We’re back on Broadway, in San Francisco’s North Beach, as former saloon keeper, and author of “Broadway North Beach- the Golden Years”, Dick Boyd introduces us to his nightclub, Pierre’s. He’ll share a few behind-the-scenes stories about changes in The City’s adult-entertainment area. We’ll meet his first waitress (and hooker’s right’s advocate, Margo St. James). And we’ll hear about a band of women who’s popularity had nothing to do with their musical talents.
On this episode, we visit what is, arguably, the oldest drinking establishment still in existence in San Francisco- The Saloon. Built in 1861, this is one of the few survivors of the ’06 Quake and Fire. In North Beach, there are lots of options when you want entertainment, but none can compare to the special cocktail of booze, Blues and true San Francisco characters like The Saloon offers.
The Saloon, 1232 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133
Hours: 12p-1:30a 415 989-7666
Join us on a trip to that faraway land known as Colma, as we visit a landmark for thirsty travelers, drinkers and mourners since the 1880s, Molloy’s Tavern. Nestled among the cemeteries in The City of the Dead, we’ll learn about its past, meet the family, and attend an annual celebration with a historical drinking society (or is it a drinking historical society? YOU make the call!)
Molloy’s Tavern, 1655 Mission Rd, Colma, CA
Hours: 9:30am to 2 am (650) 270-4853
by the late, great Warren Hinckle (first published in the S.F. Chronicle on November 12, 1977)
NOTE: This article is hung on the wall of my favorite (and in my humble opinion, the best) drinking establishment in San Francisco, Gino & Carlo on Green St. Having had the honor of tending bar (morning shift, 6am, Tuesdays) for some of my favorite people in the World (the Rossi Family), I was saddened to find that this funny, touching, epic tale of boozy camaraderie is nowhere to be found on-line. So I transcribed and here it is, in all it’s glory. God bless Warren Hinckle, and Johnny Pignatelli.
They got to church early, like bandits casing the joint. The fuzzy rose of sin blushed in the veins of their cheeks. Outside, fall leaves blew over the early rising winos hanging in Washington Square Park. The priest began mass and nobody knew what to do. A babushkaed Italian lady who goes to church 365 days a year, turned around and showed them how to kneel.
It was the biggest gathering of degenerates under one roof since the days when the people who wrote the Bible sat down to describe Sodom and Gomorrah. It took place Tuesday morning in SS. Peter and Paul Church.
The extraordinary occasion was the High Requiem Mass, sung in Italian, for the late Giovanni Pignatelli, elder statesman and senior drinker of Green Street. If he were to be canonized, and there was talk of that in North Beach Tuesday morning, he would be the patron saint of alcoholics.
For the last 15 years Giovanni Pignatelli had drank a quart of scotch a day, sometimes a quart and a half, 2 quarts on holidays when there was something to celebrate. This is by the sworn estimate of the bartenders who served him the stuff. When he died, at 75 on Halloween night at Ft. Miley Veterans Hospital, he had just about everything wrong with him except for his liver, which was adjudged to be that of a 23-year-old. The doctors had sore necks from shaking their heads in puzzlement.
Once Johnny – as he was called- was hit by a Yellow Cab, an occasion of much pain and great fortune to him. There was a trial by jury to award Johnnie Pignatelli damages for his pain and suffering. The lawyer for the defense asked bartender Frank Rossi how much the victim drank.
“He has a few drinks in the morning,” Frank said.
In the morning? The lawyer wanted to know how many. “Oh, maybe seven or eight coffee brandys,” Frank said. The lawyer stepped back like Frank had handed him a wet glass to dry. Seven or eight? In the morning?
“He doesn’t drink much before lunch,” Frank said.
The jury looked at Johnny Pignatelli, who was sitting with a smile on his face looking as healthy and fresh as a clean scrub carrot. The jury almost applauded.
The people who knelt so awkwardly and unexpectedly at mass Tuesday morning to pray for the repose of his soul were his friends. Most of them had not been in church since they had been baptized, and some of them had never been baptized. They were fishermen, scavengers, longshoremen, lawyers, writers, insurance executives, bartenders and bartendresses, saloon people of every stripe and plume. His wife and his stepson did not show up at Giovanni Pignatelli’s funeral. The people buried him were the people who drank with him.
