You gotta love a good comeback story, especially when a place is 117 years old and embedded deeply in so many people’s memories, for decades. Thanks to my North Beach wing man tipster, I learned the iconic SAVOY-TIVOLI is reopening soon. Mention the Savoy (or the Tivoli) to any longtime San Franciscan, and you’ll likely hear all kinds of tales. I remember it was one of the first bars I ever went to way back in the early 90s—it had a reputation for being a little lax on checking I.D.s because it was always so busy (bless). I loved the European vibe it had, and there was always a crowd spilling out onto Grant Avenue—it was such a scene. It makes you wonder what the crowd is going to be like now—and we’re lucky to ponder it!
The Tivoli opened in 1906—it appears the building was constructed before the Great Quake and survived, which is why it was able to reopen so quickly. I was told it used to be an Italian boarding house, with fishermen living above and eating in the restaurant downstairs. The word “Savoy” was added to the name in 1967. Over the years, it was known for being quite the Beat and bohemian and hippie hangout—as the bar would say, “A favorite of Hippies and Beats, Punks and Preps, Ladies and Gents.” I loved that you would always meet new people there on the patio, it was such a social and eclectic vibe, may it continue.
Did you know it was the original home of Steve Silver’s “Beach Blanket Babylon?” (I didn’t have time to do much fact-checking, and I want to dive deeper on the Tivoli’s history, but you can read some retrospective and historical pieces here, here, and here.)
Previous owner Claire Kozel sadly passed away in July 2021 (she was 88!)—she ran the bar with her partner Juan Cerda for years—and her son Paul Kozel was then appointed owner by the bar’s revocable trust. Since Paul lives in Miami, he reached out to his friend Tito Avila (who’s in the Bay Area) to be part of the ownership team. Avila was a bit reluctant at first—his background is in startups, and the space had fallen into quite a state of disrepair over the years—but he says, “The more I learned about the 117-year-old history, I realized I would be lucky to be part of it.” He oversaw a massive purge of clutter—it ends up very little had been thrown away by the five families who have owned it for the past century-plus. It took three months to carefully wade through the trash and treasures in the basement, but fortunately many discoveries now get another life (including an exterior sign from the 50s that is now hanging over the stage).
Designer Craige Walters of C Walters Design (August 1 Five, Black Cat, Persona) has his office above the Tivoli, and he told me it’s where he got his first job in SF when he was 15: he used to set up the chairs for the cinema in the back by the bocce court a couple nights a week (he was paid two Tequila Sunrises and $20). Like I was saying…that place played a little fast and loose back in the day when Freddie Kuh owned it. It’s also where he met the love of his life and later wife, Jenny. It’s hard to even imagine anyone better for overseeing the bar’s refresh.
Avila and Walters were dedicated to maintaining the original look of the space—they want people to walk in and notice how great it looks, but not feel like it’s something different. It’s more of a restoration than renovation—they want to bring the Savoy Tivoli back to how it felt during its heyday 30 years ago, with the terrace bar, back bar, and stage. They had to do some major work to the floors and walls, but they took such good care to preserve what they could, and hired a muralist to help match what was on the walls before. The space now feels more open, the old bar is polished up, the palm trees are there, ditto the Art Deco lights, gold lettering is being added to the windows, and they’re ready to host some live music (although they have some limitations that date back to 20 years ago, they’re hoping to be able to prove things have changed with the new ownership). And did you know: the Ramones played there, in 1976?! They’ll be rotating artwork on the patio, and North Beach’s art mayor Jeremy Fish will have an upcoming show.
The general manager is David Sabo, who worked with some bar consultants and collaborated with their current bar team on 13 cocktails, plus three low-ABV and three no-ABV cocktails (and you have two bars to order them from!). There is also going to be a wine list that pays homage to the Savoy region in the Western Alps, featuring sparkling and still wines from the area. Tivoli (a town in Lazio, Italy) should see some representation as well!
Right now, they’re waiting for sign-off from the Health Department on a few things, and one of them is quite major (and utterly insane: the inspector wants them to enclose the iconic open-air patio—which we as a city who remembers and preserves the past will not stand, stay tuned). So, the opening date is up in the air right now, but they’re pretty much ready to go. I will keep you posted, and will have some pics of the interior to share soon.
They’re playing around with opening hours—they’d like to honor the space’s reputation as a place for night-shift folks to come in early in the morning, but who knows if that crowd even exists anymore. Build it and they will come? We’ll have to wait and see. 1434 Grant Ave. at Union.