It’s a few days after the Fourth of July and I’m hanging out with the last of the holiday weekend partiers at the Hotel Utah Saloon.
I’m sipping a Templeton Rye and a pint of beer while the strum of a hopeful banjo resonates from the lower galley of this South of Market dive. The bartender with a tattoo of an owl that stretches across her chest calls herself “the baby of the bartenders,” as she’s only been there four years.
“It’s a dive bar, people don’t leave these kind of jobs,” she said.
This is the kind of shot-and-a-beer place where things never seem to change. But the Utah has lived many lives in its existence.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Aside from the Saloon in North Beach, which has been around since the Lincoln administration, the Hotel Utah is said to be San Francisco’s second-oldest bar, built in 1908 when Ford Model T’s shared the road with horse-drawn carriages and the words “Barbary Coast” were still a cornerstone of the lexicon.
In its infancy, when SoMa was just a lonely section of The City, the Utah was frequented by gamblers, police and opium users who sought refuge in this middle-of-nowhere bar. Back then, the prized beer, a Belgian brew called Fredericksburg, was brought in by horse and carriage from Utah. The Utah’s big-beamed wooden back bar, with its huge arches whose shelves are lined with old trinkets and memorabilia from the past, was given to the bar by the Fredericksburg brewery as part of an agreement to carry the beer.
After the Bay Bridge opened in the mid-1930s, SoMa experienced a spike in traffic and thus so did the Utah.
In the 1950s, a fella named Al Opatz bought the saloon and renamed it Al’s Transbay Tavern. He often greeted guests by saying, “Shake the hand that shook the world.” By that time, the clientele shifted from longshoremen and East Bay visitors to beat poets and gangsters. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio would frequent the saloon whenever they were in town, and would stay in the hotel upstairs.
The place changed owners again in the 1970s, and the original name came back in 1977. The saloon also began hosting open mics to support local music, experimental art, writers, comedy and theater. Big names like Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams were some of the first to grace the stage.
The Utah currently hosts The City’s longest-running open mic.
BACK TO THE PRESENT
Today, the bar awkwardly sits at a freeway entrance, with flourescent orange cones bound by yellow ribbon nearby — a landmark of the past in a rapidly changing neighborhood, yet again trying to reinvent itself.
And here I am, sitting next to a bunch of hipsters. The guy behind me in jeans and jean jacket, hat pointed east, is way too cool to sit at one of the empty stools at the bar, opting instead for the pale wooden floor.
The couple to my left are sipping Irish Coffees, getting themselves a “true San Francisco dive bar experience.”
The barback is swinging his bar rag like Bruce Lee with nunchucks.
And yet despite all the change going on around it, inside the Utah things remain the same.