Same Look, New Taste
When I walk into Clooney's at 6:30 a.m., the door is wide open and there are already five customers settled in, plus the bartender. I need sustenance, so I order a Red Eye: Budweiser with tomato juice. El Dorado is playing on the television and the all-male crowd laughs and jokes with Debbie, who has tended bar all over San Francisco for upwards of 30 years.
The place is unassuming, its walls covered with classic San Francisco paraphernalia — a Joe Montana jersey, framed newspapers touting the Giants’ recent World Series win, and other, older front pages, now yellowing at the edges, bragging about the victories of our beloved 49ers. In the back there’s a pool table, a jukebox, and a bookshelf stuffed with science fiction and romance novels.
One of the gentlemen at the bar doesn’t quite fit in. Four are old and comfortable in their well-worn seats, navigating the familiar seas of early morning cocktails, but one is younger and stands, wearing running shorts and a windbreaker. Even I look more haggard than he does. I’m about to ask him his secret when he says, “Debbie, a round for the boys.” Debbie presents each of us with a small red token: “Good for One Drink.” The man is Dan Lyons, and he, much to my surprise, is Clooney's owner.
By September, Clooney's will have been in Dan’s family for 22 years. Dan has worked at the bar since 1995, and has owned it since 2000. He’s fit, and is very much unlike the bearded, bellied hard case I figured would own such a watering hole. Dan grew up in the business: his parents own Harry Harrington's Pub, Jay ‘n Bee Club, and Sam’s Grill. He’s here every morning at 6, seven days a week. He’s a family man, works in real estate, owns an establishment called The New Patio in San Carlos, and coaches Little League. Clooney is his mother’s maiden name. His wife was raised a block and a half from the bar’s neon sign.
“There was so much development during the dot-com era. So much money came into the Mission. A lot of yuppie places opened up and a lot of neighborhood pubs were taken over,” Dan tells me. “A lot of bars that used to open this early in the morning have closed.”
Dan chalks up Clooney's survival to its consistency and its loyal customers. “It’s a dependable bar,” he says. “We’re a family.” As I finish my beer, Dan glances at his watch and excuses himself to head to his morning spinning class. The owner of one of the Mission’s grittiest bars has been sober for three and a half years.
The same can’t be said for anyone else in the room. By 8:30 a.m., every stool at the bar is occupied. I’m surprised by the atmosphere: what I assumed would be a crowd of strung-out drunks is actually a close-knit crew of older men doing crossword puzzles, nurses enjoying a cocktail after the night shift, and a few day laborers grabbing a beer before work. When I ask if anyone is on an all-nighter, everyone claims to have showered and slept. I’m the scrubbiest drinker in the joint.
A few customers have put dollar bills on the bar. Debbie comes by with some dice, places the dollars in a large coffee can, and lets the customers roll.
The game is called One Flop. For your dollar, you get five dice, one roll. On the side of the coffee can are sets of five numbers written in black marker, all of them crossed out save one: 33346. The game is simple: you roll the numbers on the can, you get all the money in it. “We put the money for the pot in the safe in the back after every shift,” Debbie explains. “One time it was over $5000.” I roll and don’t even come close. “Can I play again?” I ask. “One flop per shift,” Debbie replies. Given my lack of self-control, I’m thankful for the rule.
Next to the One Flop can behind the bar, there are packages of peanuts and a plastic tub filled with jerky. Until recently, those packaged snacks would’ve been your only option for nourishment here. But now, thanks to two entrepreneurs, Clooney's has far more extensive dining options. At the end of February, the duo opened The Galley (which takes its name from ships' galleys, as a nod to the kitchen's small size), a pop-up restaurant that has turned the all-but-forgotten Clooney's kitchen into a destination for Bay Area foodies.
Clooney's, which boasts every generic liquor imaginable (“If there’s an off-brand out there, we’ve got it in here,” Debbie says), may seem an unlikely place to start a restaurant featuring French-onion sandwiches and banana-bread pudding drizzled with homemade amaretto sauce. But high-end food served at a solid dive bar is becoming a common occurrence in the Mission.
Kevin Morin and Justin Navarro, the men behind The Galley, met at Grumpy’s (a pub near the Embarcadero) four years ago. Neither had been a professional chef before, but last November, after years of managing a Starbucks (Justin) and working an office job while moonlighting as a bartender (Kevin), the two went into business together. “We aren’t fancy coats, just guys who cook food,” Justin tells me, leaning over the kitchen’s Dutch door.
Fancy coats or no, the food is delicious. The menu boasts fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs, a specialty Justin’s been cooking for a decade, and savory beef tongue served with mushrooms and mozzarella on flatbread. The chefs even serve a pickled egg, which I assume is an homage to their new home. Not only is the green, peppery egg surprisingly good, but the bed of pretzels it’s served on is also, at this point, a much-needed base for my drinks. When I order a glass of water, Debbie comments, "Yeah, my doctor told me to drink more clear liquids, too. I said, 'You mean like Bud Light?'” I eye the menu items I have yet to try, and the ice-chilled bottles of beer I have yet to drink, and decide to stay at Clooney's for dinner.
As afternoon rolls into evening, the crowd starts to shift. While long-time regulars like Chris Mac (“I’ve been drinking here since I could drink”) and Larry Kennedy make up its bulk, it becomes apparent that a younger bunch is here for the food. When a young woman who’s a dead ringer for Daria orders a Red Bull and vodka, Debbie quips, "I don't know why they call it Red Bull. That shit is yellow,” but she gladly serves the drink. I ask the woman and her friends what brought them to Clooney's, and they reply that they’ve heard the kitchen here is fantastic.
As the sun goes down, the bar fills up until it’s packed. I’ve never seen Clooney's so full — or so young. Fueled by The Galley’s food and the shots I swore I wouldn’t take when I started this morning, I lean over a man in a captain’s hat who’s passed out at the bar and ask the regulars what they think of the new crowd.
“I love the kitchen. The chefs put a lot of effort into that kitchen. Really cleaned it up,” Chris says. Larry agrees. “Those guys’ food is great. And these kids? I love ’em. One year ago this place was dying out, but look at it now. The new crowd makes for a fun Saturday night.”
By now, Debbie’s shift is long since over. I ask the new bartender for another round of One Flop. It’s 8:30 p.m. and I’ve been drinking for 14 hours, but somehow I’m still standing. I roll the dice and ask Albert, a kindly regular with missing teeth, if he’s worried that Clooney's will change. “This place hasn’t changed in decades,” he tells me. “Maybe it’s gotten a little cleaner. The Galley is good for the bar, and sure it’s bringing in new customers, but it’s not going to change Clooney's.”
I roll the dice. 33341. The entire bar laughs at my luck. I drain my Fernet, vacate my barstool, and cut through the crowd. “Hey,” Larry calls after me as I head out the door, “if you’re ever really pining for the old Clooney's, you can always show up at 6 a.m.”
If you want that true Clooney's feeling, show up between 6 and 11 a.m. any day of the week. If it’s just the delicious food of The Galley you’re after, swing by Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. As with any bar, remember to tip your bartenders and chefs. If there’s a fight, do yourself a favor and don’t get involved.