Badlands owner Natali says Castro space could become a new club soon

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday February 9, 2023
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Negotiations are reportedly nearly finished between Badlands owner Les Natali and TJ Bruce, who plans to open a new club in the space on 18th Street in the Castro. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
Negotiations are reportedly nearly finished between Badlands owner Les Natali and TJ Bruce, who plans to open a new club in the space on 18th Street in the Castro. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

The old Badlands space on 18th Street in the Castro neighborhood may be occupied by another nightclub in as little as eight weeks, property owner Les Natali told the Bay Area Reporter Thursday.

Natali, 81, the longtime owner of the popular LGBTQ dance club that closed in 2020 during COVID, told the B.A.R. that he is going to call his attorney February 9 to finalize a deal with TJ Bruce, who owns a number of nightclubs, including Splash San Jose and Badlands Sacramento.

"TJ and I have been talking for quite some time and I think we have a deal," Natali said. "TJ said he can get it open in eight weeks and that's what I'd prefer. Hopefully, we'll get a deal together today."

It would follow the reopening this year of another long shuttered LGBTQ nightlife venue nearby in the Castro. As the B.A.R. reported Wednesday, Q Bar on the 400 block of Castro Street is working toward opening its doors this spring after a fire in 2019 heavily damaged its space.

As of February 10, a deal has not been signed, Bruce confirmed to the B.A.R.

"Hopefully by Monday [February 13]," Bruce said. "We will see."

Bruce did confirm that there were discussions about the potential deal earlier in the day on February 10.

Badlands, which had been open since 1974 and was a nightclub under Natali's ownership since 1999, closed three years ago, as the B.A.R. previously reported. A Facebook post at the time stated, "Later this fall a new bar, under new ownership, will open in the Badlands location."

That didn't happen, but Bruce, a gay man who is managing partner at Sacramento Badlands in the state capital, told the B.A.R. the following year that the space was being renovated.

"Basically the space is just being remodeled. It should be open by the end of the year or early, maybe, shortly after the year ends," Bruce told the B.A.R. in summer 2021. "That's basically all there is to say at the moment."

At that time, Bruce also confirmed his involvement with the project, saying, "We both work together on it," he said, referring to Natali who owns the Castro Badlands space and liquor license.

Natali still holds the liquor license as of the publication of this report, according to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which states that the active license was issued on March 4, 1999 and will expire on February 28.

Natali told the B.A.R. that the renovations are "pretty close to being done right now."

Bruce told the B.A.R. in a phone call February 8, "I'm hopeful to start working together real quick and get it open as long as we agree on something."

He added, "I'm hoping to get it open early summer."

When asked what the "something" was, Bruce said, "just me helping him open it. That's all."

"So that's all the info I have at the moment," Bruce concluded. "I'm really hoping to get it open."

Natali said that Bruce is "going to buy it. He's [Bruce] going to take over. His attorney and my attorney are going to work it out. He's going to be the boss and have all the control."

When asked if that means Bruce will own the property at 4121 18th Street, Natali was not clear.

"I don't want to get into detail about this," Natali said. "We've been negotiating [for] some time and it's between his attorney and my attorney and this is what we're working out — that he's going to be in charge. People want to know who's going to be running the place and it looks like it's going to be TJ."

Past controversies

Badlands and Natali had been under renewed criticism in the months prior to the announcement of its closure due to allegations of racial discrimination that surfaced in the 2000s.

A 2004 report by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission found that Badlands was discriminating against African Americans, but the findings were never official because Virginia Harmon, the HRC executive director at the time, did not sign off on the staff report. Natali and the complainants eventually reached a confidential settlement. Natali has always denied the accusations.

Natali later opened Toad Hall on the site of what had been the Pendulum, a bar that catered to Black LGBTQs.

In an email to the B.A.R. after this was brought up at a June 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Jane Warner Plaza, Natali wrote that the allegations "were found without merit and were dropped."

"We welcome people of all races and all colors and we probably have the largest, most diverse clientele of any bar in the Castro," he stated at the time.

Badlands originally opened as a country western bar in 1974. Natali acquired it in 1999, when it became a video dance bar.

Other properties

Natali has been criticized over the years for leaving many Castro-area properties closed, sometimes for much longer than the Badlands space was.

Natali confirmed to the B.A.R. this week that Hamburger Mary's on the 500 block of Castro Street is not going to reopen under that name, though he did say that Cheryl Maloney of Vanguard Properties was in charge of finding tenants for the spaces and he is "referring people to talk to her because she's the one who's working on the places."

Before Hamburger Mary's opened in 2018, the space had sat vacant nearly two decades since the closure of the much beloved Patio restaurant and its backyard dining area in 2002, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Maloney answered a phone call from the B.A.R., saying with regard to the Hamburger Mary's space, "I was looking to lease and I've had a couple prospects for quite some time."

When asked what the space will be, Maloney said, "a restaurant and a bar. A particular client who has stepped forward was looking at a non-alcoholic, after-hours club."

At that point, however, Maloney said she was running late and that the B.A.R. could call back in 15 minutes. The next day Maloney told the B.A.R. that there's also a third prospect for the Hamburger Mary's space that she will be speaking with next week. She also revealed that "we're just about to sign" someone to fill the space that until January was filled by El Capitan Taqueria, next to Toad Hall.

While Maloney wouldn't say who will be leasing, she described them as a "very successful restaurant owner" with other locations in San Francisco.

The space at 541 Castro Street will continue to be leased to the campaign committee of Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) on a month-to-month basis, Maloney said.

The 2020 Facebook post announcing Badlands' closure had said, "The name of the new bar and other details will be announced later, closer to the opening date."

When asked about this Thursday, Natali said Bruce would be in charge of naming the new establishment.

"TJ has mentioned several things," Natali said. "He has Splash in San Jose and Splash in Fresno and I don't know how many Splashes he has. He has Sacramento Badlands. I think he's going to have a Portland Badlands. He's mentioned various things. It's up to him; I won't be involved in it."

Bruce subsequently told the B.A.R. on Thursday, "if it is up to me it will always be Badlands."

Updated 2/10/23: This article has been updated to indicate a deal has not yet been signed and information from a real estate agent about other properties in the Castro.

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