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Last call for many classic S.F. bars
Tony Antico will tell you straight up: He's a social orphan nowadays. He and a drinking pal sat glumly at a North Beach bar the other night, knocking back room-temperature pints of Guinness Stout.
The joint had all the character you could ask for: sociable bartenders, spacious booths and saucy regulars. Trouble was, it wasn't their corner bar, their home away from home.
FOR THE RECORD:
Neighborhood bars: An article in Wednesday's Section A about neighborhood bars closing in San Francisco said Robert "Bobby" Cook, the owner of Bobby's Owl Tree, died last fall. He died in 2006. —
Antico's preferred watering hole, the John Barleycorn pub -- known as "the Corn" to regulars -- closed recently. Last call came after the building changed hands and the new owner refused to renew the bar's lease.
Patrons tried to salvage the 40-year-old Nob Hill institution. Their "Save the John Barleycorn" drive collected 4,000 signatures, including many from area teetotalers. They campaigned at City Hall and picketed the new owner.
But last fall Antico, 49, a former Barleycorn bartender, found himself giving a farewell toast. "Get your glasses ready," he said. "Here's to the John Barleycorn and the great pubs of San Francisco. Community. Tradition. Barleycorn."
This good-time city has a case of the blues. A growing number of classic corner bars are being forced to close.
Their names speak of old San Francisco: Bobby's Owl Tree, Moose's, the Washington Square Bar and Grille (better known as the Washbag). The run-down and aptly named Hole in the Wall Saloon is scheduled to close soon. The politically incorrect Dago Mary's, a former Navy hangout near Hunter's Point, closed last summer after 80 years.
Some were classic dives that refused to acknowledge the passage of time. They were cash only and served up Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra standards on chrome jukeboxes. Others were upscale bars attached to restaurants but with their own distinct identities and clientele.
Many were peopled by full-service bartenders with encyclopedic memories for their regulars' favorite poison. They stopped fistfights and ran phone interference from pesky ex-spouses and bill collectors.
San Francisco still has one of California's highest number of bars for its population, said John Carr, a spokesman for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. But many of the alcohol licenses now belong to hotels or tourist spots.
Reasons for the closures of neighborhood bars vary: Owners died or decided to relocate, buildings were sold. Rising rents play a major role, owners and city officials say.
With each passing, patrons say, San Francisco has lost a bit of its soul.
"I think it's sad," said Ed Moose, whose establishment is being converted into an Italian restaurant. "Where should we go when we're not going home? Where can we have our nerves soothed or indulge in a secret rendezvous? It's not just about the booze. It's the bonding."
Former Mayor Willie Brown, a bachelor well-studied in the city's night life, says: "I still go out regularly -- almost every night -- and it's becoming more difficult to find those old haunts where the volume is sufficient to keep it open. For most of these old places, the crowd who appreciates them has died."
A new generation of barflies is also mourning the loss. In a posting titled "Where the hell am I supposed to drink now?" blogger Beth Spotswood rued the January loss of the Washbag, which she called "a bastion of old-school San Francisco character."
The North Beach bar, she wrote, was "home to crotchety old codgers who remembered when Dianne Feinstein didn't dye her hair and brooch-clad, aging spinsters who took their burger and martini(s) at the bar alone."
She hit the Washbag often, threw a birthday bash there. She knew the owner's kids.
Her affinity grew the night a friend mocked her sequined, leopard-print cardigan at the bar. That's when one regular "turned around, took a swig of his Scotch and said, 'That's one hell of an outfit, sweetheart. You look terrific.'
"Ah, the Washbag . . . " she wrote, "my only home away from home."
At Bobby's Owl Tree, a peculiar Nob Hill dive one patron likened on a website to "your crazy aunt's basement," owner Robert "Bobby" Cook adorned his place with hundreds of stuffed owls, owl paintings and sculptures, and owl-themed bowls, posters and menus.
Until he died of a heart attack last fall, the mercurial Cook greeted customers with a scowl, along with a sometimes stale bowl of Gardetto's mix and a moist towelette.
Cook was a real hoot, regulars say. He closed at will, herding patrons onto the street. Drinkers who didn't hold up their end of the conversation were often eighty-sixed or banished to the end of the bar.
"Bobby was nervous that way," said a regular named Larry, who wouldn't give his last name. "But you didn't appreciate his place until you walked into a bar full of strangers. It ain't the same."
Regulars often hold their breath when they get wind of a new bar owner. Sometimes the switch works out, as it did with Ginger's, a gay and lesbian bar in the city's financial district. The new management took down the gay pride flag outside and lowered the lighting, but kept the rest the same. So the old clientele stayed put.
Not so at the nearby House of Shields, says ex-patron Sam Singer. "Everybody used to come there," said the local public relations man, "judges and lawyers, guys just indicted or about to be convicted. We'd say, 'Meet you at the House.' "
Then the bar changed hands five years ago. The bartenders left, as did regulars like Singer, who missed seeing the familiar old faces behind the bar. The defections snowballed. "I still pass there and look in the windows longingly," he said. "But yesterday's gone."
Thor Ivar Elke found San Francisco rather aloof -- until the Norwegian transplant walked into the John Barleycorn and met owner Larry Ayre. "He served us the first pint in a series of many," Elke said. "I never left again."
The pub was a city museum, with its cheery hearth built from old city cobblestones, its cable-car benches and re-purposed church pews, its bleacher seats from the San Francisco Seals -- the minor league baseball team that skipped town for Phoenix in 1957 when the Giants arrived.
After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the pub was the place locals went to check in on one another. It was the neighborhood's living room.
"You came in and you just listened at first," Ayre said. "Then the regulars let you talk. They welcomed you. From that point on, the people around you were your people."
Antico became known as Baseball Tony, to distinguish from Rock 'n' Roll Tony and Country and Western Tony. Regulars included the Professor, Taxi Bob and Blind Mike. All of them had stories. Then, in 2006, the lease wasn't renewed.
Regulars boarded a cable-car-themed tour bus to picket the building's new owner, chef Luisa Hanson, at her Italian restaurant nearby. She wasn't pleased to see them.
"It's over," she said, wiping her hands. "That's it."
That's when Ayre knew the John Barleycorn must die. "It was a pit-of-the-stomach feeling," he said.
In an interview, Hanson said she offered a fair price to buy the bar outright. When that didn't work, she didn't renew the lease. "We didn't want to throw him out," she said of Ayre. "I like tradition. But just because you're in a place so long doesn't give you the right to stay there forever." Hanson plans to open a new Irish pub in the space.
Ayre moved all the bar's furniture to his house in Santa Rosa.
Not long ago, Antico and Elke visited him there. They sat at the 25-foot-long bar in Ayre's great room, perched on their customary stools. Ayre poured them pints of Guinness, for old times' sake.
Said Antico: "It was bittersweet."
Added Ayre: "They almost teared."
Ex-patrons now call themselves Barleycorn Survivors. The last posting on www.savethebarleycorn.org, the website they once used to organize protests, shows a photo of the stripped-down property under the caption "It's over: The Barleycorn is gone."
Antico says there will never be another Barleycorn. There are other bars out there, of course: the Philosopher's Club, Mr. Bing's, the Buddha. But pubs, he says, are a lot like love affairs.
"It takes a while to break into a new bar," he sighed between sips of Guinness. "It takes a commitment."