After an extensive renovation, Smiley’s Schooner Saloon opened its doors last month for the first time during the pandemic.
Before the weather turned wet, there were a few inaugural days of live music outside the local watering hole. On Saturday, Nov. 7, the West Marin Grateful Dead Appreciation Society played at a distance for residents of all ages who danced and celebrated, albeit in masks.
It wasn’t the grand unveiling that owners Leila Monroe and Simon Dunne envisioned, but it was a milestone nonetheless. The couple bought the bar in 2015 and immediately started planning upgrades; after years spent obtaining the necessary permits, they launched the $3 million project last May. The bar, open for a time during the work, closed in January.
Although it would have been easier and less costly to raze and rebuild, the couple pursued a painstaking restoration of the bar, which dates to the mid-1800s. The building received a new foundation, electrical and plumbing upgrades, and accessibility improvements that meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
Lucie Bolduc, a wood restoration specialist who worked on Smiley’s four decades ago, handled the wood interior; she cleaned and refinished the oak back bar, the mahogany bar top, and the Douglas fir and redwood ceiling, walls, beams and trim. “The ceiling was new 41 years ago. I had to custom mix a formula that could remove the nicotine, smoke damage, stains and mold—a stinky tar that was the result of all that time,” she said. “Now, they have much better air filtration in there, and it smells great.”
Ms. Bolduc, a Penngrove resident who raised her children in Bolinas, said many of the features she restored were new when she first worked on Smiley’s. This time around, she tried to keep the stain of the wood the way it was decided upon back then, which in many cases lightened the color. After 15 new coats of her custom finish on the bar top, she said, “I hope it can go another 40 years.”
The restoration did not change the footprint of the building, but minor structural reconfigurations were made downstairs and in the upstairs office and captain’s quarters. A new exit in the bar now leads to an outdoor patio, while on the second floor, the kitchen was converted to commercial standards.
Perhaps the biggest change is the new Mexican menu. Although expanding the basic bar fare was always part of the plan, the change meant that Smiley’s could reopen despite the strict Covid-19 regulations for bars. The particular rules are constantly changing. According to rules put in place this week, Smiley’s can sell beverages to-go or for consumption outdoors on the patio as long as customers also buy food.
To make the business more family-friendly, Ms. Monroe changed the type of liquor license she carries so the bar is open to minors except for indoor music on late nights.
A number of kinks still need to be worked out. Though some staffers returned after the bar’s long closure, Ms. Monroe lost some members, so she’s hiring.
The kitchen, staffed by several cooks who left Osteria Stellina after its closure this summer, is preparing simple, organic Mexican food: tacos, quesadillas, burritos and soups and salads. Desserts are tres leches, chocolate mousse and churros.
Ms. Monroe is hoping to start delivering food and drinks within Bolinas in the coming weeks, too.
Pandemic protocols and restrictions, which rolled back indoor dining allowances this week amid rising Covid-19 cases in Marin, have made reopening especially difficult, Ms. Monroe said. The locals who used to frequent the bar to drink have not returned.
“Some people have asked us why, for instance, we didn’t bring back the pool table. We will! But not during Covid,” she said.
Music, which last week filled the outdoor courtyard, won’t return until the weather brightens in the spring. The inn rooms around the back and upstairs that are typically rented nightly are being leased month-to-month while the pandemic plays out.
Ms. Monroe was busy working around the building last Friday afternoon, overseeing operations. “It’s stressful,” she said about reopening. “But then I look around and I try to remember, ‘Okay, we really accomplished something.’”
Terry Camiccia, who grew up above the bar that her grandfather Ismaele “Smiley” Bianchini bought in the 1950s, said she toured the renovated building last week. “It was so nice. Beautiful,” she said.
Ms. Camiccia described her childhood as paradise. Her grandfather, an Italian immigrant, ran several restaurants in San Francisco and a bait shop in San Rafael before buying the bar and moving to Bolinas. He was a writer, a fisherman, a gardener and a stellar cook. During his ownership, it was Smiley’s Bar and Bait Shop.
“The locals came every night,” Ms. Camiccia recalled. “Grandpa was unique. He was always up; he liked to laugh; and to keep people on the light side. He had extensive friendships.”
The saloon has had around five owners since Smiley’s stewardship. Ms. Camiccia said it has sometimes been hard to watch her childhood home become the center of increasing tourism in Bolinas, but, she said, “There’s a new generation.”
Smiley’s was built in 1851—though some dispute that date as local lore—and managed to stay in business through both the 1906 earthquake and prohibition, when most of its windows were painted black.
Ms. Monroe, a former environmental lawyer, and her family bought Smiley’s from Don Deane, who bought it in 1990 and produced a local newspaper, the Coastal Post, upstairs.
Smiley’s is open Mondays through Fridays from noon to 8 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.