Johnnie did most of his drinking at Gino and Carlo, on Green Street. Gino and Carlo is a giant egg crate of a bar that resembles a bomb shelter after the bomb has dropped. Those who have reason to know say it is the hardest drinking saloon in San Francisco. People who take the waters there are not so much customers as citizens of a strange land. Johnny Pignatelli was Gino and Carlo’s senior citizen.
There are some people that did not like Johnny Pignatelli, among them, apparently, his immediate relations. His friends, however, loved him very much. Johnnie loved jest… He was irrascible. He was disputatious. He was flirtatious and unreasonable. He had a joyfully dirty mind. When introduced to young lady I would shake her breast before he shook her hand. When he danced he threw away his cane.
He loved to play and we hated to lose. Johnnie was shaking for drinks with his best friend, Donato Rossi. Johnnie lost. That was outraged that the dice would do that to him. He congratulated Donato with a clenched fist. “You were borna’ crooked, you gona’ die-ah crooked, you are so crooked you even sleep crooked!” No one could ever slander Johnny Pignatelli by calling him a good loser.
Bob Kauffman, the poet, a fellow citizen of Gino and Carlo, was asked over a Coke if he thought certain magnificent defects of Johnnie’s character should be corrected. “Why turn a perfectly good frog into a prince?” Kauffman replied.
When he was in a good mood, which was often, Johnny Pignatelli sang. He sang with the grace of a baby whale and the strut of a tuba player pumping away and a Sunday parade in Ohio. He would leap on the bar, a spry 70-year-old, and leave an imaginary band of drinkers in his favorite song. It is unfair to ask people to guess what that might be. It was “Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder…”
He also sang opera, excellently, which he learned, somehow, when making his living with a net, the way Peter did, working out of the Italian Riviera at Fisherman’s Wharf. He sang at the old Bocce Ball on Broadway, before the Bocce Ball went the way of all North Beach flesh, along the forked path to trendiness or oblivion.
It is no doubt no accident that Johnny Pignatelli, a real man of the old North Beach, left the stage the same month that Little Joe’s, the finest flood counter in America, succumbed to popularity and expanded into a ridiculous Baby Joe’s with tables, next-door, and City Lights continued its downhill plunge into merchandising that began when the management shafted Shig Murao by expanding, also, next-door into a magazine rack satellite. North Beach is becoming the Emporium with beards.
Johnny’s singing made his fortune. In the matter of Pignatelli vs. Yellow Cab, the victim took the stand. He was asked his name. He stood up, eyes as bright as an Everyready ad, his crew cut white hair flat top level and trim, and sang to the jury “My name is Giovanni Pignatelli. I love to be an American. I love to sing. I will sing to you Pagliacci.” That jury of his peers gave him a hundred grand. They were not out as long as it takes a racetrack tote board to add up. When the Scrooges at Yellow said they would appeal, Johnnie settled for a fast 75. He put it in the savings and loan a few doors down from Gino and Carlo and spent all the money buying drinks for his friends. It took him six years to use it up. When Johnny Pignatelli was rich, everybody was rich.
At Frank Rossi’s home on telegraph Hill, the former Kathleen Garafalo was serving dinner one night, Johnny Pignatelli was the guest. The two sets of Rossi twins were seen but not heard the way the nuns tell you to be in Catholic schools. When Mrs. Rossi, who is the former Miss Garafalo, cleaned up the table, Johnnie Pignatelli had left a 20 under each kid’s plates.
For the funeral mass there had been many frantic preparations. First the body had to be extracted from the cliff-hanging grasp of the Veterans Hospital bureaucracy. “What do you mean his friends want to bury him? We can’t just release a body to friends!” The bureaucrats of this government and of this city of ours make dying even more of the pain in the ass than it is.
