Romancing the not-long-gone WashbagSan Francisco Chronicle
January 10, 2008
In the ’80s and ’90s the Washington Square Bar and Grill was a political vortex in this town.
"In the old days," said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, "the Planning Commission used to adjourn at 2 p.m. and go to the Washbag."
That was when the famous North Beach watering hole was the consummate power hangout. National news anchor Tom Brokaw stopped by for a drink when he was in town, local political consultant Jack Davis held court at the bar, and - on a whim - saxophonist Stan Getz once stood by the piano on a rainy Sunday afternoon and filled the room with ethereal riffs.
But the music is gone now. On New Year’s Day, owner Guy Ferri announced that the doors would close for good, effective immediately. Ferri presided over the second incarnation of the Square, after buying the place from Ed Moose and partners in 2000 and turning it into a concept bar, the Cobalt Tavern. Ferri recognized his mistake and switched it back, but it was too late. The day of the Washbag had passed.
"It’s going to be a different town, I truly believe that," said Dan Dillon, a lobbyist who not only used to drink there, but sometimes picked up his mail, got phone calls, and spent hours in deep political conversation.
"The Square, in its heyday, was an unmatched hangout," said Ron Fimrite, a former Chronicle columnist who became a Sports Illustrated writer for more than 30 years. "Having made a personal study of the subject, I would say it was one of the great bars in San Francisco."
But it wasn’t as if no one saw this day coming. The regulars recall watching co-owner Ed Moose muttering to himself as he glared out the window at joggers. He was mocking their running togs and uber-healthy lifestyle, but many think what he really was seeing was the future.
"They don’t drink anymore," said Dillon. "This generation goes for a jog along the Embarcadero for lunch. And God bless ’em. I just don’t know that people my age (46) and younger want a place like that anymore."
That seems unlikely to Alex Clemens, the founder of Barbary Coast, a political consulting firm.
"We are a town that loves to eat and drink. Le Central is still there. Gino and Carlo is still there," he said, but in the next breath added: "The Washbag is the Washbag is the Washbag, and there will never be another."
Moose, who opened the place in 1973 with his partner, Sam Dietsch, insists he was never sure why the place took off.
"A lot of things did come together," he said Wednesday. "I guess there was some reason why people decided it was the place to go."
Part of it was legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who gave the place the "Washbag" nickname, although Fimrite, who wrote a book on the place, says true regulars always called it "the Square."
But it was more than good publicity. The two narrow rooms existed in a state of congenial uproar. There was jazz piano seven nights a week, and it was Moose’s inspiration to put an enormous tilted mirror over the bar so patrons could check out the room without turning around. "We had to fight like hell with the bartenders," Moose said, "because their bald spots were showing up."
The mirror was essential because what the place was peddling wasn’t really booze or food, it was connections. People met there, talked for hours, and came back the next day (or night) to do it again.
"It was like a club," said Dillon. "You didn’t call people to meet at the Square. You just went there."
The one-week stretch of the Democratic Convention was probably the signature moment. Brokaw was there and he brought David Brinkley and much of the rest of the national political brain trust - "George Will came," Moose recalled, "but I never could get any humor out of the guy."
The convention cemented the Washbag’s national reputation, although the regulars were glad when it was over. Moose, for example, stepped outside for a moment and was stranded.
"He couldn’t get back into his own place," Fimrite recalled. "He had to order a drink through an open window."
Getz, who lived on Telegraph Hill, once stopped in for lunch with his tenor sax.
"He got up on a rainy Sunday and played," said Fimrite, "and it would bring tears to your eyes."
Stephanie Salter, a former Chronicle and Examiner columnist, was there that day and many others. She recalled listening to author Studs Terkel, talking baseball with Giants’ announcer Hank Greenwald, and hearing bandleader Woody Herman tell tales of the Big Bands.
"I would never advise anyone to drink the way I did during those times," Salter wrote in an e-mail from Indiana. "But I’ll be damned if I am going to say it wasn’t a blast, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything."
Now that it’s gone they’ll have to trade it for something. Fimrite says he and some college friends were lost this week without their usual Monday lunch spot. Earlier this week they wandered down Columbus Avenue until they settled on an Irish pub. Inside, looking like lost souls, were the displaced Washbag regulars.
That might work for an afternoon, but it may not be the answer. They need a long bar, a big mirror, some piano music, and excellent conversation.
"If you think of a place," said Dillon, "let us know."
See this article in the San Francisco Chronicle