Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, as the clock’s about to strike 12, Sherman Mendoza will steel himself to do something one last time: toast the new year with friends at the Caliph, the piano lounge and bar he’s owned for 15 years.
On Dec. 31, as the calendar ushers in a new year, it will usher in a new chapter for Mendoza but the last chapter for the Caliph. After last call, it will close permanently — ending a nearly 60-year run as one of San Diego’s most iconic gay bars.
The Caliph, with its Moorish motif mixed with disco lights, is known for its live piano entertainment, karaoke, fresh popcorn and, perhaps most importantly, its old-school neighborhood bar vibe.
Its demise marks the end of an era.
“There’s no doubt that it saddens me,” said Mendoza, who bought the intimate Bankers Hill bar in 2003. “At the same time, I realize that it did have a long run — 58 years. That’s quite something. Even during the hardest times, when the economy wasn’t doing so well, we remained open and persevered.”
His 15-year lease isn’t going to be renewed, Mendoza said, and the building’s owners have decided to sell.
“They’ve been very good to me,” he said of the owners, recorded officially as the Lillian A. Mallen Family Trust. “They inherited the properties, and they wanted to sell. But they wanted to wait until the lease ended.”
Efforts to contact the owners or the leasing company — Siner Real Estate — were unsuccessful. The building, which has multiple tenants, sits on a nearly a half acre that’s being marketed as part of a five-parcel deal — a “rare opportunity to acquire a mixed-use development opportunity … just a short walk from Balboa Park.” Listing agent Daniel Fefferman of the La Jolla brokerage firm The Lipschitz Group confirmed that the land, on the market for $9.7 million, is in escrow.
“It is very tough for a lot of people who have been coming here for years,” Mendoza, 64, said of the bar, which, during periods in its 58-year history, was known for attracting a mostly older male clientele.
For Bankers Hill resident and Wednesday regular James Stephens, 60, the Caliph is special — a bar like no other: “It’s like a 1960s bar without the smoke. And you never know what you’re going to get from one night to the next. It’s like a show, and we’re the characters. Some nights, there are just three of us here, and on other nights, you can barely move around.”
Owning the bar, Mendoza said, wasn’t always easy, but there was one thing that’s kept him going all these years: the people.
“When I bought the place,” he said, “I always wanted it to be all-inclusive — gay, straight, transgender, young, old, men, women. It was always open to everyone.”
Troy Davis, 57, of El Cajon has been a longtime patron — since the late 1970s. He’ll miss it immensely.
“It’s the kind of place,” he said, “where people really know your name.”
That, entertainer Ria Carey said, has been a big part of the Caliph’s appeal.
“As a straight woman who’s been able to perform there all these years, it’s always been a special place for me,” said Carey, who has clocked 12 years singing on Friday nights with pianist Kevin McCully. “Bars like the Caliph have been a place where people in the gay community could be themselves — a place where you wouldn’t even be looked at twice. You’re just accepted. And that was the Caliph — it’s inclusive.
“It was,” she added, “the safest little haven on Fifth Avenue.”
More than that, the Caliph, for nearly six decades, bore witness to the evolution of the gay rights movement — its highs and its lows.
It opened in 1960, seven years after President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, banning homosexuals from employment by the federal government. During the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, patrons raised money, many writing personal checks to help those who couldn’t afford medical care. And in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage across the country, it was a cultural turning point marked by cheers and tears inside the dimly lit bar at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Redwood Street.
“One of the sweetest memories I remember is when that finally happened, we had a couple of marriage proposals,” recalled Carey, who said she sang every gay anthem in the book that night, from “Love Story” by Taylor Swift to “Defying Gravity” from the musical “Wicked.” “To be a witness to that, knowing that finally a couple of people could love who they want to love, that was one of those real heart moments.”
Entertainer Kenny Ard has experienced many of those moments, too, and this past Wednesday — his last show — he came ready to rock the night away. But, he admitted, it was bittersweet.
“This was my first job in San Diego after moving here from New Orleans,” Ard, who’s been playing at the Caliph off and on since 1987, said minutes before taking the stage for the last time. “I’ll miss the warmth and friendship.”
The Caliph’s closure comes on the heels of other notable gay bars shutting down. Numbers, a popular nightclub on Park Boulevard, closed in September 2017. Bourbon Street, once a bustling nightspot just a mile up the street, shuttered in 2015, as did the Flame, a lesbian bar.
The loss of the Caliph “is really tragic,” said filmmaker Paul Detwiler, who produced the KPBS documentary “San Diego’s Gay Bar History.” “Unfortunately, this follows the larger trend of gay bars closing across the country … through the homogenization process of gentrification.”
Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Assn., said many factors come into play when gay-centric businesses shut down, but recent closures reflect how the nightclub scene is changing in Hillcrest and nearby neighborhoods such as Bankers Hill.
“Generally, I think that two things are happening. First, there is a general concentration of nightlife activities in central Hillcrest. Expansions at Flicks a couple of years ago and the relocation and expansion of Gossip Grill have attracted many new late-night folks back to this new heart of Hillcrest,” said Nicholls, who’s led the Hillcrest Business Assn. for a decade. “Fun new dining options, such as insideOUT and Tacos Libertad, are drawing a lot of folks away from the classic spots. Young LGBT folks want new and hip places.
“Secondly, people aren’t as connected to the classic LGBT spots as they had been,” he said. “In the past, classic LGBT bars like the Caliph or the Flame served a lot of functions beyond simple entertainment. They were safe spaces for the community. These days, a new generation of folks have so many more options for safe spaces and expression. People want more than a box, which is what Numbers was at the end. Many see the older establishments as tired, especially if they’re not as connected to the history of those spaces.”
For Benny Cartwright, a community activist and chair of the Hillcrest Town Council, the Caliph isn’t just about one business closing its doors. It’s about a trend that’s endemic to the gay community.
“Every time we lose a gay bar — which has happened far too much in recent years — we lose a piece of our community’s fabric,” he said. “The LGBTQ community still needs places to gather and come together because not all of us feel safe in non-gay bars. The Caliph is uniquely special — being one of the last gay piano bars in the state — and it truly has a neighborhood bar feel. All of the regular patrons are like family, and losing this bar will feel like losing a family member.”
Carey agreed. “We’ve been through a lot — Pride parties, wedding celebrations, birthday parties,” she said, her voice cracking. “The Caliph has always been a happy place, always a celebration.”
On New Year’s Eve, Carey will perform one last time, from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. She expects to be joined by other Caliph entertainers, some of whom have been playing there for decades. She knows she’ll sing some of her staples — “Sweet Caroline” and “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” are crowd favorites. She’ll miss people sidling up to the curved bar to request their favorite songs.
“I have met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known in my life at the Caliph,” she said. “I’ve made some amazing friendships.”
And Mendoza, Carey said, is someone she’ll miss the most.
“Oh, how I will miss Sherman,” she said. “He is one of those better angels that I can only aspire in my life to be.”
For his part, Mendoza promises he’ll still be active in the community. For now, though, he’s not dwelling much on what’s next other than preparing himself mentally for New Year’s Eve.
“It will be quite a change,” he said, “but I leave it all behind with very good memories.”
In the early morning hours of 2019’s first day, after all the champagne toasts and the hugs and kisses, Mendoza will turn off the lights in the little bar at 3100 Fifth Ave. and lock the door one last time.
And then, perhaps, he’ll whisper to himself what he told a reporter last week: “It’s time.”