By: Justine Sharrock, Design by Lauren Loprete, Photos by Nicole Grant Kriege
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
It was a regular Thursday evening at The Royal Cuckoo when Big Bones suddenly grabbed his harmonica and started accompanying Chris Siebert, who was playing the Hammond organ behind the bar. Big Bones is a famous local blues player, and he also works the door at the bar in order to make ends meet. When it’s last call, instead of using a bell or just yelling out last call, Big Bones pulls out the harmonica and sings a song. That’s right. A harmonica-playing, blues-singing doorman. That’s The Royal Cuckoo for you.
When I first got word that The Royal Cuckoo was opening up in my neighborhood at Mission and Valencia, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, from the description – co-owned by a former Green Beret and a Bruno’s manager, a place that would feature old albums, a Hammond organ, small batch spirits, and Grandpa’s dive-bar booze favorites – it sounded great. But it was replacing Belinda's, a long-time Latino hangout. Granted, Belinda's wasn’t one of my spots, but like so many people in San Francisco, I worry about all of the places opening in my neighborhood that I can’t afford.
Birds of a Feather
I emailed my friend Charlie who lives nearby and has discerning taste in dive bars:
“There goes the neighborhood… Belinda's dive bar on Mission has reopened as a white spot. Looks like it has an OK theme, but still, it has a theme. All the same, I, of course, want to go check it out. Let’s make a plan. If it sucks, we can hightail it to the 3300.” Charlie emailed back, “My new year’s resolution this year is to get over myself, so I'm down for whatever. Let's hit it. We could write the first Yelp reviews (puke).”
Despite our trepidations, The Royal Cuckoo had managed to find the sweet spot between dive bar and swanky, hip joint. For me, the first indicator of that came with my first sip: I had ordered a whiskey with ginger beer – somewhat classic, but still taking advantage of the bar’s seasonal, organic ingredients that lined the chalkboard of specials, like ginger and muddled cucumber. Not only did the ginger beer have bite, but I could actually taste the bourbon. Too often bartenders get so caught up in their infusions and concoctions that they forget the key element to a cocktail is the liquor. And at five bucks, I could afford it.
I realized quickly that I was wrong about the place having a theme. Promises of taxidermy had made me think it would be hipster gimmicky, but the mounted buck and stuffed ducks amongst the collection of mid-century modern furniture, church pews, thrift store paintings, and vintage lamps looked more like a friend’s living room than anything else.
In fact, after chatting up the owner, Paul Miller, I found out that was indeed the case – much of what lines the walls are from his own one-bedroom apartment, which he says now looks like it’s been ransacked, with little left other than Christmas lights. Other finds came from Thrift Town, the Salvation Army, Community Thrift, and Urban Ore. When he showed me the vintage glass-bottom lamp he had scored at the Salvation Army right by my house for $7.50, my competitive thrifting spirit kicked in.
Fast forward two-months, about half a dozen visits, and zero Yelp reviews by Charlie, and The Royal Cuckoo had become my go-to neighborhood bar – not my “there goes the neighborhood” bar. A friend called looking for a place for a reunion/birthday with former coworkers: The Royal Cuckoo. Single friends and I were planning a singles swap meet of sorts to introduce each other to our cute single guys: The Royal Cuckoo. I was in need of an after-work drink where friends might be: you’re getting the idea. Also, I’ve run into bartenders from the Knockout, those hot guys who pour my Americanos at Four Barrel, an artist I met at a Southern Exposure opening, and one of the bartender’s somewhat grumpy dad.
What I didn’t realize right away is that The Royal Cuckoo is an entry into one of San Francisco’s blues scenes. Some things are obvious: LPs played on the vintage Califone record player hail from pre-1975. Instead of a jukebox, a Dewey decimal-like system is set up, complete with old-school library card drawers that organize the 500-plus records. Flipping through the card catalogue I saw everything from Chinese opera to classical to Pakistani psychedelic music to spoken word.
A Hammond organ is a rare sight at a local bar. I appreciated the nostalgic effect it had on the mood, but I didn’t realize that it was being played by one of the greatest blues organ players of all time. Alex Kallao is a blind piano player and former child prodigy who was huge in New York in the 1950s. He opened for Count Basie at Carnegie Hall playing opposite Ella Fitzgerald, then disappeared from the music scene for decades before, luckily for us, reappearing in San Francisco at The Royal Cuckoo.
Old-time jazz legend Jules Broussard has also been known to whip out his two saxophones there, which he can play at the same time. Paul’s sister and well-known local jazz and blues singer Lavay Smith has been known to do the impromptu song or two. On any given night at The Royal Cuckoo you might get to see some of the area’s great blues musicians playing in their home away from home.
And of course, that includes Big Bones, who ends every night on the right note.
The new bar turned out to be far more old school than even Belinda’s was. There goes the neighborhood... in a very good direction.
Do It Yourself
Go order yourself a drink at The Royal Cuckoo at 3202 Mission at Valencia. Their hours are 4 p.m. –2 a.m. Monday-Wednesday and 2 p.m.–2 a.m. Thursday-Sunday. Be sure to stay until last call to hear Big Bones on the harmonica.
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