Saloon: SF’s oldest bar has plenty of stories to tell 

click to enlarge Saloon
  • Mike Hendrickson/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • North Beach’s gritty Saloon has the feel — and fragrance — of decades of history.
Editor’s note: Behind the Stick will begin featuring stories from time to time on legacy bars in San Francisco. To kick things off, we bring you the Saloon, the oldest bar in The City and possibly the grimiest.

It’s a Wednesday night in North Beach, and I’m off work and looking for entertainment.

Just a few blocks from my Nob Hill apartment is the Saloon, a corner bar at Grant Avenue and Fresno Street with live R&B and no cover except on Saturdays. The place is a San Francisco institution, the oldest bar in The City, pouring drinks since 1861. Back then, it was called Wagner’s Beer Hall.

Past the long-bearded bouncer and through the swinging doors, all is familiar at the old Saloon.

Someone is singing their heart out while the big scruffy fella in suspenders and a bucket cap owns the floor, taking beautiful women away for a twirl and a tip while their rhythm-compromised boyfriends stand on the sidelines. Guys love to hate him.

The big guy has even taken a couple of dances away from me on a few of my visits, which is why I left my dancing shoes at home this time around.

Instead, I’m holding down the corner of the bar with Alfred, another lonely guy who’s at least twice my age and looking for a drink and some conversation. He left his house for a few rounds after his longtime girlfriend hit the sack.

“You married?” Alfred asked.

“Three times divorced,” I joked. “Looking for my fourth.”

“When you’re young, you just rush into things,” Alfred said, still under the impression that a 20-something like me is that much of a rolling stone. “When you’re older, you understand a little more. How they make you feel and stuff. You can see it when you look in their eyes.”

I’ll take that.

This bar has lived many lives, something Alfred’s known well since first stepping through the swinging doors in 1969.

Alfred talks about how the Saloon was once lined with poker tables where gamblers would shuffle the night away, exchanging gold into the palms of lucky hands. But sometimes after a bad card on the river (that’s Texas Hold ’Em lingo), people would put a bullet into the floor, because if they put one in the ceiling, they might just kill someone upstairs. The holes left in the wood floor are now filled with wax.

In the 1970s, Alfred found himself in the company of the Hells Angels, who were notorious for roaring their engines both on their way to and from the bar, which is probably the main reason no motorcycles are allowed to park on the curb in the adjacent alley. Coincidentally, The City’s new bike-share program put a dozen blue bikes right across the street. How cute.

Behind the bar is Pat from New England, a jittery fella who held my $20 bill up to the light, snapped his fingers to the drum beat and even gave a few knocks on the old bartop before opening my Amstel Light.

I don’t care to order any mixed drinks here. And I don’t care to put my lips on any of the glassware. Just cold beer out of the bottle.

And I don’t care for the smell at all.

I always imagined the aroma of the place was due to longevity. But rumor has it that troughs were once set up beneath the bar so that patrons could relieve themselves without leaving their seats. How convenient.

Pat the bartender has been around the Saloon even longer than Alfred, sharing with me what he knows of the old watering hole. Pat said the space upstairs was once a brothel where tired miners came for a shot at a lovely lady.

“What did you do after you’ve been up in the hills, mining for gold all day? Come back to The City and buy a bunch of food? No! You came here, grabbed a bottle and grabbed yourself a lady upstairs,” Pat said.

And after the 1906 earthquake, the Saloon was said to be the only bar in the old Barbary Coast that survived the fires.

The story goes that after the smoke cleared and the dust settled, people did one of two things: Went to the church around the corner to pray, or went to the Saloon to raise a glass with the rest of the sinners.

Pat, I’ll take another round.

About The Author

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado is a cocktail enthusiast and sucker for soul and sweet reggae music. A food and drink blogger since 2009, Rhys has sipped his way from Hawaii to Santa Barbara and up the coast to San Francisco, where he's found a glorious wave of craft concoctions and expert drink-makers.
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