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Fifty years on Fillmore


The intersection of Fillmore and Pine Streets in the late 1960s, looking southwest.


It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago Golden Gate Park was alive with Grateful Dead concerts, free to upwards of 15,000 mostly dewy-eyed, straggly-haired souls.

That beyond-cool Steve McQueen was jumping the hills of the city floorboarding a green Mustang filming Bullitt, to this day the definitive San Francisco movie.

That Fillmore itself was a multicultural scruffy street of decidedly less-than-tony bars, cheap cafes, corner groceries, second hand stores, mom and pop merchants and fix-it shops. It was a much different neighborhood back then.

Dan Max should know. The congenial retired college art teacher, artist, world traveler and raconteur has lived above a store on Fillmore Street for almost a half century. He offered to stroll the boulevard, plumb his memory and unearth the characters and places from back in the day. Along the way, Max bumped into pals and cronies, including Ronald Hobbs, a poet, writer and former proprietor of Spectrum Exotic Birds at 2011 Fillmore, where MAC Cosmetics is today. Hobbs, who has also lived on Fillmore for five decades, had more than a few stories to add.

They began their stroll down memory lane at Fillmore’s commercial crossroads: the intersection of California and Fillmore.

On the northwest corner, where Dino and Santino’s now stands, Waxman’s Pharmacy operated 50 years ago, and had for nearly three decades. It’s remembered as an old-fashioned drugstore of lotions, potions, prescriptions and penny candies, famed for its friendliness. Across the street, Wells Fargo Bank had an assistant manager beloved by the street’s shop owners. Says Hobbs: “Maxine was in her early 60s — getting up there — and would call me at the exotic bird store I co-owned with Jamie Yorck, and say, ‘Ron, you’re almost overdrawn. Might want to put in some money.’”

On the southeast corner, now Rag & Bone, was Bi-Rite Liquor. “The two partners hated each other,” recalls Max. “One was a drinker; the other never drank a drop of booze in his life. They were always arguing over something. Max Colonna, one of the partners, was president of the Fillmore Merchants Association and he was straight out of Damon Runyan’s Guys and Dolls.”  Next to Bi-Rite, seemingly forever, was the laundromat. “The intersection then was the DMZ separating Pacific Heights — we called it Pacific Depths — and the Western Addition,” Max says.

The Donut Hole was on the southwest corner where Tacobar is today. It was an infamous sugar and caffeine hangout open round the clock that was jammed when the bars closed — a real 2 a.m. “club,” owned by Steve and run by Aunt Beebee on day shift and her niece Bettye, who worked graveyard. Max remembers the staff looking the other way when coffees were less-than-discreetly spiked with cheap brandy.

Delfina Pizzeria was May’s Chinese Kitchen, “a nice, delightful place that opened at 6 a.m. for the hangover crowd,” Max says. “You could get a full traditional American breakfast and coffee for a couple of dollars. May had a terrific personality and knew everybody.”

The city-owned parking lot on California was occupied by a massive, ramshackled Victorian home that’s vaguely remembered as a Bohemian rooming house. “Around the corner on Steiner for decades was the Hard Times Hotel — and Ronald and I knew lots of people on Fillmore who lived there,” says Max. “Smitten ice cream parlor on California was a series of copy shops over the years.” They both agree Mollie Stone’s looks exactly today as it did then when it was the Grand Central Market. Says Max: “Its parking lot was Wong’s Phillips 66 filling station then, and the Chase Bank was a Chinese-owned cleaners forever until it was leveled.” A few doors east, De Novo women’s fashion shop was a magazine store owned by a bookie and later a cheese store.

Max was paying $185 a month rent for a two-bedroom apartment above Leo Kotzbeck Galleries at 2031 and 2033 Fillmore, where German-born Gus Droutz did elaborate museum-quality framing of paintings and photographs. Fashion boutiques Sandro and Scotch & Soda now split the space. (Kotzbeck had a long-running rival, Worden Picture Frames, at 2207 Fillmore for some 40 years, but it didn’t have Kotzbeck’s cachet and reputation.) The Lilith women’s boutique at 2029 Fillmore was the office of Dr. Hedani, a Japanese eye doctor with a huge practice. At 2039 Fillmore, where Mio has one half of her venerable fashion boutique, Dr. Lloyd Shinkai had an optometry store. “I bought my first pair of glasses from Dr. Shinkai for the outrageous price of $18 or $19,” says Hobbs. Mio’s other half, at 2035 Fillmore, was the Regal Barber Shop and Beauty Salon. At some point earlier on, a Japanese grocery and restaurant supply store were in Mio’s spaces.

