Spirited away: Tony Lioce takes pulse of the North Beach bar scene

“This is the neighborhood place,“ said North Beach bartender Tony Lioce of Specs, where he described the drinkers as “half people you’ve never seen before and half you see everyday.”
A second home to locals, Specs, at 12 William Saroyan Place and Columbus Avenue, is a legendary drinking establishment, a literary landmark, a gathering place for generations pursuing countercultural life, and a part-time gig for Lioce, a former newspaper man who pours with one observant eye on the bar, the other on the changes just outside its door.

“I’m not the fastest bartender in the world, I’m not the best at frou-frou drinks with lemon extract and egg whites, but I talk to people,” he said.

“Old guys like me were once part of the draw,” Lioce said of places like Specs and Vesuvio, the other old time bar across the street at the corner of Jack Kerouac Alley. Lioce worked there on an early morning shift for 10 years until just a couple of weeks ago when he quit: The bar slowly scaled back its opening time and he wasn’t offered replacement hours.

“The whole neighborhood quality of the place has changed, even beyond the morning shifts,” he said. “Now, it’s cute girls and young guys with man buns.”

But Specs, where he holds down the bar a couple of nights a week, doesn’t appear to be in danger of ushering out the old guard in exchange for the shiny and new anytime soon. For one thing, the regulars don’t like changes.

“It’s a delicate balance here,” Lioce explained. “There’s no TV, cell phone use is discouraged …” The bar is secure in its storied identity as the preferred destination for a certain type of hard drinking, hard working and hardly working San Franciscan.

“A lot of neighborhood guys come in on their breaks, and all of the bartenders have their followings,” Lioce said.

Ask any longtime San Franciscan and they’ll tell you a story about the place. Mine goes: I was just past the legal drinking age when poet Gregory Corso offered to take a couple of us on a tour of the bar and its curious ephemera. We were ultimately led up a rickety staircase that landed us in the adjoining building’s peep show in progress (the secret passage and door have since been closed-off for years now).

Much has been written and said about Specs, established in 1968 by Richard “Specs” Simmons, its history as a hub for labor and civil rights movement and its favored status as the place where artists and politicos get tanked up and talk shop. As a relative newcomer to the scene, Lioce’s characterization of Specs and its particular dynamics go further toward distilling its spirit without destroying its essence nor divulging too many trade secrets for those outside of the bar’s immediate sphere.

“When I was in New York recently, I saw ‘The Iceman Cometh’ with Denzel [Washington],” he said.

“It kinda reminds me of that here. They’re not that desperate, they don’t live here, but they come in everyday, they sit in the same seat, they drink the same thing, everybody knows them,” he said. “There are rules, unspoken … and there is respect and affection.”

But Specs is by no means an exclusive club or off-limits to new blood. “I don’t know how new people find out about this place but they love it,” he said. “Kids and tourists. We get a lot of young people who come after work. It’s not like we’re an old fossil museum.”

“I’ll definitely see him at Specs and if he goes to a different bar, I’ll see him there,” said North Beach resident Mark Zweifel, who drank on Lioce’s watch at Vesuvio. “He’s an old school bartender. He doesn’t leave you with the feeling it’s all just a commercial interaction.”

A third-generation Italian American, Lioce landed behind the bar at Specs “five, six, seven years ago, I can’t remember.” Bartending hasn’t always been his vocation, but it’s been a part of his life’s first and third acts; his second was as a newspaper man.

From cub reporter to columnist and rock critic in Providence, Rhode Island to Deputy Features Editor at the Los Angeles Times, Lioce got back to the Bay Area in the early part of this century on an offer to edit the arts and entertainment section of the San Jose Mercury News. He continues to place pieces with the New York Times and the Boston Globe but for the most part, he noted, “The jobs are gone. It used to be the best job in the world. It’s like working for a blacksmith now.”

Recently, he attended his 50th reunion at Brown University where he’d worked his way through as a bartender. “You had to write up a little description about what you’ve done and I thought, forget the newspaper business. I should’ve stuck with bartending the whole time,” he said.

Back in 1975, and before he went into journalism full time, he worked in small theater. He naturally gravitated to the scene in North Beach, and to Vesuvio.

“I had my first drink in San Francisco there and discovered The City from that building. It was always my favorite bar,” he said.

“I don’t like the impact the tech industry has had on the neighborhood and that it means bars like this are an endangered species, but it’s not the worker’s fault. It’s like newspapers,” he said, speaking to changes in the media. “It’s not like it’s some guy’s fault.”

Lioce enjoyed the banter with the nightclub door men, exotic dancers, and occasional taxi driver and port worker he served across the street on the Sunday morning shift, but as the bar rolled back its hours to a seven and then an eight o’clock opening, the regulars had no option but to move on to watering holes that catered to their hours and Lioce was left with tweakers, tourists, and the late morning brunch crowd.

“When I moved to San Francisco in 2000 I was hanging around a lot on Saturday afternoon at Vesuvio and you knew everyone in there, the same people all the time,” said Lioce. “Now if you go in there on a Saturday afternoon, I don’t know anyone in there: I know two people. Fine, my crowd gets old, they die, they quit drinking,” he groaned. “Trouble is, the new crowd doesn’t know each other … no one’s talking to each other,” he said.

Writer Lynell George, a frequent visitor to North Beach who worked with Lioce in his L.A. Times years recently observed her former editor in his role behind the bar (it was she who introduced me to his story).

“What I noticed, is the way he engages with the customers,” she said. “He’s able to pivot back and forth, give you a little backstory about who you’re getting ready to meet and talk to, and catches you up to where they are in their story,” she said. “He’s doing the job of an editor and he’s good at it because he’s done this all his life: Encouraging people to tell their stories, remembering their stories and encouraging them in their lives.”

George remembered Lioce’s style in the newsroom: “He took such care from the beginning to the end of the process. We didn’t necessarily have a lot of time to let pieces gestate, but he let you feel like we had all the time in the world. He was generous that way,” she said.

As for the qualities Lioce looks for in a drinking establishment, “I like the Mission bars,” he said. “I love the 500 Club and The City Club,” he said. “Locally, I like Tony Nik’s, I like Gino & Carlo, I like Mr. Bing’s.”

Since Specs’ founder passed away from Parkinson’s disease in 2016, the fate of the bar has been stabilized by a family trust and a 10-year lease, enabled by its landlord participating in San Francisco’s Legacy Business Program. Conceived to slow down the rapid over-development threatening to strip The City of the character that has historically made it so appealing to artists and innovators, Specs’ confirmation as a legacy business is a bandaid in a cruel commercial real estate market that in the last five years has seen a disproportionate number of longstanding family-run services get run out of town or put out-of-business all together.

Change is of course constant, and Lioce’s story and my version of it are but tiny snapshots of one of San Francisco’s most historic and vital districts. And yet, the undeniable fact remains that places in the tradition of Specs and other spots catering to everyday San Franciscans are scarce.

“Neighborhood bars for working class guys, cab drivers, dock workers are going away,” as are their jobs, said Lioce. But for those still out there, “Guys can get out of the storm here.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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