Known as the birthplace of the Beat Movement, North Beach has traditionally been a playground for the city’s Bohemian artist crowd. This San Francisco neighborhood’s colorful past is best illustrated in the eccentric local bar scene.
Straddling Chinatown and comprising Little Italy, North Beach is a neighborhood with a rich history. Steeped in an international, yet eternally artsy, vibe, the Beat Generation certainly left their mark on this hilly neighborhood.
Once the city’s epicenter for dancehall culture and counterculture dive bars, the area has since evolved into an eclectic mixture of cool, multicultural nostalgia and modern avant-gardism. Trattorias line the traditional, Victorian-style main streets, while all manner of live music bars and nightlife can be found after dark. Here are eight of the most iconic bars in North Beach.
Vesuvio Café is a North Beach icon, and is even officially registered as a historic monument. Established in 1948, this two-story bar overlooks the street art-lined Jack Kerouac Alley, which separates it from the infamous City Lights bookstore. Vesuvio made a name for itself during the Beat era, when it was frequented by throngs of local poets and famous artists, who had just finished working at the controversial bookstore next door. At some point, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and later, Bob Dylan were all regulars. The bar is housed in a classic Victorian building, where eclectic décor reigns supreme; stained-glass lampshades, vintage posters, and all kinds of artwork seem to cover every surface. Apart from the addition of some new cocktails and craft beer on draft, not much has changed over the past 70 years.
255 Columbus Ave
Comstock Saloon espouses a classy prohibition-era speakeasy vibe, just the kind of place you might conjure up in your mind’s eye at the mention of Gatsby. Antique touches like warm wood paneling, retro wallpaper, and an old-fashioned absinthe fountain really set the mood. Servers and bartenders still dress the part: aprons and all, although they’re just as talented at whipping up the classic drinks as they are with putting modern twists on old favorites. The food is upscale bar fare, focusing on hearty classics and local ingredients.
155 Columbus Ave
Hidden away from bustling Broadway Street just below, 15 Romolo is perched on a narrow alleyway. The cozy candlelit confines of 15 Romolo are classic San Francisco. Craft cocktails are the name of the game here and expert mixologists integrate spirits from around the world into one-of-a-kind recipes. Mezcal mules, Pimm’s Cup and exciting variations on Negronis can all be found here. The kitchen focuses on tapas, charcuterie platters, and small plates for sharing, but also whips up full meals and modern takes on classic bar fare.
15 Romolo Pl.
Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Café
Just across the street from Vesuvio Café is yet another famed local bar with a colorful past. Open since 1861, Specs’ has been a speakeasy, a social club, a lesbian bar and even a storage room before doubling as the bar/museum it is today. Nearly any artifact imaginable can be found on the walls of this dimly-lit watering hole, from stuffed king crabs to political memorabilia to even a real mummy case resembling the founder, it’s all at Specs’. The bar is also said to be the birthplace of the area’s blues and soul movement. Drinks are casual and simple, classic cocktails and domestic beers can be found on draft, and bar fare comes in the form of cheese served with a generous helping of Saltines and hot sauce. It’s been around for as long as the bar has, so don’t knock it until you try it.
12 Adler Place
Kennedy’s Irish Pub and Curry House
Kennedy’s Irish Pub and Curry House is a North Beach institution. While this Irish-Indian fusion concept is certainly unexpected, it works at Kennedy’s. Enter from the street and you’ll find yourself in a dark, divey bar with an impressive selection of craft beers. At any one time, there are no fewer than a dozen beers on tap, and dozens more international brews available in bottles. Due to its late-night hours, the expansive, sunny terrace out back has helped make Kennedy’s the icon it is today. In warmer weather, head out there with a pint and enjoy a full-service Indian restaurant serving up all the classics, from biryanis to house-made curries and Samosas.
1040 Columbus Ave
Part dancehall, part local watering hole, Savoy Tivoli is a converted former boarding house, established back in 1907. On the outside, the bright red and yellow façades bring a sense of architectural unity to the half-Victorian, half-Pagoda-style building. As far as the interior goes, not much appears to have changed since they opened, the original wood bar is still in use, and billiards and foosball tables fill the corners. Head there on a weekend evening for live music, and spot Savoy filled with regulars of all ages, sipping on a cold domestic pint, or classic spirit based-drinks.
1434 Grant Ave
Credited with being the city’s oldest saloon, this place has been in continuous operation since 1861. The Saloon was started by a French immigrant, who purchased the lot on the border of the Barbary Coast neighborhood – one traditionally known for its raucous dancehalls and late-night entertainment. During the 60s and 70s, this local watering hole gained notoriety for playing live music, every single night. Nowadays, the Saloon is primarily a blues club, which is still frequented by North Beachers in search of live music, a cold beer and a bit of nostalgia.
1232 Grant Ave
The Church Key
The Church Key is perhaps the North Beach bar for craft beer lovers. Featuring a rotating selection of bottled and draught brews from some of the best microbreweries across the globe, the array of beer is likely to impress the pickiest craft beer aficionados. Mediterranean pale ales, Icelandic lagers, Belgian Trippels and even a few tiny local Californian brands are just a sampling of what is on offer at the Church Key. Dim lighting, soft music and a cozy brick interior with an upstairs lounge area, separates this spot’s laidback feel from some of its rowdier Grant Ave. neighbors.
1402 Grant Ave