The Weeknighter: The Saloon
Weekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That's why each week Stuart Schuffman will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, giving you the lowdown on how and where to do your weeknight right. From the most creative cocktails to the best happy hours, Stuart's taking you along on his weeknight adventures into the heart of the City's nightlife. So, who wants a drink?
Established in the 1860s, The Saloon is rumored to be the oldest bar in San Francisco. As folklore goes, it survived the great conflagration of 1906 because of the whorehouse upstairs. They say you have to pick your battles, and because the brothel above The Saloon was the favorite of the local firemen, that was the battle they chose to fight. They saved the building simply because of the cathouse upstairs. To quote a much (and rightfully) maligned artist of the early 21st century, they “did it all for the nookie.”
Turning off Columbus onto Grant Street, it’s almost impossible to walk by The Saloon without noticing it. More often than not, a half a dozen motorcycles are parked in front of the building and live blues music is blaring through its front door. This first impression gives off the kind of vibe that makes the Madisons and Brads of the world recoil with fear and/or disgust. It seems like the kind of place that an outlaw motorcycle gang would’ve made their hangout in the 1960s. And while the last time I popped in I think a Hell’s Angel was working behind the bar, once inside, the character morphs into a completely different watering hole altogether.
The Saloon is the kind of bar where, if you go in even slightly intoxicated, you do not end up leaving until the bar closes. You’re drunk as fuck, and your feet hurt from dancing. Every evening, blues bands sweat the night away, blowing, strumming, and beating their instruments while each person in the crowd forgets their daily problems by grooving them out on the dance floor. The crowd here tends to be an older one so by the end of the night you’ll see recent divorcees in their 50s making out with lifelong bachelors in their 60s. Everyone deserves love, even if it’s just for a night. If you’re a young cat out on the town looking to get laid, this might not be the bar for you. But if you’re out just to let your hair down and not give a fuck, The Saloon is perfect.
Sitting below the stained glass windows at that dark and ancient wooden bar, I’ve met some incredibly interesting people. Artists who’ve been in North Beach for half a century mix with blues aficionados from around the world and tourists who just happened to stumble into the right spot. What a blessed thing it is to do that–to just stumble into the right spot, to look around and realize, “I’m in the place I’m supposed to be.” That’s what happens the first night you end up at The Saloon. It might not be until you’re four drinks in, or until you’ve sweated through your shirt, but it happens. You’ll be chatting with some guy who hung out in Morocco with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky or some woman who saw Muddy Waters play for three hours straight at some juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and suddenly you’ll realize you’re being seduced by the North Beach magic. It’s not the tittie bars or the insufferable dance clubs that make North Beach a special place. No, it’s the fact that places like The Saloon exist, and act as portals through which you can glean what this city once was.
I worry about the eventual earthquake that will one day sink San Francisco into the Pacific Ocean like some modern day Atlantis. Hopefully that’s not going to happen. But we are guaranteed that an earthquake is coming, and if it’s big and it’s nasty and it sets this city alight again, I hope local firefighters will decide they need to save 1232 Grant Avenue again. While prostitutes no longer live in the building, an authentic part of San Francisco does, once you walk through the doors of The Saloon.