How a San Francisco Cafe Brought the Irish Coffee to America

Bartender pours whiskey into Irish coffees.

“Make three!” the server barks across the floor of the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco. Bartender Larry Nolan — white hair, crisp mustache, wearing the house uniform of white jacket and black tie — shuffles across the bar to the waiting line of tulip glasses filled with hot water, and starts the routine he’ll repeat hundreds of times that day: dumping the water, dropping in two sugar cubes, and pouring in hot coffee from a waiting pot. After stirring, he adds Irish whiskey and the finishing touch: a float of lightly whipped, aged cream, gently dolloped to create a foamy white lid.

That simple process has made the Buena Vista an institution ever since they introduced America to the Irish coffee in 1952. Stanton Delaplane, a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, first tried it at Ireland’s Foynes Airport (which was later renamed Shannon Airport). Enamored with the drink, he came back to San Francisco and cajoled Jack Koeppler, then owner of the Buena Vista, into adding it to the bar’s menu. One night, the two spent hours trying to puzzle out how to get the cream to float. On his way home, Delaplane almost passed out on the nearby cable car tracks from their testing — but the recipe was finally perfect.

Now, getting an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista is an integral part of any San Francisco tourist experience: the nattily dressed army of bartenders make 1,800 to 2,000 of the drink every day. The Buena Vista, located at the bottom of one of the city’s famous hills, is included in every guidebook about what to do in San Francisco and is conveniently adjacent to tourist destinations Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. Nolan says the best part of his job is the view: the restaurant is lined with picture windows revealing sprawling views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Marin Headlands. Adding to the postcard-perfect San Francisco experience, cable cars periodically rattle by.

The exterior of The Buena Vista, which has a neon sign with it's name on it.The Buena Vista is located at the bottom of one of the city’s famous hills and included in every guidebook about what to do in San Francisco. Conveniently, it's adjacent to tourist destinations Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Buena Vista has a gift shop, where you can get any number of San Francisco and Buena Vista themed tchotchkes. But despite its fame, the bar has managed to avoid becoming a soulless tourist trap. Filled with dark wood and offering a straightforward menu, it still manages to maintain a sense of San Francisco in the 1950’s, with an old-fashioned classiness (they’ll give you matches if you ask) and commitment to customer experience, a welcoming and warm respite from the city’s chill. There’s been no fancy revamp, no hotshot mixologist coming in to “reimagine” their signature drink. Since the drink’s invention, the Buena Vista has served millions, and the drink has spread around the country. In San Francisco, there are are versions everywhere, from the ballpark to the city’s fanciest restaurants — but for the Buena Vista’s devotees, there’s no comparison.

Locals still flock to the bar, happily chatting with tourists sitting nearby. There’s a rumor that one longtime customer had his ashes sprinkled in their planter box. Nolan’s favorite customer was Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space, who came into the bar for decades. One day, Nolan finally asked the question he had been curious about for years: what was the club Shepard smuggled onto Apollo 14 and used to hit that golf ball on the moon? Shepard was happy to tell him the answer: a Wilson six iron.

Part of Buena Vista’s enduring appeal are their vintage prices. Their iconic drink is only ten dollars, a well-made martini a few dollars less. It’s a welcome sight in one of the country’s most expensive cities, where cocktail prices start at $12. But it’s not the prices that keep people coming back: once you go, you realize it’s the courtly bartenders — many who have worked there for decades and remember every face — that define the place as much as the Irish coffee.

A regular customer comes in and sits at the bar. “How was India?” Nolan asks. “Good, good,” the man says. They talk about mutual friends, sports, ex and current wives. “One Irish coffee please,” the man says.

An Irish coffee in a glass. The Buena Vista's iconic Irish coffee is all about the coolness of the aged cream floated atop the hot coffee and the generous slug of Tullamore Dew (they’re the whiskey’s biggest customer).

Nolan starts making it. It’s simple to understand why the drink is so popular, he says. “It’s a great drink. Everything’s fresh,” he says. “Sipping the hot through the cold makes it great.”

He’s right. The coolness of the cream against the warmth of the coffee is a sharp, welcome contrast. Every part of the drink is considered, from the cream (aged for a few days to give it more structure) to the shape of the glass (the cups used to be gin fizz glasses, but they became the official Irish coffee glass once bartenders realized how heat resistant the cups are). It’s not too sweet, and the generous slug of Tullamore Dew (they’re the whiskey’s biggest customer) makes it a perfect antidote to San Francisco’s endless fog.

Just don’t try to stir it. “Some people ask for a spoon [to stir the cream],” Nolan said. “Ridiculous. Do you shake champagne before you drink it? You try to teach them, but some don’t care.”

Nolan puts the drink in front of the customer and they start talking about Fred Dagnino, a bartender at the Buena Vista who died in late December. A charming flirt who worked at the Buena Vista for over 40 years, and who bartended there occasionally until his death, Dagnino was the literal embodiment of the cafe’s suave bartenders — he’s immortalized in a painting by French artist Guy Buffet hanging above the bar, depicting a mustachioed Dagnino carefully making an Irish coffee. He was a known showman: standing on the end of the bar, he would shoot sugar cubes into the line of glasses, never missing. When Nolan started at the Buena Vista, he had never made a drink before. “I was a doorman,” he says. “Fred taught me how to bartend.”

A bartender is scooping cream on top of Irish coffees. When he first started at Buena Vista, Larry Nolan was supposed to work six months. He’s now been there 43 years. He's served drinks to an astronaut, innumerable tourists and boundlessly loyal regulars who may or may not have their ashes spread in the bar's planter box.

The customer asks if I know that Nolan does magic tricks. Nolan ambles over and shows me how he can make a coin mysteriously move around a rubber band. Props appear from nowhere, hidden in crevices behind the bar: a silver dollar, a deck of cards. He performs a poker-faced mini routine for us, pulling the coin from behind my ear and somehow managing to always find the correct card.

When he first started at Buena Vista, Nolan was supposed to work six months. He’s now been there 43 years. I ask him how much longer he plans to stay: “Until I don’t enjoy it.” He thinks for a second, then amends his answer. “When a politician comes in and tells me I've paid my fair share. That’s when I’ll stop.”