Before North Beach, that eclectic community at the heart of San Francisco, there was the Barbary Coast. Most of its signature nightlife is now illegal, but in place of brothels, opium dens, and illicit gambling rings, the revelry lives on. Just a bit, well, classier.
Whether you want to hop from bar to bar, catch live local gigs, enjoy bespoke cocktails from some of the city’s best bartenders, or chew the fat with locals, North Beach has something for you. Not sure what to hit first? Here’s a handy North Beach walking tour, all ready for you.
If you want a spice of history and a heaping serving of weird, Saloon should be first on your list. It claims to be the oldest bar in the city, and the regulars back this up. Take Greg, who is, his friend will gladly tell you, has been here since the place opened in 1861. “He’s two days older than water and a day older than dirt.” Don’t let Greg fool you, these cats can get down. Twice daily, Saloon hosts live music; everything from blues to rock to country. No matter the time of day, the clientele pride themselves with their uninhibited dancing. Not a single, well, care is given. It’s weird and magical and beautifully San Francisco.
Saloon, photo credit James Carroll
Similarly, Specs has been a locals’ favorite anywhere from “a long time” to “forever”. To be frank, service is not its selling point, but Specs is not a means to an end; you’re there to be there. The walls are covered in tchotchkes, memorabilia (non-sports), photographs, and “borrowed” street signs. The crowd is an eclectic mix of San Francisco natives; from septuagenarian regulars to writers and musicians to philosophers turned marketing managers. Hanging from the ceiling is a trio of shark jaws with a shrunken head nestled inside. Depending on the day, there’s live music, which could be a jazz band or someone playing ”Invierno Porteño” on the piano on a Wednesday night.
Comstock Saloon, photo credit https://comstocksaloon.com/
For over a century, Comstock Saloon has served beer, wine and liquor to Barbary Coast revelers and everyday citizens alike. The atmosphere is warm, with generous wood paneling, wall-mounted lamplight, and booth seating blend cleanly into an “upscale, old school saloon” ambiance. Live jazz bands play every single night, but the focus is clearly on their signature craft cocktails. For those who have difficulty deciding, call for the “barkeep’s whimsy.” You name a spirit, and optionally a flavor you like, and the bartender will take care of the rest. The Pisco Punch (pisco, pineapple ghum, lemon, ”secrets“) is another favorite. Comstock serves dinner every night, in case you want to balance out the libations, and lunch on Fridays only. If you order two adult beverages with your lunch, the food is free.
Nearly across the street is The Devil’s Acre. It’s apothecary theme is a throwback to the days of the Barbary Coast, when many turned to bartenders to solve most any problem. Their “elixirs” have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. That said, they are damn delicious—unsurprising from the same owners of Bourbon & Branch, Local Edition, and Rickhouse (to name a few.) Pro-tip: Devil’s Acre takes reservations in advance, which is highly recommended.
What constitutes “good” music is beyond the scope of this article, but you’re likely to find your jam in North Beach. As you may have noticed, many North Beach establishments offer live music options. But you can never have too many good spots to bust a move.
Tupelo on Grant is as good a place on any to start, whose entirely appropriate 1337 street address is not a joke they’re likely to care about. Depending on the night, you can dance to R&B, jazz, rock, or sing karaoke backed by a live saxophone soloist. If you’re the participatory type, every Monday is an open rock/blues jam session. No training, at least in this writer’s experience, seems to be required for dancing.
Across the street is Tope, whose M-F happy hour lasts from 4–10pm. It’s funky decor and artwork by local artists tell you you’re in San Francisco, while the couches and TVs give an immediate sense for its laid-back vibe. The dance floor is crowded, especially as the night goes on. The DJ plays all sorts of music, most of which you’ll know the words to—whether you’d like to admit or not—across genres.
Monroe is another great option, specifically their Friday happy hour. It starts at 5pm with $1 well drinks and 60s music. Every hour, on the hour, the price of drinks goes up a dollar and the music advances a decade. Other nights have standard DJs—hip-hop, Top 40—or are closed for private events, but the space is gorgeous and worth checking out.
For a traditional comedy club, go to Cobb’s Comedy Club. Depending on the night, you’re liable to hear local favorites or up-and-comers; Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and now-superstar Ali Wong worked material at Cobb’s. The club has a tongue-in-cheek “2 drink minimum”, but the comics are good enough to enjoy sober.
Beach Blanket Babylon, photo credit https://www.beachblanketbabylon.com/
Of course, there are a number of comedy clubs around SF, not to mention the Bay Area. If you’re looking for something entirely unique, then head on over to Club Fugazi for Beach Blanket Babylon. BBB is a musical comedy revue about Snow White searching for Prince Charming. Along the way, she runs into dozens of characters—celebrities, politicians, historical figures, advertising mascots—in outrageous costumes, usually involving massive hats. The characters are constantly changing, so the show’s cultural commentary, satire, and song covers are always up to date. If you want to encapsulate the artistry of San Francisco in one experience, you can’t do better than a night at Beach Blanket Babylon.
Further up Columbus Ave. sits La Trappe. No, you’re not here for 2 Chainz, Migos, or Future. The main floor is a classic Belgian restaurant—boudin, stewed rabbit, mussels, and cheeses—but take the iron-railed stairs down to the heart of Belgian flavor: beer. The beer menu at La Trappe’s cozy downstairs bar boasts over three hundred selections; add in the off-menu bottles and you have well over five hundred options for a quaff. Pull up a stool and Michael, behind the downstairs bar, can give you everything from personalized recommendations to brewing history to the chemical and biological nuances of fermentation.
So there you have it, a sampling of North Beach nightlife. From craft cocktails and comedians to jam bands and all-night dance floors, you’ll never be at a loss for options; the only challenge now is picking which to do tonight! Thankfully, many of these institutions have been around for decades, if not a century or more. Take your time, they’ll be there waiting.