By Melanie Graysmith
How do you define an iconic bar? And how do you choose one bar over others that also have time and affection going for them? Iconic bars set the standards high, but not so high that they lose the urban, loveable charm that has made them local favorites in spite of their storied histories: stories that conjure up images of San Francisco from classic to speakeasy, dingy to rustic, clubby to quirky, or old Barbary Coast to Beat Generation. Read on for five such iconic local bars.
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Buena Vista Café
2765 Hyde St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
If ever a café bar location embodied the foggy coolness and spirited bayside beauty of San Francisco, the Buena Vista is the one. With San Francisco’s characteristic cable cars outside its doors, and views of nearby Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge within barstool view, the Buena Vista Café is a classic San Francisco bar. And, as one of San Francisco’s oldest bars, the Buena Vista Café comes with a famed history that makes the iconic label one of the truest around. The delicious and sweetly intoxicating Irish Coffee was created right here in 1952, and is a consistent favorite with bar regulars and tourists alike. Read more about the history of this magical concoction, here.
255 Columbus Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94133
A definite North Beach iconic bar, San Francisco’s Vesuvio Café, founded in 1948, is not only a legendary saloon in all senses of the word, but also comes with an iconic history chock-full of noted characters from its celebrated Beat Generation height of the 1950’s and 1960s. Back then literary, poetry, art, and jazz legends dominated the place, and now the bar’s history and walls. Vesuvio Café sits next to its counterculture cousin, City Lights Bookstore, with its landmark status and shared common alley location renamed “Jack Kerouac Alley” in 1988 from the original tag “Adler.” More than a legend in its own mind, no other place but the Vesuvio Café can you get tipsy on a Jack Kerouac, Top Manhattan or Swinging Beat, or warm up with a Bohemian Coffee. If you live in the City play tourist and revisit the place, if new in town check out Vesuvio Café first, and get introduced to historic North beach at the same time. You’ll love it.
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Hotel Utah Saloon
500 4th St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
Live music every night. Yeah! There you go. That’s your 50 percent iconic already. Not exactly a top-notch hotel, and a whole lot more legendary bar than a shady saloon, The Utah — as it’s casually called – has a lot of history going for it, and yet is a cozy fit in 2017. This place is old, real old actually, built in 1908 to be exact, when San Francisco’s good old time Barbary Coast was still the happening spot; the bar itself was open before, during and after Prohibition (look how long that lasted) and throughout its colorful yet wild and wooly past the Hotel Utah and Saloon continually drew an eclectic clientele of you-name-its, as San Francisco evolved, grew, and developed, particularly after the Bay Bridge was completed in 1936. Today, in addition to its storied history, the Utah Saloon is a terrific musical venue with tasty munchies and light meals served right along with all the regular bar drinks.
Aub Zam Zam
1633 Haight St.
San Francisco, CA 94117
(415) 861- 2545
In a category by itself, Aub Zam Zam (also: Persian Aub Zam Zam) continues to live up to its sticky reputation, love it, like it, or leave it. The stunning Middle Eastern interior décor greets patrons who return knowing full well the rules and regulations, instilled into the mystic of Aub Zam Zam by late owner and bartender Bruno Mooshei. Bruno had high standards, and bar patrons had to meet those high levels of tact as to where to sit, what to drink, and how to behave in his bar; if they didn’t know how to act at a bar Bruno would tell them to leave. End of conversation. Nowadays, the bartenders are a cooler bunch, though can be rude for one infraction or another, or maybe for old times’ sake, but behave yourself and there won’t be a problem. And in spite of a full bar and the potent drinks that emerge, the preferred order here remains the Gin Martini; it’s such a classic civilized cocktail, and Bruno would approve.
6159 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94121
Why is Trad’r Sam, possibly the City’s oldest remaining bar featuring early examples of Tiki design and culture, one of San Francisco’s iconic watering holes? One step inside highlights the famed neighborhood bar’s kitchy appeal and friendly charisma, with seating areas named after tropical islands, the perfect setting for the same sultry concoctions Trad’r Sam has been serving since it opened in 1937, though some patrons may simply refer to the place as a comfy dive bar. Go figure. Any way you define the place Trad’r Sam hits the spot when that craving for an exotic drink hits hard.