Then there was a matter of the music. Bobby Short, a friend, suggested a trumpeter should play Johnny Pignatelli’s favorite song, which is not exactly in the handbook of Gregorian Chants. Mrs. Rossi dealt with the church. While kind, the church maintained a confusion bordering on suspicion about the arrangements. “Aren’t there relatives here? Yes. Are they coming? No.” Consanguinity is to Rome as baseball is to America; expected. Meanwhile, Shirley Bossier, a waitress, another of Johnny’s hundred friends, was desperately trying to land a trumpet player. The Musicians Union couldn’t guarantee anything on such notice. They suggested the band barracks at the Presidio. Shirley called the number and asked “Do you have a trumpet player who knows ‘Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder’? and can he do it at 9:30 the next morning at SS. Peter and Paul?”
At 9 that morning, in the rectory of SS. Peter and Paul, Staff Sergeant Henry Buzby Jr. was there, tall, black, in full uniform, trumpet under his arm. He discussed the morning’s unusual musical score with Lola Simi, the organist. SS. Peter and Paul has not had a moment like this since a frustrated contractor who lost a bid hired goons to try to blow the church up back in the twenties or so. All was, finally, settled. The usual amenities were offered, and turned down. Sergeant Buzby said he had never seen a man’s friends doing what Johnny Pignatelli’s friends were doing for him: he would not play for pay.
The High Requiem Mass ended. The pallbearers began the long march down the aisle with the casket dripping with the morning’s holy water. Wearing the standard white gloves of the Green Street Mortuary, their faces as stone as Mt. Rushmore, were Donato and Frank Rossi, formerly of Genoa, then of Gino and Carlo, and their partner Aldino Cuneo, also of Genoa, and Dino Petrucci, like Johnnie from Marche, the day bartender at Columbus Café, where Johnny also drank, and Sylvio Conciatore, the dean of North Beach Italian chefs, who had cooked Johnnie a thousand noonday meals in Gino and Carlo’s back kitchen, and show me a bunch, but this Chuckie that people honk at, another citizen of Johnnie’ where Johnny also drank, and Jim Bunch, the disc jockey that people honk at, another citizen of Johnnie’s land.
As the casket moved down the aisle at the speed of an Alaskan snail the trumpet strain in largessimo time, of “Off We Go…” filled the huge church. Grown drunks cried in their sobriety and tears the size of martini onions rolled down the cheeks of Johnny Pignatelli’s friends. “That wasn’t a funeral – it was church insurance,” one mourner later said.
In Colma, at the Italian Cemetery, in the honest light of early winter, his friends said good-by to Johnny Pignatelli. “Are you only a friend, too?” Father Costanza of SS. Peter and Paul, who still had a weather eye out for a relative, asked Joe Barbirri, a retired scavenger.
In the end all Johnnie Pignatelli had were friends. We should all be so lucky.
San Francisco has been home to some of the greatest saloons in the world. Most are but a memory, but a few classics remain. Arguably, the most beautiful survivor would be Vesuvio Cafe on Columbus between North Beach and Chinatown. Owner Janet Clyde was gracious enough to give us an inside look at this iconic establishment.
Vesuvio Cafe, 255 Columbus Ave. (near Broadway), San Francisco, CA 94133
Hours: 8am to 2 am (415) 362-3370
San Francisco is a town that was built on bars. Saloons popped up almost as soon as settlers arrived, and a few of the originals (very few) have actually survived the constant change of our ever-changing city. The Saloon, The Old Ship Saloon, The Little Shamrock, Elixir, Vesuvio Cafe, Molloy’s in Colma and a few others are still standing (in one form or another), serving libations to lucky, thirsty patrons.
The poster above is proudly hung on the wall at Ray’s Hearth in the Richmond, and if you take a close look (click on the image to make it larger), you will notice how few of these drinking establishments are still in existence. Here is a (very personal) list of some of my favorite bars that ain’t around no more.
The Gold Dust Lounge
formerly at 247 Powell Street, near Geary, Union Square
This downtown classic was as much a Union Square mainstay as the cable cars that ran outside on Powell Street. Locals and tourists alike loved the friendly, funky vibe in the Gold Dust. The best prices on Irish Coffees, Margaritas and Champagne anywhere! Open at 6 am, it was a hangout for working class and business types. And they offered live music 7 nights a week. Over the years, visitors like Tony Bennett, Janis Joplin (owner Jimmy Bovis almost didn’t serve her!) and legendary columnist Herb Caen (who had his own stool) dropped in to join the fun. Powell Street hasn’t been the same since they were forced to shut the doors after nearly 47 years in existence. Change, for change’s sake.
