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San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Today
Barbary Coast was the name given to a neighborhood of San Francisco, more or less encompassing Pacific Avenue (then known as Pacific Street) between Montgomery and Stockton Streets, from the 1860’s to the early 1900’s. Adjacent to Chinatown, the area was infamous for the easy availability of almost every vice known to man (and woman) and got its name from the notorious Barbary Coast of North Africa. The writer Benjamin Estelle Lloyd colorfully described it thus:
The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whore monger, lewd women, cut-throats, murderers, are all found here. Dance halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also.Lights and Shades of San Francisco, 1876.
Sounds like fun, right? And it could be. But it was also very dangerous. Lynchings, robberies, murders, petty theft – they were all common activities in the Barbary Coast. Unsuspecting sailors (who clearly hadn’t paid enough attention to the warnings of their shipmates) would be lured into bars by scantily clad prostitutes, and then drugged and shanghaied aboard merchant ships heading East (which is where the term came from). There was little, if any, recourse to the law, since there was no law – or certainly very few police to enforce it – in San Francisco during much of this period.
So, bearing in mind that most people don’t want to be lynched, murdered or shanghaied, what are the best, and safest, ways to experience San Francisco’s Barbary Coast today? Nowadays the area that it covered is encompassed by North Beach, Chinatown and Jackson Square – amongst three of the best neighborhoods to explore in San Francisco as it happens, so you’re off to a good start.
1. THE HIPPODROME BUILDING
Start your journey back in time at this building, which has one of the few original facades dating back to the Barbary Coast era, although it’s now an art supply shop. Dance Halls, of which the Hippodrome was one, were all the rage then. Women were employed as dance partners for the male clientele and would get commission on the drinks the men bought (and sometimes a cut of the money they were able to pick-pocket).
The Barbary Coast was a loud bit of hell. No one knows who coined the name. The place was simply three blocks of solid dance halls, there for the delight of the sailors of the world. On a fine busy night every door blared loud dance music from orchestras, steam pianos, and gramophones, and the cumulative effect of the sound which reached the streets was chaos and pandemonium. Almost anything might be happening behind the swinging doors.Will Irwin
2. COMSTOCK SALOON
Believe it or not, but this bar is a genuine throwback to the Barbary Coast, first opening in 1907, although it’s changed name several times. Many features are original, including the beautiful mahogany bar and tin, embossed ceiling. What better way to experience San Francisco’s Barbary Coast today than by stopping here for lunch?
3. HOTALING PLACE
The wavy design on the sidewalk in Hotaling Place marks the original San Francisco shoreline. North Beach was actually at the beach back then and everything from the current waterfront to here was built on top of abandoned ships, trash, debris and whatever else was dumped in the water.
The old, ornate, buildings here are some of the only ones to survive the Great Fire. Built by Anson Parsons Hotaling in the 1860’s these warehouses held something very valuable to the city – whiskey. Enormous efforts were made to save the city’s precious supply, which led to hoses being laid an incredible eleven blocks to bring in salt water to beat back the flames. When, eventually the fires were put out and people saw these buildings still standing – amongst the wreckage of the rest of the city – the poet Charles K Field was moved to write:
If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whiskey?
History doesn’t record what Hotaling’s response was, but it was probably something along the lines of God helps those that help themselves.
4. BARBARY COAST DISPENSARY
You may well be aware that marijuana has been legalized in California (since 2016) so, if you’re so inclined, why not recreate the Opium Den vibe of the old Barbary Coast at this modern dispensary/club. It’s safe, it’s comfortable and you won’t wake up on a ship bound for China the next day.
5. THE OLD SHIP SALOON
This bar is the oldest in San Francisco, dating all the way back to 1851. Made from the timber of a ship that had been abandoned in the harbor a couple of years earlier (one of many that had been left to rot in this way), it was known as the Old Ship Ale House back then. It’s a perfect spot to end your exploration of the Barbary Coast, since they have a great cocktail menu and the kitchen is open until 1 am.
Our SF in a Day tour finishes in Chinatown, very near the area, and your guide can point out a few of these places for you to explore later.
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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)