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May 6, 2022

From Day One: A Chat With Tony’s Bartender JP Jacques

by Joe Bonadio

If there’s one thing I learned while living in New York, it’s that the best seat in any restaurant is usually at the bar. Before my stint in Manhattan it wasn’t my habit to dine at the bar, but it didn’t take me long to acclimate. Tables are often harder to come by there, for one thing. And most of the New Yorkers that became my friends seemed to agree that dinner at the bar is where it’s at.

In most restaurants, the bar is where the action is—and better yet, you’re always within a glance of your server. It’s also the easiest way to meet people, and to ingratiate yourself with the ones mixing your drinks and preparing your meal. To whatever extent there is a dividing line between customers and staff, sitting at the bar puts you on their side. And if you’re lucky enough to be in a place with an open kitchen, your dinner comes with a show.

I definitely have my share of favorite bars here in San Francisco, but there are few that I enjoy more than the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. That’s where I’ve gotten to know half of the North Beach neighborhood, it seems. It’s also where I met the subject of this week’s interview. JP Jacques has been slinging cocktails at Tony’s since the very beginning—and he’s just one more good reason to keep bellying up.

I sat down with JP last week for a long overdue chat; edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So I understand you’ve been here since day one. How did that happen?

JPJ: Well it’s kind of crazy, but I was actually managing the deli next door, La Spiaggia, which eventually became Tony’s Slice House. Nancy [Puglisi, one of the founding partners] and Tony used to frequent the deli when Tony’s Pizza was under construction.

I always had it in my mind that I wanted to be a bartender. So I just kept bugging Nancy and Tony every time they’d come in to buy sandwiches, that I would love to get behind their bar once they opened up. And somehow I made it happen.

I’d say the person that inspired me to become a bartender was the lovely Ed Moose. Ed was one of my regulars at La Spiaggia, and he’d come in twice a week and get his prosciutto sandwich on a hard roll. He’d always tell me on the way out: Hey Kid, you belong behind a bar.

And that’s why I kept asking Tony and Nancy….and I did it.

JB: Did Ed ever explain why he thought you should be behind a bar?

JPJ: I think through our interactions at La Spiaggia, he could see I understood the whole customer experience. I may have had zero experience as a bartender, but I understood people.

I started out initially as a barback, but within 2 1/2 months I became a bartender.

JB: To back up a little bit, are you originally from San Francisco?

JPJ: I grew up in the East Bay. I was born in San Jose, and grew up in Hayward. Youngest of four brothers, Bay Area kid my whole life. I’ve lived in North Beach since 1998, so it’s almost 24 years now.

JB: When you came here, at first you were working primarily with Richie [Richie Share, former Tony’s bar manager].

JPJ: Primarily with Richie. My first official shift was a Sunday night, and I worked with Richie, who was an iconic bartender in San Francisco. He became my mentor, and pretty much taught me everything I know.

He was an amazing bartender, and an amazing human being. We called him Richie Baby. Awesome guy….I loved him.

JB: So you’ve really become a mainstay here, and somebody that people identify with this place. Do you bartend anywhere else?

JPJ: This was my first bartending gig. I work part-time over at the reincarnation of Fog City Diner, and I do a lot of fill-in work at Tony Nik’s, which we all know as an iconic North Beach institution.

JB: You’re pretty wide-ranging. You went three doors down.

JPJ: Yep! The Stockton Street bartender [Laughter].

Group sitting at Tony's

The Early Days, from left to right: Richie Share, Tony Gemignani, JP Jacques, Stephanie Danese, Robvell Smith.

JB: Tell me about the first time you met Tony.

JPJ: The first time I met Tony….it would be at La Spiaggia delicatessen. It didn’t take long for me to realize what an ambitious human being, and what a great guy Tony Gemignani was. He gave me my first opportunity to get behind his bar.

It’s crazy. I didn’t realize how massive this pizza world really was. All I heard in North Beach was “another pizzeria coming into the neighborhood.” A lot of haters. But then I saw Tony in action, and saw what he intended to build. It’s pretty amazing. He’s one of the most ambitious, most giving, caring bosses I’ve ever worked for.

JB: Despite the naysayers early on, Tony’s has become a beloved restaurant here, and has come to mean a lot to the neighborhood. What do you think accounts for that?

JPJ: Well, there’s so much continuity. For example, when you look at the current bar staff, it’s pretty much the original staff.

JB: You, Steph, Robvell, Jose.

