A Flap over Irish Coffee in San Francisco

A San Francisco bar that claims it brought Irish coffee to America in 1952 is changing the whiskey it uses in its brew. The Buena Vista Café says it maintains the gold standard of Irish coffee, but some customers are complaining about the new recipe.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Okay, next stop San Francisco and the bar that claims to have brought true Irish coffee to America. And customers at Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco enjoy the claim of originality and want to preserve the traditions of their favorite drink.

As NPR's John McChesney reports - tough assignment, huh, John - the secret of the Buena Vista's recipe is simplicity and a little showmanship.

(Soundbite of cable car)

JOHN McCHESNEY: The Buena Vista sits at the turnaround of the Hyde Street cable car. It's been here on the waterfront since the late 19th century when it was a working-class hangout. Its gracefully arched windows look out on the bay, but you don't come here for the view. You sit at the long bar with your back to the bay, watching the gray-haired bartenders put on a show. A long row of small-stemmed glasses sits at the back of the bar.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

McCHESNEY: Paul Nolan has tended bar here for years.

Mr. PAUL NOLAN (Bartender): We keep it going until, you know, we keep up with the people or basically just keep it going.

McCHESNEY: On a good day, the Buena Vista mixes up 2,000 Irish coffees, making it the largest single consumer of Irish whiskey in the country, nearly 19,000 liters a year. The first step is to heat the glasses with boiling water. Nolan fills the glasses with one steaming pitcher pass down the entire row of glasses, then empties them. Next, two sugar cubes in each glass, sometimes tossed from a couple of feet away. Then fresh coffee. Again, poured in one pass.

MR. NOLAN: And then I even it up later on. I mean I'm not the most accurate person in the world. I'm stirring up the sugar. And if I can't (unintelligible) level I just sort of flick it around a little bit until I get them right.

McCHESNEY: Nolan slops coffee from one glass to another until they're all level.

Mr. NOLAN: Now I'm going to add a nice ounce of about a quarter of Irish whisky.

McCHESNEY: Again, it's a one-pass pour. But his time the gleaming amber stream of whisky falls from two feet up in the air. Nolan says it's because he's six-feet-five and doesn't like to bend over. But it's really part of the show. And now there's still a half inch left at the top of the glass. Fred Dagnino, who's been here 39 years, and by his count has made about four million of these, prepares the final step.

Mr. FRED DAGNINO (Bartender): Well, we're whipping the cream right now in a milkshake mixer. You want to mix it on a milkshake mixer so you get bubble, big bubbles, and when the bubble is about as big as your fingernail, the cream is ready.

Mr. NOLAN: Just thick enough to float on the top, providing a creamy cool cushion for the lip before encountering the hot fiery stuff down below. Dagnino has nothing but contempt for the canned whipped cream that usually tops Irish coffee in other places.

Mr. DAGNINO: Everywhere else you go, they bastardize them and put all this sugar around rim and creme de menthe and all stuff. It's not an Irish coffee. Irish coffee is very simple and good.

Mr. NOLAN: He adds that at most bars the coffee has been sitting on a burner for hours, turning to tar. The story behind the Buena Vista is that a well-known San Francisco newspaper columnist had an Irish coffee at Foynes Airport in Ireland during World War II.

Then in 1952, he convinced Buena Vista's owner to try his hand at it. But lately, a ruckus has erupted at the Buena Vista when the bar shifted from its own custom blend of Irish whisky to a well-known brand available anywhere. Old-time purists objected, but they lost. Rita Coupe(ph), a local who first came here 20 years ago, isn't bothered.

Mr. RITA COUPE: It's still very homey and fun and the service hasn't changed. The atmosphere hasn't change. It still has its quintessence.

Mr. NOLAN: Mark Borsing(ph) is one of the many tourists drawn to the Buena Vista.

Mr. MARK BORSING: This is my first. Let me tell you how it goes down. Hold on one second. Wow, that is outstanding.

Mr. NOLAN: One more? Have another one?

Mr. BORSING: Four more, baby.

McCHESNEY: And Paul Nolan finishes four more by carefully spooning the cream onto the top.

Mr. NOLAN: And there you go. Now, that's the Irish coffee.

McCHESNEY: Customer loyalty can run deep here at the Buena Vista. According to local legend, one former patron had his ashes scattered in the cafe's planter box.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.

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