Bars I’ve Known

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I’m not much of a drinker anymore, but at one point in life, my social world orbited elliptically around bars. Here, a remembrance of some.

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Gil & Frank’s Mayflower (the site, above), Potrero Hill, San Francisco: This was a bar of working-class regulars who would arrive after work, mostly in and around the then-active docks, and stay until closing almost every weeknight. “Happy birthday to you” was on the jukebox. I once saw Art, the regular bartender, slap a guy for ordering a blender drink. Yeah, that kind of bar. Gone now.

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Murphy’s Tavern (site, above), Philadelphia: I lived a block away. Rolling Rocks were $1. Bring a five and have quite an evening. Bring a twenty and be a king. One of the bartenders, Murphy’s son-in-law, used his shiny steel hand/hook to open bottles. Murphy, whom everyone called Murph, used expressions like “See ya’ in church, boss,” as he slugged guys on the shoulder. He would walk all young ladies out of the bar when they left to make sure no one lurked outside intending to do them harm. A must in my West Philly neighborhood. Now a burger joint, I hear.

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The Dubliner (above), 24th Street, San Francisco: A good joint. They sponsored our softball team for many years and we more than repaid the investment by making it our post-game clubhouse. Still going strong, with a new generation of bad softball players.

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Tosca (above), Columbus Avenue, San Francisco: One of San Francisco’s most beloved institutions. There is always a great mix of people here, businesspeople, actors, musicians, politicians. I urinated next to San Francisco’s former mayor, and now California’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, there. Funny man. But a highlight for me was one night when Lauren Hutton, who really is radiantly beautiful, sat between me and my friend Fish and talked with us for hours. The jukebox has a beautiful selection of arias. Still very much open, thank God.

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Lefty O’Doul’s (above), Geary Street, near Union Square, San Francisco: They used to have a guy named Al Rik playing goofy old tunes on the piano in the front. Corny and old-fashioned, even 35 years ago, when I first ventured inside. The hof brau will slice you up some fresh turkey, roast beef or ham any hour they’re open. A must-stop. Open right this minute. Go.

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The Mauna Loa (above), Fillmore Street, near Union Street, San Francisco: Owned by an old high school teacher. When some of my friends visit, it’s still a place we always stop, out of respect if nothing else.

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Satisfaction (above), Durham, North Carolina: The bar was brand new when they sponsored our summer softball team, which tells you something about its longevity. I can still remember some of the songs we’d regularly play on the jukebox after games. You don’t want to know. My hand to God, a teammate used to light potato chips with her cigarette lighter, then put them out on her tongue. Not saying it was smart but it was, you know, something to do. Smoking very much allowed in tobacco country. Open and, I hear, thriving.

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The Irish Pub (above), Philadelphia: I have very fond memories of this place. I’d invariably meet or run into wonderfully fun people there. I remember laughing all the time amidst happy and boisterous crowds. Sadly, I don’t know the fate of this place.

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Savoy Tivoli (above), North Beach, San Francisco: A classic North Beach hangout on upper Grant. Pool tables. Outdoor tables. Good bar. A great mix of people, some reading books they’ve just purchased at City Lights, couples on dates, groups of guys getting together after work to hang out and tell each other lies, some people just stopping to smell the roses. Open.

Karmic Reminders

Why do I have a chronic bad back? Is it the few extra pounds I tend to carry about my middle? Or, rather, is it some sort of cosmic retribution for giving my dad mostly good-natured shit about his bad back when I was a smart-assed kid?

I believe I know the answer. In this world, what goes around, comes around, and payback is hell.

Case in point.

I saw some potentially bad news in yesterday’s paper: The Tosca Cafe, one of the places in San Francisco I love most dearly, may soon close. The reason should be very familiar to anyone paying attention. Landlords want ever-higher rents. Tosca’s North Beach landlord is a strip club that’s already made earning a living very hard for the bar’s owner.

