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The Buena Vista Cafe

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San Francisco lays claim to hundreds of bars, but only a tiny fraction of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones; the ones untouched by mixology madness and interior designers. Your guide is consummate festivarian, Eddy El Espia, who delves into the underbelly of our city's less media-touted watering holes, one by one.

Buena Vista Cafe. [Photo: Flickr/LimeWave Photo]

On a cold and wet San Francisco evening, there are few things as soothing to the spirit as a well-prepared Irish coffee. And Buena Vista is the most storied spot in the city to enjoy one. It’s been a staple of SF now for over 124 years and four generations, serving up that whiskey-laced coffee as it’s signature drink since the 1950s.

On a recent visit, I sat on a flat wooden stool at the bar, I faced an assembly line of bell-shaped goblets preparing to become fresh Irish coffees. The bartender, clad in the classic attire of white overcoat and black tie, was getting ready to unravel his enthusiastic and thoughtful account of how the Buena Vista was made famous for the delicious Tullamore Dew, coffee and cream cocktail. Here’s the abridged version, with a few details you won’t get by studying the newspaper clippings all over the walls or from reading the made-for-tourist Buena Vista pamphlet.

1940’s Ireland. A gentleman that was the “chief chief” of the Shannon Airport came into work one day with the mother of all hangovers. Needing to tap the old “hair of the dog” trick to neutralize the pain, he decided to spike his coffee with a bit of Irish whiskey. The twist being, he needed to mask the scent of whiskey so he wouldn’t get busted. So he topped it off with fresh cream that sat on top of the coffee. And, viola! Irish Coffee was born.

A few years later, the owner of Buena Vista in the 1950’s, Jack Koeppler was traveling to Ireland when he and many other passengers got stranded at the airport due to inclement weather. So the “chief chief,” sensing the strife these folks had to endure, decided to spice up their night a bit by serving up some Irish coffees to the revelers of the bunch that did what any of us would do in that situation—get drunk.

Koeppler loved every second of it. So much so that when he returned to San Francisco and promptly tapped revered Chronicle beat writer Stanton Delaplane to work through the night at his bar with him, trying to recreate this delightful concoction. It was November 10, 1952. Knowing that Delaplane was a very popular writer and his reach was extensive, Koeppler got him to spread the word for people to come try this new cocktail. And they did. In droves. On a good day, they sell over 1,000 of them.

The bar has stayed true over the years, keeping a classic saloon type feel even
as the Wharf has evolved from a simple fisherman’s docking and trade area to a commercial boom town to its most current form as a tourist destination. That said, I can understand how a trip to the Wharf isn’t the most desirable thing for many— bumping elbows with tourists for bar space and being asked to snap a few photos isn’t what I’m looking for after a long day of work either. But a return to the roots of San Francisco and the taking in of a piece of local history by way of a few Irish Coffees on a cold, rainy night -- well, it's worth whatever comes with the territory.
—Eddy El Espia