The 18 Oldest Bars in SF
San Francisco has just enough Edison bulbs and tin ceiling tiles to make figuring out which bars are actually, truly old pretty difficult sometimes. If you carbon dated all of the reclaimed barn wood, though, you'd find that these 18 bars are ACTUALLY the oldest bars in the 7x7 -- all of which are at least 80 years young.
The gateway to the Castro, this classic tavern -- one of just two SF bars with landmark status -- is believed to be the first gay bar in the country to feature full-length, open plate glass windows that would reveal what its patrons were up to inside. Today the windows still deliver some of the best people watching in the city, plus hot-hot-hot hillside views.
Today the ‘Shoe is known as a hyper-local dive that offers a respite from the frat-tastic Marina scene. You can credit the original owner Vic Ramos, a former US Marine who played football for the team that would become the 49ers, for its rep as a non-Marina Marina bar. Vic was staunchly protective of his regular clientele, refusing offers to sell the bar several times because he worried it would fall victim to a trendy scene. Eventually he did sell it on the condition that the new owners keep its divey, inclusive charm (which they did!).
In the '40s and '50s, local mobsters got together at La Rocca’s to decide on who to drown in the Bay next over cheap, stiff drinks next to Joe DiMaggio, who was a regular. And while the mobsters/Yankee Clipper are no longer around (today you’ll spot local and visiting comedians doing shots after shows at next-door Cobb’s Comedy Club), the cheap, stiff drinks totally are.
This bar inside the luxurious Clift has the whole glamour and elegance thing down, from the “gold nuggets” under the glass at each table to the classic cocktails expertly crafted behind the grand bar. The bar -- which used to also serve as a restaurant -- gained national notoriety in 1971 for turning away guests who violated the hotel’s conservative dress and hairstyle code (prompting Herb Caen to ridicule it relentlessly, claiming it maintained “standards set in the Coolidge era as opposed to the Cool era”... zing!). But when the hotel's president died in '73, the new dude put a stop to all that. Fun fact: the wood paneling is all pulled from a single, 2,000-year-old Redwood.
Don’t be fooled by the “café” sign out front -- one of the oldest signs in North Beach -- this cocktail spot doesn’t actually serve food, but has kept its original moniker as a relic from its roots when bars had to have a kitchen in order to get a liquor license. One of the first bars to open after Prohibition (and in North Beach period), this classic has had plenty of time to perfect its cocktail-slinging craft. Today the vibe feels frozen in the '60s with wood paneling on the walls, and sleek low booths, making it the perfect place to order a Manhattan and get your Mad Men on.
This neighborhood pub is proof bars only get better with age/redesigns by the 83 Proof guys, who renovated the space a couple years ago, restoring the old timey-ness (complete with a piano stage and working gas fireplace), while keeping both the original bar counter and stained glass.
While the Buena Vista has been in operation since 1912, it wasn’t until 1952 that it cemented itself in drinking history -- that's the year it claims to have brought the Irish Coffee to our shores. That same recipe is still used today and basically the sole reason tourists line up out the door and locals come to the wharf period.
A former gentlemen's club where women were not allowed (unless they were prostitutes) until 1976, House of Shields also operated as an actual speakeasy during Prohibition, with an underground passageway connecting it to the Palace Hotel. Presidential side note: Warren Harding was known to go super hard here. Today the lack of TVs/clocks make this the ultimate FiDi bar for happy hour drinks that turn into nightcaps.
One of the oldest gay bars in the city and the only one with a big-ass ship sticking out of it, Gangway experienced an anti-gay raid the same year it opened. That didn’t stop it from being a refuge for the gay community then, and ever since, even during Prohibition when it renamed itself The Larkin Street Grill and housed a speakeasy in the basement.
