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September 14, 2020

Bar Manager Elmer Mejicanos Shakes Up North Beach

by Joe Bonadio

In our last post, we ran a feature interview with longtime Tony’s Pizza Napoletana bartender Stephanie Danese, who has been with the restaurant since the beginning— fully eleven years now. Steph is great, and our conversation made for a terrific interview. And apparently she has been missed, because we received a tremendous response from readers across the board.

We decided to keep the ball rolling by talking with another key figure in Tony’s success: veteran Bar Manager Elmer Mejicanos. As you’ll see, Elmer has a lot of irons in the fire right now, but he made time to sit down with me late last week—and our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: You’ve been in the industry for a long time. How did you get into bartending and hospitality?

Elmer Mejicanos: It was around eighteen years ago. I started from the very bottom, as a busser, then a bar-back. But I wasn’t a busser for long; I always gravitated to the bar.

I guess my first work behind the bar was at The Beach Chalet, back in the day.

JB: That place was a big deal at one time.

EM: Yes, a loooong time ago. I bar-backed at Beach Chalet, and started helping the brewmaster, making beer. So automatically, my attention went to product.

JB: This is your first gig, and you’re in there with the brewmaster.

EM: Yeah. It started out with things like carrying kegs or sacks of grain, or helping to stir the pot. It’s tedious work, but it went from there.

Anyway, I did that for a couple of years, then I came to work at Joe DiMaggio’s when it was here. Again I started out bar-backing, and within six months I was bartending. And at that point, everything just kind of clicked—and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

So then I started working at other places as a bartender. That’s when I went to Oakland to open Pican. It was a soul food/whiskey bar, and it was right on Broadway. They actually closed last year.

I also helped the Beach Chalet organization open The Lake Chalet in Oakland. But I was always working at at least two bars—sometimes three.

JB: And after Lake Chalet, you started working with the people at 25 Lusk?

EM: Yes—but in between, I got a call from Nancy [Tony’s partner at the time], saying they were looking for someone. They had all met me across the street working at DiMaggio’s, while they were building Tony’s. They would come in to eat, and have meetings and things like that. Checking out the neighbors, like you do when you’re getting ready to open.

JB: Were you hired on at the very beginning?

EM: Well, when Tony’s opened, DiMaggio’s was on its last legs. The writing was on the wall. While this was happening, Tony was building: he already had his original crew, Stephanie and Robvell, I believe J.P. and Jose were there, and Mario.

I knew all of them, because I worked right across the street. But I was kind of like the outsider over there, trying to figure out how this new business was gonna go. Tony’s had been open for I think six months when DiMaggio’s closed. And at that point, I went back to Oakland and continued working at Pican, and shortly after I came back to the city to work at 25 Lusk.

JB: And that’s when Tony’s called you?

EM: Yes. Obviously they found out the restaurant had closed, and I guess they said What the hell happened to Elmer? So Nancy called, and I went in to meet with her, and I was hired about six months after Tony’s opened up.

Elmer Mejicanos

Elmer Mejicanos in his element behind the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. | Photo: Katie Sell

JB: And you started as a bartender?

EM: Yes. And for the first year that I was there, Robvell was the bar manager. And at the time, Robvell was looking for a change; he wanted to just bartend again, without having to manage people. A smart man, I told him.

So at that point, they started looking for someone to run the bar program, and that’s when Tony offered me the bar manager position. They knew I had experience at a lot of very successful, high-volume places: both Lake Chalet and Pican at the time were cranking, so I was used to fast-paced, crafty bar programs.

So even before I started working at Tony’s, I would get press mentions for my cocktails at DiMaggio’s and Pican.

JB: And that only accelerated once you started at Tony’s.

EM: Yes. Since I took it on ten years ago, we’ve been in Esquire’s Best Bars of America, and been featured by everybody, from Forbes to the Chronicle and 7×7—and that’s specifically for the bar program.

JB: I think it’s especially impressive to be recognized for the bar program at a restaurant where the star is so bright for the kitchen.

EM: Right? Tony has always been very smart in that way. He knows he’s already got the press when it comes to his food. But how do you round that out so you’re beyond just a pizzeria—and become a full-fledged restaurant? By having a solid bar program.

We’re not just a pizza place. We’re an institution now, and I think we built that from the ground up. Everything from making sure we take care of our regulars and the neighborhood first—to extending that to the people from Australia, from China, all of the places Tony’s customers travel from.

JB: Speaking of locals, I understand you’ve got a big surprise coming for North Beach.

EM: Yes, we do. About three years ago, I started talking with Nick Floulis, who had just phased out of his position at Chubby Noodle. We ran into each other at DiMaggio’s, and I told him I was looking to make some moves, and that we should chat.

We ended up texting back and forth, and after a bunch of meetings—and a bunch of wine and Fernet—we decided to make it happen, and started looking.

And we were looking everywhere in the city. We were looking in Hayes Valley, all over the Mission, everywhere. Looking back, I don’t understand why we didn’t just keep looking here, in North Beach. It’s a weird thing, kind of like because you see it every day, you don’t think about it.

JB: And meanwhile, the place you were looking for was a block away.

EM: Yeah! One day Nick was working at his shop, and a guy walking by happened to mentioned he was going to look at the old Washbag space [the storied Washington Square Bar & Grill, once the hottest eatery in San Francisco]. Nick asked him to come back, and let him know how it went.

A little while later, he did. And he told Nick that the place didn’t work for him, for whatever reasons. The minute he left, Nick called our broker and asked him to check it out. He said, No, those are just rumors.

But he checked it out, and literally 30 minutes later, he called us back: It’s for sale.

JB: Wow.

Tony's Obscured

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana beneath a rose-tinted sky late last week. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

EM: So we came over and did a walk-through, and checked it out. Afterwards, we had a meeting with the landlord. Luckily, we had already lined up investors, and all of the legal stuff we needed to put together.

Within a couple of days, we were closing. And we got keys inside of a week. It happened that quickly.

JB: You guys have weathered a lot of obstacles since then. But you are about to open.

EM: Yes. We are finally rounding third, and getting ready to open what will soon be Lillie Coit’s. That’s hanging the sheet rock, putting down floors, putting down the bar top, and setting up our outside now that we have street closure approved. We’re trying to build something special in this corridor.

JB: A lot of people are eager to see what you come up with.

EM: We just want to build something we’re proud of, and something that helps this neighborhood grow. I’ve learned so much from working at Tony’s, not only from the business side of things, but also what makes a truly great place work.

And we’re ready to go.

———

When I spoke with Tony, he was unequivocal about Elmer’s contribution:

“Over the years I’ve watched Elmer grow into one of the finest bartenders in the nation, and compete and win many industry competitions. Being a competitor myself, it has been great to see his drive to perfection.

“Elmer’s cocktails have always been incredible and balanced. At one point we flew him down to my restaurants in Las Vegas to train my bartenders on classic and modern cocktails,” Tony recalled. “He’s studied mixology down to its roots, and really grown into an amazing bartender at Tony’s,” he said, “But it wasn’t until that day in Las Vegas that I truly witnessed his magic. He’s a teacher, and a master at his craft.”

*Editor’s Note: Joe DiMaggio’s did business on the corner of Stockton and Union Streets, currently home of Original Joe’s, until 2010.

Lillie Coit’s of North Beach is expected to open for outdoor dining in the third week of September. On behalf of the entire neighborhood, we look forward to seeing you there.