Exploring the Colorful Pasts of San Francisco's Legendary Bars and Restaurants

These historic establishments have helped define the city’s rich and zany cultural identity.

When Marc Goldfine and his business partners took over Dogpatch Saloon, they decided to polish up the 100-year-old watering hole. Before beginning the five-month renovation, they researched the bar’s history and its place in the fabric of the Dogpatch district. Set south of Mission Bay on San Francisco’s eastern shoreline, the neighborhood houses industrial mainstays, creative businesses, recent retail and restaurant additions and a growing number of residential options.

Dogpatch Saloon

“It’s a really eclectic neighborhood,” says Goldfine. “Part of the challenge was that the bar has been around since 1912. It was ostensibly the neighborhood bar when we took it over, but we didn’t think it really reflected what the neighborhood was becoming. The trick was to strike a balance—we didn’t want to come in and run roughshod over everything old.”

From the martini-drinking dog in the Dogpatch Saloon’s stained glass windows to the unmistakable wood booths and white uniforms of Tadich Grill and the famed Irish coffees poured at Buena Vista Cafe, San Francisco possesses a culinary heritage as diverse and colorful as the city itself. As current construction projects reshape the landscape, maintaining the city’s historic cafes and hole-in-the-wall cocktail dens becomes increasingly challenging. The Gold Dust Lounge, for example, relocated to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2013 after losing the Union Square lease it held for 47 years. The legendary Tonga Room tiki bar in the Fairmont Hotel is among many classic spots that have been threatened with displacement.

The Tonga Room

“A lot of energy is being put into how we balance the explosive growth that’s on going while not sacrificing the soul of the city,” says Mike Buhler, executive director of San Francisco Heritage. The nonprofit organization has led local preservation, advocacy and educational efforts since 1971.

In response to such concerns, San Francisco Heritage debuted the Legacy Bars and Restaurants initiative. The project spotlights 100 of the city’s legendary bistros, bakeries and bars in an interactive online map that explores the history and evolution of each. A printed pocket guide outlines participating businesses by neighborhood, so that guests and locals can easily visit these legendary establishments. Program administrators created window decals that call attention to Legacy members, and they promote the restaurants and bars via press outreach and social media.

San Francisco Heritage has also partnered with Berkeley’s Heyday publishing and San Francisco Chronicle reporter J.K. Dineen to produce a book that takes an in-depth look at select Legacy businesses. That publication is scheduled for fall 2015 release.

“We launched the Legacy Bars and Restaurants project as an initial step to at least recognize and celebrate the significance of these places across San Francisco and their role in defining the character and the history of the city,” says Buhler, who hopes raising awareness will also inspire new strategies and policies designed to protect cultural assets.

Dogpatch Saloon

Businesses included on the Legacy list must have recorded at least 40 continuous years of operation. They also must contribute to the culture of the surrounding neighborhood and possess distinctive architectural or interior design features. In the case of Dogpatch Saloon, architectural highlights include stained glass windows and a vintage bar with a brass plaque reserving a seat for a former owner nicknamed “Tugboat Annie.” During the remodel, Goldfine updated the plaque to reserve a space for both Annie and for his most recent predecessor, former owner Mike Apicelli.

The district’s industrial ties inspired other accents in the renovated space. A section of Muni track manufactured by one-time Pier 70 neighbor Bethlehem Steel forms the footrail of the bar. A welder fashioned the barstools from century old chairs salvaged from a Stanford science lab.

“We wanted it to feel like things had been there a long time,” says Goldfine. “We didn’t want it to feel like a brand new place, even though a lot of it is new.”

Original Joe's

Original Joe’s took a similar approach when it moved to North Beach after a fire closed its longtime Tenderloin location. The third-generation Italian restaurant reclaimed much of its wood from the original space, along with counter seats and distinctive mermaid wall murals. Old photos lining one hallway showcase the history of the restaurant, which was founded in 1937.

A scroll through the interactive Legacy Bars and Restaurants map reveals other fascinating facts from San Francisco’s culinary past. Tadich Grill, which opened as a coffee stand during the 1849 Gold Rush, relocated several times before moving from Clay Street to its current California Street site in 1967. Owners transferred the original Clay Street bar and carefully preserved the restaurant’s atmosphere and Art Deco design features.

