At the iconic crossroads of Broadway and Columbus, turn a corner and peer down an alley, and you’ll stumble upon Specs’ Bar, the eccentric dive more formally known as Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe. The North Beach institution originally opened in the late 60s, serving well drinks, displaying knick knacks and oddities, and welcoming poets and musicians. Like many beloved dive bars across the city, Specs’ has been closed for more than a year, by far the longest period in the bar’s 53-year history. But finally, some good news for old friends of this weird and wonderful dive: Specs’ is reopening in mid May, the owners confirmed for Eater SF. And they have not changed a tchotchke.
“The one reason we hadn’t decided to reopen until right now is because we would not be able to afford opening and closing,” says co-owner Maralisa Simmons-Cook. “We had to be careful and cautious about when to make the jump to reopen. There have been so many waves and shutdowns, and we would not be able to afford opening and closing again, that would absolutely ruin us.” But now that San Francisco has reopened bars for limited indoor drinking, and seems to be holding steady on the track to reopening, “We’re ready to make that leap … the real goal was to have people inside.”
The bar was originally opened by Richard “Specs” Simmons in 1968, who died five years ago, and it’s now owned by daughter Elly Simmons and grandaughter Maralisa Simmons-Cook today. When the coronavirus struck, the daughter and granddaughter temporarily closed the bar. Simmons-Cook says they briefly attempted a takeout bottle shop, but within a few weeks, quickly realized it would never pencil. As SFGate reported, they also set up a couple of GoFundMe fundraisers, and applied for PPP loans. Simmons-Cook says their landlords have been understanding, and they continued to pay a small portion of the rent, uneasily waiting out the months with the prospect of backrent piling up.
Coronavirus restrictions have been especially tight — some say cruel — for bars that don’t serve food, putting them in a separate category from restaurants, and delaying their reopening timeline compared to restaurants. At the current orange tier (moderate risk) in San Francisco, bars are finally allowed to open for outdoor drinking without serving food. And they can reopen indoors provided they find a food partner, and are able to serve a “substantial meal.” That apparently does not include saltines and chunks of cheese carved off a giant wheel of Danish fontina
Given the two options, and their tiny indoor and outdoor space, Specs’ is actually doing both: They’ll be open indoors thanks to food partner Unco Frank’s, a pop-up that is also supplying a couple of other bars with “island-inspired” fried fish sandwiches on Hawaiian rolls. (“I think it works with the Specs’ vibe,” says Simmons-Cook. “Nothing too fancy, something playful, and kind of a nautical theme.”) And Specs’ is going to be sharing a parklet with neighboring Tosca Cafe, taking over just one parking space, for a limited 12 seats. Simmons-Cook imagines people will naturally spill out on the alley, and she worries about having to shoo some old-timers from their favorite smoking spot. They do also hope to bring back the occasional poetry reading, solo blues guitarist, and their favorite singer.
While North Beach might seem like a prime neighborhood for outdoor dining, with many cappuccino-topped cafe tables running up Columbus and around Washington Square, Specs’ is a great example of some of the challenges. Part of North Beach’s charm is also the small bars, back alleys, and steep hills. “It’s a crazy steep, treacherous neighborhood,” Simmons-Cook says fondly. “I always say, it’s like Disneyland for adults, with the drunks and the parties, going up and down hills.” But these days, as a tiny watering hole in a back alley, “When you’re a super old-school bar, without a lot of income, the options during the pandemic just aren’t feasible — because of the finances, the space, or the nature of the bar.”
Specs’ remains in good company. They’re immediately across the street from City Lights, the historic bookstore that’s remained open for retail. It’s heartwarming to hear their immediate neighbor Tosca Cafe was open to sharing a parklet, and Tosca is still going strong with Tuscan chicken for outdoor dining. Specs’ is also old friends with Vesuvio Cafe, another bohemian bar, which was able to squeeze a few tables on their alley. Simmons-Cook points out that Caffe Trieste — where this writer’s old man still likes to drink cappuccinos — is serving espresso from their corner. But other old favorites remain closed. Simmons-Cook reports that the Saloon, the old blues dive that dates back to 1861, and her mother’s favorite late night dance party, remains boarded up for now.