It’s been a week since news broke that San Francisco restaurateur Nick Bovis, the owner of well-liked local dives like the Gold Dust Lounge and Lefty O’Doul’s, had been arrested as part of a federal investigation into alleged corruption, misconduct, and kickbacks at some of the highest levels of city hall. As more details of the investigation have been reported, members of the city’s dining public have gotten a revealing look into how restaurants may — or may not — be chosen in some of the city’s most trafficked locations.
The federal investigation into Bovis and his longstanding associate, Department of Public Works head Mohammed Nuru, has been detailed in a 75-page complaint that includes details like alleged meetings between conspirators at Bovis’s Burlingame restaurant, Broadway Grill, and an alleged plot to influence the bidding process at San Francisco International Airport to ensure that Bovis’s Polk Street chicken restaurant, Spinnerie, got a spot in a terminal.
That SFO plot, in which Nuru and Bovis allegedly attempted to bribe an (unnamed in the federal complaint) airport commissioner with $5,000 in cash and a free trip out of town has already had an impact on the city. Linda Crayton, an SFO commissioner for over two decades, resigned last week, citing health concerns. Crayton admitted to ABC 7 that she was the commissioner who met with Bovis and Nuru regarding Spinnerie’s SFO plans, but said that “she had done nothing wrong and that her integrity means a lot to her.”
According to the federal complaint, however, Crayton promised to help game the system in Spinnerie’s favor because “Mohammed is asking me.” FBI Special Agent James A. Folger also says that Crayton broke the rules, the SF Examiner reports, as her participation in meetings with Bovis and Nuru violates local “rules barring communication with members of the Airport Commission seeking to influence the outcome of the selection process.”
The idea that a restaurant would need a corrupt inside TJPA connection to get a lease at the Transbay Terminal is interesting. I thought what it took to get into the Transbay Terminal was a pulse.— J.K. Dineen (@SFjkdineen) January 30, 2020
Then there are the allegations that Bovis and Nuru conspired to obtain a lease for a Bovis-owned venue at the Transbay Terminal. San Francisco Chronicle reporter J.K. Dineen likely spoke for many industry watchers when he expressed surprise that anyone would need an illicit string pull to open a restaurant at the Transbay Transit Center. It’s a spot that has hardly had tenants knocking each other down to nab a lease at the location: While spots like Dim Baos, a dim sum spot from former Koi Palace chef Kam-Chiu Leung, have signed on to eventually open in the structure, 33,000 square feet were still available to tenants a year after the building’s 2018 opening.
Despite that, investigators say that Nuru, who until last week was the chair of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board of directors (the agency that oversees the Transbay Transit Center), called TJPA’s executive director Mark Zabaneh to his city hall office, then looped Bovis in by cell phone to talk over “his top three retail space picks at the transit center that he would like for his restaurant,” the SF Examiner reports. According to Folger, this, too, was a violation, as “the phone call showed that Nuru was using his official position to help Bovis secure the lease by arranging the meeting between Bovis and the TJPA official.”
Here’s the thing: Despite these allegedly illicit conversations with city officials, Bovis didn’t manage to score a lease at either location. Meanwhile, two of his other San Francisco restaurants tanked: The Gold Dust Lounge, which left its longtime location in Union Square in 2012 following a dispute between Bovis and his landlord, shuttered its new Fisherman’s Wharf location last fall. Sports-centric piano bar/hofbrau Lefty O’Douls, which left Union Square for a neighboring Wharf location in 2018, closed over the holidays.
Bovis is out on a $2 million bond, and faces “honest service wire fraud” charges that could net him up to 20 years in prison. In addition to the recent closures of Lefty’s and the Gold Dust, neither of Bovis’s hoped-for leases at the Transbay Center or SFO came to be, and his name — which once, one might argue, conjured a picture of old-school San Francisco character — is now associated with fraud, albeit fraud of an apparently bumbling variety. It’s a tough fall for a restaurateur who used to rub shoulders with multiple San Francisco mayors. In the end, it seems like Bovis stands to lose far more than he ever stood to gain if the alleged conspiracies had panned out.