Meet the Neighbors: Gangway Bar

Dim lighting and a warm welcome await any thirsty visitor to the historic Gangway bar on Larkin Street, just three blocks from the San Francisco City Center Hostel. Slinging booze for over a hundred years is no small feat, so for our latest installment of "Meet the Neighbors" we head over to this windowless pub in the heart of the Tenderloin to find out how they spike their punch.

Gangway first opened its doors in 1910, as barman and resident Tenderloin historian Clay Ellison explains to us. Still alive and kicking 102 years -- and two major earthquakes -- later, this watering hole proudly bills itself as the oldest gay bar in the city. It's also a stop on our weekly pub crawl and is one of the local bars that offer a special discount to guests at our HI-San Francisco hostels.

A divey joint with a lot of history and reasonably priced libations, Gangway is a perfect cheap and casual go-to for a cocktail, a game of cards, or a classic jukebox tune. It's popular with both hostel guests and staff, so we figured it would be interesting to get to know these neighbors. What we discovered was that this place is much more than just a bar.   

Over the years, Gangway has had many owners and a few different names (though it's back to Gangway now, the original name), but the bar's recipe for success had little to do with its name, its nautical theme, or its cheap drinks. As one of the first gay bars in San Francisco, Gangway fostered a community for people who were marginalized by society, and welcomed those turned away by other bars. At a time when homosexuality was a crime punishable by electric shock therapy at a psychiatric facility, Gangway was a safe haven.

Standing outside the bar, in the middle of the bustling Tenderloin neighborhood, Clay explains that Gangway is a place for healing. "Leave your pain here," he tells us, gesturing to the sidewalk, "and come in and be healed." A tavern in the Old World sense of the word, this little pub has been a port in the storm for many a weary sailor for over a century.

If you look closely, you'll find a bulletin board in the front corner of the bar that's covered in historical archives and newspaper clippings. The mini-exhibit chronicles riots, civil rights rallies, San Francisco's early drag queens, and the first gay pride parade in 1975. Rainbow flags adorn the walls and hang proudly from the ceiling above the bar -- a tribute to Gangway's colorful past and an important reminder of San Francisco's civil rights legacy.

Nowadays, this Larkin Street institution has the laid-back, "where everybody knows you're name" vibe of a neighborhood bar. The atmosphere is inviting despite the dark interior, and the patrons are very friendly. Unlike other bars that have a distinct clientele, Gangway is populated with a mixed bag of individuals who defy categorization. There are people of all varieties sitting at the bar, playing a game of cards in the back, and chatting with the bartenders. On the day of our visit, Cher is playing on the jukebox as Clay tells us with the gracious smile of a well-seasoned barman, "Bohemia is not dead here." We'll drink to that.

This article is the sixth in a series profiling the local businesses that neighbor the San Francisco City Center Hostel. We met up at Leland Tea last time, and before that we visited Yemeni's, Olive Bar, Hyde Away Blues BBQ, and Hooker's Sweet Treats.

If You Go

Stay at the San Francisco City Center Hostel, in a bustling neighborhood filled with interesting people and great local bars.