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Unchanging Liverpool Lil’s

Photograph of Liverpool Lil's bartender Casey O'Neill by Erik Anderson

SALOONS | Chris Barnett

Legend has it that Liverpool Lil’s, the saucy saloon and gastropub just outside the eastern gate of the Presidio, is named after a trollop who prowled the cobblestone streets of Britain’s notorious port city entertaining affection-starved sailors and dockworkers in the dark corners of ale houses.

Not exactly true, confesses Ralph Maher, founder of the bar and longtime but now semi-retired San Francisco publord. He admits conjuring up the name Liverpool Lil’s when he bought the place at 2942 Lyon Street, near Lombard, in 1973. He reasoned that the visage of a strumpet plying her trade gave the place a certain historical public house accuracy.

“Actually, it was a biker bar called the Lyon’s Den that served beer and wine and had a pool table in the middle of the room,” recalls Maher. “It was also filled with wounded Vietnam vets who would sneak out of Letterman Army Hospital in the Presidio, often in their hospital gowns, and slip in for a drink. The bikers and the vets sort of got along.”

Maher scrapped the pool table, added hard liquor, hired bartenders who could make conversation and cocktails at the same, put in a proper kitchen and an eclectic menu with hearty portions.

Liverpool Lil’s turns 40 next year, and little has changed in her lifetime. A front patio filled with marble-topped tables and chairs still caters to the al fresco drinkers — and, in recent years, smokers. Walk in the half-open front door, let your eyes adjust to the original scarred wood paneling, the gentle amber glow tossed off by the late afternoon light and the wall lanterns, and you could easily mistake it for an earlier era.

The vintage L-shaped pub-style wooden bar with racks of glasses hanging overhead and ice packed in a tin tray is still just to the left of the door. The 10 red leather upholstered bar stools, having groaned under the weight of thousands, are still standing. Every square inch of the walls is packed with the same aging photos, menus, oversized portraits and yellowed newspaper clippings.

It’s been said that Lil’s “art collection” is a historical tour of the city and a rogue’s gallery of San Francisco jocks named Joe. Among them: a snapshot of a boyish Joe Montana, arm cocked, ready to heave the perfect spiral, and the wire service photo of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio corkscrewed at home plate after he swung for the fences — and no doubt connected.

Photograph of Liverpool Lil's by Erik Anderson

Of all the customers and characters who have adopted Liverpool Lil’s as their favorite hideout, rumpus room and pile-it-high-on-the-plate eatery, Joe DiMaggio is the most lionized. Maher even framed DiMaggio’s scorecard from the nearby Presidio golf course. A notorious loner and a man of few words who hated people to fuss over him or his fame, the Yankee great would slip in solo and sit by himself at a table, underneath his picture and opposite the bar. “He’d have a cup of coffee or a glass of red wine,” recalls Ed Wocher, Liverpool Lil’s host for 30 years. He says DiMaggio liked the place because he could come in and nobody bothered him. If Marilyn ever joined him, Wocher never saw her.

Liverpool Lil’s is virtually a tourist-free zone and most of her loyalists are neighbors — from the Marina, Pacific Heights, Laurel Heights and the Fillmore. But during a recent visit, two pals named Michelle, who hold administrative spots at a San Diego high school, were on the next two barstools over, savoring margaritas. “We’re here for a conference and a San Francisco friend insisted we had to go to Liverpool Lil’s for a drink,” said one. “She raved about the place — and I can see why.”

“Why” is the comfortable, welcoming environs without attitude. “Why” is also the happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. With its own menu, the two-hour wind down can make a meal. The barbecue beef sliders, made of ground Angus beef, cheddar cheese and shallots, and the pulled pork slider with Baja slaw and chipotle aioli are hefty and well worth $4. A trio of tacos — carne asada, carnitas and Santa Fe chicken — are $3 apiece. A chicken pot pie and a short rib pot pie are also late afternoon offerings for $5.

Although Liverpool Lil’s may look like a pub, Maher and the other current owners, Eddie Sabino and Gil Hodges, haven’t gone the pub grub route. Billed as “classic continental comfort food,” the lunch, dinner and brunch menus are filled with appetizers, sandwiches, salads, dinners and desserts that can all be served at the bar. Most of the food prices are double-digit and, considering the hearty portions, they’re a deal if not a steal.

Lil’s libations are also bargain priced and crafted by bartenders who’ve earned their chops making and perfecting drinks. As an example, my measure of a bar’s — and bartender’s — commitment to customer satisfaction is to order a “well” cocktail. As a bourbon guy, my test is a bourbon Manhattan with extra bitters.

Photograph of Liverpool Lil's by Erik Anderson

Nearly all San Francisco saloons have Jim Beam in the well. Beam’s advertising brags that the famed American whiskey hasn’t changed in 160 years. Not true. For most of those years, Jim Beam was 86 proof. Today, it’s 80 proof, tastes weak and takes a heavy pour to produce an acceptable Manhattan. Jim Beam Rye is an exception, but it’s always a “call.”

Liverpool Lil’s well Manhattans are made from Old Crow, which has also been cut from 86 proof to 80 proof, but tastes smoother. More importantly, the bartenders, including Billy Hackim and Casey O’Neill — who’s worked at Lil’s off and on for 30 years — pour a Manhattan and other straight-up cocktails to the rim.

And they’ve not fallen prey to the current cocktail craze of pouring three to five liquors in a shaker, adding two or three juices, garnishing them with fruits and vegetables and proclaiming it some organic aphrodisiac or longevity potion — for, say, $16. Liverpool Lil’s sticks with the classics and the prices are way below market. That Old Crow well Manhattan was just six bucks. Call drinks are $7 to $9.

Lil’s has a quartet of specialty drinks, but they are not outrageous concoctions of flavors and garnishes designed to win a trophy at a mix-off. They include the truly iconic Moscow Mule, made with Russian Standard vodka; a rich raspberry Cosmopolitan; and a different take on the Dark and Stormy with Myers dark rum, fresh lime juice and Fever-Tree ginger beer imported straight from London. They’re priced between $8 and $9.

Still, Lil’s has its quirks. For example, Hackim recently rebuffed an order for a classic daiquiri. “Do you know how many orders I get for a daiquiri?” he said. “Hardly any. Those people want coconut frou-frou crap.”

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of beers and wines and, again, the tariffs are more than fair. A pint of Guinness is $5 and the same is true for the other seven beers on draught, including a brew called Speakeasy Prohibition and old standbys such as Anchor Steam and Stella Artois. Lil’s has a half dozen or so bottled beers for $5, but no real standout labels. Lovers of the grape can choose from six reds and six whites by the glass and most are in the $7 to $8 range.

On balance, Liverpool Lil’s bar is a relaxing place to hang out or meet and greet. The space itself is compact, and with three big screen TVs blaring sports non-stop, quiet conversation isn’t all that easy. But the dining room toward the back is spacious and the dark corners away from the action offer privacy and a little room to cuddle. And with the America’s Cup in town in the early part of the month, you might just see some affection-starved sailors here quaffing a tankard of ale.