Getting High on History

'High Spirits' author J.K. Dineen unveils the tales of the City's endangered 'legacy bars'
Getting High on History
San Francisco's 'legacy bars'—several of them endangered, like the Tosca Café pictured here—are the subject of a new book and a series of local talks by author J.K. Dineen.
Getting High on History
J.K. Dineen's new book High Spirits: The Legacy Bars of San Francisco.
Getting High on History
Mr. Bing's: shanghaied in Chinatown. Photo: Spencer Brown

No, they’re not as smoky as they used to be. And, no, you’re unlikely to find yourself shanghaied and sent to sea after spending a night in one. That often happened in the old, old days.

But San Francisco’s ‘legacy bars’—here defined as being “of significant historic or cultural value”—are increasingly on the map.

They are the subject of a new book, for example, whose author has been on the stump for the past few weeks. J.K. Dineen’s next appearance to talk up his High Spirits: The Legacy Bars of San Francisco is this Sunday, November 15 at Mullen Bros Imaging at 2040 Oakdale Avenue in the City.

Following that presentation Dineen will deliver a talk for the group that originated the idea of legacy bars, San Francisco Heritage, on Thursday November 19, 2015 at the Swedish American Hall, a legacy venue in itself, 2174 Market Street. His talk starts at 6 p.m. $15 for non-members.

Legacy bars also got political this year, with preservationists pushing a San Francisco ballot measure that would help legacy bars, legacy restaurants, and other ‘legacy businesses’ stay in business by providing generous city subsidies both to the businesses and their landlords.

The measure won handily on the recent November San Francisco elections. The city has also established a registry of historic businesses.

“In the wake of the unsuccessful Gold Dust Lounge Landmark nomination last spring,” Heritage writes on its website, “and recent threats to local institutions like the Tonga Room and Tosca Cafe, Heritage resolved to explore alternative methods of recognizing and protecting places with intangible cultural significance. ‘Legacy Bars and Restaurants’ is an attempt to celebrate the city’s vast culinary heritage and to promote businesses that do not necessarily qualify for formal historic designation.”

During his talk, Dineen, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, will discuss what it was like visiting every legacy bar in the city—there should be some good tales there—and may even recommend his favorites.

“The dives in this book may be endangered, and that is sad. But reading Dineen on, say, ‘Sam Jordan’s Bar and Grill or the Wild Side West,’ you can only feel pleasure. Dineen’s a guy who can tell a story,” a Chron editor, Kitty Morgan, wrote—and she ought to know.

She added: “You can smell the stale beer; you can see the flicker of old neon.”

Among the bars on the legacy list are Vesuvio Café in North Beach, the great Tiki bar Trad’r Sam on Geary Street (“one of the few remaining bamboo bars,” in the words of Heritage), and the Philosopher's Club in West Portal, which dates to 1960.

And, if you are wondering, of course the list includes the infamous Mr. Bing’s in Chinatown. Remember what we said about not get shanghaied? Well, maybe we were wrong.

But—if you’re on your good behavior—Mr. Bing’s can be jolly indeed, and certainly redolent of the old days. As one online commenter has posted, Mr. Bing’s is “the perfect setting for a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel scene.”

To sign up for Dineen’s ‘High Spirits’ November 19 talk at the Swedish American Hall, click here.