Ask an average American to name the hardest-drinking towns in the country, and you might expect to hear about New Orleans, Las Vegas or some Natty Light-slamming college town in the Rust Belt. But judging by one metric—bars per capita—San Francisco is hands-down the soggiest city in the nation.
That checks out. Ever since the vice-filled days of the famed Barbary Coast, San Francisco has been a perfect place to slake your thirst. It’s also full of historical bars that are still in operation, some of which have since been named legacy businesses for their longevity and importance to the communities they serve. No matter where you live in the city, you can find a vintage bar—and cold, strong drinks inside.
The Old Ship Saloon isn’t just old—it’s the oldest bar in all of San Francisco, according to the owners. It opened in 1851, and it takes its name from the Gold Rush-era ship, the Arkansas, upon which it’s built. But back in the 1850s, the ship hadn’t yet been swallowed by mud, and the first owner cut a hole in the side of the ship, added a ramp and gave birth to what would become one of San Francisco’s most iconic bars (and a mean place to get a pisco punch).
Only seven years younger than the Old Ship Saloon, the whiskey bar Elixir in the Mission claims to be the city’s second-oldest bar. The compact watering hole first opened in 1858 and is now known for its cocktail classes and Christmas decorations. After Elixir burned to the ground in the 1906 fire, it was rebuilt on the exact same spot, just a block from where Mission Dolores was founded in 1776. We also must tip our hats here to Shotwell’s, which first opened in 1891 as a combination saloon and grocery store and serves a hearty beer list to this day.
The Saloon in North Beach opened in 1861, surviving the 1906 quake thanks to its “stout timbers,” according to its website. Today, it’s known just as much for its music as for its drinks, and you can catch a live blues performance every night of the week. While the Saloon claims to be the oldest bar in San Francisco, the Old Ship Saloon has it beat by a decade (but hey, we’re not here to keep score).
The Buena Vista Café isn’t just historical—it’s also one of San Francisco’s most famous bars. What a sensory delight it is to watch the little clear glasses get filled with piping hot java for the bar’s signature Irish Coffee, a drink that the city itself knows about thanks to this 1891-founded establishment on the corner of Hyde and Beach, where the cable cars stop running.
The Little Shamrock is not only the Sunset’s oldest bar. It’s also one of the oldest continuously running bars in the city. Opened in 1893, it has survived two earthquakes, and evidence of the first is above the bar, where a clock hangs with a sign that reads, “no tick since April 18, 1906.” Owned by just three families over the course of its existence, the Little Shamrock holds onto the charm of a “fern bar” of decades past with its Tiffany lamps and inviting, cozy furniture. Locals love it for its unpretentious, laid-back vibe—just the way you want your neighborhood bar to be.
The Bus Stop in Cow Hollow is a Cincinnati Bengals bar—and it’s also the neighborhood’s oldest, established in 1900. Known for its casual, welcoming vibe, the bar doesn’t just serve Cincinnati fans. It’s a favorite of all sports lovers with its many screens and daily specials.
What was once Warren G. Harding’s favorite place to drink, the House of Shields hasn’t had a clock in it since it opened in 1908. You’re supposed to forget time in this atmospheric, wood-paneled bar, from where drinks were once smuggled across the street to the Palace Hotel (where Harding died) during Prohibition.
When Café du Nord opened on Market Street in 1908, the surrounding neighborhood was primarily populated by Nordic immigrants. Originally a basement saloon and billiards parlor that’s part of the Swedish American Hall, the bar still has its own dedicated entrance today. As a watering hole that survived Prohibition, it's one of the oldest continuously operating bars in the whole city—and an amazing place to see live music.
The Dogpatch Saloon—a bar for dog lovers and drink lovers alike—has been serving cocktails since 1912. The dog motif continues onto the bar’s stained glass window. Adding to the ambience are former church pews-turned-booths and a flickering fireplace, perfect for quiet contemplation or a companionable chat.
