BARchive: Sutter's Mill and Ginger's Trois - San Francisco's Historic Bars

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Sunday August 30, 2015
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When you think of downtown bars, you probably immediately think "Tenderloin." Nowadays, that is entirely true with bars such as the Gangway, Aunt Charlie's and Club OMG, which are actually more mid-Market. The history of Tenderloin bars is long and storied, with bars like the Gilded Cage at 126 Ellis, which featured Charles Pierce on stage for six years before it closed in the late 1960s.

But from the mid-'60s through 2008 there was another type of downtown bar - the businessman's bar. These bars varied widely in their styles and included Chuck Holmes' high-end Trinity Place, which was patterned after "gentlemen's clubs" and in fact inhabited the old Le Domino Club on 25 Trinity Place (described by GQ in 1965 as having "a continental menu and walls covered with paintings of nudes").

Others included Belden 22, which was as much a dining spot as a bar and existed in the 1980s (it is now Cafe Bastille) and Wilde Oscar's (at 59 2nd Street) which was open in the early '70s and does indeed sound wild, and not nearly as high end.

The early Bay Area Reporter columnist Perry wrote in his "Tidbits by the Bay" column from January 1974, "I hope you did not miss the Wilde Oscar's Xmas decor. A drag queen's delight. Hundreds of mirrors."

The two downtown bars which lasted the longest and had the biggest impact, however, were Sutter's Mill and the various incarnations of Ginger's (Ginger's, Ginger's Too and Ginger's Trois). Their stories give us both a window into another time and presage some of the problems that LGBT bars have had in more recent times, with the several moves of Sutter's Mill due to lease problems and the mixed crowd at Ginger's.

Sutter's Mill has an amazing history (and client loyalty) in that it moved five times in its thirty year existence, from an unknown location on Kearny to 315 Bush, back to 70 Kearny St, then to 77 Battery and ultimately to 10 Mark Lane.

Perry was already indicating that there were lease problems in a 1973 column. In a 1991 "Around Town" article "Downtown and Dependable," a B.A.R. columnist (with no byline) traced its history: "The first Sutter's Mill opened in 1965 on Kearny Street. In 1967 the business moved to Bush Street, where it remained for 13 years. Kearny Street became home to the bar again until it lost its lease and opened at 77 Battery Street. There it remained, all 12,000 square feet of fun, until the operation of such a large space became more of a liability than an asset."

It was difficult for me to understand how a bar that moved so many times retained a loyal clientele, so I asked Ron Williams (author of "San Francisco's Native Sissy Son") who was living here when the bar was thriving about the scene there.

"I worked down town in 1967 and '68, and the first Sutter's Mill opened on Kearny between Bush and Pine. I would drop in for lunch. It was packed with "ticker tape queens" from the financial district. San Francisco had a huge gay work force in the financial district and the shopping district around Union Square just a few blocks away. Railroad companies, transportation companies, department stores and major corporations headquartered in the city were all big employers. Once the gay bar boom started in the '70s, it was a natural business opportunity to capture the lunchtime business crowd.

"The Southern Pacific railroad has a building that was referred to as the 'Swish Palace.' If you were new in town, you could almost get a clerk job at SP. It was a time before computers and everything administrative was done by hand and with paper. The financial district gay bars really served the lunch and cocktail hour crowd and some of it spilled over into the evening."

It's certainly clear that the owners of Sutter's Mill retained the loyalty of its staff throughout their various moves and that probably helped keep its long-term downtown gay clientele as well.

In the 1991 article it mentions that the bartender George Lowy had been at the bar for 19 years and the chef Bill Brown had been doing his "famous Southside Chicago barbecue" since 1965. It also states "the same customer who spent the first dollar in their new premises was also their first customer when the original bar opened in 1965."

Ginger's Trois at 245 Kearny was an entirely different sort of bar and was something of a mixed bag. That was, in large part, because the owner Don Rogers had owned bars in the Tenderloin as well as downtown and his clientele came from both the business and the Tenderloin worlds.

Rogers began his entertainment career at LeBoeuf Restaurant (545 Washington) in the '60s and opened Ginger's (100 Eddy) in 1978. This first bar lasted until the late Eighties and by the time it closed he had opened Ginger's Too on 43 6th Street. Ginger's Trois opened in December, 1991. It was a favorite of the late B.A.R. columnist Sweet Lips, who would often call it "an inexpensive bar for people with money" - which became the motto of the bar.

The bar had a decidedly mixed crowd. In the 2001 San Francisco guide Savvy in the City: San Francisco: A 'See Jane Go' Guide to City Living by Jayne Young and Sheridan Becker it was described this way:

"Come one, come all to this odd little clubby bar that is squarely out of place among the tall buildings in the Financial District! It's a strange place with a disco ball and walls covered with Ginger Rogers posters (hence the name). The jukebox is as eclectic as the crowd, a mixed bag of drag queens, gays and financial whiz kids, all looking to drink the night away in a non-intimidating atmosphere."

Jayne and Sheridan obviously didn't know that the owner's last name was Rogers and that perhaps provided another hint to both the posters and the name of the bar (but does still leave unanswered who exactly was Fred Astaire).

I remember Ginger's Trois as a fun place I used to visit on my way to and from North Beach - something of a way station and a home away from home. But the See Jane Go guide was right about the eclectic crowd. When the bar closed in 2008, Rogers said that he thought of it as a "people's bar" and that, "I didn't know for sure who was gay and who wasn't. I didn't care."

Ginger's Trois was purchased by the owners of Bench and Bar and it became Rickhouse. The new owners had a good working relationship with Rogers - they had purchased Ginger's Too in 2002 and it became Anu. To their credit, Rickhouse still has a drink called Ginger's Trois ("this bubbly cocktail provides every minty answer you desire, and all without the trouble of having to ask a single question").

As for Sutter's Mill - it is hard to say exactly when it closed. I found a notice for a Log Cabin Republican meeting there in February 1995 (they met there often).

By June 1996 it had become the bar which was initially called the Bank of Ireland and is now called the Irish Bank. You can still meet Republicans there, but they're more the Gerry Adams rather than the Terry Dolan sort.

This story has a coda. In 2012 the Bench and Bar's owners sold Anu to Rakesh Modi, who reopened it as Club OMG. And so the era of the downtown gay bar (or is it a Tenderloin bar?) is not quite over in San Francisco.

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