Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon

on January 1, 2019

When I snuck a look at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon on Yelp, it seemed to promise touristy kitsch. It’s a historic landmark in Jack London Square. The floor is sunken from the 1906 earthquake. The walls and ceilings are littered with business cards and hats, offered up by customers passing through. When I arrive in person, I order a $5 hefeweizen and sit down by two off-duty bartenders nursing a beer and a shot each. From across the precariously slanted bar, they tell me a different story.

“The tourists come in for a drink but they won’t stay for conversation,” says one bartender. Instead, it’s dedicated customers who sustain the First and Last Chance Saloon—they’re as structurally important as the wooden remains of a wrecked ship that make up the floors and walls. This is the crowd of bearded men, happily playing dominoes in a corner. Or the people who turn out for the pirate band that plays every Thursday night. Perhaps most famously, there’s a customer called “Bill & Tonic,” so named for his order made over decades, whose moniker is inlaid in metal on his usual barstool.

These kinds of quirks can get lost in the sheer volume of novelties on the walls: Nazi medals, a portrait of Eisenhower … a gun. Bartender Ko Vega shows me his favorite details. “It’s usually the easiest to miss, but this used to be a solid tube at one point,” he says. He points to the footrest under the bar, which sort of looks like a hollow metal pipe. “Just from people’s shoes rubbing on it, it got worn out to that point.”

Next there’s Spots, a deer head mounted behind the bar, nearly obscured by bottles of alcohol and miniature airplanes made of Coca-Cola cans. “We call it Spots because if you look at its coat, it has little spots on it,” Vega says. To be fair, the spots look more like the absence of fur. “It’s because every presidential election they put the election pins on the deer,” Vega explains. When staff recently took the pins off, several brown tufts came with them.

Once I feel confident that I understand the significance of at least five items on the wall, I give myself permission to settle into my chair and relax. Vega pours the bartenders another shot. People come in, take pictures, order a drink and leave. Pretty soon it’s my turn—sipping the last of my beer I get up to go, promising I’d be back on Thursday.

Hats, antique gas lamps and leathered business cards on display.

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