Photo: Blair Heagerty, Blair Heagerty / SFGate
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Buena Vista Cafe has served more than 40 million Irish coffees since it introduced the drink to San Francisco (slash, the world) in 1952.
And Paul Nolan has made more than 5 million of them.
The 67-year-old has been a bartender at the Fisherman’s Wharf institution for almost two-thirds of his life — 43 years and counting — and has spent nearly the entirety of his tenure there in the Irish coffee hot corner.
“I’m handling, on any given day, probably 80 percent of all the drinks that come in,” says Nolan, who’s comfortably seated at a break room table deep within the bowels of Buena Vista. “And that’s because at the end of the bar I handle all the house and part of the bar, where I’m also doing service for four to seven people.”
Nolan worked as a bouncer at Buena Vista the summer after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1973 (his brother Larry actually got a job there a month later — they still both work at Buena Vista to this day), then took shifts behind the bar off and on between picking up a Masters in business from Queens University in Ontario, Canada. He then worked in the Hyatt Corporation’s headquarters in Burlingame before the hotel mega-chain picked up its HQ and moved it to Chicago.
Nolan stuck around and settled in full-time at Buena Vista in 1977, and five years later, he made a decision.
“It was sort of a temporary job until I found something more aligned with what I wanted to do. And that was 43 years ago. I realized I was no longer going to look for another job around 1982,” he says. “I felt like, I don’t want to quit this. We’re an old school bar, you don’t try to make it too fufu or too crazy. You don’t try to say, ‘oh, what’s the hippest thing’ and this is what we’re going to do. What we do well is Irish coffee, we’re world famous in that. We do it so well that we sell as much as we do.”
Nolan regularly makes Irish coffees 25 at a time, which is hard to really even fathom until you see him do it.
He rinses all 25 glasses with scalding hot water from a coffee pot, drops a pair of white sugar cubes into every glass, then comes scalding hot coffee, some extremely vigorous spoon swirling, and finally the healthiest of pours of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, plus a house-whipped heavy cream topper.
And the Berkeley-born bartender does it all in a pristine white tuxedo jacket that somehow stays pristine white despite all the coffee sloshing around.
In a city where the food and beverage industry is struggling to retain staff thanks to the insanely high cost of living, where bartenders make $36,000 a year on average (before tips) according to the US Department of Labor’s 2018 report, and where some bars provide housing to their drink-makers as a retention tool, Buena Vista is an anomaly.
It’s hard to find a bartender who hasn’t been there for more than three or four decades, which means picking up a shift at Buena Vista if you aren’t full time is incredibly hard to do.
Nik Plebger, who’s a full-time photographer, serves as a vacation relief bartender at Buena Vista. He’s now in his ninth year as a Buena Vista pinch hitter.
Looking for work that isn’t behind the bar? Good luck. There are bus boys (bus boys!) who’ve been there for 30 years plus.
“Tourists are attracted by the amount of people in here and they say, ‘oh, this must be a cool place.’ Because it is a cool place,” Nolan says. “We have so many people that come in, and you have the amount of tips where you can get by in San Francisco with a living wage. And that’s maybe why I don’t regret anything. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich, but I figured I’d rather be happy, have fun. Do something that’s keeps me active.”
Very, very active. As Buena Vista General Manager Kevin Jones explains, there’s more to being a bartender at Buena Vista than simply churning through more Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey than any other bar in the world — Jones says Buena Vista goes through around 24,000 liters a year.
“You’ve gotta have a personality,” he says. “It’s a show. Like going to Disneyland.”
And like any good show, it attracts quite the crowd.
Alan Shepherd, the first American in space, was a regular for years. The Clintons have been in. As have the 49ers.
“(Former 49ers owner) Eddie DeBartolo and (former 49ers President) Carmen Policy were regulars here. Joe Montana has been here and Jim Plunkett. There were politicians within the democratic national committee. You get actors, which I do not recognize, but I have my other people tell me, ‘oh, that’s so and so,” Nolan says.
Count famed Cheers bartender Ted Danson as one of the actors Nolan didn’t recognize.
“I served him and we talked for five minutes and he’s asking me questions and when I go get some coffee around the corner, one of the servers says to me what are you talking about with Ted Danson? And I say who? Then I look out and I recognize him.”
The really unique thing about the Buena Vista Cafe, though, is that despite crowds that rival Alcatraz, it never feels like a tourist attraction. It feels like a bar that’s been frozen permanently in time, and it’s patroned by people who understand and appreciate that. Nolan explains the phenomenon as well as anyone can: “Most tourists have been here so many times. It’s like home.”
Back at the bar, two such tourists visiting from Las Vegas — Bill and Renee Marion — are happy to tie Nolan’s story in a neat little bow.
“The first time we came here we had the best Irish coffee we’ve ever had,” says Bill in the middle of his second visit to Buena Vista with wife Renee. “This time we’ve had the second and third best Irish coffees we’ve ever had.”
Grant Marek is SFGATE’s Editorial Director. Email: email@example.com | Twitter: @grant_marek