Bartender Paul Nolan makes Irish coffees at the Buena Vista Cafe. | Paul Chinn/The Chronicle/Getty Images | Source: Paul Chinn/The Chronicle/Getty Images
St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, and along with San Francisco’s annual parade down Market Street—and other recent additions like LepraCon—there’s probably no import from the Emerald Isle more iconic to SF than the Irish coffee.
The origins of Irish coffee have become something of a local legend here, thanks to the Buena Vista Cafe, a century-old pub that famously serves this steaming combination of brewed coffee, Irish whiskey, sugar and, most importantly, a generous dollop of heavy whipping cream on top.
Claiming to be the bar that first brought Irish coffee stateside, the Buena Vista has circulated a story that traces back to 1952, when then-owner Jack Koeppler asked travel writer Stanton Delaplane to help him recreate a drink that Delaplane first tasted at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland. But as KQED reports, other travelers might’ve had the same idea. Irish coffee is said to have been served at bars in New York as early as 1948, when the Herald Tribune ran a recipe in a St. Patrick’s Day column.
Nevertheless, the Buena Vista remains inextricably linked to Irish coffee lore. And, as we recently learned, there’s more to this caffeinated cocktail than meets the eye.
Joseph Shaw is one of the keepers of the flame at the Buena Vista. He got a job there 47 years ago and never left. What’s kept him behind the same bar for nearly half a century? “I just got used to it,” Shaw said, laughing. Joined by manager Bob Arp, Shaw divulged the following secrets about the historic watering hole’s bestselling beverage.
The Buena Vista has been known to serve thousands of Irish coffees in a day. The all-time record is 5,700. “It was crazy,” Shaw said.
St. Patrick’s Day is not, in fact, the bar’s busiest day, but it’s a close second. Shaw told us that the Fourth of July is actually the day that draws the biggest crowds—largely due to the annual fireworks display over the bay. He estimates that the Buena Vista regularly serves more than 4,000 Irish coffees on Independence Day.
When preparing the perfect Irish coffee, timing is everything. Specifically, Shaw said, the whipping cream is the most important factor. It perfectly cuts the acidity of the coffee, while the cold temperature levels out the heat. The cream must be whipped just right—not too vigorously—in order to sit atop the drink. If you whip for too long, the cream will sink.
Contrary to what some may think, the Buena Vista is not just a tourist trap, Shaw said. He pointed out that some of his regulars come in four or five times a week, and though there’s a Starbucks across the street, many locals opt for a cup of Joe at the Buena Vista instead.
You can get an Irish coffee to-go. It comes in a paper cup with a nip of whiskey on the side. Shaw said there was a takeout option long before Covid, but the pandemic really ramped up to-go Irish coffee sales after the cafe reopened in June 2021. Shaw said he remembers one day in 2021 when a garbage can outside was piled high with empties.
Christophe Crombez, a regular who swims in the bay, said he likes to stop in for an Irish coffee to-go, as it helps him warm up after his workout.
The Buena Vista is choosy about its coffee. Shaw told The Standard that while the pub used Folgers canned coffee when he first started working there, since 2001 they’ve brewed exclusively Peerless Coffee, which they keep nearly boiling at all times in order to keep the perfect balance of steaming coffee and cold whipping cream.
Speaking of exclusivity, the Buena Vista’s standard Irish coffee is served with Tullamore Dew, Arp said, because each glass must be identical to the next. “Joseph can make 50, and they’ll taste exactly the same,” he said.
Other bartenders might frown upon the way the Buena Vista’s staff serves Irish coffee. According to Shaw, he and the other barkeeps must hold the glasses by the rim, as the stem is too hot. If held from the stem, the bartenders run the risk of spilling the cream. “So we keep our hands very clean,” Shaw said.
There are a few ordering hacks. You can ask for extra cream or an extra shot of Tullamore Dew. You can create your own coffee and add a little something extra, like Tia Maria Coffee Liqueur. Early risers looking for a jolt-free nightcap can order a decaf.
The Buena Vista serves several secret, off-menu items. Shaw said that in the 1980s, the Ramos Gin Fizz was one of the bar’s most popular drinks. This New Orleans-born original, an oddly delightful combination of gin, heavy cream, orange-flower water, lemon juice and egg white, used to be popular at breakfast time—a hair of the dog hangover cure, Shaw said, but the raw egg component fell out of favor.
Other off-menu drinks include 15 different varieties of Tullamore Dew and Pimm’s Cup Nos. 1 through 7.
When the Buena Vista opened in 1916, it was a boarding house that the owners converted into a saloon. Arp said he believes there are a few clues within the layout of the building that reveal the original owners may have bootlegged during Prohibition. For one, there was a bell that customers had to ring to be let in. The backroom contained cabinets particuliers, or private booths that allowed diners to drink under the radar. By the look of the basement, Arp said he would guess there were also subterranean passageways for rum-running. “I’m willing to bet there were tunnels underneath back in the day,” he said.
Finally, the Buena Vista is quite the matchmaker. According to Shaw, customers have made lifelong friends and met their partners at his bar. ☘️
Christina Campodonico contributed additional reporting for this story.