The good news? For the original Powell Street location- none. They were contentiously, famously displaced for a chain women’s retail store. But, the Bovis Family has set up at a new location on Fisherman’s Wharf at 165 Jefferson Street. Same good drinks, live music, and a beautiful ambiance that mirrors the original. http://www.golddustsf.com
formerly at 1024 Kearny, near Broadway, North Beach
There was the Greek Taverna on Columbus, and then there was Plaka. The joint was loud and boisterous, the air filled with the sounds of classic Greek bouzouki music. As teens, we went to Plaka, with the owner’s daughter, Georgette. Sure, we were underage, but it was a different day, and Hey Natives! When did YOU first drink at a bar back in the day? Uh-huh. Anyways…we’d get a bit of liquid courage working, in the form of glasses of Ouzo, and we’d join the dancers circling the floor, having no idea what in the hell we were doing. But you jumped in the line, held hands and tried to follow the lead of the guy with the handkerchief in the traditional Kalamatiano dance. Then it was time for the amazing feats of wonder as a man lifted a fully-loaded table with his teeth and danced around the floor! And a few times, with a woman on the table!! Insanity! How did you show appreciation? By winging plates on the floor, or breaking full stacks of dishes, of course! The photo below is the late John “Papou” Stewart (Studianis), my daughter’s Grandfather-in-Law, in action! Plaka Taverna owner Gus Derdevanis held court over the wildest nightclub in North Beach. Nothing like it this side of Athens.
The good news? None. The location is just another available office space. And there are no old-style, plate breaking Greek spots in the Bay Area (that I know of), much less in North Beach.
Jay’N Bee Club
2736- 20th Street at York, Mission District
The Jay’N Bee was a noisy neighborhood bar, and one of our regular lunch stops when I was a young moving man working for Bekins Van & Storage, out of the warehouse only a few blocks away at 20th and Alabama. The place was packed with lots of SFPD, with workers from the Mission District factories, and yes, with furniture movers, all sitting inside or on the patio, grubbing on the great Merchant’s Lunch. For a reasonable price, you got a multi-course Family-Style spread that included a complimentary bottle of vino- red or white- served in a Calistoga bottle! And yes, besides the wine, they poured a nice stiff drink at the bar.
The good news? After sitting vacant for years, new management reopened the joint and, by all accounts, seems to have captured some of the down-to-earth spirit of the original Jay’N Bee. Reasonable drinks, good pizza, patio open, nice down-to-earth vibe. No place to park your truck, though. Not at lunchtime. But they aren’t open until 4 pm, so it’s a moot point.
formerly 5160 Mission Street, near Geneva, Outer Mission/Crocker Amazon
I grew up in the Excelsior District. My brothers and sister and I went to grammar school with all of the Balma kids at the now-defunct Corpus Christi Grammar School. Their dad, Gene Balma, ran the only bar I remember seeing my mother frequent regularly. Was Mom fond of the booze? Quite the contrary. Mrs. Cruz was as close to being a teetotaler as you would ever meet. But she went to Gene’s almost every week. For one reason: Gene made The. Best. Roast. Beef. Sandwich. Ever. Seriously. We would park in the lot behind the Bank of America, use the back entrance of the bar, and Mom would have us sit patiently, among the incredible collection of figural liquor bottles that Gene had displayed, while he would cut fresh Sourdough hard rolls, dip them in his secret ingredient au jus, and pile on the thinly-shaved beef. Wrapped in wax paper, we almost couldn’t wait to get them home! Miss you, Mr. Balma! And those sandwiches…
The good news? None. It’s currently the office for a Pentecostal church.
