THE WEEKNIGHTER Weekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That’s why each week Broke-Ass Stuart (www.brokeassstuart.com) will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, bringing you stories about the places and people who make San Francisco one of the most phenomenal cities in the world. Who wants a drink?
It was nighttime in North Beach and that series of New York Magazine articles had come out earlier in the day. You know the ones: They were saying how San Francisco was more New York than New York, and then demonstrated it by needling us on how tech was ruining our wonderful town. I was bummed.
It was like reading about the reasons they closed Tu-Lan a while back: You knew terrible things were happening, but up until then you were able to suspend your disbelief. I’d finished a vodka soda at Mr. Bing’s with a friend and then decided to see what else I could drink my way into. I imagine it’s that same sentiment that lands most people in Hawaii West (729 Vallejo, SF. 415-362-3220).
Even though I’d miraculously never been there before, this divey North Beach tiki bar felt like home as soon as I walked in. A guy was face-timing with his girlfriend while playing himself at pool, soul and funk emanated from the Music Choice channel on the TV, and a legless foosball table sat abandoned on a side table. It was my kind of rundown, my kind of weird. The bartender asked my name and then introduced me to the six or seven other patrons sitting at the bar. Their friendliness was overwhelming.
“How the fuck have I never been in here before?” I asked myself as I looked at the scores of pool trophies, tiny drink umbrellas, and the laminated poster suggesting a slew of different tropical cocktails. Hawaii West had been around for roughly 50 years, the bartender told me, but she didn’t know much about its history. I gave her my info and asked her to have the owner contact me so I could find out.
A few days later I got a text from Nolan Kellet, Hawaii West’s owner, a union roofer who’s been a building inspector on military bases throughout the US for the past decade. In our conversation he told me how his grandmother moved from Hawaii to SF in the early ’60s and opened the Aloha Café. His father, one-time president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1225, reopened the place in 1969 naming it Hawaii West, while his mother worked there serving longshoremen in the ’70s and ’80s and Academy of Art students in the ’90s.
“I remember as young boy in the early ’70s,” Kellet told me, “Hells’ Angels frequented the bar until the police station moved in across the street. I remember motorcycles lined up and down both sides of Vallejo Street. Wish I had some pics. They gave me rides through the Broadway tunnel and around Fisherman’s Wharf at a young age.”
Old bars are like the rings inside a tree trunk, they’re witnesses to history and become a record of it simply by existing. Hawaii West exemplifies this brilliantly. Walking in, you know great stories live there, you just have to dig a little deeper to get them.
“You guys get busy?” I asked the bartender as I was leaving. “Not really,” she told me. “You can pretty much come here with a group of friends anytime and take over the place.” I walked out of there drunk and smiling because I realized New York Magazine had missed a crucial point: We still have Hawaii West.
Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You ca find his online shenanigans at BrokeAssStuart.com