rafters, the original terracotta floor tiles, and one hell of a bar. The slick, nickel-topped sipping space is backed by three flatscreen TVs and encircled by more than a dozen dark leather stools. The open dining room, which seats more than 100, welcomes parties large and small with versatile dark wood tables and chairs.
Though there's ample space indoors, the best seat in the house is actually outside, on the modest backyard patio, where two Mission fig trees provide summertime shade, as well as the occasional plummeting piece of fruit. The inclusion of this smaller, more intimate outdoor space allows The Barbary Coast to make the apt (and overused) claim of offering a little of something for everyone, which is what owner Jonathan Tourzan was going for when he converted the space into a family-friendly gastropub.
As he also owns Grant and Green Saloon across the street, Tourzan is no stranger to the neighborhood. He thoughtfully integrates the bohemian history of North Beach and the Beatnik notables from the Old Spaghetti Factory (which had been a pasta factory up until 1955, when it was converted into a cafe, cabaret, and restaurant) into the decor and menu of The Barbary Coast, most notably with its creative cocktails.
The drink menu is divided into house and barrel-aged cocktails and features juxtaposed quaffs like the Jim-Beam-and-red-wine Kerouac and the grape juice, mint, and vodka-blended Ginsberg. Beat poets like Ginsberg had a notorious reputation for heroin and drug use, hence the syrupy-sweet Heroin, a concoction of Añejo rum, crème de banana, Kina L'Avion, and tempura fried banana. Even the potently bitter Dorothy Parker is spiked with Avua amburana cachaça (a distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice). The Barbary Coast also offers brunch drinks, including a trio of mimosas and tableside Bloody Marys, draft and bottled beers, a fair number of wines, and a sizable selection of spirits.
Though you're welcome to spend an afternoon or evening imbibing in Beatnik beverages, a reasonable selection of food options — ranging from bar bites to entrees — is also available. The menu focuses on familiar choices — wings, burgers, pizza, and fish and chips — with bits of California flair and surprising flavors in dishes like the Moroccan baked eggs, a burrata and baby beet salad, and an oven-roasted cauliflower served with Vadouvan yogurt and cashews. It sounds a bit snazzy, but is more straightforward than sophisticated.
Service is top-notch. During a brunch-time visit, I was given the option of outdoor dining, and though I took a seat beneath one of the fig trees, it wasn't long before the shade shifted and the sun broke through. The manager offered to move us without my ever saying a word. This inclined me to order more cocktails, so we all came out ahead.
A visit to The Barbary Coast is hardly a journey back in time. The gastropub isn't an obnoxious themed restaurant and won't really give you an idea of what the place was like in its bohemian prime. It does, however, give a nod to a notable history and a respected neighborhood whose heyday may be gone but not forgotten.