Old ri­vals square off again over Lefty O’Doul’s fu­ture

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By J.K. Di­neen

Lefty O’Doul’s, the ram­bling Union Square hof­brau known for its base­ball mem­o­ra­bilia, Christ­mas toy drive and steam­ing plates of hand-carved corned beef, will close Feb. 3, set­ting up a fight with its land­lord about the fu­ture of the land­mark busi­ness.

“Un­for­tu­nately, that is the time and the date,” said Lefty O’Doul’s owner Nick Bo­vis. “That is it. That is our last day here.”

The sur­prise clo­sure an­nounce­ment rep­re­sents the open­ing salvo in what could be a le­gal bat­tle be­tween Lefty’s man­age­ment and its land­lord, Jon Han­dlery.

Bo­vis, whose fam­ily has op­er­ated Lefty’s since 1998, has drawn up plans to move the restau­rant, along with its 400 pieces of base­ball mem­o­ra­bilia, to a nearby lo­ca­tion by late fall. He is not spec­i­fy­ing the ad­dress be­cause the deal is not done.

But prop­erty owner Han­dlery claims his fam­ily owns the busi­ness, its name

and the con­tents of the restau­rant, in­clud­ing the mem­o­ra­bilia, said spokesman Sam Singer. Han­dlery plans to ren­o­vate the build­ing and re­open Lefty O’Doul’s at its cur­rent lo­ca­tion, with its cur­rent decor and name in­tact, Singer said.

“None of that be­longs to them, it’s al­ways be­longed to the Han­dlery fam­ily. They bet­ter look at their lease more care­fully,” Singer said of Bo­vis.

But Bo­vis pro­vided doc­u­men­ta­tion that in 2009 he trade­marked the Lefty O’Doul’s restau­rant and bar name, as well as prod­ucts rang­ing from Lefty O’Doul’s hot dogs to Lefty O’Doul’s mus­tard to Lefty O’Doul’s Bloody Mary mix. He also owns the liquor li­cense, ac­cord­ing to state records.

“We own the trade­mark for Lefty’s ev­ery­thing,” he said.

That Bo­vis and Han­dlery failed to work out am­i­ca­ble terms of fu­ture oc­cu­pancy is hardly sur­pris­ing, given their re­cent his­tory. Five years ago, Han­dlery evicted an­other of Bo­vis’ drink­ing es­tab­lish­ments, the Gold Dust Lounge, from its home at 247 Pow­ell St., re­plac­ing it with an Ex­press cloth­ing store.

In a law­suit at the time, Bo­vis ac­cused Han­dlery of “greed and de­ceit” and “at­tempt­ing to evict a his­toric and uniquely San Fran­cisco cul­tural land­mark” in ex­change for an “un­named, anony­mous, fla­vor­less, in­ter­na­tional chain.” The law­suit was time-con­sum­ing and ex­pen­sive, and Bo­vis lost, al­though he man­aged to re­lo­cate the Gold Dust to Fish­er­man’s Wharf.

This time, Bo­vis had hoped to move with­out mak­ing a ruckus.

“I’ve learned my les­son — I’m try­ing to stay pos­i­tive,” he said. “My only pur­pose is to keep the Lefty O’Doul’s restau­rant and bar open as close to this lo­ca­tion as pos­si­ble and to keep the Lefty tra­di­tions alive.”

But af­ter hear­ing Thurs­day that Han­dlery plans to hold on to Lefty’s name, he said, “I guess they still want to pun­ish us for the Gold Dust.”

Fran­cis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul grew up in San Fran­cisco’s Butcher­town, now called Dog­patch, and played for the San Fran­cisco Seals be­fore an 11-sea­son ma­jor-league ca­reer with the Gi­ants, Yan­kees and Dodgers, among oth­ers. Af­ter re­tir­ing, he re­turned to the Pa­cific Coast League as man­ager of the Seals from 1935 to 1951. He served as base­ball’s good­will am­bas­sador be­fore and af­ter World War II, help­ing to pop­u­lar­ize the sport in Ja­pan.

O’Doul orig­i­nally opened a bar on Pow­ell Street, but in 1958 moved to the for­mer St. Fran­cis Theater at 333 Geary St., which had pre­vi­ously been a nightclub, a bak­ery and an out­post of the Comp­ton’s Cafe­te­ria chain.

