It’s impossible to forget Tony Lioce. He’s sweet, funny and talkative, and if he hasn’t had a haircut recently, he looks a little bit like Albert Einstein. But beyond that, you can tell he truly enjoys what he does. After working in the newspaper world for 30+ years, he’s now behind the stick for a couple happy hour shifts each week at Specs (my favorite bar in the world), and one 6 AM opening shift at Vesuvio—and it seems he couldn’t be happier.
I sat down with him one afternoon at Specs to find out why he loves bartending, what his thoughts are on the future of dive bars, and how it was he got to write Lou Reed’s Obituary in the New York Times.
Broke-Ass Stuart: How long have you been bartending, Tony?
Tony Lioce: Well, I bartended when I was a kid, I bartended in college, and for a while, in the late ‘70s, I actually owned a bar with two other guys in Providence, Rhode Island, for about six months. But, it kinda went up our noses. Then I sorta stopped when I—I got married in 1980. And, we had the kids, and then I got out of it. I concentrated on the newspaper life, and being a dad and husband and all that. And then in…I don’t know when the f*** it was, in 2007, or 6: I got laid off by the newspaper and I thought “Well, now what am I gonna do?” I was lucky enough to get hired at Vesuvio, and that job turned into this job—you know—that opened the door to this place, so now I’m back at it. The long answer: I just gave you [laughing]. The short answer is on and off since 1966, and, um, steady for about 8 years, now.
BAS: Where you from originally and how long have you been in California?
TL: Originally: Providence, Rhode Island. We moved to Southern California in ‘87, and we moved up here in 2000. But we’ve been hanging around here—I mean, I’ve been drinking in Vesuvio since 1975.
BAS: Oh wow.
TL: You know, I’d always come up here on vacations. San Francisco and New Orleans were always my two favorite places.
BAS: You wrote for the LA Times for a long time?
TL: I edited for them. I started off at the Providence Journal, and was there until ‘87, and then I got a chance at the LA Times and figured, “Well, sh*t. I can’t not go, it’s like the Rolling Stones calling.” So we went. They were paying me all this money, so I figured f*** it, let’s see what it’s like in the big leagues. So, I did it for a while, but I hated living down there. And then, I got a chance to work for the San Jose Mercury News, and everybody said, “Why would you leave the LA Times and go to the San Jose—?” And, I said, “Because I want to get the f*** out of Southern California and live up in the bay area.”
BAS: So you weren’t writing; you were editing?
TL: I was editing, yeah. I did some writing for them but, on the side. When I was in Providence, I was a writer until the end, and then I became the arts editor of the paper for the last year or so. I got hired by the LA Times as an editor, and I got hired by the Mercury News as an editor. But I did—I did some writing, you know. A couple of things just to keep your hand in it.
BAS: Did you write about bars?
TL: Yeah, I wrote about bars, I wrote about music, I wrote about…that was kinda it. You know, theater a little bit, movies a little bit. But, but mostly kinda rock ‘n’ roll and bars, yeah.
BAS: Now, I remember you wrote the eulogy for Lou Reed in the New York Times. How did that come about?
TL: I had hung out with him back before the Velvet Underground was playing a lot and 20 people would go see them, we’d sorta hung out, not a lot, but enough, that I had stories about him. And I’d mentioned it to somebody who I’d worked with who’d gone onto the New York Times. She said, “Gee you know, you oughtta write that. Let me see what I can do.” She talked to some editor, and the editor said, “Yeah, I’ll take a look at it,” so I wrote it and she bought it.
BAS: Do you still work the 6 AM shift at Vesuvio?
TL: Yeah, Sundays at 6 AM, that’s it.
BAS: What’s it like opening the bar at 6 AM?
TL: It’s great because I get all the people from the Hustler Club, and they are great people.
BAS: Are they people who work there?
TL: Yeah. And what happens is, they work until 5 AM; they have to stop selling booze at 2, but they can stay open ’til 5. So, they’re dealing with the kind of people from 2 AM to 5 AM who are willing to sit in the strip bar and pay $30 for a ginger ale. When they get finished, they’re ready for a cocktail. [laughs]
BAS: Yeah. And they have the money to do it, too.
TL: [laughing] And they’ve got the money to do it! So, they’re a bartender’s dream and they’re great guys, and the women come in too, and they’re just really—I mean you know, some nights people say “Oh, well—they’re strippers,” like they’re some sort of underclass. But they’re the nicest people! They’re totally polite, total professionals…as far as drinking in a bar.
BAS: And they tip well…
TL: They tip like, like insane. Things you have to worry about on a Sunday morning shift like that are the cocaine cowboys that’ve been up all night. And, they might not be looking for trouble. If I’m sitting by myself in the bar, and a couple of those guys come in and start getting edgy, I’ve got a posse of five huge professional security guards, from the strip club, who just protect my ass. People say: “Why don’t you give up that shift?” First of all, I make a lot of money, and I really like it. I mean, those guys are my friends. And then, I come over here to my real job on Mondays and Tuesdays. [laughs]
BAS: So, do you have any particularly insane or crazy stories from your years bartending?
TL: Oh, God…they’re mostly about this bar because this bar is such an anachronism.
BAS: I love this bar.
TL: But it’s so weird, it’s one of the last of the real neighborhood places, the other places are sorta turning into these mixology palaces or turning into the Buena Vista, and they’re losing that balance of locals and tourists that they had for a long time. This place is one of the only places that’s local enough to know everybody in here, but still welcoming enough that you can come in here from off the street.
