5 Supremely Entertaining San Francisco Bars From History We Wish Still Existed

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

A line of men and women dressed in Victorian clothing stand outside a ramshackle wooden building.
Patrons gather outside the Cobweb Palace, a legendary old tavern that stood for 40 years on Francisco Street between Powell and Mason.  (OpenSFHistory / wnp26.2055)

San Francisco is blessed with a whole bunch of bars that have been hanging around for almost as long as the city itself. There’s the Old Ship Saloon, named for the fact that it was originally housed inside a ship that ran aground in 1851. There’s Elixir in the Mission, first established in 1858. And let’s not forget North Beach’s Saloon, which has been there since 1861.

But not all of the great ones survived. Here are five rip-roarin’ bars that, had they stuck around, would be regularly making all of our lives better.

The Cobweb Palace

An old gold rush era tavern with cluttered walls, a bar at the back of the room and a ceiling thoroughly covered in thick cobwebs.
The Cobweb Palace was a haven for spiders, parrots, monkeys and, for some reason, weapons from around the world. Proprietor Abe Warner can be seen behind the bar here. Two of his beloved parrots swing on a perch in the center. (OpenSFHistory / wnp33.00557)

Abe Warner was a bona fide weirdo, but, in classic San Francisco fashion, the whole city loved him for it. Warner opened his ramshackle bar in 1856 on Francisco Street between Powell and Mason Streets, not far from where Sweetie’s Art Bar stands today.

The Cobweb Palace was full of taxidermy and weapons from around the world, including bone spears, harpoons, lances, Maori knives, axes, darts, bows, snares and jackknives. What Warner was best known for, however, was his love of small creatures. Monkeys and parrots roamed free at the bar, and the venue was named for the spider paradise that Warner allowed to form on his ceiling.

The Cobweb Palace stayed open for almost 40 years, and during that time Warner steadfastly refused to clean his ceiling out of respect for his arachnid friends. In a description published after Warner’s 1896 death at age 88, it was said that:

Enormous strings of silky webs, which had become dark and heavy with the dust of years, hung from the ceiling and festooned the strange curios and pictures that adorned the wall. Some of these cobwebs were more than a yard in length and had not been disturbed for a quarter of a century or more. Old Warner seemed to regard the webs with as much pride as a collector bestows on rare and beautiful antiques. Every precaution was taken to keep them intact and a person could always get the proprietor into a good natured chat by remarking their size and evident age. The shelves of the saloon were laden with cobwebbed bottles counting all sorts of spirits and liquors.

Take that, health and sanitation rules!

Mona’s 440 Club

A large Black woman wearing a white tuxedo, top hat and gloves, as she holds a cane.
Blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley was the star performer at Mona’s 440 Club — a bar that embraced lesbians and crossdressing in the 1930s. (Soibelman Syndicate Collection/Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images)

When married couple Mona and Jimmie Sargeant first opened Mona’s, they envisioned a free-spirited hangout for local writers and artists. To their (probable) surprise, the people they actually attracted were predominantly — wouldn’t you know it? — genderfluid lesbians.


The Sargeants embraced their best customers with gusto, employing drag king waitstaff and a variety of entertainers who were out, out, out. The bar openly advertised itself as a place “where girls can be boys.” Some ads told potential patrons to: “Join the carefree spirit and gayness.”

Major entertainers like Moms Mabley, Beverly Shaw and Midge Williams made appearances at Mona’s, but a typical show was more likely to feature the likes of Miss Jimmy Reynard, Rose O’Neill (aka the “female Fred Astaire”) and Butch Minton “singing gay songs.” One frequent headliner was pianist and blues singer Gladys Bentley, who was known for performing while wearing striking top hat and tails.

Sadly, after the Sargeants sold the club at 440 Broadway in the 1950s, the new owner, Ann Dee, shifted away from Mona’s sapphic central theme into much straighter territory — Johnny Mathis became one of its most popular performers. (Try not to boo.)

Techau Tavern

A busy Victorian-era street lined with hotels and taverns. People in clothing of the era cross the street behind a classic San Francisco trolley.
The Techau Tavern, near Ellis Street. (OpenSFHistory / wnp33.03290)

Techau Tavern was a big, fancy joint that had three different locations in downtown San Francisco in its lifetime. It was established in 1900 on Mason Street near Powell, then destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. It moved to 1321 Sutter near Van Ness for three years and finally wound up at 247 Powell. And, boy oh boy, was it luxurious. The entrance hall was marble, the dining room seated 600 people, the oval dance floor was solid mahogany and the walls were decorated with intricate murals and friezes. Crystal mirrors and chandeliers completed the ambiance.

