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Coffee Danís - Most Popular SF Speakeasy

by James R. Smith

No one should forget San Franciscoís riotous Coffee Danís. The original club opened in 1879 as a cabaret located in the basement below Daniel Davisí restaurant on the southeast corner of Sutter and Kearny. After the earthquake and fire of 1906, Dan moved his club to Powell and OíFarrell Streets. Like its predecessor, it opened for breakfast, serving customers long past dinner with entertainers that belied the apparent low station of the cafť. Posh city magazine The Wasp proclaimed Coffee Danís the rendezvous for San Franciscoís elite in their May 20, 1916 issue.

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Coffee Dan's logo.



Dan died in 1917 and son John Davis took over management. It was Prohibition and Coffee Danís was now a ďham & egger.Ē Ham & egger was code for a speakeasy, and Danís 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 slideís pitfalls, requiring that special Coffee Danís 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 Danís. The club also featured John Davisí 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.

Danís gained international fame when featured in 1927ís early talkie, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Frank Shaw recording of A Night at Coffee Danís in 1928, captured the spirit of the club.
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This photo shows what remains of the original slide at the 430 Mason address.



Leveraging off the fame, Davis opened Coffee Danís houses in Los Angeles and aimed for New York, Detroit and Cleveland. San Franciscoís Coffee Danís 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 Danís remained open through the 1950s, and then slipped away with minimal clatter.
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Coffee Dan Davis



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.


Photos courtesy of James R. Smith.



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