article picture

A Note On Speakeasies

by Ellen Gorchoff-Fey

During a recent Palace Hotel tour, a guest asked if there was a speakeasy in the hotel during Prohibition. Author and GuideLines contributor James R. Smith gave us some information on speakeasies:

Every hotel had a speakeasy of some sorts. There were a couple of federal arrests at the Palace, so they did have one but I don't know exactly where. The Sir Frances Drake built a speakeasy between floors, although no one drank there. Liquor was sent up to the rooms.

Prior to Prohibition, no respectable woman would drink in a bar. San Francisco speakeasies were usually restaurants, and that's when women first drank in public. Playland had a speakeasy as well.

article picture

The Billows speakeasy at Playland at the Beach.

Most speakeasies were secret, and some were underground bars where alcoholic drinks were illegally sold during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. The name comes from instructions to customers to "be quiet and speak easy" from bartenders serving liquor without a license to do so.

Many speakeasies had secret passages and tunnels to reach the actual speakeasy from the hotel. It has been rumored that there was a secret tunnel from the Palace Hotel to a bar across the street named The House of Shields. There is a tunnel in the laundry room in the basement of the hotel, but it is unclear where it leads. During Prohibition at the Palace Hotel, when you went to dinner, if you ordered flowers for your date then a bottle of whiskey would be delivered in the box with the flowers.

article picture

Celebrating an event at the Billows.

Supposedly there was a speakeasy connected with the Warfield Theater under Market Street, discovered while they were building BART. It's not hard to believe there were speakeasies everywhere in the city during Prohibition. In 1922, there were approximately 1,492 speakeasies in San Francisco, which spoke volumes about the 83% of San Franciscans who did not vote for Prohibition.

Historically, San Francisco had more bars per capita than any other city in America. So when the nation went dry, liquor simply went underground; San Francisco remained the wettest city in the West.

Credits

  • San Francisco During Prohibition, KQED Public Media for Northern California, kqed.org
  • James R. Smith’s new book San Francisco's Playland at the Beach: The Early Years
  • Photo of the Billows, outside and inside, courtesy of James R. Smith
    • Send comments and questions to guidelines@sfcityguides.org
      Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.