The reason Techau was truly awesome, though, was that it just loved giving its customers prizes (bribes?) for going there. The dance floor was decorated with numbers, and if you landed on the right one at the end of a song, you won something. The venue had a display window full of merchandise from men’s clothing store, the Roos Brothers. As such, the male clientele of the tavern often won all sorts of swag from there.

The best competition Techau ever held took place in 1919. The tavern decided to give away a car — specifically, a Flanders electric automobile — to one lucky lady. Every day, every woman who showed up at the bar between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m., and from 9:30 p.m. to closing, was given a coupon. The first number drawn won the car and nine other numbers gave chosen coupon holders yet more prizes.

You’re lucky to even get free bar snacks these days, for crying out loud.

The Chinese Pagoda

A block in San Francisco's Chinatown with many bars.
The Chinese Pagoda, visible on the right, in the center of the block. June 1964. (OpenSFHistory / wnp25.3957)

Look. We all love Li Po Lounge. Li Po Lounge is fantastic. But Chinatown would be an even more magical place if the Chinese Pagoda had survived too. The old bar at 830 Grant Avenue was one of the first to open up after the end of prohibition and predates Li Po by a couple of years.

Though the Chinese Pagoda promised a “real oriental atmosphere” in its ads, it was actually a place where Eastern aesthetics met Western entertainment. Their waitstaff was made up of Asian Americans singing the songs of the day. One cocktail waitress, Mary Mammon — a singer and dancer better known for her performances at Forbidden City (America’s first Chinese nightclub) — did a rendition of Ella Fitzgerald classic “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” that brought the house down every night.

Before the Chinese Pagoda, most white Americans had never seen Asian folks performing anything other than traditional Chinese opera. As such, the Pagoda was a game-changer.

Today, no trace remains that a bar was ever at 830 Grant. If you want to see it, its facade makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the 1960 film Portrait in Black. It’ll make you wish it were still around today.

Elite Varieties

A sepia-toned image of a Chinese market with awning from the 19th century.
The Northeast corner of Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) and Clay in the 1880s. Dupont was awash with notorious dive bars at the time — but none was more infamous than Elite Varieties. (OpenSFHistory / wnp24.187a)

Sure, you took your life in your hands hanging out at Elite Varieties, but man, there was never a dull moment. Described as a dive by anyone who ever smelled the joint, Elite was one of the roughest bars in the whole city. Situated on the Northwest corner of Dupont (now Grant Avenue) and Geary Boulevard, the activities of everyone hanging around Elite often made headlines.

The venue, which hosted “theatrical presentations” was described thusly by the San Francisco Examiner:

Ten or twelve boxes curtained off and furnished with lockable doors are ranged along the side of the auditorium and in these boxes waitresses entice fast young clerks and verdant countrymen to spent their cash for drinks, which are supplied from two bars — one in front and one in the rear of the boxes.

On Feb. 12, 1884, police arrested a 17-year-old named Nellie Hart who had been living in one of those boxes for three weeks. The Examiner reported that Hart was found, “Her hair banged and her face made hideous with paints and powders.” Her mother had reportedly ratted her out.

The following week, a cop in the bar broke his own club over the head of a sailor he was arresting for fighting.

A week after that, a man named Warren Chapman was convicted of shooting a guy named John Moore inside Elite Varieties in an argument over a woman who had been seeing them both.

A few weeks after that, when one of the bar’s patrons was arrested for murder, one of the actresses that worked at Elite filed a complaint with the police that — I’m not making this up — he’d stolen her opium pipe after the two had smoked from it together.

Elite Varieties was completely bananas.

As the years passed, things at the bar only got crazier. In 1887, a couple of ne’er-do-wells named Henry McLaughlin and Michael Hurley decided it would be an excellent idea to go grab a drink there, knowing full well that Hurley had been 86’d. (You have to wonder how one gets banned from such a place.) When the bartender recognized Hurley and ordered him outside, a brief scuffle erupted and a door guy was forced to intervene. Hurley, naturally, responded to this by shooting at the bouncer. (McLaughlin and Hurley were later convicted of the crime.)


In 1889, Elite’s proprietor George H. Rice was murdered inside his business by his own bouncer — shot four times, in fact. It’s unclear how long the bar stayed open after that, but it was surely wildly entertaining — and not a little dangerous — for as long as it lasted.