Pub Crawl

I don’t know why this is so, but San Francisco has a lot of Irish Pubs — at least thirty by my count. Some are little more than neighborhood bars, but some have all of the ingredients of a great traditional Irish Pub and are as delightful as any you would find in Dublin or Killarney.

So what makes an Irish Pub great? Well, first there’s the beer. A good Irish Pub must have Guinness and Smithwick’s or Harp on tap, and the beers need to be fresh and foamy. Additional points are awarded to any pub that also has Magners Cider on tap. Pub grub is an important ingredient too. As a minimum, a good Irish Pub will serve Fish & Chips with crispy, light, beer battered Alaskan or Atlantic cod, crisp hot chips and decent coleslaw. But food and drink are only half of what makes an Irish Pub great. Ambience is equally important. Ambience begins with the décor and ends with craic. Pub decor is wooden and warm. The best have beautiful hand-carved mahogany back bars with beveled mirrors and stained glass. Their walls are covered from wainscot to ceiling with photos, signs, documents, and bric-a-brac representing all things Irish. The floors are wooden and well trod and have the lingering scent of misplaced Guinness. And, finally, a great pub rings with craic.

We haven’t yet been to all of the Irish Pubs in San Francisco, but we’ve been to several, and we have a few favorites. We typically stop by one or another of the pubs every week or so for a pint or two and some pub grub. Here are our favorites:

1) Foley's (FX01-7-113)

Foley’s Irish House is an old favorite. We came here from time to time even before we moved to the City. Located just off Union Square, it’s popular with shoppers and tourists as well as the usual business crowd. It has a large, beautifully carved wooden bar with arched light bridges in the back bar that cast a soft glow over the numerous bottles. The bar has rows of polished brass taps, and Magners Cider flows from one of them.

2) Foley's (FX01-7-121)

The cavernous room is separated into a warren of small areas with carved dark wood and stained glass partitions. The walls are decorated with old portraits, some of famous Irishmen. One portrait is a replica of the Mona Lisa. She’s sporting a foam mustache and has a Guinness in her hand.

The food at Foley’s is consistently good. My favorite is their Gorgonzola Cheese & Apple Salad. Yeah, I know that’s not traditional Irish food, but it’s yummy.

O’Reilly’s is our old standby. Just a short walk from home, this North Beach pub has one of the most beautiful mahogany back bars in the city. The corner area next to the bar is covered with a hand-painted mural of life-size portraits of famous Irish writers: (R to L James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, George B. Shaw, W.B. Yeats, and Sean O’Casey). 

5) O'Reilly's Pub (FX01-7-144)
4) O'Reilly's Pub (FX01-7-141)
3) O'Reilly's Pub (FX01-6-085)


On warm afternoons, we especially like to sit out on the sidewalk for a pint and a bit of people watching.

The Irish Bank, located in an alley (Mark Lane) in the Financial District, is a must visit place. Whitewashed like an Irish cottage, the walls, inside and out, are covered with signs, photos, pictures, and antiques. The dining areas inside are not nearly big enough to hold the crowd that accumulates here, so they’ve taken over the alley with enough tables and chairs for perhaps 100 people. They have Magners Cider on tap, and their food is very good.

6) Irish Bank (Z28-0-523)


Kate O’Briens, near our old PacBell stomping grounds, is another favorite pub. From the copper topped tables, to the photo and sign covered walls, to barrels and jugs over the large wooden bar back, the place has a great look and feel to it. The beer and food are good too. In addition to really good Fish & Chips, they also have beer battered prawns that are to die for.

7) Kate O'Briens Pub (FX01 7-145)

Harrington’s in the financial district, which dates back to 1935, is one of the city’s oldest and best-known pubs. The spartan décor is worn, and the service can be pretty indifferent. I hope it was a case of one-off, but I ordered their Fish & Chips once, and, I swear, it was tilapia – not cod. It was muddy tasting, boney and overcooked. But still, we go there from time to time because it’s a neat location, they have fresh Guinness and Harp on tap, and they serve a really good hamburger.

8) Harrington's Pub (FZ28-2-088)


The Chieftain, located South of Market, is another popular pub. It has traditional Irish music on Monday evenings. Mind you, this is not a fully organized event where a group is paid to perform. This is more like musicians drop in for free food and drink and play as the spirit moves them. We went there a couple of weeks ago and initially there were only two musicians: a young man playing a banjo and a quite talented young woman who played both the Irish concertina and Irish flute (not at the same time, of course). We understand, that she plays other instruments as well. After a bit, another banjo player and a very lively fiddle player joined the group.

The place was pretty full and quite loud, and, it seemed, no one but us was actually paying any attention to the music.

Perhaps it’s our affinity for all things Irish, but we really enjoy Irish Pubs. Over time, we plan to check out all of the pubs in San Francisco. It’s a tough assignment, but someone has to do it.

Erin go bragh!

© Virginia E. Vail 2012