Not Dead Yet: The 10 Oldest Businesses in San Francisco

San Francisco culture isn’t dead (yet). That’s the message of this week’s issue of SF Weekly, which profiles eight venues that opened in the past year.

But the city’s culture is changing, which has been true since the Gold Rush, when the population increased by the thousands almost overnight. Today, with rents exploding, new residents arriving, old residents leaving, and businesses shuttering, natives grasp onto anything familiar.

Standing like proud, battleworn survivors for more than a century, the following businesses represent classic San Francisco.


Tadich Grill
240 California St.
Est. 1849

Tadich Grill is not only San Francisco's oldest restaurant, but the oldest in California. Nikola Budrovich, Frano Kosta, and Antonio Gasparich opened the Coffee Stand on Long Wharf in 1849, serving fresh fish over charcoal to those on the pier (before California was even a state). Coffee Stand eventually became the New World Coffee Saloon, then the Cold Day Restaurant, when one of its bartenders, John Tadich, bought it in 1887. Today, Tadich Grill is still a seafood restaurant serving the freshest catches, and is still as popular as ever. It doesn't take reservations — probably because it doesn't have to. Celebs will wait for tables right along with you.

Boudin Bakery
Flagship: 160 Jefferson St.
Est. 1849

In 1849, sourdough met San Francisco, and neither was the same again. Isadore Boudin opened a bakery in North Beach to cater to the influx of miners, and discovered that the city's air, combined with wild yeasts, created a tangy flavor that proved irresistible. San Francisco sourdough was born. The coolest part is we all get to savor that same distinctive flavor from 1849 because Boudin uses the same starter or “mother dough” from that year (the recipe for which Louise Boudin saved from the 1906 earthquake-cum-fire).

Old Ship Saloon
298 Pacific Ave.
Est. 1851

In 1849, a ship named the Arkansas got caught in a storm and crashed onto Alcatraz. It was towed to the corner of Pacific Avenue and Battery Street, part of the infamous Barbary Coast in 1851. There, Joe Anthony tore a hole in the side of the ship, added a plank, and made it into a saloon called the Old Ship Ale House, complete with a sign reading “gud, bad, and indif'rent spirits sold here.” James Laflin, a cabin boy on the Arkansas, became the bartender, with the shadiest of side jobs. He was a Shanghaier, meaning he would get men drunk, drug them and/or knock them unconscious, and sell them as crew to departing ships (some to Shanghai).

The ship that was The Old Ship Ale House was dismantled in 1867 and replaced by a brick building, with a hotel located above the bar. It was renamed the Old Ship Saloon, then Bricks Bar & Grill in 1907, and during WWII, contained a brothel upstairs for servicemen. It has now returned to being called The Old Ship Saloon and is the oldest drinking site in San Francisco, although, if you drink there today, you're no longer in danger of waking up on the other side of the world.

Books Inc.
Headquarters: 1501 Vermont St.
Est. 1851

In 1851, Anton Roman made big money off of the Gold Rush and decided to open Shasta City bookshop (inaugurating the first San Francisco locale in 1857). Roman began publishing books by literary greats such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain in 1863, but eventually sold the shop in 1880. After changing owners several times, losing its Montgomery Street location to the 1906 earthquake, and numerous name changes, the shop, now called Books Inc., reemerged in the Fairmont Hotel in 1946. Today, Books Inc. stands as the West Coast’s oldest independent bookseller, with 11 California stores (four of them in San Francisco). Seeing as several of our city's bookstores have vanished over the years, that’s quite the feat.

Wells Fargo
Headquarters: 420 Montgomery St.
Est. 1852

It's hard to imagine banking without the name Wells Fargo, but it wasn't until July 18, 1852, that Henry Wells and William G. Fargo (also founders of American Express) opened Wells Fargo & Company for business in San Francisco and Sacramento. The company bought gold from customers and, in exchange, gave paper bank drafts, as well as offered express freight and messaging services via the iconic stagecoach. As of July 2015, it is the world's largest bank, with offices in 36 countries. It’s still headquartered in San Francisco.

Shreve & Co.
117 Post St.
Est. 1852

George C. and Samuel Shreve were sure of one thing — the instant millionaires of the Gold Rush were going to want to spend that money. As a result, the Shreve Jewelry Company opened in 1852 at 139 Montgomery Street, offering the nouveau riche luxurious European home goods and fine jewelry. The store moved around the city before settling into the newly constructed Shreve Building at 200 Post Street in March 1906. The following month, the 1906 earthquake struck; despite some damage, the Shreve Building survived intact.

While the interior was being remodeled, Shreve set up shop in Oakland for two years. The store closed briefly during WWI so that silversmiths could make airplane parts, but otherwise it’s remained a constant in San Francisco's Union Square for close to a century. Sadly, it was announced this year that Harry Winston would move into the Shreve Building, as Shreve's lease was up and the building's owner accepted a higher bid. Refusing to fade into history, Shreve had a massive sale and moved a block away.

Levi Strauss & Co.
Headquarters: 1155 Battery St.
Est. 1853

It's hard to believe the first pair of jeans were made all the way back in 1873, right here in San Francisco, and remain arguably the most universal apparel item in the world. In 1853, Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco to sell wholesale dry goods, met tailor Jacob Davis, and together they created durable pants reinforced with copper rivets, perfect for Gold Rush miners. (We really owe a lot to those gold diggers, don't we?) The Levi's factory on Valencia Street near 14th is no more, but Levi's jeans are one of SF's greatest inventions.

The Old Clam House
299 Bayshore Blvd.
Est. 1861

You know an establishment is old when it opened the same year Abraham Lincoln became President. The Old Clam House was called The Oakdale Bar & Clam House when it debuted in 1861, on what was then the waterfront (when Bayshore was actually a bay shore). Ambrose Zurfluh and wife Anna offered seafood to the masses enjoying San Francisco’s waters. The Old Clam House still cooks up nautical delights 150 years later, and has the distinction of being the oldest SF restaurant that has remained in its original location. 

The Saloon
1232 Grant Ave.
Est. 1861

Ladies and gentleman, The Saloon is officially San Francisco's oldest bar. Opened in 1861 by Ferdinand E. Wagner, on what was then 308 DuPont Street, it has remained in the same location (now 1232 Grant Avenue) ever since. Back then, it was christened Wagner's Beer Bar. Now, fast forward to 1906 and that infamous earthquake-cum-fire that devastated the city. Firemen rushed to save the building from catching on fire — and succeeded (although word has it that the firemen really just wanted to protect their favorite brothel upstairs). Another reincarnation in the 1960’s and 70’s transformed The Saloon into a popular blues bar, and in 2015, you can still catch live music daily while enjoying your favorite adult beverage.

Fior d'Italia
2237 Mason St.
Est. 1886

Fior d'Italia is another restaurant that is the oldest of its kind (Italian) in both San Francisco and California. Opened by Angelo Del Monte on May 1, 1886, it served miners stopping in San Francisco for supplies, as well as clients of a bordello in the same building. Within a week of the 1906 earthquake, Fior was serving food to the homeless, despite having lost its own building. Soon, it flourished into a grand establishment, with a band that entertained greats like Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford during Prohibition. Ever headstrong in the face of adversity, Fior d' Italia has survived fires, earthquakes, location changes, and a brief closure in 2012 to remain a classic San Francisco institution.

*Ghiradelli Chocolate Company, another iconic SF institution, was not included on this list. But since it was founded in 1852, it deserves a special mention here.

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