intentions to open a bar called Dear Mom to me and some of my girlfriends, it was a Monday night almost like any other. We often frequented the dimly lit Thieves after forming an all-female whiskey club. We were initially drawn to its bounty of brown booze and then came back for the bartenders, who had a habit of remembering first our faces, then our preferences, and eventually, our names, and would half-hurdle the bar to kiss us hello when we walked in.
Determined to recruit us to join them in their new venture (with Paul Bavaro, the owner of the Thieves empire), Jay and Oliver insinuated that this could be a night we couldn’t turn our backs on – we’d be making memories that would last a lifetime. Their proposal quickly took the shape of an offer we couldn’t refuse. So we accepted the challenge and didn’t look back. Months later, here I am – a regular bartender at Dear Mom.
That night, I remember Jay telling us the story behind the name of his soon-to-be bar. Years ago he had been drinking with his friend Caitlin – a librarian whose bookishness belies her able liver – when he mooned her like the gentleman that he is, which then created a domino effect of debauchery: She fell into the bushes, spilled whiskey all over herself, and then proclaimed, amidst the shrubs and branches: “Dear Mom, college is great!” In one fell swoop – or one fell fall, as it were – Dear Mom was born, naked and screaming and heretofore unsullied.
Although Dear Mom has inherited two of Thieves’ most beloved bartenders, a jukebox, pool tables, and an extensive whiskey selection, the similarities end there. The sign outside, which features a cameo above the bar’s name in classy cursive script, was inspired by a box of cameos that belongs to Oliver’s mother. The bar is housed in an old dive (El Rincon), but Jay and Oliver gutted and redesigned the space from top to bottom after signing the lease. (And they proudly display the adult-size Connect Four board given to them by Pabst.)
About twice the size of any of the three Thieves bars, Dear Mom serves food by Chez Spencer, with rotating daily mains like veal blanquette, as well as items that are easier to pronounce, like shrimp and grits, hotdogs, and mac and cheese. And a daylong bartenders’ brunch is hosted on Sundays.
I’ve gotten to know Jay Beaman pretty well, and if I were playing by his rules, much of this piece wouldn’t be published. He doesn’t like to be quoted. He’s a storyteller by nature, that’s for sure, but he’s never been one to follow the proverbial shepherd. In fact, at the age of 26, he was offered a gig with an advertising agency. His prospective boss invited Jay to his wedding reception to meet his potential coworkers, and within an hour he was smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with the line cooks and waiters catering the wedding. Service industry people are his people. He walked away from “real jobs” after that.
If you ask Jay where he’s from, he’ll say, “the mountains of California.” As it turns out, his roots go back seven generations when his family arrived in 1862. When I say, “How very Steinbeck of you,” he puts me in my place. “Way before Steinbeck. They were here just post the gold rush.” Yet, like many of Steinbeck’s characters, Jay walked a long road before settling down. He hopped freight trains, almost got arrested, and worked on a Christmas tree farm in Wisconsin. He’s been in San Francisco, more or less, for the past 10 years. “It’s a magical city,” Jay says. He should know because he readily admits, “I don’t leave the city unless I leave the country.”
Like Jay, Oliver ended up shunning the corporate straight and narrow. He spent close to four years in marketing for a company based out of New York, for which he traveled extensively. “I didn’t have an apartment; I just lived in hotels.” After that he decided he would rather be broke and happy. He moved to San Francisco, spending stints at Quince and Delfina before winding up at Thieves. His mother has served as his confidante, best friend, and peer, as well as an inspiration. “If I had her motivation, I’d have 10 bars. But I have a tenth of her motivation, so I have one bar.”
As far as that bar is concerned, the idea of motherhood is paramount, but it’s more than that. To Jay and Oliver, there’s nothing better than being a regular, so they went about creating the kind of place where they could see themselves becoming regulars. In a transient city like San Francisco, many residents have left families behind, or have lost them entirely and are forced to forge a new familial
paradigm. While Oliver’s mom continues to be a central figure in his life, Jay lost his mother when he was a kid.
They maintain that a good bar often fills the lacuna of love that so many of us are missing when we live so far away from home, or for those who feel they no longer have one. The two of them reiterate, “Family’s important. We often create our own family, and at Dear Mom we wanted to make a different kind of home where everyone is welcome.”
Dear Mom, they say, also taps into what we want as San Franciscans. People like dive bars because they’re cheap and they like the folks that inhabit them, but they will also drop $200 on a meal – even if they’re not making a lot of money. Jay and Oliver would hazard a guess that this city’s citizens spend 30 to 50 percent of their income on drinking and eating out. Thus, they serve $7 beer and shot specials alongside French pub fare.
Jay recalls a moment when he walked into Jay’s Cheesesteak looking for change to feed the meter, and being bowled over when the owner instructed him to grab it out of the register. “It was a Mayberry moment,” he said, and one that wouldn’t happen in New York. “We want our customers to feel like they’re in a more morally corrupt version of Mayberry.”
Let’s face it: It can’t be all Leave It to Beaver with the lights so low, or with whiskey flowing so freely. “We take care of each other, we honor each other – but sometimes I’ll make out with your girlfriend.” Then he adds, “If she wants to.”
Dear Mom is located at 2700 16th Street at Harrison. Hours are from 11:30 a.m. to close during the week and 10:00 a.m. to closing on weekends. Order a beer and shot special for $7, a house Manhattan, or any whiskey or beer you fancy. For those of you who prefer spirits that aren’t whiskey, there are those too (but shame on you).