Burly Joe Utovac, owner of Utro’s, said if his bar had to go, it ought to go in style.
Hundreds of San Pedro residents bid farewell Saturday to Utro’s Crest Cafe, a funky neighborhood bar-restaurant that will be shut down later this week to make way for a 40-unit condominium project.
Although there is some chance Utro’s may find a new home at a nearby site, longtime patrons gathered to celebrate Utro’s status as a favorite watering hole since the mid-1950s.
“We’re losing a bit of Americana,” said John Mepham, a building inspector who prides himself as one of the regular customers at the rough-hewn bar on West 22nd St.
Party-goers, many of whom grew up in San Pedro, complained that Utro’s is one of a growing number of longtime businesses that have been forced out of this waterfront community as land values soar and new development replaces old.
“All we get is more development and more traffic,” said one disgruntled resident.
Joe Utovac, the boisterous and burly owner of Utro’s, said he decided that if the earthy establishment had to go, it should go in style, with an all-day party and a classic car parade.
Many gathered early in the day to see the start of the parade to the Queen Mary and back, while others stayed on for a few cool beers and a barbecue lunch of hamburgers, grilled Italian sausage or swordfish.
The party didn’t start in earnest until Utovac returned mid-afternoon, driving a blue-and-white 1955 Chevy Nomad at the head of a long parade of antique and classic cars. Party-goers cheered and horns honked as Utovac and the others nosed the automobiles into the crowded parking lot. Many of the cars bore black signs that read: “Utro’s Dies Hard.”
Utovac, who bought the cafe in 1976, was both the host and the guest of honor at the party. He wore black shorts and a tank top for much of the occasion, and enthusiastically posed for photographers along with a life-size papier-mache figure of himself that was put on display outside the cafe.
Three motorcycle riders in black leather parked their bikes nearby, in front of a sign that facetiously advertised valet parking. “This is a workingman’s bar,” stated Utovac.
The tiny cafe, decked profusely in memorabilia from several decades, is a favorite of local longshoremen and fishermen. A sign atop the restaurant touts its “Great Burgers & Cold Beer.” The most popular item on the menu is Utro’s Divine Burger, a cheeseburger spiced with “Joe’s secret sauce,” according to waitress Sidni Robberstad. She is a second-generation Utro’s enthusiast; her father, a longshoreman, has been a patron of Utro’s for many years, she said.
The beer-drinking crowd dressed in shorts and T-shirts or tank tops for Saturday’s festivities. A local band, The Wing Tips, was due to play for dancing later in the day, and the party was expected to extend into the wee hours.
One party-goer described the event as “a class reunion” because so many of Utro’s patrons have known each other since childhood.
Rudy Palacios, a seafood distributor who was born and raised in San Pedro, said he remembers the day Utro’s opened. “In 1976, when Joe bought the place, we had all gone to Hawaii and when we got back, Joe didn’t have enough money to pay cash for his first delivery of beer. So everybody pitched in. . . . Now just look at the place.”
Utovac said he is negotiating a plan to move Utro’s a block away, to 21st Street. “We want to stay in the neighborhood, and now that the word is out, a lot of people are approaching us who want to keep the place going,” he said.
But just in case Utro’s goes out of business for good, a sign painted on the window said: “Thank You San Pedro. Utro’s Says Adios, Sayonara, Arrivederci.”