Paul Bavaro’s mini-empire of San Francisco bars appears to have run its course, as the last two members of his nightlife company, the Mission’s Thieves Tavern and Blind Cat, will not reopen when the coronavirus crisis ends, he confirmed to Hoodline Thursday.
Bavaro’s career began in the 1990s, bartending in spots across the city, and eventually he opened his own spots as part of a company called Thieves Bar Group: In 2004, he launched Tenderloin bar Whiskey Thieves, then in 2005 he opened Thieves Tavern on 14th Street. Dirty Thieves (which was later rebranded as Blind Cat) followed in 2006, then he opened another Mission spot, a gastropub called Dear Mom, with two partners in 2012.
(In December of 2016, a bittersweet event, albeit unrelated to the bar scene: Bavaro’s sister married one of San Francisco’s most famous natives, Peter Getty — the grandson of billionaire industrialist J. Paul Getty — in a ceremony that was speedily arranged after the Bavaros’ father fell seriously ill. Paul stood in for his father and walked his sister down the aisle, Vogue reported at the time. Their dad, James Farthing, died the next month.)
In the last two or so years, all of Bavaro’s spots have closed. First to go was Dear Mom, which was rebranded as Darger Bar then shuttered in March of 2018. Then went Whiskey Thieves, which closed in January of 2019 after reportedly losing money for the previous three years. “A dive-y bar might not be what people want anymore,” Bavaro said at the time.
Bavaro’s last two spots in the city were Thieves Tavern and Blind Cat, both of which went dark when the state mandated that all bars without food close their doors. (It’s a rule that might have been misunderstood by some spots — but as reiterated by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control this week, bars may only offer takeout drinks if they offer meals to go with them.) Speaking to Hoodline in March, Bavaro said then that the shutdown was a “financial nightmare” and that “I have zero income” as a result of the closure. While workers “are getting a pittance in unemployment,” Bavaro said, “I am getting zero.”
Hoodline reports that though Bavaro got a break when the landlord for Thieves Tavern gave him two months of free rent, the accumulated expenses from the shuttered spots were more than he could bear. “I just don’t see how I can battle the next 12 months of rolling closures and capacity restrictions,” he says. He expects that things will only get worse, for the bar industry, as “the true disaster financially will be in the recovery.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by a multitude of bar owners in the city. Speaking with Mission Local, Ben Bleiman, the owner of Tonic Nightlife Group (Teeth, Soda Popinski, Tonic, and the now-shuttered Bullitt) says that the city’s bars are “at risk of going away and not coming back, we should be on red alert right now.” His words are borne out by the recent closure of longstanding spots like the 55-year-old Stud, which must vacate the spot it’s occupied since 1987, as without revenue, there’s no money for rent.
Tom Tierney, owner of 24th Street standby Pop’s Bar, tells Mission Local that it’ll likely be a long time until bars can reopen — but the issue isn’t health, it’s morality. “We’re gonna be the last industry to open up [because] I think we’re still considered a ‘sin industry’,” he says. But “a bar is more than a place where you have a drink. We’ve celebrated anniversaries, weddings, we’ve gone to funerals. I get stories from customers like ‘my grandfather proposed to my grandmother here’ all the time.”
That connection to community is something that Bavaro brought up when he talked over his last bars’ closures. Both spots must be empty by June 1, but packing up his establishments isn’t the toughest part of the deal. “The hardest part is saying goodbye to customers I’ve been serving for 15 years,” he says. Given the ongoing shutdown, even that will have to be done from six feet away.