UPDATE: SpeakeasySF closed permanently on August 4, 2019! What a loss.
If you were thinking of adding something THIS spectacular into your San Francisco experience (you know, and not just have a standard Cable Car, Crooked Street, Golden Gate Bridge experience) I recommend checking out the Boxcar Theatre website to see what they've got on their agenda. And skip down to the end of this article to the list of Speakeasy bars still open in San Francisco. Give yourself the gift of one of these experiences when you visit San Francisco.
If you get your trip in before then end of 2019 you can catch the last of Beach Blanket Babylon, which announced it's closing after an incredible 45-year run.
Are you coming to San Francisco?
Got everything nailed down and finalized in the sights-to-see/things-to-do category?
Want an insiders tip for one more thing?
Yes - you do. Because that one more thing is one-of-a-kind - even secret.
But go ahead with the itinerary you’ve carefully curated and see the famous San Francisco sights. Give yourself at least two days to visit the tchotchke stores at Fishermans Wharf and Chinatown, ride a cable car up and down Hyde Street (so you can see that beautiful bay), and do the Golden Gate Bridge on foot (try for the alternative views described here.)
Head over to North Beach for a cannoli, then climb Coit Tower, before taking in the street art in the Mission district. Don’t forget to grab some fresh crab on the Wharf, wash it down with an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe, and spend time exploring all of Golden Gate Park.
(Check out the Museum Hack tour at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.)
Maybe three days of sightseeing - or however long it takes. Just get it out of the way and then prep yourself for a San Francisco experience that might be the coolest thing you’ve ever done in your travels. Ever.
Speakeasy San Francisco
It’s gonna be a night on the town like no other. And to do it - you’ll travel back in time to post-Barbary Coast San Francisco during Prohibition - 1923 to be exact.
Yes - you’re reading this right. I’m recommending - no I’m telling you to plan your trip around your reservations for a night in a 1920’s Speakeasy - in a secret spot somewhere in old San Francisco.
So secret you won’t even know the location until you the day before when you get a (modern-day text) message with your instructions. It’s going to tell you where to meet the man in a yellow hat and scarf waiting for your password.
Ok, let’s back up. I’ll share everything I know about Speakeasy SF based on my night in the hidden gin joint. And tell you how to get tickets and the other details you’ll need. But give me a second to tell you about the whole thing.
Every era since the gold rush has left its mark on San Francisco, but the lingering effects of the 1920s and ’30s are everywhere in this city. And FYI - the city has no intention of ever ditching those marks.
During Prohibition, every hotel in San Francisco had a speakeasy. The Sir Frances Drake Hotel, still operating today a block off Union Square, built one between floors. Talk about yer secret hangout.
Many Speakeasies were in underground bars - like SpeakeasySF, which I visited in full flapper regalia. As one does when one travels back in time.
SpeakeasySF is an immersive theater experience produced by San Francisco's Boxcar Theater. In case you’re not familiar with immersive theater - everything and everyone around you is part of the show, including you - possibly.
That’s part of its secret magic, created in a million small ways, starting with the confirmation email you receive after purchasing tickets on their website. (HINT: that's how you get your tickets!) Here’s how it starts:
Looks like everything is all Jake and your reservation is confirmed. You’ll receive further instructions in due time on where to meet my associate and how to gain entry to our little gin joint. Keep a lid on it.
They had me at Hiya Pal.
The Night You Speak Easy
And here’s how it’s all going to roll out. You’ll get those instructions on where to meet your contact, and a password the day before your reservations. And that’s all they'll tell you.
Plus - you have to wear Speakeasy attire.
If you go on Saturday - wearing a 1920’s period costume is required. Any other day of the week it's optional - but don’t mess with the magic. Get in costume no matter what day you go! Guests in period attire add as much pixie dust to the night as the real actors, the secrecy, underground setting, the bathtub gin, gambling, and cabaret show.
And you can do it without having to pack a costume at all - the theater has costumes available for rent! Part of your initial email spells all that out for you with links to the website:
...And those who get dressed to the nines are more likely to get pulled into character interactions.
If you need a little help getting dolled up, we got you covered. The Dressing Room handles costume rentals and sales. You can even purchase a costumed character which guarantees scenes and has other perks. The night is going to be the cat’s meow!
You’ll be hearing from me. Until then: speak easy.