Tadich Grill opened two days after San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake, despite a lack of utilities, and the menu included only meals that could be cooked without gas: Crab Louie, grilled fish and deep-fried prawns, plus free bloody Marys.

In North Beach, Vesuvio has counted Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan among guests since opening in 1948—and some of its more famous visitors have been famously kicked out at one point or another.

San Francisco's Tosca Cafe

Across the street, three Italian immigrants patterned Tosca Cafe on their favorite places back home. Prohibition took effect less than two months after the bar opened, so the trio imported an Italian espresso machine and began serving their now well-known house cappuccinos and White Nuns.

When Prohibition ended, Denis McCarthy was one of the first bar owners to legally serve alcohol. Booths in his Original McCarthy’s on Mission included curtains and call buttons that let patrons drink in privacy. The establishment became Cha Cha Cha in the late 1990s, but maintains ties to its Irish origins even in its contemporary Cuban format.

Cha Cha Cha restaurant in San Francisco

For Legacy members, navigating the old and the new creates challenges as well as opportunities. Suyeichi Okamura opened one of Japantown’s original businesses, Benkyodo Company, in 1906. His grandsons Ricky and Bobby still craft traditional Japanese confections by hand.

Many of their recipes for mochi (rice cakes typically filled with ice cream, bean paste or other sweets) and manju (a variation on mochi) were passed down from their father and grandfather. In recent years, however, the brothers have added other ingredients to the lineup.

“Traditional manju is made with sweet bean paste, so either adzuki beans, red beans or lima beans. Now they have peanut butter inside, and they’re also using fresh strawberries, blueberries and sometimes baked apple,” says Lori Matoba, the great-granddaughter of Benkyodo Company’s founder.

Her family’s primary customers have historially been first- or second-generation Japanese-Americans in the area, she explains. But, as the neighborhood changes and cultural ties loosen among younger generations, attracting a wider audience is more important. Matoba believes that newer, nontraditional customers appreciate the history and authenticity of Benkyodo Company, and she hopes they’ll continue supporting independent establishments as San Francisco evolves.

“This is a city that’s got a lot of great and colorful history, but it’s just changing very, very quickly now,” agrees Marc Goldfine. “Money doesn’t always care about history... You want to try to preserve what you can.”

He likens the city’s Legacy list businesses to classic cars that sport original interiors, but run more smoothly thanks to updated engines.

 San Francisco's Vesuvio

“Places like Vesuvio or Dogpatch Saloon or Elixir, in the Mission, they’re very comfortable places to be. It’s easy for anyone to go in and feel at home. Even when a place has actually been renewed, it’s still got the bones of the original,” Goldfine says.

Comfort is just one reason that San Franciscans still frequent their favorite haunts. Restaurants and bars serve up popular flavors. They foster lasting social connections by functioning as unofficial community centers. And, they are the sites of memorable moments like first dates, engagements, anniversaries and graduation parties. Customers purchase Benkyodo Company sweets for everything from New Year festivities to memorial services; diners visit the Palace Hotel’s elegant Garden Court restaurant to celebrate holidays, weddings and countless other special events.

The Palace Hotel’s Pied Piper Bar & Grill

The Palace Hotel’s Pied Piper Bar & Grill, another Legacy business, exemplifies what can happen when community members rally for preservation. After hotel owners announced plans to sell the Maxfield Parrish painting that hangs behind the bar, the public lobbied to save the 16-foot-long piece that is one of only two Parrish barroom works in the country.

“It really was amazing to see the unanimous outpouring of community support to bring that painting back to the hotel,” says Buhler. San Francisco Heritage circulated a petition and coordinated efforts that helped convince hotel owners to keep the painting.

“We really do want to emphasize the importance of the public’s role in sustaining these places,” Buhler says. “Every week in San Francisco, we hear about the new cutting-edge restaurant that has opened. What we hope to do with the Legacy project is to really celebrate the mainstays of our cultural landscape. The best way for these places to survive is to continue as viable businesses.”

“In San Francisco, we have the ability to preserve parts of the past that are really worth saving,” says Goldfine. “We’ve got the minds and the creativity and the will to do it here. The Legacy project is testimony to that.”