Old rivals square off again over Lefty O’Doul’s future
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
Roman Pech serves a patron from behind the counter at the memorabilia-filled Geary Street hofbrau Lefty O’Doul’s.
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.