SF Heritage celebrates classic bars and restaurants 

click to enlarge Mike Buhler
  • Juan Pardo/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Mike Buhler helped save the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” painting, which was restored and now hangs at the Pied Piper bar.
When Mike Buhler first heard last year that the owners of the Palace Hotel were trying to sell Maxfield Parrish’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he was loath to believe it.

It wasn’t just that the painting had been part of the hotel bar and its name for more than 100 years, or that it’s where he goes for a Dark and Stormy. This was personal.

“The Pied Piper was where I was interviewed for this job,” Buhler said.

Since 2010, Buhler has served as executive director for San Francisco Heritage, a nonprofit that focuses on San Francisco’s architectural and cultural identity.

In 2012, Buhler helped form San Francisco Legacy Bars and Restaurants, an initiative meant to celebrate, recognize and highlight neighborhood haunts like the Pied Piper.

And as a result of the Pied Piper being recognized as a Legacy establishment, Buhler and his team were well-positioned to bring the painting back. The day after the painting was removed, Buhler created an online petition. Within two days, 2,000 signatures were gathered. Then, Mayor Ed Lee and other public officials stepped in.

And so the story goes: The people rallied to bring the painting back, ownership restored the $3 million to $5 million work intended for auction at Christie’s New York, and the “Pied Piper” was returned to its rightful place.

“That is a prime example of how the Legacy project has unexpectedly created an advocacy tool for us,” Buhler said. “It was really wonderful to see so many people from The City and around the world share their stories of spending time at the Pied Piper and the significance of the place.”


From the second story of the Haas-Lilienthal House — The City’s only Victorian-era house and museum open for tours — Buhler and his team work to preserve and secure landmark status for community anchors, architectural hubs, restaurants and bars.

The organization was assembled in 1971 in the wake of redevelopment initiatives in the Western Addition and elsewhere that resulted in widespread demolition of Victorian buildings in The City. One of the first advocacy efforts was to rescue and relocate a dozen Victorian-era homes (dating from the mid- to late 19th century) slated for demolition by the now-defunct Redevelopment Agency.

At this point, 75 businesses have been crowned as Legacy Bars and Restaurants, with another 25 to be included in the coming months.

To be considered, businesses have to be more than 40 years old, have some kind of distinctive interior or architectural design that lends to their character, and contribute to some kind of history or cultural vitality in the surrounding neighborhood.

Since the Legacy program began, Communications Manager Laura Dominguez has spent part of her days taking calls from businesses reaching out to her for Legacy consideration.

“It’s been really wonderful to see business owners share their stories,” Dominguez said. “There are so many places that are not only known for their menu items, but that they speak to the community.”

For Dominguez, Vesuvio Cafe, the Beat-generation North Beach hub with lots to look at on the walls, will always hold a special place.

“It was one of the first bars that I stepped into when I first moved to San Francisco,” Dominguez said.

When Buhler began developing the project, he said he looked to a program in Buenos Aires called Bares Notables (notable bars). Passed in the Argentine city in 1998, the law recognizes businesses “whose setting or activities have cultural significance due to their architectural design or their relation to significant cultural events or local history.”

In London, historic pubs are being identified as community assets, which for planning purposes gives them special consideration.

With San Francisco’s cost of living perpetually on the rise, and no new dive bars in the making, Buhler hopes the Legacy program will eventually provide meaningful economic incentives to these businesses. For now, the decal seen on the doors of the Legacy bars and restaurants are meant to be celebratory and promotional.

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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