Neighborhood A-Listers

by Katie Sweeney | photos by Derek Yarra

Despite being a crowded, tech-driven metropolis, San Francisco is a place where the sense of community is great, the local businesses are supported, and the inclusion of everyone is celebrated—essentially, it’s a small town disguised as a big city. In each neighborhood, the people are the heartbeat that pumps life into everything from upscale restaurants to commonplace dry cleaners. It’s the crossing guard near the elementary school you walk by on your way to work who always says hello. It’s the barista at the artisanal coffee shop who knows exactly how you prefer your morning latte. It’s the receptionist at the boutique fitness studio who greets you by name. It’s the bartender at your local watering hole who asks how your sister is doing at school. These people turn our big city into a small town. Here’s a few friendly faces you may have seen around your neighborhood.

The Island Groove, Nob Hill

The Tonga Room

There’s only one band in San Francisco whose signal to take the stage is a downpour of indoor rain. It’s the Island Groove, a group that performs every Wednesday through Sunday on a floating barge in the middle of a pool surrounded by tiki enthusiasts, diners and hotel guests. The four-man outfit—Dean Revelo, Nito Medina, Nel Tellez and CJ Simbre—has been rocking the boat at the Fairmont’s famous Tonga Room for the past 10 years. Like the tiki cocktails and island-inspired decor, the Groove’s feel-good music is an essential aspect of the Tonga Room. It’s what allows patrons to let loose, get down on the dance floor and leave inhibitions at the door. “We’ve got lots of stories. And all of these stories have one thing in common: The tiki drinks at the Tonga Room. They are strong, for sure,” singer Simbre says. “There was one particular wedding entourage who surrounded each side of the pool. Groomsmen, bridesmaids, the best man and matron of honor, all decked out in tuxedos and bridesmaid dresses. Before we knew it, they were all in the pool, splashing and having a great time with one another.” While the band doesn’t encourage anyone to jump in the pool, the raw enthusiasm of some guests makes for a memorable daily grind. “We pride ourselves by turning those moments into memories,” Simbre says. “We’ve been a part of birthday celebrations, retirement parties, graduation parties, first dates, marriage proposals. It is truly humbling and a blessing to be able to bring happiness to people’s lives by doing what we love to do, even if it is for that one night.”

Ellen Herlihy, Noe Valley

24th Street Cheese Company

Although it’s called the 24th Street Cheese Company, the tiny Noe Valley shop sells much more than cheese. Some could say it sells a lifestyle—specifically that of a globe-trotting gourmand—and no one exemplifies this more than the storefront’s head cheese monger. “We’re not just a cheese shop, by the way,” says Herlihy of the 40-year-old retailer. “We’re an epicurean goods shop, so we have all kinds of goods, from olive oils to exquisite salts to caviar.” Hearing Herlihy describe the company’s products is like going on a culinary journey—there’s cockles from Spain, aged balsamic vinegar from Italy, and cheese from everywhere: France, Switzerland, Croatia, Portugal, Vermont, California, etcetera. Herlihy travels the globe in search of delicious ingredients and brings them back to the store. “I like to procure stuff to eventually purvey to people,” she says. “I like the satisfaction of introducing things to them.” With its handwritten chalkboards, shelves crowded with product and longtime staff members like Herlihy, there’s an Old World quality that’s also decidedly San Franciscan. Case in point: Their honey comes from a local hypnotherapist’s backyard, and Herlihy’s favorite customer is an eccentric surrealist painter who hand-makes her own angel cards. “She’ll have you pick a card and it’s your spirit for the day,” Herlihy says. “It’s a community feeling of knowing your neighbors, recognizing faces, introducing new things to them”—and that’s what makes the Cheese Company so special.

Tom Sweeney, Union Square

The Sir Francis Drake Hotel

On a good day, Sweeney has his picture taken 500 times. Although he’s not internationally known, he’s a celebrity in his own right in San Francisco. Sweeney is the legendary doorman, clad in a Beefeater costume, at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel on Powell Street. Everyone—from guests entering the hotel to tourists riding the cable car up Powell Street—wants to take a selfie with the bona fide star. For 41 years, Sweeney has greeted hotel goers, opening doors and handling luggage—all with a smile on his face and a ready joke. He loves his job today as much as he did when he started at age 19. “Being outside a historic hotel and having the cable cars come by right in front every nine minutes. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Sweeney says. “It’s just a great street to be on. I love it because every day is a new audience of people. Everybody is in a great mood.” He does admit that things have changed since 1976—“We didn’t deal with homeless when I started”—but he still believes SF, where he was born and raised, “is a great city.” An avid runner who is in spectacular shape, Sweeney is an integral part of the Sir Francis Drake experience. “It’s been unbelievable. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Sweeney says of the fanfare. There’s a Sweeney-Tini at the Starlight Room and another cocktail, the Sweeney Tom, at Scala’s Bistro. His face is on all 417 room keys as well as luggage tags, water bottles, posters and pins. He’s been in parades, on television shows and in commercials. Simply put, he’s a San Francisco icon.

Paul McManus, Cow Hollow

Bus Stop

Like many good barkeeps, McManus is a man of few words. Ask him what he loves the most about the 18 years he’s spent working at the Bus Stop in Cow Hollow and he simply replies, “People.” Yet to be an adored bartender, one must be personable—and “Paulie,” as he’s known to regulars, is as likable as they come. McManus is laid-back, humble and hardworking. In some ways, he personifies the saloon, which is an everyday bar. With 18 TVs, it’s the sort of place where neighbors come to watch a game and enjoy a beer. There is nothing pretentious about the Bus Stop—there’s no craft cocktails or elaborate wine list. It’s simple drinks made by a friendly staff. It’s the type of place that locals return to again and again because they know they can count on it. A bar where you go when times are good and bad. “I was working the day of the parade for the first World Championship. It was bedlam,” McManus reminisces. “I was there by myself and the place was just absolutely crazy. On the other side of the coin, I remember working on the day of 9/11 and people were reacting to what was happening and actually being in shock.” Like the best barkeeps, McManus understands what people need. “You engage the people who come in,” he says.

Robert Guerra, West Portal

Guerra Quality Meats

Guerra doesn’t consider himself a butcher. “We’re not butchers, we’re retail meat-cutters—that’s what my father always used to say,” he explains. Along with his brother and cousin, Guerra is doing what people used to do when times were simpler: He’s running the family business. That business happens to be the beloved 64-year-old Guerra Quality Meats, a West Portal mom-and-pop that sells everything from salami sandwiches to veal cutlets. Many things about the place remain rooted in the past—it’s one of the only union butcher shops left in the city—and yet it has evolved to stay up with the times. “We brought in Italian-imported goods, pastas, produce, wines,” he says. “The deli has become a very intricate part of our shop. We opened up a new hot food takeout shop on 14th.” Guerra’s feeds the neighborhood with local poultry, lamb, and fish and beef produced in the U.S. And Guerra himself is something of a local celebrity. The handsome Italian says, “I can’t go down West Portal Street without knowing 90 percent of the people on the street.” His team is just as charming and quick to provide tips on how to make the perfect carbonara or pot roast. Although his twin daughters are only nine, the next generation is primed to continue on Guerra’s legacy. “My nephew just came in, he’s 23 years old, so we’re training him to run the business. We all want to retire eventually, and we do want to see this carry on.”

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