Thai Stick, on the northwest corner of Fillmore and Pine, was the Terrarium Cactus Nursery, recalls Hobbs, whose bird store was next door. “Gary did a bang up job with the shop, but moved out when landlord Bruce Loughridge wanted an extra $100 a month — a lease breaker,” he says.

Max remembers it differently: “It was a hippie plant store and most of the income came from weed sold out the back door,” he says. “It was the real life Little Shop of Horrors. It later became the Pacific Heights Bar and Grill, which, along with Sam DuVal’s Elite Cafe, introduced better food, higher prices and oyster bars to the neighborhood. Upstairs, where there are a dozen offices, was a full-floor apartment which was briefly a hippie crash pad.”

On the northeast corner at 2000 Fillmore, now Space NK Apothecary, was Golden State Mutual Life, which sold insurance to black families and later became North Carolina Mutual, which sold burial insurance to black families. But it is best remembered as Brown Bag Office Supplies, where seemingly everyone in the ’hood bought their greeting cards and note pads.

Hobbs has lived and worked on Fillmore, both as a shop owner and as an employee. “I worked for three bucks an hour and all the goat curry I could stomach in the kitchen at Connie’s Restaurant at 1907 Fillmore (now Invision Optometry). Constance Williams was this big-hearted, very black West Indian woman and she hosted events for folks with cult followings,” he says. “During the bicentennial, a well-dressed man came in, handed her a $200 check so he could speak to the packed dining room. ‘I am the Rev. Jim Jones of the People’s Temple,’ he said. ‘Come follow me to Washington D.C. I have two Greyhound busses and a Boeing 707.’ ”

Hobbs was also bartender at Minnie’s Can Do Club at 1915 Fillmore, now Florio. “Minnie’s was a classic beer tavern that finally got a wine license. No hard stuff,” he says. “Didn’t drink? Cranberry juice was your only choice. On Poetry Night, every poet got a free beer and paid 15 cents for a second one. Lots of music and black experimental live theater including Even Colored Girls Get the Blues. The decor was pure funk. Can’t glamorize that place.” Rockers Harry Nilsson and John Lennon dropped by.

Minnie’s was across the street from the Little Zion Baptist Church at 1928 Fillmore. “On Sunday mornings, when they started singing that gospel, everyone at the bar would stop drinking and go to church,” says Hobbs. Later, the church became Miracle Baths. Today it’s Prana sports clothing.

Like today, Fillmoreans of yesteryear traveled on their stomachs. But the boulevard was also a mecca for gamblers. Action central was said to be the Asia Cafe at 2049 Fillmore, now the Elite Cafe. “Asia Cafe was always the cheapest of the cheap eating places in the neighborhood,” remembers Max. “And of questionable Chinese authenticity,” adds Hobbs. Continues Max: “Waiters wore thick jackets and bow ties. They had dress standards but no kitchen standards — but they were fast. The menu had 60 items and the dishes always arrived in 60 seconds. People were forever pulling up, jumping out of cars, running in and placing bets — not food orders. The place was filled with shadowy, suspicious looking characters. Very Sidney Greenstreet.” Chimes in Hobbs: “Cops would place bets on Sunday and waiters were always listening to the Bay Meadows horse races on the radio.”

Locals could be close to broke and never go hungry or thirsty on Fillmore 50 years ago. For at least three decades, Toraya, at 1914 Fillmore — where Woodhouse Fish Co. packs them in today — was a low-priced hotspot. “Half of us would have starved to death if it wasn’t for their ginger beef at $3 a plate,” says Hobbs.