formerly 453 Cortland Avenue, Bernal Heights
Bernal Heights was my hood for a short time, and as anyone familiar with the neighborhood knows, Cortland Avenue is the heart of Bernal. There were two bars up on the Hill: Wild Side West, an LGBT-friendly hangout on the South side of the street (still there and a great bar!), and Skip’s Tavern, on the other side. A Niner bar. A Giants bar. A working class bar. Period. To describe Skip’s as “untrendy” would be an understatement. But it was a cool live music venue. Bands played original Jazz, Rock and Blues sets 7 nights a week. I loved walking over from our house on the East slope, sitting at the big horseshoe-shaped bar, sucking down a cold one or three, and listening to the night’s jam session. Unfortunately, some ASCAP lawyers sued the owner, Bill, for copyright infringement, and he pulled the plug. “Too much trouble.” A another unique dive bar bit the dust.
The good news? Skip’s has been resurrected as The Lucky Horseshoe, and they have live music, so that’s a good thing. http://www.luckyhorseshoebar.com
The Peer Inn
formerly at Pier 33, The Embarcadero
When I worked at KMEL in the late ’80’s, early 90’s, the morning show would gather to do our next-day show preparation at one place: a waterfront bar near the station called The Peer Inn. The Papadakis Family- George, Annie and son Gus- hosted you for a really nice lunch, liquid and otherwise. The Greek chef would occasionally yell “Skata!” at you through the open pass-through from the kitchen. Eddie and Babe, two Teamster forklift operators that worked on Pier 33, would come in for a bracer or three. Annie would eventually put out sweaty slices of salami and cheese as appetizers (yes, we’d eat them all), and bartenders Siobhan and Ava would pour nice stiff Embarcadero-worthy drinks. The bar dice would come out and it was noisy, dice cup slamming hours of Liars Dice, playing for dollars and rounds of drinks and bragging rites. And, sure, we even got a little show prep done.
The good news? Not sure. Butterfly, a Polynesian/Asian/Fusion restaurant is there. An interesting menu. I haven’t tried it yet. And i’m pretty sure that the Teamsters from Pier 33 don’t have lunch there. http://www.butterflysf.com
formerly at 64 Townsend Street at Colin P. Kelly (a WW2 hero), in what is now known as South Beach
Before there was an AT&T Park, and before there was the growth of high-rise high-rent apartments and the tony restaurants and drinking establishments that have popped up in the area, the Southeast end of the city was deeming with warehouses and trucks and industry that fed off the bustling port. San Francisco was the Maritime City and South Beach was filled with bars that cared to working-class longshoremen, Merchant Marines, stevedores and Teamsters that worked the ships and warehouses. I was a lumper (read: hired work horse) for a restaurant supply company and my driver (who was intimately familiar with every bar from North Beach to Dogpatch) introduced me to Bouncers. The walls were covered in souvenirs from all corners of the globe. Behind the bar was a framed poster of Daisy Duck, posed in a classic saloon-style reclining nude pose. I had an Oly for my coffee break, and ate some of the best salmon jerky made by a sailor who was three- no, check that- easily five sheets to the wind. Unforgettable.
The good news? None. More empty office space that a greedy property owner is ready to cash in on. Daisy would be ashamed.
formerly at 619 Market Street at 2nd, Downtown/Financial District
This was one of the many great hofbraus in The City (of which only two- Lefty O’Doul’s and Tommy’s Joynt remain). But Hoffman’s Grill was much more. The look of the place was Old San Francisco, with it’s tiled floors, brass lamps, stained glass, and an Old-World vibe that is hard to fake. The owner, who sometimes worked the bar, was from Bavaria, and it was a kick chatting with him and listening to the German accent. One visit, he brought out the best bar snack ever: oysters on a half shell! (Not sure if that was a regular thing, but it was memorable) Hoffman’s served good cold draft beer in those big round bottomed chalice-shaped glasses (like the giant neon one on top of the Hamm’s Brewery). And tiny bottles of the German digestif Underbred hung from the back bar, ready to settle your upset stomach. This brick-front classic was destroyed in the 1906 quake, rebuilt, and sadly, was closed in the mid-80’s to allow an office building to be built around it. The building exterior has landmark status, but that doesn’t bring back the turn-of-the-century feel inside a once-great saloon.
