Sure, sometimes it’s great to go to the latest, hottest, most popular restaurant or bar in town, but there are other times when you want comfort and familiarity and a menu you can understand without some sort of fancy food dictionary. We’re talking about the kind of no frills places that don’t often get much press, because they’ve been a part of the city so long, they’re almost a given. Dining at one of these establishments is often a chance to experience first-hand some of San Francisco’s colorful history. They lack pretention, have plenty of character and have been consistently serving you delicious, hearty food for years. This week we spotlight the old school, the classic, the standby restaurants and pubs of Union Square.
It seems appropriate to start with a bar and restaurant that has actually seen a fair amount of press lately – Lefty O’Doul’s. This San Francisco institution has been in the papers for helping to catch an art thief with their security camera, but it’s more than a helpful neighborhood watchdog. Lefty’s has been a gathering place and watering hole since 1958, serving up hand-carved meats, soups, salads and plenty of baseball memorabilia. It’s the perfect place to catch a baseball game and a beer with a group friends. Practically a piece of San Francisco history in itself is John’s Grill on Ellis Street. This restaurant was one of the first to open after the 1906 earthquake and serves as a setting for scenes in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The interior is a blast from the past worth a trip by itself, and the menu is all about excellent steak and fresh seafood and salads. Just across the street is Les Joulins Jazz Bistro, which has been serving up French-Mediterranean cuisine and nightly free jazz performances for over 30 years. Les Joulins provides a little slice of New Orleans with its bright yellow awning and décor and lineup of famed jazz musicians. Visitors who want something a little more bluesy to go with their dinner can stop by Biscuits and Blues. This restaurant and nightclub offers an intimate and chic setting for an evening of world-class blues music and Southern fare with a twist - think mac and cheese croquets, seafood kabobs and crab jambalaya.
If you’re more into breakfast, you will need to check out Sears Fine Food, which has been in operation on Powell Street since 1938. According to San Francisco legend Ben Sears was a retired circus clown and his wife Hilbur Sears was armed with a Swedish recipe for small, fluffy, delectable pancakes. The rest is history. You can still get a plate of 18 pancakes with maple syrup and fresh whipped butter for under ten dollars. Those with a preference for large, thin pancakes can go up the street to Cable Car Café for their solid diner food and excellent crêpes.
San Francisco has a long history of Irish heritage, and that is reflected in Union Square’s two traditional Irish Pubs. Located on its own small alleyway, the Irish Bank prides itself on authentic Irish pub food, beer and décor (antiques and memorabilia fit for a true Irish tavern). The menu is simple but tasty and filling with favorites like cheddar fries (just what they sound like), a reuben sandwich and shepherd’s pie. Stop here during happy hour for a beer and a bite, and you’ll find a jovial crowd of locals blowing off some steam and enjoying each other’s company. For an upscale pub experience, Johnny Foley’s is the place to be. Although Johnny Foley’s has only been around since 1998 (new compared to some we have mentioned), its ambiance hearkens to a classic Irish pub with its honeycomb floors and rich, dark woods. The food is elevated pub food like grilled tandoori chicken skewers and corned beef and sauerkraut panini. Foley’s also offers live entertainment most nights and a super kitschy, ridiculously fun dueling pianos show in the cellar bar downstairs.
The Gold Dust Lounge is perhaps the wild card in this bunch. It seems as if everyone in San Francisco has some story about the decades-old San Francisco bar involving strong drinks and dancing with enthusiastic geriatrics. Locals and tourists alike patronize this old-school saloon for the inexpensive drinks and quirky atmosphere.
Just as there is a time for Michelin star restaurants, there is a time for these San Francisco institutions. When you visit them, you see a whole cross section of San Francisco life, history and heritage. Plus, it’s a chance to relax, wear your comfy pair of jeans and enjoy an unpretentious meal with friends, so pull up a stool and whet your appetite for a taste of classic San Francisco.