Lefty O'Doul's Bloody (Mary) Secret

Hidden above a San Francisco restaurant is an old theater and a secret recipe

By Joe Rosato Jr.
|  Wednesday, Nov 25, 2009  |  Updated 10:42 AM PDT
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Inside Lefty O'Doul's Forgotten Past

Joe Rosato Jr.

Lefty O'Doul was very particular about his Bloody Marys. He wanted the bartenders to make them to his exact specifications. With the discovery of his original recipe, they'll be able to.

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The old Geary Street restaurant Lefty O’Doul’s is no secret to the lunch crowd.

Tourists, office workers and barflies slip into the old-time Hofbrau for corn-beef sandwiches, stiff drinks and walls lined with pictures of the joint’s founder, baseball great Lefty O’Doul.

Though the restaurant is a character out of San Francisco’s past, few have any idea that somewhere above the 20-foot ceiling is a forgotten world filled with hidden gem's from the City's past.

On a recent visit, Lefty’s owner Nick Bovis popped a padlock off a door in the middle of the dining room, revealing a hidden stairway, with dark, wooden steps worn from a century of footsteps.

The walls were layered with cobwebs and chipped paint. Bovis, alone with well-known Bay Area publicist Lee Housekeeper directed their flashlights around the 1907 darkened hall, as if searching for treasure.  And darned if they didn't find it.

“It was rumored it used to be an old vaudeville theater or strip joint or something,” says Housekeeper, who is a San Francisco character himself.
 
Bovis doesn’t come up here much. Years ago, he was poking around and a flock of pigeons scared him.  He hasn't been back since.
 
Around another corner, a staggering sight materialized: A ceiling of glass skylights illuminated a massive room of wooden beams and ornate molding. At one end of the 70-foot long room, the wall is a faded powder blue. Sculptures of fish hung on every corner, standing guard over a place time and progress have forgotten.
  
There isn’t much known about the building’s original use other than it was constructed just after the great San Francisco earthquake.

Inside a small alcove, Bovis pointed out artifacts he has discovered:

  • an old Lucky Lager beer can
  • a carton of Homo-brand milk
  • a tube of old Crest toothpaste
  • a box of 78 records filled with handwritten notes by Lefty O’Doul himself.

 
The real find was a golf bag, minus the clubs. It was here Bovis found a true relic -- Lefty O'Doul's handwritten Bloody Mary mix.

To understand the significance of this you have to know a bit about Lefty's. The bar is famous for its Bloody Mary's recipe, crafted by Lefty when he opened the place in 1958. The recipe was passed down from bartender to bartender, but was never seen in written form. Now in Bovis's hand was the original, dated 1966.

"Lefty was real particular to make sure they made it a certain way," says Bovis. "When we found it it was almost identical. There are a couple small things that through time, probably got changed."

Lefty's currently bottles the mix, based on the oral version, but Bovis said he's thinking about marketing the original 1966 recipe.

As we filed back down the dusty stairs, back into the world of cell phones and computers, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia for the old world, looming above the ceiling. A time when men put a suit on to walk outside, and theater was the center of the social scene.

It’s a reminder that through decades of modernization,  forgotten San Francisco still lurks in every corner.

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