The Buena Vista Café: America’s Irish Coffee Mecca

At San Francisco's historic Buena Vista Café, the Irish Coffee has become its own American ritual. (Slideshow ahead →)

A line of Irish Coffees receiving the final touch: a perfect collar of lightly whipped cream.

Paul Nolan has been bartending at the Buena Vista for 37 years.

A line of hot black coffees awaits its fortifying ingredient: Irish whiskey.

First starting as a host and a busboy, Larry Nolan has been topping Irish Coffees at the Buena Vista Café for 40 years.

On any given day, the Buena Vista will serve anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 Irish Coffees.

Katherine, a Buena Vista waitress, takes a break with Salvadore, a busboy, and bartender Larry Nolan.

The Buena Vista Café was opened in 1916 on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.

Day drinking begins early at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. A white-jacketed bartender steps up to the long wooden bar at the Buena Vista Café and lines up a dozen tulip-shaped glasses. Into each go two white sugar cubes pulled from a bulk box. Then comes hot black coffee in a continuous steaming stream from a diner-style pot. Next: Irish whiskey, delivered in a dramatic long pour all along the line of waiting glassware. Last comes the cream—aged for half a week and then lightly whipped in a milkshake blender—ladled gently from a metal pint glass like a fluffy floe. (See a video here.)

The pattern will continue all day long—filling anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 glasses—until the bartender’s white jacket sleeves are spattered with coffee and the century-old tavern shutters at 2 a.m.

Paul Nolan is a vet of 37 years, while Larry has been lining up glasses for 40, building an estimated three million Irish Coffees throughout his tenure.

The Buena Vista Café opened on San Francisco’s wharf in 1916 when the presiding landlord converted the ground floor of his boarding house into a tavern for fisherman working the docks. But the Irish Coffee wasn’t introduced until decades later, in 1952, when the Buena Vista’s then-owner combined efforts with the travel writer Stanton Delaplane to recreate the storied cocktail, first invented at the restaurant at Ireland’s Foynes Airport in 1943.

At the time, Foynes acted as a major intercontinental hub to the UK and, one evening, when a flight bound for Newfoundland was forced to turn back due to poor weather, airport staff led the returning passengers to the airport’s cafe. Chef Joe Sheridan greeted the travelers with glasses of warm coffee laced with Irish Whiskey, which he appropriately christened the “Irish Coffee.” Eventually, Foynes Flying Boat Station was closed and the Shannon Airport took its place, where the national cocktail still greets weary travelers.

On a coast 5,000 miles from the Shannon Airport, greeting tourists and locals alike, the Nolan brothers hold court at the Buena Vista’s bar. Paul Nolan is a vet of 37 years, while Larry has been lining up glasses for 40, building an estimated three million Irish Coffees throughout his tenure. The white-haired, small talk-making pair is an embodiment of another era, and of a tradition transferred from the shores of Ireland remade into a wholly American ritual.