I have this vague memory of Blondie’s Bar 10 years ago. I had just moved to San Francisco and went out one night on a date. I don’t remember him at all, but I found a sweet older lady to cha cha with— I was a ballroom teacher for a brief moment in a former life, so it was nice to find a partner for the night. (And yes, I can still rumba.)
Nikki DeWald, who opened the bar in 1991 at 540 Valencia St., told me her strong drinks are the likely culprit of my foggy memory. This week — on the heels of falling infection rates and bars reopening—she served me a house special martini, the “Dagwood,” made with 16 ounces of gin. At first I thought the extra glass was water.
“No, that’s why you blacked out,” she said with a laugh.
DeWald owned the bar since she was old enough to drink. Her mom bought the building in the early 1990s, back when Mission looked much different, DeWald said.
“I was envisioning somewhere fun like the Haight or downtown or the Marina. But my mom and I rolled up to the street in broad daylight, I hit the door lock and told her there’s no way I’m getting out,” she said. “It was so scary. Tire stores and mechanic shops, and the whole place closed down after 5 p.m. Then it turned into ‘The Walking Dead’ with pimps and prostitutes, and barren otherwise— no foot traffic.”
You know, I remember the ‘90s, still in grade school, of course: the days of the Apple IIe and computer labs. Al Gore invented the internet, and along with it came The City’s first tech boom. While Alicia Silverstone got popular saying “as if,” DeWald was finding her own fame dancing on her bar and covered in glitter. Now with a husband and child, and a bit older, she misses those days.
“They were fun. Fun. SO fun,” she said.
I told her I still wear crop tops in my 30s, and she added quickly: “If you can do it, do it as long as you can.”
She’s a little more cynical today. I had been snapping photos as soon as I arrived, and a man came up, taking a photo of me on his phone and commenting, “Leave us alone!” DeWald, who watched this, followed him out of the bar to have some words, although I never asked her what she said.
Later, she told me, “People are less fun now, they’re way more uptight. Maybe I’m not getting it,” she said, but added, “I do feel you get what you give. Maybe I’m the one who’s changed.”
She was born in San Francisco and went to Presidio Hill School. She moved away between ages 10 and 18 to Arizona, Texas and Canada. “It was awful, awful, awful. Horrifying,” she said. “Except Canada. It just made me appreciate San Francisco that much more.”
DeWald’s family has considerable history in San Francisco— her mother Ricci Cornell opened a health food store in North Beach in the 1960s. She bought the building for DeWald during a moment her daughter’s interest in an acting career was waning. In that time, though, DeWald worked as an extra in films starring Matthew McConaughey, Eddie Murphy and Ashley Judd.
Before our interview, DeWald worried what direction this story might take, and I told her I couldn’t imagine what would come up unless there were skeletons in older headlines. After our meeting, I spotted a 2015 interview in Mission Local where she said, “Millennials don’t have much respect for their surroundings.”
I don’t mind printing the comment again because I don’t think her opinion has changed. She told me of the second tech boom ushered in by my generation, “They just feel a lot more douchey and disrespectful now.”
“I feel there was a lot more respect back in the late ‘90s-early 2000s than in the 2010s. I miss people being kind and nice and respectful. I feel like that is gone,” she noted.
The pandemic has taken a toll on Blondie’s like any other bar. DeWald said her parklet cost about $12,000 and that she runs at 25 percent of normal capacity. She still pays rent to her mom in months she isn’t closed, but said she has been more fortunate than others.
“It’s tough, it’s really tough,” she said. “I’m a lot luckier than many other business owners who have to pay rent, whether they’re open or not. It’s not fair to the landlord either, they have their own mortgage to pay.”
She agreed with the notion that we will have a big party once we are all vaccinated. “When the pandemic ends — and I do feel like there is an end — it is going to be a party like no one has seen before,” she said. “It will be like a resurrection of the 1920s, for sure.”
Her bartender Sven Forner mixed us a few drinks, including a Lemon Drop mocktail because I told her I wasn’t drinking. As we sat and sipped, a couple patrons came to say hello. “You drinking?” one asked. “Always,” she said.
DeWald said this cocktail is named after the “Blondie and Dagwood” comic strip, where the latter would eat sandwiches that had “everything but the kitchen sink in them.” She also named her German Shepherd Dagwood.
16 ounces Junipero Gin
Spicy string beans
A pearl onion
A blue cheese stuffed olive
A ginger stuffed olive
A garlic stuffed olive
A spicy sausage stuffed olive
A pimento olive
Directions: Rinse a chilled martini glass with vermouth. Pour gin straight into the glass, add all the toppings and serve. Reserve the rest of the gin in a separate glass over ice.
6 ounces El Tesoro Reposado
5 ounces of pink grapefruit juice
A splash of Squirt soda
Fresh lime juice
Directions: Dip a tall glass rim in water and then coat it in tajin. Mix all other ingredients in a shaker with ice, then pour the cocktail into the glass, and serve.
Lemon Drop mocktail
1 1/2 ounces orgeat
1 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
About 4 ounces of soda water
Directions: Shake lemon juice and orgeat with ice, strain into a martini glass while adding soda water. Garnish with a lemon wedge and serve.
Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer; visit him at saulsugarman.com. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.