North Beach Journal

North Beach saloon culture

All it takes is a room, a bar, some booze and a pool table photo: Montana State University Library / flickr

This is a column about saloons — where they are, who frequents them, and why. The philosophical question that occupies us here is this: Are the saloons that we have come to know and love a dying institution? We fervently hope not. In fact, we see a resurgence of the saloon culture — a magnificent throwback to the days when great debates took place in saloons. Bets were made, won or lost. And the free lunch abounded.

San Francisco has always been a thirsty town. A saloon culture existed here right from the town’s boozy beginnings. Nowhere moreso than in convivial North Beach. In fact, it is this favored neighborhood enclave where many of the city’s finest saloons are located — and we don’t mean cocktail lounges. Cocktail lounges are to saloons as tanning salons are to a sunny day at the beach with a six pack.

There may be those who believe saloons are on the wane. Those folks (not necessarily teetotalers) point to the fact that people just don’t drink as much alcohol as they once did. Certainly, health concerns are paramount. Nevertheless, the saloon culture is not totally dependent on alcohol. Even former drinkers still hang out in saloons. And I maintain that most of us don’t go to saloons to drink. We go there to talk. We go there for the social intercourse.


Ah, the social intercourse. I am reminded of a comment succinctly expressed by baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige: “Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society — the social ramble ain’t restful.” Thanks for the warning Satchel. I’ll keep it in mind.

On the other side, Satchel’s equal in the silver tongue department, Samuel Johnson, that Englishman of considerable social moxie, said, “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” Today we would call Dr. Johnson a saloonist of the first rank.

W.C. Fields (himself an expert on the subject) said, “If I had my life to live over, I’d live it over a saloon.”


But how do those of us who frequent saloons define them? I offer the following axioms on the saloon experience:

A good saloon provides shelter from an encroaching world — a world we would frequently just as soon shut out.

A good saloon is a second home. Sometimes personal dwellings are small, perhaps only a bed and a bath. Saloons are extensions of small studios and apartments. They are places to stretch out a bit.

A good saloon might on occasion loan you money (cab fare maybe), take your messages, or tell callers you are not there (even if you are) and sometimes serve as your post box.

A good saloon bartender not only knows your name but also knows your beverage of choice. And engages you in conversation — trivial or existential. It’s your choice.

A good saloon is like a good private club. It cossets its members and provides them with camaraderie and a sense of well-being. Actually, a good saloon is better than a private club — no dress code, and no stuffiness masquerading as
good fellowship.

Those five axioms state why saloons are not a dying breed but will always be here to nurture us.

And now here are a few North Beach saloons — valiantly waving the flag — and open for serious researchers.


The oldest continuously operating saloon in San Francisco, The Saloon (1232 Grant Avenue) opened in 1861 as part of the Fresno Hotel. The story goes that the hotel and the saloon were saved in the 1906 earthquake and fire by a water brigade that refused to put the hotel’s resident hookers out of business.


Recently reconstituted, Tosca (242 Columbus Avenue) opened elsewhere in 1919. The bar still serves those killer cappuccinos made with chocolate, steamed milk and brandy, and the juke box is still loaded with Puccini and Verdi. But now food has been added and good food at that. Craft cocktails are available here as they are in many North Beach saloons, but they are superfluous to many of us who prefer the simpler pleasures.


Besides being a restaurant of the first rank, Original Joe’s (601 Union Street), has one of the handsomest bars in the neighborhood. Libations are well made and the bartenders are true professionals — talkative if encouraged, or silent, but efficient. The bar at Original Joe’s is the kind of place that can rub off the rough edges of a bad day and provide an amicable collision of old and new friends.


Specs’ 12 Adler Place (the actual address is 12 Saroyan Place at Columbus) was a speakeasy during Prohibition. Gregarious Specs Simmons took it over in the 1960s. Hanging above the bar can be found the genitalia of a walrus. It’s that kind of place. Not a genteel environment but an impudent one.


La Rocca’s (957 Columbus Avenue) dates back to the 1930s. Joe DiMaggio dropped in occasionally. Back in the 1940s, we are told, a gangland hit took place in the basement. That was then. These days there’s a sign over the bar reading: Drink with Dignity.

Yes, there are other saloons in North Beach. You may want to try all of them.

As I wrote earlier, I see a strong resurgence in the saloon culture of North Beach and my saloon compatriots agree. Our democratic rallying cry is Vox Saloonibus Populi — “Saloons are for the People.” Or maybe it’s “The People are for Saloons.” My Latin is a little shaky, but that’s the kind of thing we saloonists like to debate.

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