At bars, like the old days—but not

David Briggs
06/09/2021

The social scene in West Marin is picking up steam as Covid-19 restrictions wind down and bars open up. The Old Western joined Papermill Creek and Smiley’s Schooner Saloons in reopening last week, and bartenders are excited to be back. Customers are returning to improved venues, with better lighting, fresh paint and new pool tables. They’re drinking a lot and tipping well. All eyes are on June 15, when capacity limits and mask requirements are set to fall away. Live music acts are booked, and people are ready to party.

“When we finally got the go-ahead, it was exuberant,” said Freda Keltner, a bartender at the Western for the last six years. “It couldn’t have been more of a love fest.”

On Monday at the Western, the working crowd trickled in at 5 p.m. for a drink. It seemed like things picked up right where they left off. Ms. Keltner waltzed back and forth behind the bar pouring drinks, taking cash and cleaning glasses. She asked customers if they wanted the regular—some did, and others had changed their habits. People welcomed in old friends and chatted each other up. They complained about work, talked about their troubled relationships, told stories from long ago and discussed whether they could drive after one or two pints. A member of El Radio Fantastique stopped by to book a show, and a man put some old rock on the jukebox.

Jim Curtis, a regular, ordered an ale, drank it in 15 minutes and promptly headed out. “That’s my drink,” he said. Mr. Curtis works in construction, and during the pandemic he bought beer from Costco and had his after-work drink at home, so he was happy to have other people to interact with. 

“I saved a lot of money buying my own beer, but it’s the camaraderie you pay for,” he said.

The Western was decluttered and deep cleaned. Several walls received a new coat of paint, and the waiting area outside the bathrooms was cleared out. In the backroom, the holes in the ceiling created by cue sticks were repaired, and the lighting was brightened to make it more inviting for women, part-owner Michele Pelton said. The bar has a new kegerator and dishwasher and new beers on tap, but Ms. Pelton avoided changing anything in the front room because that’s what people are used to seeing.

“I’m very into keeping things the same, because there’s so much change all around us,” Ms. Pelton said.

The bartending staff has seen some turnover because employees had to take other jobs. Mainstays Freda, Bob and Jane stuck around, and Mariana, Jess and Skylar have been added to the team.

The Western was put on the market in March for $2.2 million, but Ms. Pelton said she is still on the fence about selling it. Her mother, Judy Borello, has owned the bar since 1977, and when the property is passed down to her, she expects a massive property tax hike. Financial professionals have advised her to sell, but she grew up in the bar and is deeply attached to it. Now that it’s open again, she feels like keeping it. No viable buyers have come forward yet.

“I’m trying to leave it up to serendipity and see what happens,” she said.

The business got through the pandemic by collecting rents from the upstairs offices and having eight yard sales of Ms. Borello’s stuff— so if you see a vintage cowboy shirt walking down the street or a Tiffany lamp in a window, it probably came from the Western, Ms. Pelton said.

At the Papermill Creek Saloon, the coming months are booked with bands that can draw a crowd. On weekends, a small act plays music at happy hour, then a full band plays at night. The house band plays every Sunday, and on alternating Thursdays an instrumental jazz group performs. Every day, more and more people come in.

 “I think people are still just testing it out,” manager and bartender Jared Litwin said. “It’s slowly building, and once restrictions are lifted, I think people will be more comfortable. I see it going well. Business will be booming.”

Along with the regulars, Mr. Litwin said it seems like there are a lot of new faces coming in. He met at least a dozen people who recently moved to the valley and were waiting to stop by. 

The bar partnered with the Woodacre Market to serve pizza and burritos so it could open along with the restaurants. Capacity is limited to 50 percent, and people are required to wear a mask when they’re not drinking. The biggest challenge has been policing mask wearing while people are headed to the bathroom or playing pool. “It’s almost like playing whack-a-mole,” Mr. Litwin said.

The entire staff of bartenders was able to weather the pandemic and return to work. They received unemployment benefits and emergency funds from the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, and a fundraiser and small grants from liquor companies also helped. Everyone on the staff is vaccinated. 

Like the Western, the Papermill was in the strong position of occupying a building that it owned, so there wasn’t a mortgage to pay. During the closure, owner Rebecca Moore created a new outdoor patio area, refurbished the bathroom, installed new lighting, repaired the floor, painted the walls and added a new pool table.

No bar saw as many changes as Smiley’s in Bolinas. The 170-year-old saloon underwent a major renovation last year, so customers returned to a far different venue. When it opened in October, longtime patrons complained about the upgrades. But owner Leila Monroe said that was because Covid-19 restrictions made the place operate like an eatery. Now that the plexiglass is removed and the stools are back at the bar, it is starting to feel like a place to drink again, though some people still miss the old dive bar feel.

Bands play on the patio in the evenings. Because of an earlier start time and a new allowance of all ages, shows have more of a family feel. Tables for four cost $40, and kids run around outside while bands perform—a far cry from the wilder scenes Smiley’s was known for.

Chelsea Kahn, the Friday night bartender, said regulars have yet to return because of the change in pace. She hopes they’ll come back once live music is brought inside and the bar closes later than 10 p.m.