A long-time San Francisco institution, Pier 23 Cafe was already a popular spot for drinks and live music with a colorful history when current owner Flicka McGurrin and her former business partner Peggy Knickerbocker took it over in 1984. Its notoriety soon increased, the watering-hole-cum-lunch-spot becoming in with celebrities and the general public alike, touted by the likes of legendary local columnist Herb Caen and food writer Patricia Unterman. These days open for dinner as well, Pier 23 Cafe is as much restaurant as bar, and the food has long-since become as much of a draw as the atmosphere and entertainment.
Executive Chef Seamus Gibney currently oversees the continually inventive menu of the seafood restaurant, at heart a classic chowder house with waterside dining and expansive views of the San Francisco Bay. A beer garden on the outdoor patio handles overflow from the indoor bar and provides a desirable spot for Happy Hour celebrants Mondays through Thursdays from 5 to 7 PM, serving a catch-of-the-day, so to speak, in the form of changing drink specials and unique cocktails as well as soft pretzels amongst other appetizers. Diners can also opt to order at the bar inside and have their meals out on the patio to make the most of the sweeping views of the water and the shores beyond.
Live music has had a home at the locale since at least the early 1950s, when it attracted many visiting musicians to sit in on jam sessions, welcomed by then-owner Havelock Jerome. Though less impromptu than they once may have been, live performances remain a vital part of Pier 23 Cafe today, reliably occurring six nights a week as well as including the occasional Monday night offering, programmed by Flicka McGurrin and son Mac, the general manager. Jazz (including its various subcategories) and World music are well-represented on a regular basis, but no particular style of music defines the entertainment calendar, which may include Blues, Reggae, Funk, R ’n’ B, Country, Rockabilly, or anything else that strikes their fancy.
The murky history of the San Francisco waterfront leaves it open to question as to exactly when a like business first opened at the spot, but it began its existence circa the late 1930s as a java house frequented by longshoremen when the pier was just one of many actively in use by the shipping industry. Recalling the days when when the area and the clientele were a lot rougher around the edges, a racy picture of Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, an attraction at the1939 World’s Fair exhibition on Treasure Island, has hung in the various incarnations of Pier 23 for many decades (predating the Cafe appellation) now having become part of the iconography of the restaurant.
The historic elements of Pier 23 Cafe may serve to remind customers how much the waterfront has changed, but they also show that its history has not been forgotten. “We feel that SF is a constantly changing city and there is a rich cultural history that can get lost in this ever changing environment,” says Mac McGurrin, “Natives like us that own a business strive to keep a connection with this past so visitors can experience the authentic history of our great city.”
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