Drinking in the Past at San Francisco's Historic Bars

San Francisco's historic bars are scattered around Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill, North Beach, and the city's former red light district. Old San Francisco conjures up images of Barbary Coast bad boys, clipper ships, Gold Rush fortune hunters, opium den warlords, billionaire railroad barons, silver tycoons, and the devastation of 1906.
When the great earthquake and fire left 80 percent of the city crumbled that year, the City by the Bay rose anew from the ashes. Here's where to raise a glass at the city's historic bars.
The Saloon
1232 Grant Ave., San Francisco
The oldest bar in San Francisco is a gritty blues dive. The Saloon dates from mid-19th century Gold Rush days and survived the earthquake half a century later. If great music, cheap drinks, and sawdust on a cramped and crowded dance floor with a sprinkling of salty characters with Santa Claus beards is your idea of a good time, head for this place in North Beach. Cover charge for the band varies from $10 to zero when they forget to collect it. Bring cash, but leave your disco duds at home. No official website -- telephone is 415-989-7666. Cheers!
Top of the Mark
InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel
1 Nob Hill, San Francisco
Drinking in a view of the Golden Gate Bridge for good luck, Scotch in hand, World War II soldiers and sailors had that last one here before bidding adieu. Sweethearts would gather in "Weepers' Corner" for a loving last look out to sea. This cocktail lounge is located on the 19th floor of the hotel, providing panoramic views of the city and San Francisco Bay, including Golden Gate Bridge and other famous landmarks. Fans over the years have included Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, and Tony Bennett. San Franciscans have shared this Nob Hill landmark with presidents, royals, and visitors by the thousands since 1926. Make mine a martini -- the menu has 100.
Buena Vista Cafe
2765 Hyde Street, San Francisco
Serving up to 2,000 Irish coffees of precisely 6 ounces topped with a perfect dollop of cream is the daily ritual at the legendary Buena Vista . A plaque proudly proclaims that "America's first Irish coffee was made here in 1952." A saloon since 1916, fishermen gathered here for a whiskey, watching sardine boats come in past Alcatraz Island before heading back to work at the cannery. Coveted window tables boast a quintessential San Francisco view overlooking the famous cable car turnaround, offering a panoramic bridge and bay view beyond Fisherman's Wharf. Those in the know time their visit with the setting sun.
Tosca Cafe
242 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
As luck would have it, opening day at Tosca Caf e was only two months prior to the introduction of Prohibition in January 1920. Fans are grateful that San Francisco's third oldest bar survived as an Italian restaurant. Through generations, Tosca Cafe became a gin joint of repute, a watering hole for the jet set, a destination for dancers, a tradition for politicians, and a desirable film set. Every native San Franciscan should have a story or two about the Tosca Cafe. Local legend has it that Bob Dylan and a barefoot Joan Baez were asked to leave for being too scraggly. It's cash only here in the heart of North Beach.
Harry Denton's Starlight Room
Sir Francis Drake Hotel
450 Powell St., San Francisco
Atop the 1928 Sir Francis Drake Hotel at Union Square, a landmark neon sign beckons, " Starlight Room ." On the 21st floor of the hotel, disco balls cast dancing reflections on cozy red velvet banquettes as city lights sparkle outside the windows. Up here, perched "between the cable car and the stars," a nightclub in the sky has occupied this Art Deco space since World War II. Wear your vintage frock from the '40s for a cocktail -- the menu covers drinks from each decade since cocktails began -- accompanied by 360-degree views.


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