The good news? It depends. The brick facade is still there. It’s an outlet of San Francisco’s oldest bakery (and their cafe), Boudin. So, if you like a decent clam chowder in a really tasty Sourdough bowl, this is your spot. https://www.boudinbakery.com
formerly 630 Clay Street near Kearny, Financial District
Turk Murphy. Do you know the name? Well, music fans, Turk was the Greatest San Francisco Jazz Trombonist of All Time. Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t know of a lot of other trombonists besides Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and New Orleans’s own Trombone Shorty, and I’ve never seen any of them. But back in the day, we had the giddy honor of watching, and listening to, and dancing to the great Turk Murphy and his Jazz Band at his club on Clay Street, Earthquake McGoon’s. It was such an outstanding nightclub, with was seating upstairs along a rail that overlooked the dance floor. Turk’s band rollicking with the loud, happy sound of Dixieland Jazz up on the stage. Dancing, boozing, happiness. And as a bonus, downstairs was the Magic Cellar, where pro magicians dazzled you. I’m not a big “Magic” fan, and saw one of the best mind-reading tricks ever. Pisses me off, it was so good. Earthquake McGoon’s eventually moved to Pier 39 but that didn’t have the syncopation of the dancehall on Clay Street with the magic cellar.
The good news? None. Ironically, it’s a dialysis clinic.
formerly 1940 Taraval Street between 29th and 30th Avenues, The Sunset
There will always be a place in my heart for the Sunset District, the place where some of my favorite people were raised (my wife being one of them). And it’s also the former home to one of the most laugh-provoking pubs that I ever spent a dollar in: a place called The Lost Weekend. When you walked in the door, past that glass brick front, the first thing you noticed was what, at first glance, seemed to be a piano. Okay, it’s a piano bar, right? Wrong. That’s an ORGAN, and Lost Weekend was the best Organ Bar I’ve ever seen. The organist could play everything, with a playlist that was heavily laden with Standards, but he would not let a then-current Rock song stop his flow. And there was one particular Regular, an older lady, who probably had Opera training in her past, that would hit notes that shook the glassware. Lost Weekend offered good booze, live music like no other, a hang with the fine Sunset Natives, and the funniest night out ever. I miss hearing “White Room” on a Wurlitzer. But, maybe that’s just me.
The good news? It is currently the Parkside Tavern, a nice, friendly local’s hangout with good food and live music (but no organ sing-a-long. And that’s okay.) http://www.parksidetavernsf.com
formerly at 504 Broadway at Kearny, North Beach
Enrico Banducci was the father of the hippest trip in all of The City: the coffee house and bar that had his name above the sidewalk seating on Broadway, Enrico’s. He was like a Beatnik Cher. One name was enough to ID the beret-wearing barman. He founded another San Francisco legend, the hungry i on Jackson (where Enrico brought in up-and-coming talent like Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce), and then decided to open The City’s first ever sidewalk cafe. A place so cool it was featured in one scene of, arguably, the coolest San Francisco movie ever, with the coolest star: “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen. We used to snag a table, and try to look cool. and spend an evening watching the parade pass by. The parade ain’t what it used to be.
The good news? None. Like Steve McQueen, only cool memories remain. It’s a sad empty hulk, a ghost of it’s hip heyday.
formerly at 71 Third Street at Market, South of the Slot (SoMa, for the uninitiated)
When you visit The City, there are an overwhelming amount of options when it comes to your search for liquid refreshment. This little bar on Green Street is a local’s favorite, and quickly becomes the go-to “find” of any visitor to San Francisco’s Little Italy, North Beach. Here is a video that (I hope) encapsulates everything I love about Gino & Carlo. Cent’anni!
Gino and Carlo 548 Green St. San Francisco, CA 94113 (415) 421-0896
Thrillist recently posted a list of “14 San Francisco Bartenders That You Need to Know.” That very subjective list (as all lists usually are) has bartenders from establishments that I either don’t know, or is “impossible to find” (a compliment, I guess), or that I won’t be visiting in the foreseeable future. That all said, their list inspired me to make a list of “9 San Francisco Bartenders You Need to Know (or Wish You Could Have Known)”. (and, yes, my list is very subjective as well…)