Tosca is the kind of place you see rarely these days. A melting pot and mixing bowl of the city’s very heterogeneous population. A place to go and meet people. A place to go and run into lifelong friends. A place to feel like you’re a part of something special. Here’s the kind of place it is: on one particularly memorable night, I shit you not, my pal Fish and I sat at the bar between supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton and a cabbie named Tim. We listened to opera on the juke box. We joked. We told each other stories. And unless I’m very much mistaken, we all enjoyed each other’s company very much indeed.

Tosca is precisely the kind of place that makes San Francisco what it is.

Tosca’s precarious situation should sound familiar to San Franciscans because so many of the city’s most colorful haunts have been disappearing with increasing frequency. Last year, it was the Gold Dust Lounge, told to vacate in favor of, just what we need more of in the Union Square area, a new national-chain clothing store.

To think of North Beach without Tosca is a sad prospect. To think of it replaced by a Hooters or some other corporate girly club is beyond my comprehension.

My only solace would come from my firm belief in karma. These soulless corporate leeches will get their just payback at some point. You can’t take a place like The Tosca Cafe away from my hometown and not expect some measure of rough justice.

Better sleep with one eye open, leeches. With Tosca gone, the universe will be in no mood for mercy.

Places of Another Time

When San Francisco went from sleepy Spanish outpost at the far-distant end of the American continent to the West’s first megalopolis, following the 1849 Gold Rush, the population skewed male, as demographers would say. Boarding houses rented beds, or portions of beds, and centrally-served, plentiful and simple meals to a diverse crowd of sailors, miners (and miner wannabes), soldiers, salesmen, bankers, cops, politicians.

Few still exist, or do so in name only, like the Basque Hotel, formerly an actual hotel with large dining room, now only a restaurant.

Thus began a San Francisco tradition of restaurants that served generous, family-style food. And now, some 150 years later, that tradition maybe breathing its last. Many places have disappeared and the few that remain do not appear to be long for this world.

Perhaps the king of this style of restaurant in San Francisco was the Gold Spike, which closed about six years ago, after a run of 86 years.

It was a meeting place, watering hole, feedbag, diner, neighborhood hall, party venue, lonely hearts club, museum of San Francisco history, and so much more.

My dinners at the Gold Spike were all memorable affairs. I never left without meeting people – visitors and natives alike – hoisting a few drinks, maybe sharing a dinner table. As I understand it, the Spike was unceremoniously tossed out by its landlords, so there was little time for proper goodbyes and thank yous. I do wonder if I’ll ever see those wonderful old photos again, feel the same warmth of welcome, or sit amongst the same oddly diverse crowd.

Another place I loved that has disappeared was La Pantera. The sign is, bizarrely, still there, but the place has long since departed, leaving North Beach a somewhat poorer place.

Also gone is Dante Benedetti’s New Pisa, where I had my bachelor party dinner. The New Pisa, as one reviewer suggested, “…brings to mind the essence of all that North Beach was when ‘Jolting Joe DiMaggio’ was a young man working in his family’s better known restaurant closer to the Wharf.” It was also a place where a young student could get spaghetti dinner for $5, plus a buck for a jelly-jar glass of cheap Italian red.

Two places I’m fond of carry on the tradition, Capp’s Corner and the US Restaurant.

Capp’s food can be up and down, but the atmosphere is always noisy and fun; much of the credit due to its proximity to Club Fugazi’s Beach Blanket Babylon. Pre and post show crowds keep Capp’s fun and lively.

The US Restaurant (US doesn’t stand for United States, by the way) has good food and a great family feeling, reminiscent of the best old Italian restaurants in San Francisco but isn’t really family style. Still, it does my heart good to see it busily occupying its latest spot on Columbus. It is still a great place to meet new friends and take in the smells and atmosphere of the San Francisco that was.

If you try very hard, it is still possible to find original, quirky, happy places to eat in what once was an eater’s heaven-on-earth.