All great cities have them: famous watering holes popular with tourists and locals alike. They serve as sources of liquid inspiration for artists, writers and musicians – and as meeting places for politicians and businesspeople looking to put the finishing touches on a big deal over an afternoon libation.
Friends of the San Francisco’s venerable Gold Dust Lounge are mounting a campaign to save the bar near the tony Union Square shopping district. The lease is up March 10. Allies of the bar have filed petitions with the city for landmark status and the bar’s owners are suing the landlord for elder abuse. The suit alleges the landlord misled the elderly owners into signing an unfavorable lease.
Locals, tourists, and visiting luminaries have been stopping in for a drink at the bar for the better part of a century. The Gold Dust’s owners and loyal customers say they’re trying to preserve a piece of the city’s history.
According to the Gold Dust Lounge website, the saloon has been legally serving drinks in the Union Square neighborhood since 1933 – four years before the Golden Gate Bridge opened. It started out nearly a decade earlier as a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Bing Crosby was a part owner in the 50s, when it went was known as the Blues and Beaus. It’s now a piece of city lore frequently listed in guidebooks.
With its gold-flecked walls decorated with Victorian paintings, the Gold Dust is a reminder of the city’s rough-and-tumble past; days when sailors and dock workers prowled the streets looking for a place to relax.
“S.F. has always had the tradition of the Barbary Coast where you drink. And In Union Square there’s nothing left like this,” says Nick Bovis, son of Greek immigrant Jim Bovis, who bought the bar in 1965 with his brother Tasios, or Tommy. Bovis says the current landlords, the Handlery family, want to close the Gold Dust when its lease is up to make way for a branch of The Limited clothing store chain. The landlords could presumably charge the new tenants a higher rent.
Bovis says that decision would break his heart. “This is our family business and it’s just sad to see it go and we’re trying to do everything we can to save it.” Father Jim Bovis agrees. “I love the place. It’s my whole life,” he says, choking back tears.
So does building owner Jon Handlery think there’s a chance to save the Gold Dust in its current form? “No,” says Handlery’s spokesman, Sam Singer.
Singer adds that a notice of lease termination was delivered in December and both parties signed a renewal in good faith. “The Gold Dust Lounge agreed to get out in 90 days. They put their name to it not once but twice. They’re going to have to go.”
Despite Sam Singer’s adamant statements, many supporters remain hopeful that the Gold Dust can be saved. “Sam’s job is to try and make us all go away and, as is always true of San Franciscans, the more you try and push us, the more we don’t move,” said Christopher Caen, a local writer and son of legendary San Francisco Chronicle Columnist Herb Caen. He says places like the Gold Dust make San Francisco unique.
“I don’t think any of us want to wind up living in San Francisco-land, which is what happens if these great old anchors of our history and our community go away,” Caen says, adding that he and his late father grew to love the Gold Dust.
For some locals, like Erin Sebelli of San Francisco, the bar has been a place to mark important milestones. “It’s a place I’ve had birthdays and a lot of memories throughout the years. It’s a place that’s always been in our heart for most of my life and I’m 41 years old.”
Serbelli and her husband Michael Maloney recently started a “Save the Gold Dust Lounge” Facebook page that now has over 3,000 likes. And it isn’t only locals who like the Gold Dust. Maloney says many a celebrity elbow has rested on its 80-year-old polished oak bar. “Janis Joplin walked through the door, Steve McQueen, Jack LaLanne. Name any celebrity you want – they drink here. Vince Vaughn was in here the other night, so it spans generations.”
For other visitors, the Gold Dust Lounge has changed their lives. “Everything about that bar is imprinted in me,” says Simon Thorpe. The London native’s first introduction to America was on a business trip to San Francisco in the year 2000. He found himself in a hotel directly opposite the Gold Dust and, like any good Englishman, ha says, “obviously we like to drink.” Thorpe says a lot of America hit him in that bar: “the music, the drinks, the amount of drink they gave me for my money for the price.” For Thorpe, the rest is history. He eventually accepted a job offer in San Francisco and went on to marry the daughter of Gold Dust co-owner Tommy Bovis. Now that Thorpe is literally part of the Gold Dust family, he hopes to keep making family memories with his own young son.
“I have a four year old son, who I’m hoping in 20 years is going to join me for a drink at this bar. So I thought I’d better fight and save part of our family’s history,” he says.
Meanwhile, David Chiu, President of the Board of Supervisors; Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the Union Square District; and former Mayor Willie Brown are among the local officials who have signed the petition to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission to have the Gold Dust Lounge declared a city landmark. They hope landmark status can keep the Gold Dust entertaining thirsty visitors for generations to come.