These cherished neighborhood watering holes, saloons, and taverns help to tell the vibrant story of SF –one crisp beer or shaken cocktail at a time. Here is our guide to the oldest bars in San Francisco.
10. The Buena Vista Cafe – 1916
The Buena Vista Café in was first opened as a boarding house in 1910, but the first floor was turned into a saloon in 1916. The bar served as a popular meeting place for hundreds of fishermen and handlers who worked for the nearby Sardine Cannery located at what we know today as Fisherman’s Wharf. The bar’s incredibly popular Irish coffee didn’t hit the menu until 1952 when the bar’s owner, Jack Koeppler, met international travel writer Stanton Delaplane. The new concoction was a riff on a drink that Delaplane had enjoyed at the Shannon Airport in Ireland. The resulting beverage has come to define The Buena Vista for the generations of thirsty visitors that followed.
Location: 2765 Hyde Street (Fisherman’s Wharf)
9. The Hotel Utah Saloon – 1908
When the Deininger Family opened the original business, “Saloon,” on this site they commissioned furniture makers in Belgium to design and create its ornate back bar. The bar started as a sleepy waterfront watering hole but when the Bay Bridge was completed in 1936, the neighborhood grew quickly. Over the years the bar has served a diverse clientele. Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Bing Crosby drank alongside local gangsters, beat poets, and longshoremen. In 1977 the business was renamed “The Utah” and a stage was built to support local music, experimental art, writers, comedy, and theater. Some of the first performers included Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and the Pickle Family Circus. Today you can still grab a beer at their mahogany bar and enjoy a great night of live music.
Location: 500 4th Street (SoMa)
8. The Homestead – 1902
Originally called “Old Homestead,” this historic bar feels like a sunny time capsule of turn-of-the-century SF. The bar features a “secret” back room that was likely used to discreetly serve booze during Prohibition. Today, you can enjoy their excellent whisky selection, warm up by the fireplace, and even rent the back room for a private party.
Location: 2301 Folsom Street (Mission)
7. Bus Stop Saloon – 1900
The Bus Stop Saloon isn’t the oldest bar on the list but it has the unique distinction of being run by the same family for well over 100 years. The bar was originally named “The Alley” until 1919 when the Ferroni family took over and gave it its current name. Today, Bus Stop Saloon operates as a bustling sports bar and is run by the fourth generation of the Ferroni family.
Location: 1901 Union Street (Marina)
6. The Little Shamrock – 1893
As one of the closest bars to Golden Gate Park’s popular museums area, The Little Shamrock has enjoyed a steady flow of tourists and locals since it opened its doors in 1893. Their origin story goes that Irish entrepreneur Julia Herzo Quigley and her first husband Antone Herzo opened the bar in order to serve visitors and builders during the construction of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. The bar has only changed hands a few times over the past century and is still a popular destination for a cold beer and a few rounds of darts.
Location: 807 Lincoln Way (Inner Sunset)
5. Shotwell’s – 1891
Started by German Immigrants as a combination “Grocery Saloon,” which kept grocery items up front, and featured a “grog shop” in the back. The 1906 earthquake caused City Hall to ban this combined business concept in an effort to keep children out of bars. The business thrived as a saloon until Prohibition when it reverted back to being a grocery store, minus the booze. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the business made its final transformation back into a bar. When the business changed hands in the ’80s, the liquor license was sold off separately, leaving the business to sell beer, wine, and cider only. Today you can still enjoy a pint, admire the hand-carved back bar and ask the bartender to tell you about bullet-hole peppered bar panels. You’ll be glad that you stopped by.
Location: 3349 20th Street (Mission)
4. Northstar Cafe – 1882
As the oldest bar in North Beach, Northstar Cafe is a consistently great spot for inexpensive drinks, free popcorn, and an animated crowd. Northstar was one of many speakeasies that operated during Prohibition and have maintained a rebellious spirit ever since. Sports are always on, they have a customer-of-the-month award, and their happy hour starts promptly at 1pm. It’s decidedly unpretentious and a very easy bar to love.
Location: 1560 Powell Street (North Beach)
3. The Saloon – 1861
Located in the heart of North Beach, The Saloon has looked roughly the same since the 1870s. The Saloon opened in an era where drunks were kidnapped by desperate ship captains and brothels dotted the neighborhood. It allegedly survived the 1906 earthquake thanks to the unusually short beams used in its construction. The Saloon claims to be the oldest bar/saloon in SF since it’s still in its original building. They make a fair point. Today, this beloved dive bar is known for hosting live music every night of the week, especially blues-rock bands.
Location: 1232 Grant Avenue (North Beach)
2. Elixir – 1858
Elixir sits in the heart of the Mission District, a short walk from SF’s oldest building, the Mission Dolores. The original saloon burned down in 1906 but was quickly rebuilt on the same site by 1907. The ornate redwood and mahogany interior features Victorian-style details and decor. Looks aside, Elixir is widely considered one of the best whisky bars in the US.
Location: 3200 16th Street (Mission)
1. Old Ship Saloon – 1851
As the name suggests, this bar is actually built atop an old wooden ship. The Gold Rush-era ship “Arkansas” ran aground on Alcatraz Island in 1849 and was deemed unfit to sail. It was towed to the Pacific Street Wharf, a door was cut in its hull and it was quickly converted into a floating saloon. After 8 memorable years, the ship was scuttled, its wood was sold for scrap and a two-story brick building was constructed in its place. The remnants of the hull are all below ground, so don’t expect to find curved walls or a mast in the middle of the bar. However, you can still pull up a barstool, strike up a conversation and enjoy a cold drink just like all of the sailors, grifters, bankers, builders, and tourists that came before you.
Location: 298 Pacific Avenue (Embarcadero)
Featured image: @elixirsf via Instagram. Photo by @darrenedwardsphotographs