The Saloon, S.F.'s Oldest Bar and Live Blues Venue, Turns 150 This Weekend
Sex sells, but in the case of S.F.'s oldest bar, sex also saves -- buildings, that is.
In the days when beer was 5 cents: the Saloon circa 1870, with the elder Wagner in the center.
The way owner Myron Mu tells it, the Saloon -- a North Beach watering hole established in 1861 -- was a bar on the first floor of the building, but its single rooms on the second and third floors operated as a small whorehouse that counted the city's firemen among its frequent customers.
And as the building stood burning in the fiery aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, those firemen kept their priorities straight and "made a point of coming and saving their whorehouse" from the flames, Mu says.
He's not sure it's even a true story, but the spirit underlying the bar's 150-year history has kept the Saloon locked in the tour guides of the city and in the hearts of its regulars, most of whom come to hear the live bands that shred heavy blues every night of the week.
This Saturday marks 150 years since the bar's original proprietors -- Alsatian Ferdinand E. Wagner and his sons -- applied for a water permit with the city's water district, to be licensed to Wagner's Beer Hall, "the building at the northeast corner of Hinkley Alley and Dupont Street." The space was originally a grocery, but "somewhere along the line [Wagner] thought he'd rather be selling drinks than food." That water license application date is the best clue left behind as to when the place became a bar, Mu says.
The street names have changed since then, and the current address stands at 1232 Grant Street. Mu, now 66, remembers growing up in Chinatown when Grant was Dupont, and also recalls when his father bought the property in the 1950s.
The place wasn't in great shape at the time, but Mu's father "looked at it and he thought there might be some possibilities there," he says. Mu, who made his living for years as a professional French horn player, thought that running the bar held no appeal for him. But his father always expressed the hope that one of his two sons would eventually run the place.
Myron Mu outside the Saloon.
When the previous manager, Thomas Browne, was evicted, the bar lapsed out of service for a couple months. Out of worries of losing the place's liquor license -- and at the urging of a musician friend who wanted to keep the place open as a performance venue -- Mu reluctantly reopened the bar himself on Feb. 29, 1984. He thought he'd just keep the place going until he found someone better suited to take over operations.
But of course, that changed. "I could tell I kind of liked the business," Mu says. "Maybe in the back of my mind -- even though I didn't have any business experience -- I was probably thinking about a transition from being a performing musician to doing something else. Being a musician ... if you have the enthusiasm, it's great. But as a form of making a living, it can be hard."
Mu with Greg, the Saloon's bearded bouncer.
When his father spoke of his sons taking over the business, "we thought he was crazy," Mu says. "Now the story is he's probably smiling in his grave."
Twenty-seven years later, Mu has kept the bar's reputation as the best live blues venue in the city going by cycling through a regular cast of bands. On a recent Thursday night, patrons -- some grizzled, some less so -- danced or drank to heavy blues from Eugene Huggins. Mu keeps receiving audition tapes and more demands to play than he can accommodate, partially because other blues clubs are closing down or switching genres, he says. (Mu has only played at his own club once; he says he doesn't have the improvisational chops to solo like the regular players.)
Lonnie Walters, a conga drummer who's played at the Saloon since 1979 and will be part of the 150th celebration on Saturday, says the bar has become calmer since Mu took over, though he can still remember wild stories from decades past. Back in 1980, when playing with Boz Scaggs -- "the biggest star on the earth at that time" -- Walters recruited four tall men in the audience to lift up a saxophone player and start a crowdsurfing moment in the packed bar.
"We put [the saxophonist] up on his back and he's playing a saxophone solo, and the magic thing was the crowd took him out of our hands and passed him right out the door," Walters says. "And Boz Scaggs said to me, 'I never seen anything like that in my life.'"
Another time, Walters recalls, a bartender's burly weightlifter girlfriend dropped in unannounced to pick a fight with her man -- and when he refused to listen to her, she picked him up and dragged him across the bar and onto the floor.
Just a few months ago, Walters says, he saw Johnny Depp in the bar and asked him to take over door duty for a minute while he ran to the bathroom. "People loved it," he says.
Mu remembers a darker incident, from about 10 years ago, when a motorcyclist came in and picked a fight on Valentine's Day that ended up with him stabbing a bar patron to death. "Stabbed in the heart on St. Valentine's Day," he says.
But on Saturday, the bar will be remembering the good times that accumulate over 150 years of drinking and music. The original bar owner's descendants are dropping by, and Mu has live music set to run all day starting at 12:30 pm -- as well as food, which the bar usually doesn't serve. "I had snacks for a while, but they disappeared too quickly," he says. Add that to some loud music and a historical street corner, and it's something we'll gladly say cheers to.