Secret Tunnels on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast
Have you ever taken a food tour in a place you've never been? I'm convinced there is no better way to learn the heart of a town and meet its people than by tasting their signature cuisine. When Brandon and I took a food tour through the North Beach district of San Francisco, better known as Little Italy, we caught a glimpse of the neighborhood in a way we never had before, though we had walked by many times on our journey from Chinatown to Pier 39 for a bowl of clam chowder.
This story has two parts - the incredible four-course food tour by Avital and the dark history of the city's seedy underbelly during the Gold Rush days.
Click here to read about the food tour and see some jealously-inducing photos.
Otherwise, read on to discover the secret tunnels of San Francisco's notorious Barbary Coast.
But first, I have to show you the fun micro hotel we stayed at in Washington Square, right in the heart of Little Italy, steps away from the meeting point for our food and history tour.
Look, you can see Coit Tower from our hotel window! This iconic piece of the San Francisco skyline, seated on Telegram Hill, overlooks the city, Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, and all the North Beach piers.
Have you ever climbed up that hill to Coit Tower? Woof, it's steep!
Normal so far, right? Maybe a little snug, but we don't need much space for a single night stay. Now turn around...
Yep, that's a shower. In the bedroom. The towel bar is inches away from the TV and bed! So crazy.
And what's that to the right of the shower? Perhaps a coat closet?
NOPE, that's the bathroom ya'll. The door barely closed in front of my knees in this broom closet-sized powder room, and poor, tall Brandon...well, you get the picture.
Alright, enough laughs, back to the history tour. I know you're dying to hear about those secret tunnels.
Back in California's Gold Rush days, San Francisco was home to a lively culture of drinking, dancing, and prostitution. Prospectors who had panned endlessly for gold and finally found a nugget or two brought their fleeting riches to places like the Hippodrome on Pacific Avenue for a good time. You can see what's left of the historic dance hall and brothel in the crystal windows and salacious female carvings above.
The music was loud, the girls were topless (and bottomless!), and the drinks flowed faster than the shallow streams where these desperate men had found their gold dust.
This was the Barbary Coast.
When sailors came into the San Francisco harbor on assignment, many would desert their posts to seek fortune in the bustling gold rush, and ended up at the bar of the Hippodrome nightclub.
As the shipyards filled up with abandoned vessels, their cargo rotting with no crew to haul it, one crafty bartendress made a dark deal with the exasperated ship captains. Putting on a sly smile, she poured glasses of strong liquors, heavily drugged with laudanum, to send the hapless sailors into a deep sleep. Then, after dragging them down secret tunnels beneath the city to awaiting ships at the coast, she would sell the sailors to the highest-bidding captains, desperate for able-bodied ship hands.
Several days later, when the poor sailors finally came to, they were horrified to learn that they had been conscripted to a crew against their will, halfway to Asia, too far from shore to have any hope of escape. They'd been Shanghaied.
"The word Shanghai comes from the name of the Chinese city of Shanghai. People started to use the city's name for that unscrupulous way of obtaining sailors because the East was often a destination of ships that had kidnapped men onboard as crew." - merriam-webster.com
While the Hippodrome has long since gone out of business, the North Beach's sleazy side is very much alive, with plenty of gentlemen's clubs and adults-only boutiques advertising their services in flashing neon lights. But don't worry, the rest of San Francisco isn't this way; overall, the city is quite family-friendly for a visit.
If you're interest to see more photos of what the Hippodrome looked like back in its heyday, and a few subsequent shops that have taken residence over the years inside the ornate building, click here.
Next on our North Beach adventure, the Avital tour guide told us to look up at two popular pieces of street art above our heads, one more obvious than the other.
This large mural by Bill Weber, known as the "Jazz Mural," is plastered on the side of a residential building between the Chinatown and Little Italy neighborhoods, above New Sun Hong Kong Restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Columbus.
First painted in 1987, and meticulously restored in 2015, it features an everyday scene from the city's harbor, and the fishermen who are out on the water every day so tourists like us can eat delicious fresh seafood when we visit.
On the left, the mural depicts San Francisco legends like eccentric Emperor Norton, musicians Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa, and former mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, among others.
Directly in front of the Jazz Mural, we looked up to see the less obvious piece of art, which at first, just looked like a cluster of telephone wires. But wait, those are books!
"Language of the Birds," the flying book-themed installation by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn created in 2008, is more noticeable when illuminated at night.
"Each of the artwork’s suspended “books” mimic a bird in motion, with various wing positions created by the forms of the pages and bindings. Passing under the flock, pedestrians will notice words and phrases embedded in the plaza floor, which appear to have fallen from the pages above. On closer inspection, the fallen words are in English, Italian and Chinese, and were selected from the neighborhood’s rich literary history." - illuminatesf.com
In big cities across the United States, including here in San Francisco, you'll notice the Chinese and Italian parts of town are often located near each other. Their residents often work together in friendly collaboration because when they first came to America, these two groups were persecuted minority communities.
Thank you for joining us on our weekend getaway to San Francisco!
Before we left the city, Brandon stopped in for a quick cappuccino from Caffe Trieste on Vallejo Street, home to the West Coast's first espresso machine. After serving their first cup of coffee in 1956, the founder Papa Gianni said his secret to amazing coffee is to, “Buy the best beans, roast them yourself, and brew each cup like it’s for you.” Too sweet.
Did you know that San Francisco's iconic fog has a name? That's right, it's name is Karl the Fog, and he has a sassy Twitter account you can read here.
We had such a great time in San Francisco this weekend. If you missed it, click here to read the other half of this story, called "The Best North Beach Food Tour in San Francisco."
Or you can click here to read about our dessert walk through San Francisco's Chinatown district, the oldest and largest Chinatown in America. We even caught a glimpse of some high-flying lion mask dancers while we were there!