No one should forget San Francisco’s riotous Coffee Dan’s. The original club opened in 1879 as a cabaret located in the basement below Daniel Davis’ restaurant on the southeast corner of Sutter and Kearny. After the earthquake and fire of 1906, Dan moved his club to Powell and O’Farrell Streets. Like its predecessor, it opened for breakfast, serving customers long past dinner with entertainers that belied the apparent low station of the café. Posh city magazine The Wasp proclaimed Coffee Dan’s the rendezvous for San Francisco’s elite in their May 20, 1916 issue.
Dan died in 1917 and son John Davis took over management. It was Prohibition and Coffee Dan’s was now a “ham & egger.” Ham & egger was code for a speakeasy, and Dan’s sold more ham and eggs than anyone in the city. Access was via a slide down to the basement level at the first location. Ladies with skirts and dresses soon learned of the slide’s pitfalls, requiring that special Coffee Dan’s grip. Some used the stairs made available for the less adventuresome.
The nighttime entertainment was great jazz, offering far more than just good liquor. Frank Shaw performed at Coffee Dan’s. The club also featured John Davis’ wife, Ruby Adams, an incomparable jazz singer. Small wooden mallets were provided for applause, and the tables took a beating. The dishware was cheap and breaking dishes signaled the highest level of appreciation. Calling for service also required rapping on the table with a mallet or dish. Hold your coffee cup below table level, and a waiter would fill it from his hip flask.
Dan’s gained international fame when featured in 1927’s early talkie, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Frank Shaw recording of A Night at Coffee Dan’s in 1928, captured the spirit of the club.
Leveraging off the fame, Davis opened Coffee Dan’s houses in Los Angeles and aimed for New York, Detroit and Cleveland. San Francisco’s Coffee Dan’s relocated to the famous 430 Mason Street address, just off Geary and below the Cable Car Theatre in 1932 after Davis lost his lease. All remained as it was: slide, hammers and entertainment.
The club went legitimate after the repeal of prohibition but retained the fun and nighttime entertainment. It still claimed the title as the noisiest joint in the city throughout its existence and was a favorite of sailors in WWII. Coffee Dan’s remained open through the 1950s, and then slipped away with minimal clatter.
Today, the club at 430 Mason is known as Slide, a modern day speakeasy that celebrates its predecessor at that location.
James R. Smith is author of San Francisco's Lost Landmarks, San Francisco's Playland at the Beach: The Early Years, and California Snatch Racket. Visit his site at HistorySmith.com.