The History of Speakeasies and Where to get a Throwback Cocktail in San Francisco
From the wild days of the California Gold Rush to the anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s, San Francisco has long been known as a city with a rebellious streak and an independent spirit. The Prohibition Era of the 1920s and '30s was no exception. Here is a brief look back at the history of the Golden City’s famed speakeasies as well as a roundup of the city’s most popular vintage bars and saloons.
The First Speakeasies in San Francisco
When the federal government issued a ban on the sale of alcohol in 1920, San Franciscans rebelled in protest and the city’s first speakeasies were born. Quietly ignoring the law, San Francisco residents continued to sell spirits in dance halls, cafes, hotel basements and even in underground tunnels. Bars masquerading as “soda shops” sold booze in backrooms known as “speakeasies,” where a whispered password could get you a few sips of bourbon or a bottle of wine shipped in from Napa Valley. Though these speakeasies were largely an open secret, the police and local government, for the most part, looked the other way; the San Francisco mayor even going as far as to openly offer visiting delegates bottles of whiskey. For the next decade, while the rest of the country went dry, thirsty San Franciscans profited off a successful bootlegging business.
During Prohibition, San Francisco residents snuck booze into backrooms of hotel ballrooms, like the one pictured above. Photo taken at the Main Ballroom at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco (1920)
After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, most of the several hundred San Francisco speakeasies were closed, but — some, like the Elixir in the Mission District and the Saloon in North Beach — remain open today. Here are a few of the most popular:
Wilson & Wilson (505 Jones St.)
Hidden behind an unmarked door inside the '20s-themed bar Bourbon & Branch is one of San Francisco’s most famous Prohibition-themed pubs: Wilson & Wilson. Besides the clever entrance — it’s a speakeasy within a speakeasy! — what makes this Tenderloin bar most unique is its resemblance to a 1930s private detective agency. From the old-fashioned cash registers and brick-lined walls to the “case file” you receive after being seated, the fun is discovering the bar’s little authentic details. Reservations must be made in advance, so be sure to book online before you go.
Local Edition (691 Market St.)
If you’re in search of an old fashioned cocktail bar but do not wish to hassle with memorizing secret passwords or making reservations in advance (a frequent requirement of speakeasies), then the Financial District’s Local Edition might the best choice for you. What makes this large and spacious “speakeasy” stand out is that it’s modeled after an old newspaper publishing house, complete with vintage typewriters and menus designed to look like old timey newspapers. If you go, try the Local Edition Cocktail (bourbon, orange peel syrup and cherry brandy) or the Tycoon Cocktail (rye whiskey, grappa, brown sugar cinnamon syrup and lemon).
Elixir (3200 16th St.)
If Wilson & Wilson and The Edition are too fancy for your tastes, Elixir in the Mission serves cocktails with a side of history in an unpretentious and casual setting. Though the vibe at Elixir is less “speakeasy” and more “dive bar,” Elixir is one of the oldest running saloons in San Francisco, making it an ideal choice for history buffs. Established in 1858, the saloon has survived earthquakes and fires, as well as threats of Prohibition-era police raids. During the '20s and '30s, the bar’s owners advertised the saloon as a “soft drink parlor” but this is widely believed to have been a ruse (or as the website comments, “…yeah, right…soft drinks…”). The bar offers a variety of 1800s saloon cocktails, but their Bloody Mary is their most popular. Reservations are not necessary but it can get packed after 10 p.m., so get there early if you want a seat.
Reannon Muth is a Senior Editor for San Francisco To Do and a life-long travel addict originally from Hawaii. Though her travels have taken her to over 40 countries and 30 states (and counting!), San Francisco remains one of her favorite cities on the planet. You can frequently find her biking the Presidio or sipping coffee in the Mission.