Open since 1926, Glen Park Station has been serving regulars for decades. Its unassuming, laid-back atmosphere makes it the ultimate locals bar—the many televisions for watching sports don’t hurt either. Come for the expertly poured Guinness; stay for the friendly vibes.
The Gold Cane is a casual, no-frills bar. It’s also the Haight’s oldest—open since 1926. It caters to a mostly local crowd in a touristy neighborhood, who love it for its back patio, arcade games and pool table. Here an honorable mention must be made for the nearby Zam Zam—which was founded in 1941 and is famous for its blend of Persian and Art Deco decor.
There are much more sophisticated Tiki bars you could hit up in San Francisco—Smuggler’s Cove and the Tonga Room among them—but Tiki has always been kitsch, so why not embrace the fantastical at Trad’r Sam? The longest-running tiki bar in the entire country, according to Eater SF, the Polynesian-inspired watering hole opened in 1937. The menus list its cryptic drinks' impacts (“You’ll Plead Insanity After” and “You’ll Be Hanging From The Rafters” ) rather than their ingredients. You can sit among the rattan and bamboo and, if you get drunk enough, imagine you’re on one of the beautiful islands the seating areas are named after.
📍 6150 Geary Blvd.
The Li Po Lounge opened as the first bar in Chinatown on Chinese New Year’s Eve in 1937. With its red leather booths, golden Buddha and Chinese lanterns, it looks much the same as it did back in the Golden Era of Chinatown nightclubs—and it still serves its signature drink, the Chinese Mai Tai.
Li Po Lounge
📍 916 Grant Ave.
Ha-Ra gets its name from its two founders, Hank and Ralph, who opened this attractive bar on the boundary between Nob Hill and the Tenderloin in 1956. Hank was a wrestler, and Ralph was a boxer, and sprinkled throughout the bar, you’ll find things that speak to the past: original wood floors, a phone booth-turned-photo booth, boxing gloves. You’ll also find a revolver framed and hanging on the wall—the new owners found it loaded under the cash register during renovations.
Many people become philosophers after a couple of shots; why not do it at this appropriately named watering hole? The bright neon of its vintage sign calls out like a friendly siren. In business since 1960, the Philosopher’s Club is a refreshingly normal bar—where regulars hang out, the bartenders are friendly and locals will grill out on the patio in the back.
The Philosopher’s Club
📍 824 Ulloa St.
The lesbian bar Wild Side West opened in 1962—in Oakland as the Wild Side—before moving to the city and getting its new name of the Wild Side West. Slinging drinks at the Cortland Avenue location beginning in 1976, it’s been serving thirsty residents of Bernal Heights ever since. Founded by “out and proud lesbians” Pat Ramseyer and Nancy White, the bar was named after the Barbara Stanwyck film Walk on the Wild Side. Back when the neighborhood wasn’t so friendly to lesbians, antagonistic neighbors would often dump garbage (like broken toilets) on the sidewalk outside the bar. Today, the owners proudly display many of these items as decor in Wild Side’s outdoor sculpture garden.
The Jazz Room opened in Bayview-Hunters Point in 1962, at a time of “simmering unrest” in the community, according to its legacy business application. The bar proved to be an important gathering place for the African Americans in the neighborhood, who were "coming to terms with the legacy of marginalization, disinvestment and segregation," to channel their shared frustrations into a sense of community, according to the application. The legacy business has been owned and operated by the same family since 1964 (with Bernadette Smith as the current owner), and the jazz music still plays at the lively entertainment venue.
The Jazz Room
📍 5267 Third St.
In 1969, Sue Castle bought a bar named Prosek’s in Ingleside, renaming it Randy’s Place in 1975 in honor of her late son. Given that Prosek’s had opened around 1915, that makes Randy’s Place by some measures one of the oldest bars in all of San Francisco. It doesn’t get nearly enough credit, especially since Castle holds the record in San Francisco for the longest-serving bartender in one location—over half a century and still going strong.
📍 1101 Ocean Ave.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at email@example.com