San Francisco lays claim to hundreds of bars, but only a tiny fraction of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones; the ones untouched by mixology madness and interior designers. Your guide is consummate festivarian, Eddy El Espia, who delves into the underbelly of our city's more anonymous watering holes, one by one.[Photo: Naseema Khan]
A kid spending summer in Long Beach should expect to hit plenty of swimming holes, baseballs, joints, and Double-Doubles. Not Paul Miller though. He spent a lot of those days waiting in a car outside of the Royal Cuckoo bar. His grandfather was inside holding court, affably hustling patrons for drinks while running a grassroots bookie operation. Boring as those days might have been, turns out they weren’t lost on Miller at all. Instead, he brought it all full circle and turned an El Salvadorian hole called Belinda’s into his house bar in Bernal Heights, about where Valencia meets Mission. And, with a tipped hat, he called it the Royal Cuckoo, dedicated to his shrewd, life-loving grandfather.
And it became his house bar, quite literally. Miller was stretched after the purchase, so to fill the bar he essentially moved his entire apartment into it—furniture, pictures, trinkets, most all of it. Then, with the help of long-time pal Brian—whom Miller worked with over the years at Bruno’s, Foreign Cinema, and Chez Spencer—he gutted it, painted it a deep maroon, and added wooden wall sidings to antiquate the aura. To accent the darker colors, he added 1960’s-era lamps, alternating them with blue, green, and yellow bulbs, and he pushed the mood further with stain glass candleholders and flowered vases about the place. Taking it in for the first time, you might get the feeling you’re at a heady saloon in a mountain town, or in what you’d imagine to be a 1950’s jazz club in New York, ‘round 52nd street. Comparisons make for wasted words though, because Royal Cuckoo isn’t really modeled after anything. It’s just a collection of things that Miller and his friends like—old leather armchairs, salvaged church pews converted to benches and booths, nature paintings in old frames, antlers, vinyl. It’s the red carpet leading you to Cuckoo’s heart and soul—music and cocktails.
For music, Miller just kept cleaning out his apartment. Instead of springing for a juke—and not really wanting one in the first place—he converted an antique card catalog into a Dewey Decimal system for vinyl, with index cards marking the hundreds of records stashed behind the bar. Most all the records are pre-1975, so you’ll see venerable names like Merle Haggard, Duke Ellington, Gladys Knight, Bill Monroe, and Sam Cooke. If it’s not too busy, bring your pick to the bartender, and viola! You’re album is featured on that night’s playlist.
If the records aren’t spinning, it’s because your nerves are being sedated by notes coming from the Hammond organ set up behind the bar. Wednesday through Sunday nights you’ll almost surely hear a Jimmy Smith chord or two, and on Fridays you might catch SF’s own Jules Broussard blowing the sax to harmonize with Chris Siebert’s deep organ playing. Sundays sometimes feature Miller’s sister, Lava, singing jazz and soul tunes while her husband takes the keys. The vibe in the Royal Cuckoo is indeed calming on all counts, and that’s before you’ve even enhanced your experience with a specialty cocktail to help soak it all in.
Miller told me there’s no science to the cocktail menu, much like the approach with the décor of the bar. He and his staff are just mixing ingredients they think will taste good together, and keeping it pretty simple. Splash a Four Roses bourbon with Drambuie and lemon, sip an Antiqua Manhattan for your first or last cocktail of the day, instigate some excitement in your evening by ordering a Red Margarita with Corralejo agave, Cointreau, and pomegranate. Or maybe on your next visit, you’ll embrace the spirit of the place, and create your own elixir from scratch.
-Eddy El Espia
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