JPJ: We’ve all lasted here. We’ve had no desire to leave. It’s an iconic restaurant, and we’re family. It’s just a great place to work. We’re all part of the community, and we all live here.

JB: You live here in North Beach?

JPJ: Two blocks up the hill. I’ve probably got the easiest commute of the entire staff!

JB: So you say Richie was your mentor. Tell me about the first time you met him.

JPJ: The first time I met Richie, oh god. Open shirt, skull necklace hanging on his chest, rock ‘n’ roll hair flowing. I was like, Who the hell is this guy? [Laughter]

But once I got to know him, it all made sense. You’ll never meet another Richie. He was a one-of-a-kind human being. A cross between Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler. Loved rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve never seen anyone work with that kind of flair behind the bar. He made bartending sexy, fun….he was a remarkable person to work with.

He gave me the confidence to do it. I remember not knowing a goddamned thing behind this bar, and he’d constantly give me positive feedback. He would always tell me “you’re 95% of the way there, kid.” He saw how hard I worked on the service side, and he knew the cocktails would eventually come around.

JB: He saw what Ed Moose saw.

JPJ: Exactly!

JB: So all these years later, you’re still here. To what do you credit that unusual longevity?

JPJ: I would say it’s just being part of the North Beach community. Living here, knowing the people here. Just embracing and loving everyone that comes and visits us. It’s just a great place to work.

I’m no longer full-time, I’m here two days a week. And I look forward to those two shifts every time I’m walking down that hill. I know I’m going to have a lot of fun, and I’m going to give great service. And I know I’m going to be among the community I love.

JB: It’s been thirteen years now. What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you behind the bar?

JPJ: I got laid.

JB: Behind the bar? Tony’s going to read this, you know….[Laughter]

JPJ: Okay, maybe the coolest thing that’s happened to me here was when I met John Madden. It must have been about seven years ago. I’m a lifelong Raiders fan, grew up in the East Bay. My dad had season tickets in the seventies and eighties, so I remember going to Raiders games as a baby. Madden’s a legend, and for him to actually come into the establishment where I was working was pretty inspiring.

JB: So I have to ask, what’s your favorite drink?

JPJ: My favorite drink was probably Richie’s favorite. And it’s something we used to do: once a month we would go out to have dinner together, over at his favorite steakhouse in the Marina, Izzy’s.

We’d always start the night off with three Negronis, and it became my favorite cocktail. So if I’m out on the town, I’ll have two or three before dinner, or to cap off a night. A simple cocktail, but a great cocktail.

JB: Well, it fits the neighborhood: it’s Italian as hell.

JPJ: Exactly.

JB: Obviously things have changed a lot here. There’s so much more going on with the menu now than in the beginning, and the place continues to evolve. What is your favorite thing to eat when you come to Tony’s?

JPJ: If I’m going to do pizza, I’m definitely going to go with the Detroit Style. It originated in the 1940’s, and I just love that style of pizza, the heartiness of it.

JB: What do you have on it?

JPJ: I usually just get creative, and build my own. Kind of like I do with the guests, just encourage them to create their own experience. I love the spiciness of the Calabrese peppers, and red onions, and a crumble of Italian sausage. Keep it simple, with a little bit of heat. Absolutely delicious.

JB: So we know what you do for a living. What do you do when you’re not bartending?

JPJ: I like to consider myself a jack of all trades. I do private events for a friend of mine; I also work part-time at R Mustangs downtown, restoring and fixing up classic Fords, which has become a passion of mine over the last 3 1/2 years.

It’s something I’ve always been fascinated by, my whole life. I’ve always been a handy guy, and wrenching has always been a fascination of mine. One of our regulars who has been coming here from the beginning, Rick Morey, this has been his profession for 40 years. North Beach native.

I asked him if he ever needed help almost four years ago, and lo and behold, he taught me the trade. I never thought in my late 40’s that I’d be picking up a new trade, and I absolutely love it.

JB: You never know.

JPJ: It’s wild.It’s never too late to pick up something new.

Another gig of mine, which I’ve started doing recently: a bunch of my colleagues here at Tony’s needed handyman work done at their apartments. Again, I’ve always been a handy guy. I’ve got some carpentry, and some plumbing and electrical skills.

So I’ve been doing quite a bit of handyman work up on Telegraph Hill, which has been nice. It’s kind of nice to have a blended work experience. It’s been great, and it keeps the work week so much more interesting.

