Smiley's saloon sails into major rehabilitation

Courtesy of Leila Monroe
The exterior of Smiley's Schooner Saloon will change over the next year. A balcony will be added to the second story, and a courtyard and wheelchair-accessible parking will replace the area where the refuse bins are now kept at street level. The interior of the bar will remain mostly the same, with improvements to the floor and wainscoting. The largest change will be the addition of food, allowed for by a renovated kitchen upstairs and ordered from the bar, where minors will now be admitted during the day—the result of a different type of liquor license.  

Even Smiley’s Schooner Saloon, which touts itself as the longest-running bar west of the Mississippi, must shut its doors once in a while. 

Beginning May 13, Smiley’s, which may date back to 1851, will be out of commission for an estimated four to six weeks; the hotel tucked behind the bar will stay closed through 2019 so the owner, Leila Monroe, can make essential repairs and upgrades to both buildings. 

The biggest change is a planned revamp of the second-floor kitchen above the bar, from residential to commercial, so they can newly offer food. 

“What we are doing is more of a restoration than a renovation,” said Ms. Monroe, a Bay Area native who bought the bar with her family in 2015. “We hope it will look more like it once did than it does now, if you know what I mean. I want to deepen the homage to history, and try our best not to do that in a cheesy way.”

After a years-long permitting process, Ms. Monroe last week received a building permit from the county. She estimates the project will cost $2 million, aside from the $240,000 she’s already shelled out for permits and other pre-construction costs.  

The buildings are in dire need of repair. The most recent major structural work was undertaken in 1983, when then-owner Bob Glenn made cosmetic renovations and retrofitted the saloon’s interior. 

It’s past time to retrofit the foundation, Ms. Monroe said, and structural support is needed to address six inches of sag on the bar floor. Such work also triggers essential upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, including the addition of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and entrance. 

“Our old ship saloon is taking on water with burst pipes below the building, leaks in the roofs, ceilings, and damaged old plumbing throughout,” Ms. Monroe wrote in a letter published in the Hearsay News last week. “The electrical is unsafe, and our mechanical appliances are all failing. The list goes on, but suffice to say, the building is badly in need of major repair.”

What will change?

The footprint will not grow. Ms. Monroe said the inside of the main bar will look much the same, though she plans to refinish the floors, repair wainscoting and create a new outdoor patio, which will connect to the bar through a door on the west-facing wall. 

She will also make various minor reconfigurations to the second floor, which houses an office and the “captain’s quarters,” reserved for bands. Only basic repairs to replace rotten wood are planned for the six-room hotel, though it will be closed the longest to provide provisional storage and office space. 

The largest alteration will be the creation of a second-floor commercial kitchen, allowing for “fast-casual” fare at the bar. Mexican cuisine is Ms. Monroe’s hope, though she doesn’t yet have a chef. 

To make the fare accessible to all ages, she plans to change the type of liquor license she carries so the bar will be open to under 21-year-olds during the day. She has heard some misgivings about that change in particular, she said, though she has also heard support for it.  

“West Marin has always been something of an outpost for provisioning,” Ms. Monroe explained. “I want to carry on this tradition of providing for travelers, as well as for people who live here.”

She added, “Sourcing from local fishermen and farmers: this is a given.” 

It is not the first time the bar will provide food alongside drink. Beginning in 1955, Ishmaele “Smiley” Bianchini sold game around the back of the bar, which also served as a tackle shop at the time. Various iterations of pizza parlors have also been tied to the bar over the years. 

Ms. Monroe said her priority is to re-open the bar as soon as possible, even before the construction is finalized. She also hopes to minimize the impact of construction on the community. She has leased space on a neighboring lot from the Bolinas Community Land Trust, and will stage equipment and vehicles there in the next few months so as not to impact downtown parking. 

“We will also not work on weekends, and we’ll do our best to continue to serve as your local watering hole while the work is occurring,” she wrote in the Hearsay. 

A question-and-answer forum about the changes will be held at 11 a.m. at the bar on Sunday, April 7.  

Edmond Hattar, whose family owns the Bolinas Market across the street, said, “I don’t know what will happen. Usually when I close the store at night, everyone is inside the bar, so maybe now they will be on the street. Those guys hang outside all the time all day, no matter what, but they aren’t bothering anyone.” 

He said the renovations are a good idea. “As far as the plans are now, all neat and off the street, this isn’t going to affect parking, or business,” he said. “I support what they are doing.”

From the time she bought it, Ms. Monroe has clearly stated her intentions of preserving the character of the bar, including keeping it as a popular music venue, while newly offering food and making it a friendlier place for all ages. 

Ms. Monroe, who worked as an ocean conservation attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco before making a career change, said her father owned a bar in the small town of Julian, in the Cuyamaca Mountains, in Southern California. The bar, Bailey BBQ, had an atmosphere reminiscent of Smiley’s. 

“There was lots of live music and barbecue, a wood pit barbecue,” she told the Light in 2014 while she was in escrow for the property, which was listed at a dollar under $1.5 million. (She originally bought the business with a partner, Ashley Huck, who has since phased out.) 

She herself is part of a long line of patrons. Ms. Monroe bought Smiley’s from Don Deane, who bought it in 1990 and produced a local newspaper, the Coastal Post, upstairs. 

Smiley’s was built in 1851—though some dispute that exact 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.