Mainstays of the 500 Club, the classic Mission bar on the corner of 17th and Guerrero, felt a surge of panic this month when notifications circulated informing neighbors that owner Ali Razavi is petitioning the city to let him alter the property.
With so many local favorites lost in recent years, and with most of the city’s dives closed due to COVID-19 restrictions for nearly a year, the announcement of a zoning variance hearing about the bar felt like a bad omen. Was San Francisco about to lose yet another of its historic nightlife hot spots?
According to Jeremy Paul, a permit consultant working on the zoning request, the answer is no. In fact, Paul and owner Razavi characterize this as an attempt to potentially save the 500 Club from the economic fallout of the city’s ongoing public health crisis.
“So as far as you and I and the typical patron should be concerned, you’re never going to notice a change,” Paul tells Eater SF. He adds that “it’s a historic building” and thus the city makes it difficult to implement radical changes to the space even if that were the plan.
If nothing big is changing then what, exactly, is the hearing about? Per the agenda for the meeting, Razavi is petitioning to split the 2,800-foot lot the bar sits on into two smaller parcels, and he needs special permission from City Hall to create the new plots.
Unbeknownst to many, the 500 Club is actually the same building as Turner’s Kitchen, the sandwich shop next door where you can order a roast beef and truffle burrata sandwich named after President Joe Biden. If Razavi gets his way, the two businesses would now count as two separate properties.
This bit of legal arcana may be deceptively important to the 500 Club’s future. Times are tough, and Razavi, who bought the bar and the building it occupies in 2018 for a cool $3 million, is looking to refinance his loans to help keep the temporarily shuttered business viable. The lot division would enable a refinancing deal, although Razavi declined to explain exactly how, as he claims it would mean divulging too much of his personal finances.
“The place has been closed for a year now almost, and commercial loans and financing is based on the income of the property and the business,” Razavi tells Eater SF. “[The change] is for internal financing” and not for any plans to close the bar, remodel it, gut it, or turn it into condos, he persists, emphasizing, “The bar is going to be safe.”
When Razavi purchased the 500 Club almost three years ago he faced a similar wave of concerns from regulars, and conducted multiple press interviews assuring Mission dwellers that his plan was to restore the historic bar rather than destroy it, an ongoing enterprise that he tells Eater SF cost him “hundreds of Advils.”
“I love the 500 Club,” Razavi says. “My wife and I sold our house to be able to do this,” only for the pandemic to shut his doors.
After losing so many beloved dive bars in recent years, San Francisco nightlife enthusiasts have been trained to expect the worst. Just in December, the axe finally fell on Lucky 13, the Market Street hotspot that had poured brews under the shadow of a demolition threat that hung over them for nearly 20 years. Just a few months before that we lost the Stud, the city’s oldest and most culturally significant queer bar.
The 500 Club is one of the best dive bars in SF, so it’s small wonder patrons feel perhaps overly protective of it. “I wear a mask and hoodie all the time, and people I don’t even know still recognize me on the street and ask how the bar is doing and whether we need anything,” Don Hodge, who has tended bar at the 500 Club for 25 years, tells Eater SF.
“The 500 always provides consistency and community,” Mission neighbor Arnold Zelaya says via email. “I have worked at Mission High School for 17 years, [and] the 500 has served as our unofficial teacher’s lounge, where teachers and staff members from several surrounding schools are able to decompress, talk shop, or just grab a beer and a shot.”
“It would be absolutely devastating to see it go,” says regular Lydia Green. “I’m really hoping it comes out the other side of this.”
For anyone else who wants to weigh in, the remotely held variance hearing is scheduled to start at 9:30 A.M. on Wednesday, January 27,