“The most famous of all taverns on the street was the old Hillcrest,” Max and Hobbs say practically in unison. Situated at 2201 Fillmore, where today Salt & Straw is drawing lines down the sidewalk for its artisan ice cream, Charlie Pillazolla’s Hillcrest was “a really hard-drinking bar where you met your friends,” says Max. At that very moment, their mutual friend, jazzman Sonny Lewis walked by. He was the epitome of the old Hillcrest, playing sax and flute there. But mostly he played at The Scene, a bar on the corner of Fillmore and Clay that later became the Alta Plaza.

Lewis says the old Hillcrest was dark but “had this little window in the corner and we would all look out it to see if the D&M was being robbed again. It happened routinely.” The old Hillcrest was sold, became the “new” Hillcrest Bar and Cafe for a good run, and later morphed into the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for a while.

Sonny Lewis also performed at the University Hide-a-Way Cocktail Lounge at 2225 Fillmore, where Cielo fashion boutique is now. “It started out as a piano bar with Jimmy Parker at the keyboard and just grew and grew and grew into a real jazz bar — with the most beautiful murals, but never a cover charge,” says Lewis. Max says a jazz singer originally named Denise Jackson was a regular at the mike, but one day miraculously became the velvety-voiced Denise Perrier. “The story went around that she met a bottle of Perrier water and it was love at first sight,” Max says. “She later performed in Havana.” Alto sax man Pony Poindexter gigged at the Hide-a-Way and other Fillmore jazz joints. And legendary rock-Latin fusion guitarist and bandleader Carlos Santana had a rehearsal studio at 2237 Fillmore, which now houses Paige boutique.

Max also remembers Del’s Interiors at 2115 Fillmore, now the Gallery of Jewels. “Del was this fine old religious black man,” he says, “who would buy furniture at flea markets, haul it back to his shop, polish it up, mark it up and sell it.”

Mudpie, at 2135 Fillmore, was a dime store called Florence’s Variety Store. “Florence had a chubby woman who worked for her at $2 an hour, paid under the table, who in turn had a little black boy who did chores, but he died,” recalls Max. It later became the quirky and cavernous Fillamento furnishings and accessories store.

The mysterious Sugar’s Broiler at 2197 Fillmore on the southwest corner of Sacramento was a constant source of consternation on the street for years. It was virtually never open, but proprietor Kwong Dong reportedly still owns half the block. “I never had a burger there,” says Max. “Nor did I,” sighs Hobbs.

Peet’s Coffee, the current tenant, is abuzz with caffeinated customers day and night. Next door, what’s now Browser Books was “a Chinese butcher shop that sold fresh cut-up meat exclusively and you could smell it out the door and onto the sidewalk,” says Max. Above Sugar’s and the meat shop was Edo Pratini Studios, where the man whose name was on the door taught art. “He was very welcoming, taught into his 80s and may have moved to Florida,” recalls Hobbs. “Clint Eastwood once had a production office over Sugar’s.”

Names like the Full Belly Delly, at 2210 Fillmore, said it all. Its successor in that narrow space, Le Mediterranee, with its fair prices and fleet-footed servers, is now in its 38th year.

The Sanchez family had a corner on the Mexican food and drink trade on Fillmore in those days. Papa Bob ran the Robert Sanchez Tamale and Tortilla Factory and Mexicatessen at 1923 Fillmore, now Roam Burgers. Next door, at 1925, now the Paper Source, Mama Sanchez and her daughters had Club Sanchez, a warm, inviting cantina and restaurant with a citywide following. “It was a favorite of the San Francisco Opera stagehands and even performers,” says Hobbs. “Colin Harvey, a chorus boy until he died at 80-something, would often burst into his deep baritone voice at the bar.”

Harry’s Bar at 2020 Fillmore, now in its 30th year, was founded by the irrepressible Harry Denton, who danced on his bar. But a half century ago, the spot was variously the Silvertone Club, the Mardi Gras Tavern, Barnaby Conrad’s and Tommy Lynaugh’s 2020, a New York style Irish bar. Its most famous tenant was Golden State Warriors great and NBA Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, who ran a soul food restaurant and bar there and parked his Silver Shadow Rolls Royce out front without sweating parking tickets. “Nate was always doing something for the kids of Fillmore,” says Max. “And they loved him
for it.”