But you asked about, like, weirdness—there’s a lot of eccentricity at this place. I remember one day, I came in a couple hours early, to set up. There was a knock on the door, and there was this ancient Chinese guy standing outside who looked like a cartoon caricature of an old Chinese guy. He had like the ponytail and the hat; he really looked like a caricature and I thought, “Who is this guy?” And I said “What do you want?” And he responded in broken English “I come in—I get to come in and drink free, and I work here.” I’d been here like two years, three years, and I’d never seen this guy, so I said “No, I’m sorry pal. You can’t drink free, you can’t come in, and you don’t work here.” And he goes “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Call Jackie, call Jackie.” So, I called the then-manager, Jackie, and said, “Hey, there’s some crazy Chinese guy outside. He—” Jackie responds, “Oh yeah, that’s Sim. Let him in; it’s fine.” And apparently, he was paid to paint the sign.
BAS: Oh wow.
TL: And he’s some guy that apparently lives, like, all over the world; he lives a couple of months here or a couple of months there, and he’s been coming here since way before my time. He was here about two months, and it took him two months to paint that sign [points to a small sandwich board]. He’d sit in here and he’d drink cognac. And, they’d say “Don’t give him any more than three drinks, because he gets really f****ed up.” So he’d come and he’d have three drinks, he’d sit here every day, nicest guy, you know, and he’d paint about that much of the sign [pointing to a tiny area] and then put it away, and come back the next day. So I just thought that was, you know, sorta strange.
BAS: That’s amazing. That sounds so… Specs’.
TL: I mean, it’s like, I can’t imagine that happening at Bourbon and Branch. [laughing] You know?
BAS: Do you like bartending?
TL: I love it. I mean, I would do it more if I could, if more shifts opened up, I’d grab em.
BAS: What do you love about bartending?
TL: I just like the interaction. Especially in a place like this, where you can bullsh*t with people and have a good time. One of the reasons I don’t do more shifts at Vesuvio is that I spend too much time bullshitting with people—I’m not fast enough. Over here, it’s like the emphasis is more on giving people a good time, personality over technical expertise. And that’s what I like about it; you just strike up a conversation and you make a friend for a half hour.
Oh, yeah. And working here is great because Specs’ has that old commie union streak, and he pays us really well.
BAS: Wow. You guys part of Local 2?
TL: Yeah, this is the only bar I know where the bartenders are in the union, because the owner [Specs] insists on it.
BAS: Yeah, the only other bars that are union are probably all hotel bars.
TL: Yeah, as far as I know. I think somebody said there might be one other union bar up in the Sunset.
BAS: That’s fantastic. He [Specs] told me there used to be all union bars in the city.
TL: Oh yeah, it was a union city; it was a union town.
BAS: Yeah. He’s a character.
TL: He’s an amazing guy.
BAS: I didn’t know him before he got sick.
TL: I didn’t really know him that well either, and I don’t really know him that well now. I wish I knew him better. But, I know him enough to know: he’s really smart, and his heart’s in the right place, and he’s really got a sense of what’s important. You can see it reflected just in how this place is run, in how this place has not been allowed to turn into a 21st century cocktail bar. I mean he could do that in here, he could make a lot more money than he makes here now, if he wanted to. But, you know, he doesn’t do it.
BAS: The world needs places like this.
TL: It does, and he recognizes that. But, a lot of people don’t recognize that.
BAS: F*** those people.
TL: I know it. Specs would say, “Kiss my ass!” This is a real weird treasure, and you either get this place or you don’t. Some people come in here and go, “I don’t know, it’s kinda divey” and you say, “Yeah, that’s the point.”
BAS: It’s true, this is one of the only places in the world where you can have Jack Hirschman, but you can also have, like, a really pretty girl, too.
TL: Exactly. Weren’t you the one who said if you take your first date here—if she doesn’t like it, then you realize there’s no future?
BAS: Yeah, it’s not going to work out. It’s important to know.
TL: I’ve known my wife since, like, 1975; we’ve been married since 1980. On the first date, I took her to a bar in Massachusetts that was that kind of a bar. And I just said, “I’m going to take you to the Belmont.” If she likes the Belmont, there’ll be a second date. If she doesn’t like the Belmont, then it’s not going to work out. [laughing]
BAS: Apparently, she liked it.
TL: She loved it. It was great.
BAS: Do you think dive bars have a future in San Francisco?
TL: I don’t know, I’m really worried about it. I’m not sure that they do—I think that they do, at least around San Francisco. I mean, I think they might in Oakland, but even that is getting tough. When I moved to Berkeley in 2000, there were five really good bars that I could walk to from my house. I thought I was in heaven. They’re all gone, every one of them is gone.
BAS: That’s wild.
TL: So, I think—yeah, I am. I’m kind of worried about the idea of San Francisco being the kind of place where you can’t just walk from cool bar to cool bar, which is what it was for years. When I started coming here in ‘75, that’s what I used to do. I’d go to City Lights, buy a book, buy a pack of Marlboros, go over and sit at the old Enrico’s, and have a couple of Irish coffees, order some tortellini and a bottle of wine, smoke my Marlboros, and read my book. Then go over to Vesuvio, have a couple of more drinks, then go to all these great little bars. And like, they’re all gone. Or, if they’re still there, they’re not the same kind of little neighborhood clubhouses that they used to be.
I’d say I’m not optimistic about dive bars in the city. It’s not that I don’t think dive bars aren’t a good business model anymore, I think that, you know, people are going to get tired of these glamorous upholstered cesspools, and they’re gonna look for a dive bar. I think the pendulum’s going to swing back, and I think the rent’s prohibitive, but I think if you could get a reasonable deal…I don’t think dive bars are a thing of the past. I think people are going to miss dive bars when they’re gone. And, if you can do like these guys are doing, and you can open one successfully, I think you’re going to do fine.
Featured image: “ANTHRO136SP11_VVO_Cam23-03.jpg” by “Digital Archaeology” via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0