JB: It’s what I always tell people. That’s definitely what keeps me showing up: the music, my clients, the gallery now….it keeps me interested, and keeps me jumping. What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned here at Tony’s?

JPJ: Family. Teamwork. Understanding great service.

And probably the number one thing is just being confident in myself. Something that I suffered with at a young age, and even into my early 40’s, was social anxiety. A lot of people don’t know that about me, because I’m pretty confident behind the bar. But I’ve taken some big steps, and overcome some major hurdles with social anxiety, to where I’m able to express myself behind the bar in a very confident manner.

JB: I don’t think anyone would guess that about you.

On a different tip, your dog has been sitting here with us so patiently. Where’d you get this girl? We’ve never met before.

JP Jacques and his dog Kearny in front of Tony's Pizza Napoletana

JP Jacques and his dog Kearny in front of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana on a recent afternoon. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JPJ: This dog is the love of my life. I love this little creature! Kearny is her name. I found her eleven years ago, up in front of my apartment on Kearny and Green Street. That’s when Fog Hill Market was still there, Hanna was the owner. It was kind of our little communal spot for everyone who lived up on the hill, and we’d all gather there.

One morning at 8:00, Hanna found her just walking the streets, when she was maybe three months old. He tied her to the fire hydrant, hoping that whoever she belonged to would come along and grab her, but it never happened. So Dave Kennedy fostered her for about two weeks, and every day she’d be in front of Fog Hill Market, just tied up to the hydrant, because Dave still had his two dogs. And I’d play with her every day.

Apparently there was a list of people who wanted this dog, but for some reason Dave Kennedy wanted me to have her. So one particular Sunday I was playing with her, and Dave said I should take her to the beach. I wasn’t sure if I was responsible enough, but I agreed to take her to the beach.

When I came back, Dave Kennedy was nowhere to be found. I had to be to work at Tony’s, and the clock was ticking. So I basically just locked her up in my apartment and went to work. I raced home after my shift at 11:30, to see if she had destroyed my apartment. And there she was curled up in a little ball on my bed. This smile came to my face, and I just knew at that moment that she was my dog. So Dave never got her back.

JB: That was his plan.

JPJ: Yes, apparently that was his plan. I made a promise to her when I first got her that I would take her to the beach every day, and give her a good life. I stood by my word, and to this day we go to Crissy Field every day. It’s her favorite place on Earth, and it’s also become one of my favorite places to be. It’s a sanctuary….its my special place.

JB: What a good dad.

JPJ: Hell yeah. There’s a back story, too. Dave Kennedy put her on a leash one day, and she led us to an apartment on Broadway and Kearny. There was a broken window, so Dave went down to the police department, and found out there had been a stripper and a drug dealer living in that unit. The stripper had overdosed, and the paramedics came, and they realized that this couple was illegally squatting this apartment.

She survived, and they came back that night and got all of their belongings, and threw Kearny on the street. We went back and looked through the window, and there was kibble scattered all over the floor, and just a single mattress on the ground.

JB: So you’re somewhat of an upgrade for Kearny. [Laughter]

JPJ: Yeah, right! Man, if Kearny could talk…

JB: So there are a couple of places where you and I tend to connect. Obviously I see you here, and once in a while over at Tony Nik’s. What are your favorite places in the neighborhood?

JPJ: Tony Nik’s, definitely. I work there, but it’s always been one of my all-time favorites. I’ve been going there for probably 30+ years. One of my favorites that has really grown on me over the last 3 or 4 years is Comstock. There’s something just super-sexy about that bar. You’ve got the split bar, and if you want you can sit on the sunny side and watch the people walk by. Have a late afternoon Negroni or an Anchor Steam. Or sit on the other side and listen to some jazz at 6 or 7 o’clock.

JP shows off his catch on the water

JP shows off his catch on a recent sunny afternoon on San Francisco Bay.

JB: Where do you like to eat around here, other than Tony’s?

JPJ: I’m definitely a big fan of Kokkari. It’s probably my favorite restaurant in San Francisco, it always has been. When people come to Tony’s, I always send them to Kokkari. It’s nice to have a connection there now: one of our ex-managers, Michele, works there these days.

JB: We’ve got the hookup.

JPJ: We do. Much easier to get a reservation!

But having grown up with a Spanish mother, Spanish food is very important in my life. So I do a lot of cooking at home. I’ve mastered the paella over this last two years of Covid craziness.

JB: My kitchen game has improved quite a bit, too. Thanks again for taking the time, JP.