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Splendid Survivors

June 2024
3min read

How to get a drink or a meal or a night’s sleep before April 18, 1906

Finding traces of pre-earthquake San Francisco is a bit like a treasure hunt, a fascinating but not impossible challenge. “The Big Quake” and fire may have leveled three-quarters of the city, but incredibly, some landmarks were salvaged and restored and have kept their turn-of-the-century flavor. Few of the following locations were left completely (or even mostly) intact after the earthquake and fires, but with a little imagination, one can be transported back to the Barbary Coast (or belle époque, depending on one’s perspective), if only for a moment. Here are some suggestions for sampling San Francisco, 1906-style.

Have Saturday afternoon tea at the Palace Hotel . Originally opened in 1875, the grand hotel was destroyed by the earthquake and fires, and the present structure dates from 1909. The ornate glass-domed Garden Court makes an ideal setting for tea and scones. Try to picture it as the grand carriage entryway in its former incarnation.

Dine at Jeanty at Jack’s , a lovely Parisian-style brasserie that has breathed new culinary life into Jack’s, a San Francisco institution since 1864. Jack’s, which served classic French fare to such celebrities as Ingrid Bergman and Ernest Hemingway, was extensively damaged during the quake and fires and rebuilt in its original location. Photos and memorabilia line the butter yellow walls.

Wander the brick streets and Federalist buildings of Jackson Square , the last remnant of the original Barbary Coast of San Francisco and the city’s premier antiques district. Several structures survived 1906, including A. P. Hotaling, a former whiskey warehouse. Look for the brass plaque that shows the city had a sense of defiant humor about its disaster:

If, as some say, God spanked the town for being over frisky, why did He burn the Churches down and save Hotaling’s Whiskey?

Tour the 1886 Haas-Lilienthal House , an earthquake survi-vor (look for the crack above the stairwell) and the only Queen Anne Victorian house museum open to the public. Occupied until 1972 by three genera-tions of one family, the museum is full of authentic furnish-ings and idiosyncratic period details.

Take the Powell-Hyde cable car (a survivor in its own right) to Fisherman’s Wharf and pop into the 1889 Buena Vista Café , a perennial favorite with tourists and residents. Warm up with an Irish coffee (the BV was the first American tavern to serve it) while sitting at the ornate mirrored bar.

Queue up with financial-district suits for lunch at the Tadich Grill , a seafood house that began life as a coffee stand in 1849 (making it San Francisco’s oldest). Though it’s been through several owners and many locations, including one destroyed in the 1906 fires, today’s Tadich is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. From the menu (petrale sole, seafood cioppino) to the private enclosed booths and long mahogany bar, this is classic San Francisco. No reservations are taken.

Walk through the Beaux Arts Ferry Building and Farmer’s Market . Once the hub of one of the most extensive ferry systems in the world, the 1898 Victorian clock tower survived the 1906 disaster but fell into neglect after the building of the Bay Bridge. A recent multimillion-dollar restoration has brought it back to life as a soaring public space with a European-style gourmet mar-ket hall.

Let a stroll through Golden Gate Park become a time tunnel. The recently restored 1879 Conservatory of Flowers is the old-est wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. The band shell at the Music Concourse has been hosting concerts since 1900. The Japanese Tea Garden was originally built for the 1894 Midwinter Expo-sition and is the most popular spot in the park. The Portals of the Past—the portico from a Nob Hill mansion destroyed in 1906 that now overlooks Lloyd Lake—is the most poignant relic of the earthquake.

Have a steak and a martini at John’s Grill in Union Square. Though it dates “only” from 1908, John’s is a classic San Francisco icon, even making an appearance in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. Crisp white tablecloths and wood-paneled walls lined with old photographs set the retro mood.

Visit the Camera Obscura at the Cliff House and watch a 360-degree moving panoramic image of Ocean Beach and the Pacific Ocean. Though it wasn’t erected until 1946 (as part of Playland-at-the-Beach, a long-defunct amusement park), the “giant camera” was a popular form of entertainment at the end of the nineteenth century (many U.S. parks and scenic overlooks had them). This one escaped demolition thanks to a grass-roots movement; it is one of the last remaining. Then walk down to the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a Victorian bath complex built in 1886 by Adolf Sutro, owner of the original Cliff House. In the Cliff House lobby look at photos of the baths in their heyday, when as many as 25,000 people a day visited. This complex outlived the 1906 devastation but later fell out of public favor. Today’s Cliff House, freshly renovated and sporting a sleek Art Deco look, makes a perfect spot for a sunset cocktail.

Have a drink at the bar at Boulevard , one of San Francisco’s finest restaurants (or if you can get a table, splurge on dinner). Boulevard is located in the 1889 Audiffred Building, one of the most beautiful and fortunate earthquake survivors (it was relatively unscathed). Though the restaurant opened in 1993, its classic belle-époque atmosphere (handblown Art Nouveau light fixtures, pressed-tin ceilings) brings diners back to another age.

Book a room (or have a drink) at one of three grand survivors, the Fairmont (which had just been completed at the time of the quake), the St. Francis , or the Palace . All three have been extensively renovated, but each one exudes early San Francisco elegance. For the kitsch factor, have a mai tai in a grass hut while a “thunderstorm” booms around you in the Fairmont’s Tonga Room, a survivor of a more recent era—the 1950s.

Or, for a true Victorian experience, stay at one of Alamo Square’s surviving structures. The Archbishop’s Mansion was built in 1904 for the arch-bishop of San Francisco. Each room is named for an opera, and the spaces are opulent. Around the corner, Chateau Tivoli is an 1892 landmark, built for the owner of San Francisco’s first opera house, the Tivoli. Many famous writers and artists are said to have stayed here, and some have rooms named after them: Jack London, Enrico Caruso, and Lola Montez.

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