Comstock Saloon

The Comstock Saloon is one of the few remaining traces of San Francisco’s rough and rowdy Barbary Coast and, amazingly, this popular watering hole still has much of its original interior. The beautiful mahogany bar, with its flame mahogany balusters and beveled fan mirrors, is still there and so is the embossed tin ceiling and wooden floor. 

1) Comstock Bar (Z-16-209)2) Pukka Walla Fan (Z-10-450)

And, best of all, the pukka walla fans are there, still turning with their long leather belt and antique hardware. The name pukka walla comes from colonial India where an unfortunate servant (called a punkah wallah) waved a palm frond or tapestry to create a cooling breeze for his master.

Another surviving original feature is the tiled trough that runs along the base of the bar. I think it’s simply a drain to make cleaning the floor easier, but some claim it was a spittoon or urinal or both. It makes an interesting story, but it seems pretty barbaric, even for the Barbary Coast.

This establishment, at the corner of Pacific and Columbus, has been a saloon since 1907; however, it wasn’t always called the Comstock. When it originally opened in 1907, it was the Andromeda Saloon. The owner was a boxing promoter named Jim Griffin, and Jack Dempsey worked there for a while as a bouncer before he became heavyweight champion. The Andromeda survived prohibition by calling itself a café and serving wine in coffee mugs. In 1977, the establishment morphed into the Albatross Saloon, and in 1985 it became the San Francisco Brewing Company – one of the first microbrew pubs in the city. The Saloon was completely restored by its current owners and reopened as the Comstock in May 2010.

Comstock is a great choice of names for this old saloon, because the name has a deep connection to San Francisco. The Comstock Lode — founded near Virginia City, Nevada in 1859 — was a gold and silver bonanza; the vein of ore was “350 feet wide and 275 feet high.” Wealth from the mine helped build this city and wealth from the mine helped create and sustain the Barbary Coast. It’s where seafaring thuggery, gold rush wealth, and Victorian elegance coalesced. The old Barbary Coast is now buried under the Financial District and North Beach; the Comstock Saloon is one of the few surviving remnants.

3) Pisco Punch (Z-16-212)

 

The Barbary Coast vibe extends beyond the saloon’s history and décor; the Comstock serves turn-of-century saloon fare as well. They serve popular vintage cocktails like Manhattans and Pisco Punch (photo left) and more obscure drinks like the Hop Toad Cocktail. One popular option is to order the Barkeep’s Whimsy, where the bartender makes something he thinks you’ll like. The food menu is short, the portions a bit small, and the prices a bit high, but the quality is excellent — and with items like Hangtown toast, pig in a biscuit, and rabbit 3-way — the choices are certainly interesting. My favorite is their braised beef shank and bone marrow potpie. Friday is the only day they open for lunch, and on Friday lunch is free with the purchase of two drinks.

 









5) Comstock-Parlor (Z-12-772)6) Comstock-Dining Room (Z-12-755)


In addition to the vintage bar, the Saloon has five large comfy booths, a cozy parlor area complete with a wood stove, and a separate dining room with Victorian furnishings. A balcony overlooking the bar is a perfect perch for a band, and most nights, the Comstock has live music. It’s one of the best jazz clubs in the city.

The décor, drinks, food, and music all hark back to an earlier age, and saloonkeepers Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin, even dress and look the part. Jeff and Jonny are well known from their bartending days at the popular Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, and that’s helped the Comstock get great press coverage. It’s been written about in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle; it’s made the lists of “top bars in America” in both GQ and Food & Wine magazines, and it was included in Anthony Bourdain’s San Francisco Layover in 2011.

Yelp rates the Comstock’s ambience as classy — and it is. From its silver, claw foot bar stools, to its mahogany bar, to its highly professional bartenders, it’s upscale, interesting, and fun. Even if you don’t usually frequent saloons, don’t miss the history and character of the Comstock. It’s like taking a giant step back to the early 1900s.

 

 

Credit where credit it due:

Website: Comstock Saloon

The Comstock Saloon Evokes the City’s Brash and Bawdy Past - By Ernest Beyl, The Semaphore, Summer 2010

Comstock bartenders know what you like - By Sophie Brickman, SF Chronicle, December 16, 2010

 

© Virginia E. Vail 2012