Before the Bay Bridge, before Prohibition, when South of Market was just a dusty strip of San Francisco’s waterfront, Hotel Utah was a refuge for gold-seekers, opium users, politicians, and gamblers in search of a Belgian brew brought in by horse and carriage from Utah. Rumor has it, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio would frequent the saloon whenever they were in town, and stay in the hotel upstairs, and Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams both performed on open mic nights, which are still the longest running of their kind in the city.
Drinking at this bar may be the closest you’ll get to time travel (unless you have a time machine, then you'll get, like, wayyyyy closer). Painstakingly restored to its Prohibition Era glory (including a cozy corner stove), Homestead is still armed with historic, classic cocktails like a Corpse Reviver, Rob Roy, and Hemingway, and $1 peanuts/pickles (old-timey prices, FTW). Flooding from a water main break during the 1906 earthquake is credited with saving the bar from burning down and during Prohibition, Homestead became a "restaurant." Coolest old bar fact: if you'd gone there to drink in 1980, you would have paid 35 cents for a beer and 55 cents for a whiskey. Where's a time machine when you need one?
As the oldest bar in the Marina, Bus Stop Saloon has been family run for more than 100 years (they're four generations deep at this point!). Bonus: the present-day Bus Stop has not one, but two (!) happy hours. Score beer, well drinks, Jameson, and Fireball for just $4 from 4-6pm and 10-close.
The German immigrants who ran this bar as a grocery store cemented it as the place to get a good beer via a back room grog shop, and the reputation holds true to this day, minus the back room grog shop thing, and plus a regular bar in place of the grocery store. Shotwell's has a wide selection of local and international ales at the bar, which also sports a wide selection of never-filled bullet holes from back in the day.
The Sunset's oldest business period, there's some debate about what year exactly Little Shamrock opened in the 1890s, but there's no denying its place in SF drinking history. According to the Shamrock: "When the 49ers played in Kezar Stadium there were always problems finding parking spaces for the games. People would park in the surrounding neighborhoods and often on their way back to their cars they would stop by the Little Shamrock for a drink. Over the years many famous sports figures also stopped by the pub." This place hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1890, save a couple crucial additions: TVs, every board game you can think of, and a backgammon table.
Well-priced drinks, free pool and popcorn daily until 7pm, and super-friendly bartenders make this former Prohibition speakeasy a true North Star in the San Francisco bar scene. In the business of turning out happy, tipsy customers (including decades of union bosses, politicians, newspapermen, firemen, and cops) since 1882, the tradition is alive and well today with nice touches, such as the annual Mardi Gras party, Cajun-style feasts for football games, and the quirky customer-of-the-month program.
Somehow, through technicalities we don’t quite understand, The Saloon gets the proud title of San Francisco’s Oldest Bar, even though there were places where bar things were happening before this North Beach watering hole and blues venue opened its doors. Either way, this place is hella old. And it looks largely the same as it did in 1861, thanks to the neighborhood firemen and locals who scrambled to save it from the fiery aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake. There was apparently a brothel operating upstairs. Priorities!
While many historic bars in San Francisco have operated as other businesses, like grocery stores, the corner of 16th and Guerrero has been home to nothing but a saloon since 1858 (including during Prohibition when it served as a "soft drink parlor"). The bar -- which burned down in 1906 and was quickly rebuilt -- still has a Prohibition Era sign next to the side door that once served as the “ladies’ entrance” warning women about the evils of saloons.
In 1849 a ship crashed into Alcatraz during a storm (because it was 1849 and these things happen) and was later towed to what is now Pacific and Battery, home to today’s Old Ship Saloon. Obviously bootleggers, gamblers, sailors, and other hard-drinking characters congregated in the broken ship hull, creating one of the city’s first saloons and beginning San Francisco’s reputation as a place of innovation where you can drink beer anywhere. Today the place has more flat-screen TVs and amazing breakfast sandwiches than criminals and broken ship parts, but the nautical décor pays tribute to the saloon’s beginnings.
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Amy Copperman is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She’s always just a couple of Manhattans away from busting out the Charleston.