Af­ter O’Doul died in 1969, restau­ran­teur Don Figone took over the busi­ness. He ran it un­til 1998 when he said that the blue-col­lar in­sti­tu­tion was no longer mak­ing money in a gen­tri­fy­ing Union Square, which he com­plained was “turn­ing into Rodeo Drive. Bo­vis fam­ily, al­ready a ten­ant of the Han­dlery fam­ily at the Gold Dust, stepped in to keep it afloat and has been run­ning it since.

Lefty’s has found a niche as an only-in-Union Square hy­brid — a lo­cal restau­rant in­dus­try hang­out that’s also a sports bar and a boozy pi­ano bar where tourists sing Neil Di­a­mond bal­lads along­side base­ball play­ers in town to play at AT&T Park.

When a San Fran­cisco po­lice horse is re­tired, the cer­e­mony hap­pens at Lefty’s. Each sum­mer, Bo­vis takes 150 chil­dren to a Gi­ants game, a rit­ual started by O’Doul. This year, its an­nual Christ­mas toy drive gave 20,000 toys to 13,000 chil­dren. The Ir­ish News­boys, a tra­di­tional Celtic band made up partly of San Fran­cisco Chronicle re­porters, plays on the first Fri­day of the month. The house pi­ano player, Ir­ish for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer Frank O’Con­nor, is enough of a draw that tourists come back year af­ter year to drink and sing along.

Barry Mel­ton, co-founder of Coun­try Joe & the Fish, which played its last show at Lefty’s, said, “It’s go­ing to be re­ally sad to see it close.”

“There is a lot of years of vibes there,” said Mel­ton, now a mem­ber of the News­boys.

Bo­vis said he’s con­fi­dent he’ll be able to re-cre­ate Lefty’s hodge­podge at­mos­phere — the red­wood pan­eled walls, the cafe­te­ria-style food line, the pi­ano bar, green Nau­gahyde booths and walls clut­tered with more than 400 pieces of mem­o­ra­bilia, in­clud­ing Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s ID from when she was mar­ried to DiMag­gio. That last part, of course, de­pends on his dis­pute with his cur­rent land­lord.

The big­gest dif­fer­ence, Bo­vis said, is that the new space will be up to code. The toi­let won’t back up, the roof won’t leak, the kitchen will be mod­ern and the men’s room won’t be in a base­ment down a set of dank stairs, he said.

“I’m a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer so I know how to keep things go­ing, but this old bat­tle­ship, it’s time to re­tire her,” Bo­vis said.

Lefty’s 45 em­ploy­ees were in­formed of the changes on Thurs­day. Many of them will be re­as­signed to other venues Bo­vis owns — the Spin­nerie on Polk Street, the Gold Dust Lounge and the Broad­way Grill in Burlingame. Man­ager Chuck Davis stood at the bar re­ceiv­ing a steady stream of well-wish­ers.

“The clerks at Macy’s are all talk­ing about it, the peo­ple at the front desk at the ho­tels, the wait staff, the bar­tenders, the bell­hops,” he said. “They are all be­moan­ing the fact that they don’t have any place to sneak drinks be­tween shifts.”

Louise Hansen of Palo Alto stopped by to say good­bye.

“It’s one of the few places you can still en­joy a good-value meal,” Han­son said.

Stefano Cas­so­lato stopped by as he does four days a week. “It’s places like Lefty’s that sep­a­rate us from Any­where, U.S.A.,” he said.

Tom O’Doul, Lefty’s great­nephew, said, “I hate to see the place close up.”

“But I look at the positives, too. If we can make it bet­ter and keep it in Union Square, that might not be a bad thing,” he said. “The O’Doul fam­ily will just be very thank­ful that the name is still on the door.”

“My only pur­pose is to keep the Lefty O’Doul’s restau­rant and bar open as close to this lo­ca­tion as pos­si­ble and to keep ... tra­di­tions alive.” Nick Bo­vis, Lefty O’Doul’s owner

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Ro­man Pech serves a pa­tron from be­hind the counter at the mem­o­ra­bilia-filled Geary Street hof­brau Lefty O’Doul’s.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Ka­te­rina Kras­nocharova (left), Ran Levin and Rami Co­hen get to­gether for lunch in one of the green Nau­gahyde-up­hol­stered booths at Lefty O’Doul’s, which will close Feb. 3.

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