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Streetwise: Nighttime San Francisco

by Frank Dunnigan
December 2023

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -
Several places in the western neighborhoods used to come alive after dark, offering residents many nostalgic experiences. Sadly, many of these scenes are no longer present today, so here are just a few of them, with an emphasis on some year-end memories.

View northeast across Great Highway to Playland at the Beach, circa 1948 - photo by Eugene E. Gallagher; courtesy of David Gallagher.
PLAYLAND — San Francisco’s seaside amusement park was home to appreciative crowds of both adults and youngsters until its abrupt closure on Labor Day weekend of 1972. Especially at night, there was a heightened level of excitement, with music, laughter, and happy sounds in the air. Hear Nicole and Arnold reminisce with local residents about Playland on the 50th anniversary of its closure, in Outside Lands Podcast #472 and Podcast #473.

Sutro Depot, circa 1947 - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.
MUNI’S SUTRO DEPOT — Built in 1896 to provide a sheltered streetcar stop to patrons of Sutro Baths and the Cliff House, the old Sutro Terminal on Point Lobos Avenue took on a special aura after dark; think of Forest Hill Station as if it had lighted advertisements and hot/cold food service. Note the signs at right promoting Soda Fountain, Beer, Wines, Milk Shakes, and Coca-Cola, while the signs at the far left near the pedestrian entrance are advertising Texas Chili, Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Enchiladas, Tamales, and Meadow Gold Ice Cream -- the aromas must have been irresistible! The terminal was never rebuilt after a fire destroyed it in February 1949, coincidentally just prior to the conversion of Muni streetcar operations in the area to diesel bus service.

Twin Peaks Tunnel, 1965 - photo by John Harder; courtesy of a Private Collector.
TWIN PEAKS TUNNEL — From its completion in 1917 until demolition in 1977 for a new Muni Metro station, the classic façade of the west portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel was at the head of the West Portal Avenue shopping district. Shown here in 1965, hundreds of local residents used to disembark from a K, L, or M-line streetcar and use one of the public telephones at far right to call home with the plaintive request, “Can somebody pick me up at the Tunnel?”, as the driver of the car at far left, with parking lights on, is surely doing. See more about the Twin Peaks Tunnel in this 2009 SF West History Minute.

Cliff House, circa 1946 - Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria.
CLIFF HOUSE — Drinks or dinner at the Cliff House on a moonlit night was a magical experience, whether in the original structure from the 1860s, the gingerbread Victorian that was lost to a fire in 1907, or any of the many remodels of the 1909 structure. How many Cliff Houses have there been? Read John Martini’s thoroughly researched answer.

Zim's Broiled Hamburgers on the southwest corner of 19th Avenue and Taraval Street, September 1957 - San Francisco Examiner.
ZIM’S — From the time of its opening in the fall of 1957, Zim’s was a brightly lit and iconic outpost on the southwest corner of 19th Avenue and Taraval Street. Advertising “BREAKFAST SERVED 24 HOURS” likely encouraged a great deal of the nighttime business as locals made their way home from the nearby Parkside Theater or any of the numerous watering holes stretching along Taraval to the ocean. With 12 locations in San Francisco and an additional 25 in other nearby cities, the chain was a welcoming spot to all. Sadly, the last Zim’s closed in 1995.

Empire Theatre, February 1970 - photo by Steve Levin; courtesy of Jack Tillmany.
MOVIES — The bright lights of movie house marquees lit up many San Francisco neighborhood shopping streets for decades. West Portal Avenue’s Empire Theater, shown here in 1970, opened as the Portal Theater in 1925. Renamed the Empire in 1936, it was converted to a triplex in 1974 and renamed CineArts at the Empire in 2003. Temporarily closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was shuttered permanently in January 2021. It was sold to a new owner later that year, but like many other neighborhood theaters, it has not reopened. Read more about local movie houses in Woody LaBounty’s March 2000 article, Palaces of the Past.

Holiday lights on the 2600 block of 18th Avenue, circa 1949 - Courtesy of Frank Dunnigan.
HOLIDAY LIGHTS — Displays of Christmas trees and outdoor holiday lighting were annual events in many areas of San Francisco, including the 2600 block of 18th Avenue, shown here in the late 1940s. From mid-December until just after New Year’s Day, throngs of visitors walked or drove nightly to enjoy the holiday décor. Read more about west side holiday traditions in the Streetwise December 2015 column and December 2022 column.

West Portal near Vicente, December 1947 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
NEIGHBORHOOD SHOPPING — Prior to this millennium, many neighborhood merchants remained open for one or more evenings per week. The shopping experience was enhanced after dark when the merchant-sponsored holiday lights came on. Read more about historic West Portal Avenue businesses in Richard Brandi’s virtual West Portal History Walk, and see more of West Portal in the February 2009 Streetwise.

Interior of Rickey's Red Chimney at Stonestown, 1960 - Courtesy of Rob Green.
DINING OUT — Many neighborhood restaurants still see a significant portion of their daily business during evening hours. Stonestown’s Red Chimney Restaurant exudes a warm and clubby atmosphere, complete with tablecloths, candles, and a blazing fireplace in this 1960 image. The restaurant closed prior to the 1987 demolition of the original outdoor mall for construction of the enclosed Stonestown Galleria. Read more about the Red Chimney.

Examiner Christmas Tree on Twin Peaks, December 21, 1928 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
EXAMINER CHRISTMAS TREE — Nearly 100 years ago, the Examiner newspaper (one of five daily newspapers in San Francisco at the time: Examiner, Chronicle, News, Call, and Bulletin) began a holiday tradition of installing a massive lighted Christmas tree atop Twin Peaks, as shown here in 1928. Read more about this tradition and how it evolved over the years in Woody LaBounty’s 2017 article.

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