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There is nothing quite like the atmospheric, old-time San Francisco saloons that recall an era before tech rolled into town. These nine taprooms (and one bar tour) are centrally located and reachable by foot, cable car or short Uber/Lyft ride (then put your phone away).

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Tonga Room | Photo courtesy of Carole Terwilliger Meyers

1. The Tonga Room Restaurant & Hurricane Bar
In addition to serving a killer Mai Tai in a tiki atmosphere, this old-timer inside the posh Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill puts on a three-minute simulated tropical rainstorm every 30 minutes! Exotic drinks include Planter’s Punch and A Monk Walks Into A Luau—made for two to four people, and served with really long straws. The happy hour buffet served Wednesday through Friday is a bargain, and a live dance band floating on an indoor lagoon—a converted swimming pool—entertains beginning at 8 p.m.

Top of the Mark | Photo courtesy of Carole Terwilliger Meyers

2. Top of the Mark
This legendary spot inside the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel provides an extraordinary 360-degree view of the city. Seating is provided around the perimeter as well as at a half-round bar. During World War II, it was popular with Marines to have a last good-luck drink here before sailing off to battle in the Pacific. Today it is a choice spot for marriage proposals (by placing an engagement ring in the bottom of a drink). The crab crostinis are delicious, and the housemade potato chips wonderfully crunchy. Live entertainment happens several nights each week.

Buena Vista Cafe, San Francisco

Buena Vista Cafe | Flickr photo courtesy of Summer Park

3. The Buena Vista Cafe
This cozy bar has been whipping up Irish Coffees since the 1950s and now dispenses more Irish whiskey than any other spot in the country. (A decaf version is available.) Casual meals have been served since the 1890s and currently include hamburgers and sandwiches. A window seat provides a view of the cable car turnaround, the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pied Piper Bar | Photo courtesy of Carole Terwilliger Meyers

4. Pied Piper
Named for Maxfield Parrish’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin” painting that was commissioned in 1909 and hangs above the bar, this tavern inside the Palace Hotel is in full-blast party mode at 5 p.m. Seating happens around the bar, as well as at tables and in booths; a spacious newer lounge in back features informal seating in comfy chairs and couches. Signature cocktails include the hands-down favorite—the Last Cocktail (gin-pear juice-Prosecco)—and runners-up, the Charlie Chaplin and the Spiced Knob. A small bar menu offers up scrumptious burrata on nutty country bread and succulent chicken wings with sweet Asian dipping sauce as well as lobster mac ‘n cheese and a steak.

House of Shields | Photo courtesy of Carole Terwilliger Meyers

5. House of Shields
Located right across the street from the Palace Hotel (where President Warren Harding died suddenly), this place has been around since 1908. Once it was actually the bar for the Palace (until they built their own), and during Prohibition it did a stint as a speakeasy reachable via an underground passage from the hotel. It was men-only here until 1972, and it contains no TVs or clocks. There is also no printed menu and no food is served, so order up a classic cocktail from the redwood bar and move on.

Tadich Grill, San Francisco

Tadich Grill | Flickr photo courtesy of Laura-Del

6. Tadich Grill
Though it began as a coffee stand in another location in 1849, this San Francisco institution has been here since 1967 and is the oldest restaurant in continuous operation in both the city and state. (It is the third-oldest restaurant in the U.S.) Featuring dark wood walls, a long wooden dining counter bar, and private enclosed booths, it has a clubby feel and is a cozy place to be on a rainy day. Most people order a meal with their martini because the kitchen has some of the best fresh fish in town. At happy hour, the place is hopping.

Comstock Saloon | Photo courtesy of Carole Terwilliger Meyers

7. Comstock Saloon
Walking through the doors of this corner saloon—a fixture since 1907—is like stepping back in time. Old-time Asian paddle fans cool the air, and comfy oversize booths line the wall. Live music emanates from a hidden mezzanine beginning at around 7:30 p.m. Try a Blood and Sand (Scotch, sweet vermouth, orange, and cherry liqueur) or the Cherry Bounce (Bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon, Angostura, Champagne). Plenty of appetizers are on the short food menu.

8. Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe
Open since 1968, this divey bar has ties to the Beatnik era. It’s tucked in an alley across the street from City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Cafe (see below). A sort of museum of curiosities, it displays an eclectic collection that includes ivory carvings and oddities from around the world. Drinks are basic and cheap—beer and hard booze, and the food choice is cheese and crackers. Cash only.

Vesuvio | Photo courtesy of Carole Terwilliger Meyers

9. Vesuvio Cafe
Located next door to City Lights Bookstore, this popular Beat Generation hangout was established in 1948. It serves drinks only which begs the question, why it is called a “cafe.” We’ll let you ask. The gin and tonic is reputedly quite good, but the house Bohemian Coffee made with brandy, amaretto, and a twist of lemon also sounds tasty. Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan are among its legendary customers. Seating is on both the ground floor under the 1913 pressed-tin ceiling, or in the tiny upstairs area offering windows to the street for great people watching.

10. Union Square Cocktail Tour
Whether with a friend or solo, this friendly tour will take you and a pack of new friends traipsing through the Union Square area to three bars awaiting with trays of cocktails and a barkeep to educate you about what you are drinking. The tour takes about two hours. No food is served, so consider eating something before and/or after, and bring a bottle of water so you don’t get too hammered.

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Tagged: California, San Francisco

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Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Carole is a Berkeley-based travel writer who most especially enjoys cultural and culinary travel. She contributes to an assortment of publications and is the author of 18 books. Carole oversees two websites, and, and she blogs at
Carole Terwilliger Meyers
- 3 weeks ago

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