Or you can buy simple (and easy to pack) men and women's accessories online, like the ones I used for my costume. Just combine them with some fishnet stockings and dark suit for the gent. Totally worth the extra packing cube in your bag. Like they said ”the cat’s meow!” (and they might pick you)
Don your costumes on the appointed night and then walk out into 21st Century San Francisco. Relax - no one will look at you twice in this city.
They’ve seen it all.
Definitely grab dinner before your appointment with the yellow-hatted man. Try North Beach where chances are good costumed-you will blend right in. Seriously - people might not notice your costume. Check out a few of my favorites: Park Tavern (where I dined in full flapper flagrance), North Beach Restaurant or Original Joe’s.
Sling That Gin
Just make sure you get to where you need to meet at the appointed time. Once you connect with that yellow-hatted man, you’ll fall under the spell of the night. Before you’ve entered the strange doorway, climbed down a steep stairwell, knocked twice, waited, and knocked twice again - time travel begins.
The door opens, and you enter a jam-packed jazz bar in 1923. Sit down, order a drink and take it all in. Seriously - you’re gonna look like a hayseed with your mouth hanging open, so watch out for that. Also - remember to ‘speakeasy,’ the Feds might be onto them.
The night’s going to unfold the way you want it to as you wander through hidden rooms and secret passages. From the bar through a hidden bookcase into the casino? Into the back parlor, peaking and listening into the chorus girls' dressing room, and catching a cabaret show. Do them all and do them again in a different order. The actors will be all around you, weaving out their tales and you'll be breathing in the pixie dust of it all.
I promise you two things:
1. You will have an amazing only-in-San Francisco memory to take home with you.
2. You will not have a single picture on your phone of the entire night (not allowed - hey there were no cell phones in 1923! This is legit time travel, pal.)
Psst - get a ton of photos at dinner.
Speakeasy Plan B
There’s another way to get some of the authentic Speakeasy experience while you’re in San Francisco. It doesn’t require a costume, but a little pre-planning for the full experience.
Bourbon and Branch
In San Francisco’s Tenderloin district - an area near Union Square that’s chock full of sleaze - there’s a non-descript door almost precisely at the corner of Jones and O’Farrell.
You can’t just open it and walk in - you’ll have to knock. And you’ll need a password, or you won’t get in.
That’s how it works at Bourbon and Branch, just the way it worked back in 1921 when the original illegal Speakeasy began operating at this same location. The story is told on the bar’s website - read it when you make the reservation.
Knock on the nondescript door at 501 Jones Street and give the password when the peephole opens (you’ll get the password after making a reservation.) Inside you’ll realize you’ve been transported back to Prohibition.
Once there you can explore, and drink, in the main bar, the Library, or the Wilson & Wilson Private Detective Agency.
In the main room, 1920’s music plays against a backdrop of red walls and a tin-plated ceiling. You’ll be shown to your booth and given a large, heavy binder to peruse and choose your libations. Be advised - Bourbon and Branch has a few house rules including no cell phones and no Cosmos!
The Library is accessible without a reservation. Arrive after 6 pm, knock and give the password “Books” and you’ll be escorted directly to the secret library. The room is full of floor to ceiling books and transforms into a bar, and you can hang out all night. But since you know everything else Bourbon and Branch offers - make a reservation.
You can stay and drink at Bourbon and Branch for as long as you want - but you won’t get any food. Just a whole lot of real San Francisco history, attitude, and a possible sighting of gangsters and their dolls.
The city is rich with bars that have operated since Prohibition and decades earlier. You and your aching liver could make a whole themed trip (squeezing the other sightseeing into a day?) Here are some additional non-reservation/password entry but totally legit 1920’s era San Francisco bars for your consideration:
- The Devil's Acre - 256 Columbus Ave (Broadway)
- Local Edition - 691 Market St (at 3rd St)
- Elixir - 3200 16th St. San Francisco
- The Saloon (opened in 1861) - 1232 Grant Avenue
- Alchemist Bar & Lounge - 679 3rd St
- House of Shields (opened since 1908) - 39 New Montgomery St *One of my favorites - check out the full story on their website here.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so please send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you make it to SpeakeasySF, Bourbon and Branch, or any/all of these fab bars, take a pic and send it along. I’m going to post the best photo I receive right here on the blog!
Come on out and visit this incredible city. At Night.