There’s a funky bar on Hyde Street that smells like roasted coffee beans and spicy whiskey while carrying over a century of scuff marks on the aged tile floor. For many tourists walking just east of Ghirardelli Square, The Buena Vista is simply a kitschy cafe full of San Francisco history in the heart of the city’s action.
Few places from your childhood settle into your soul; the sights, sounds, and smells of a place that never stale. For my family, The Buena Vista is one such establishment, although we call it “B.V.’s”. As a child, living an hour north of San Francisco wasn’t a hindrance. The city became--and still is--a treat to drive to for a few hours and pretending to be a tourist in our state was an opportunity we never took for granted. If any of us are visiting San Francisco and happen to be within a few blocks of B.V.’s, we inevitably stop in and elbow our way to the bar to sip and swirl through an Irish Coffee—or two—on a foggy day.
B.V.’s didn’t start off as a mecca for those seeking a heated, alcoholic, caffeinated drink to take the city’s chill off of their bones. In 1916, a boardinghouse near the docks was transformed into a saloon called The Buena Vista and the name stuck. In 1952, a curious bartender debuted a drink idea involving alcohol and creamed coffee brought over from the pubs of Ireland. The Irish Coffee soon became the signature drink of The Buena Vista Cafe.
As a child I would wait patiently by the door or hidden amongst the bar stools barely able to see above the oak bar while my parents became part of the crowd above me ordering a row of steaming, signature drinks. I’d watch with fascination how the man behind the bar lined up small, curved glasses up to twenty at a time and plunked sugar cubes in each glass, poured coffee over the lumps and mixed. He then poured a shot into each glass and waited for it to settle before carefully pouring cold cream to float on top. They looked beautiful and smelled delicious. The din in the bar created a sense memory I have never forgotten.
Now tall enough to stand at the bar and old enough to order my own, I still watch, fascinated by the way they make this comforting concoction. No matter how many times I go, I look forward to the frothy mustache on my lip and the deep warming within my belly. On especially crowded days, sometimes I catch a glimpse of a small child, holding onto his mother’s leg or grasping her father’s hand and I am thankful that a new generation will be able to tell a similar story.