It seems that almost any sizable city will have a few Irish bars, just as there will be at least a few Chinese restaurants. Even Honolulu has O'Toole's and Murphy's downtown, the Irish Rose in Waikiki, and Jameson's on the North Shore -- although Jameson's and the Irish Rose are an Irish bars only in name. (No true Irish bar would call itself the Irish Rose!)
In San Francisco there are a large number of them, although unfortunately I can't remember most of their names at the moment. There's the Little Shamrock, on Lincoln Blvd. at Ninth Avenue in the Sunset District, and Molly Malone's (Irish Pub and Restaurant) a few blocks further west on Lincoln, and the Shannon Arms on Taraval Street near 19th Avenue. There's one called the Plough and Stars on Clement Street (not to be confused with the Starry Plough in Berkeley -- also Irish.) (And I think there are two on College Avenue in the Rockridge area of Berkeley/Oakland.)
Many Irish bars are Irish only inasmuch as they have Guiness on tap and Irish whiskey in the well, and posters of Ireland on the wall, but otherwise are more or less ordinary singles bars, or neighborhood bars that cater to young people who have romantic conceptions of Ireland but no Irish ancestry to speak of -- or at least no recent ancestry. (Although God knows, it's truly amazing how many ordinary Americans one meets in bars everywhere claim to be Irish, especially considering what a small country Ireland is.)
Harrington's, at the corner of Larkin and Turk (recently renamed Harrington's Harry Pub) at the edge of the San Francisco Tenderloin, is another story. Sometimes when I've gone in there, I've felt that I've been transported back into a proletarian world from America in the Thirties, now preserved mostly in the plays written in that era. (I don't remember the playwrights who used to write these, but I guess that Clifford Odets would have been one name.) Or for that matter, one might almost have been in the world of Dublin as portrayed by James Joyce.
The Irish accents can be heavy to an extent that one would be hesitant to use in a move or play today, for fear of being accused of caricature.
For some reason, I remember especially one snippet of conversation. ``Your father once told me,'' one of the customers started out. I don't remember the end of the sentence, but the guy he was talking to replied, ``My f-a-ther'' (drawing out the word to about four times its usual length), ``thought that you were a piece of shit.''
A while later that same night, one of the wives present (for a lot of the crowd there consisted of married couples) said, ``Let's try to put an end to all this arguing for once. Why don't we have ourselves a good sing-song.'' And a few of the women took up one of the old standard Irish ballads, but none of the men joined in.
Another evening, I went into Harrington's a little after nine. There didn't seem to be anything special happening. The way I was greeted by the bartender wasn't all that friendly, but I ascribed that to the fact that I was essentially a tourist coming into a neighborhood bar.
But after I'd drunk about half my beer, I noticed that when a couple of customers got up to leave, the bartender walked over to the door and unlocked it to let them out. That certainly seemed odd. The door hadn't been locked when I'd come in. But every place has its own customs, I thought.
But about ten minutes later, one of the customers said, ``I'd like another Budweiser,'' and the bartender (who I realized must have actually been the owner) replied, ``Fuck you!''
``Hey, Jimmy, I said I want another Budweiser.''
``And I said Fuck You! If you want a beer, go down the street. The bar is closed.''
The argument went on for quite a while, but no more drinks were served. Needless to say, when I finished my beer I left. I never found out what had happened that evening before I arrived. But it was the only time in my life I'd ever heard a bartender respond to a customer's order by saying, ``Fuck you.''
(Bruno, the eighty-year old owner of the Persian Aub Zam Zam on Haight Street, is a notoriously surly bartender. Don't worry about why he's mad at you, he's that way with everybody. If he really didn't like the way you look, or something you did -- instructing him on how you want your Martini made, for instance -- he'd have refused to serve you.)
May 15, 1996
Addendum: 1998 Since I wrote this, I've become much more aware of Irish bars in San Francisco, and embarrassed about what I small subset of them are mentioned above. There are certainly many more than I've ever managed to go in. (I'm indebted to two San Francisco Irish newspapers, The Irish Herald, 3516 Geary Blvd., San Francisco 94118, and The Gael, 2403 Ocean Ave, San Francisco 94127, for some of the names listed below. CitySearch7 is also a very useful source of information. )
There must be at least half a dozen along Geary Boulevard, including Sinéad's Irish Bar & Restaurant, the Blarney Stone Bar & Restaurant, Ireland's 32 Bar & Grill, Pat O'Shea's (primarily a sports bar, proudly displaying the slogan ``We Cheat Tourists and Drunks''), and the Abbey Tavern. Close by is O'Keefe's Bar on 5th Avenue.
A little further south, in the Sunset District, besides Molly Malone's, mentioned above, there's Dirty Nelly's Irish Pub & Restaurant on Irving St at 25th Avenue, and the Shannon Arms on Taravel Street near 19th Avenue. And just where the N-Judah streetcar line goes into the tunnel, on Cole Street, there's Finnegan's Wake, which I once saw described in a newspaper as a quintessential Irish bar. I have to say, though, that the few times I've been in there I've found nothing whatsoever Irish about it except for Guiness on tap and a few posters on the wall.
In the Mission District, there are quite a few Irish bars, although in some of them you'll find as many Latino customers as Irish. I especially recommend Keanu's 3300 Club, at 3300 Mission Street at about 29th. It's a neighborhood bar with a lot of Irish among its clientele. The owner, Nancy Keanu, hosts on of the City's more serious poetry readings there twice a month.
Then there's the famous (or, to some, infamous) Dovre Club on Valencia Street at 26th, recently relocated after a bitterly contested eviction from the Women's Building on 18th Street. (The eviction was based not on political or social grounds, but on the need to earthquake-proof the building.) Also there are the Original McCarthy's on Mission Street, the Dubliner on 24th St, and Mucky Murphy's on 20th St (I really must go there some time).
Just south of Market Street, there's Kate O'Brien's on Howard St.
Also worth mentioning are the An Bodhran on lower Haight Street, and Harrington's Bar & Grill (in the Financial District, as opposed to the one on Larkin Street), Mulligan's, and Johnny Foley's Irish House, all in the more or less downtown area. My guess is that these are all pretty much theme bars catering to tourists rather than a genuine Irish crowd. That's definitely true of O'Reilly's, in North Beach. However O'Reilly's does have some good Irish bartenders and serves good (but not cheap) Irish food.