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I was a San Franciscan long before I moved to the City. In fact, the path that led me to San Francisco started long before I was born when my grandparents left there almost sixty years ago.

My grandparents, 1954

In 1954 they cashed out for a brand new tract home in Sunnyvale. Six months earlier their suburban neighborhood had been an orchard, but the crop switched from cherries to ranch-style homes and the land became laced with a tangle of cul-de-sacs. It was the sort of neighborhood that must have been described by many people as “a good place to raise a family.”  The driveways sprouted new cars and the lawns stayed neat and green. In many ways, it was the Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best life incarnate. In the evenings the kids played in the streets and the neighbors dropped by to share a cigarette in the driveway, and on even wilder nights the gin and tonics would flow. Occasionally my grandparents tried their hand at Poker or Bridge, though they gave up on the latter after a few too many losses-one in particular, dealt by the Jobs family over in neighboring Los Altos after little Stevie had gone to bed.

Living the suburban dream, late 50s.

But my grandparents were raised in The City. They grew up in the outer Richmond, playing hooky out on China Beach. Eventually they discovered where the good bars were and learned which Municipal and Market Street Railway cars to take where. Even after they’d moved my grandfather kept his job in the city, riding the SP up the peninsula every morning and back down again after 4. For fifty years they had the San Francisco papers delivered to their house in Sunnyvale, morning and afternoon. They may have moved but they never truly left their home. San Francisco would always be “The City”  to them. It was their touchstone, the world pillar of their mapa mundi.

By the time I came along, my grandparents had built up a canon of stories and photographs that were regularly shared around the living room coffee table. To this wide-eyed child of the suburbs, the world they described was fantastic and seductive. It was filled with sharp hats, nightclubs, department stores, rationing, big bands and world’s fairs. In their stories I could hear the clink of drinks and the rolling wail of foghorns. I learned that we were a family of transplanted San Franciscans and that there was some real magic in this hometown of ours. I learned to call it South of the Slot before I knew where Market Street really was. I learned about The Park before I could have found it on a map. I learned to be nostalgic for The City without ever having lived there.

A night out on the town, 1943

There was one place in the City, however, that I really did know. A place whose smells I could recall from memory better than that of any home-cooked meal. A place whose cluttered walls I could describe for hours. A place where I knew the price per play on the jukebox and could pick the songs without checking the listings. Though we only visited twice a year at most, I considered myself a regular there. It was the Gold Spike, and I knew that it was somehow integral to who I was.

Let me clarify. The Gold Spike was a bar. But that doesn’t do it full justice. It was also what, at one time, was called a family-style restaurant, serving food that was affordable, plentiful and satisfying. The menu was neither modern nor fashionable; it was rich, starchy and unapologetic. There were booths in the rail-car-sized main room and a few tables in the quieter side room. In the passage between the two, where you could catch a glimpse into its tight and cluttered kitchen, you had to catch one of the two rushing servers in order to get your name onto the wait-list on the clipboard nailed to the wall. The tables were always full and there was always a wait.

But, again, I should clarify. The Gold Spike was really a bar. To my taste, most modern dining establishments are restaurants with bars. The balance between the two functions shifts slightly, but the description still holds. The Gold Spike was the opposite of this. It was a bar with a restaurant, and it never pretended to be anything else. In retrospect, it wasn’t really much of bar, at least not for booze aficionados. They never had a cocktail menu and there couldn’t have been more than a half dozen domestic beers on tap. There was, however, a signature cocktail: a Basque concoction known as a Picon Punch left over from an older time-perhaps the forties, when you couldn’t avoid family-style dinners and Picon Punches. At least not in North Beach. That’s where the Gold Spike was, on the southwest side of Columbus between Green and Washington Square. Its name was Western, its drink was Basque, and its food was Italian.

Its décor was something else altogether. For starters, it wasn’t easy to see because the walls were covered with business cards left by patrons. They were slipped into the edges of framed photographs and stuck into the light fixtures. Each bore some small inscription: “Great meal!”  “Dined Mar. 14, ’84”  “Thank you Paul.”  The ceiling was even more cluttered. There you could find enough browned, crumpled and pinned-up dollar bills to buy several rounds for the house. But if you could see through the clutter, the decorations did fit the place’s name. There were pick axes and gold pans behind those cards and bills. The lights were all old oil-lanterns fitted with electric bulbs and a massive glass-eyed moose head stood guard over the jukebox. A photograph on one wall showed the bar on the eve of the ’39 Fair filled with revlers duded out in their finest Western attire. Not much seemed to have changed since. Maybe a few extra taxidermied animals.

My grandparents’ last night at the Gold Spike

For some reason never explained to me, this was where our family convened in the City. It was probably just the last of the old places that my grandparents still recognized. So on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, this is where we came. As our favorite place in our favorite city, it was the center of the center of my family’s world. This was where, on my grandmother’s seventieth, my grandfather choked on a chicken bone and his brother-in-law calmly and swiftly delivered the Heimlich. This was where my aunt, uncle and cousins came for dinner one night only to be unwittingly seated in the next table over from my grandparents. This was where my mother nearly stormed out on my giggling father as he tried to explain that the sign above the bar (“IITYWYBMAD?” ) really did say “If I tell you, will you buy me a drink?”  This was where I, as a precocious ten year old, chatted with folks at the bar about San Francisco history and learned all the lyrics of “Everybody Loves Somebody,”  “Volare,”  and “Houston.”  This is where, grinning and beaming, I took my fellow Berkeley freshmen to dinner on our first evening out in the city.

Waiting for our table, mid 90s

And finally, this is where I came, in the Winter of 2006, when the Gold Spike closed its doors for good. I didn’t even try to get a table that night. I played the jukebox, slipped a red linen napkin into my pocket and drank a final toast to the empty seat at the end of bar, which was a house tradition there in the bar’s later years. Over three generations the Mechetti family had piloted the establishment through Prohibition, Beatniks and multiple tech-bubbles, but in the end they couldn’t make it through a building retrofit and a rent-hike. Thus went “the Spike.” 

My grandfather died a year later and my grandmother about two years after that. The next time I saw the place the two-story neon sign was gone, and the interior had been gutted. Through the window, the place looked smaller and the walls oddly bright and white. Today, the bar is a photo gallery and the side room is a jewelery shop. I’ve never been into either.

The Gold Spike today, or just 527 Columbus Ave. Only the black tile remains from the original Gold Spike.

Cities are changing entities. In some fundamental way, this is part of what makes them cities. By staying true to their character they leave thousands of cities in their wake. For some of us who have learned to love these wild and unruly places, the discomfort that comes with these changes partners with that love. For others it even fuels it. But for all of us, awareness of change is vital.

Today’s San Franciscans have a fine heritage of sentimentality to live up to. Time and time again their predecessors set the sentimental bar high. Yerba Buena, the days of ’49, the Barbary Coast, the pre-1906 City that Was, the three fairs, the ferries, the Fox, Playland, Winterland, the good-old South of Market, the good-old Fillmore, the good-old Haight, the good-old Castro, the International Hotel, Psycho Alley, Army Street-the list goes on. Each San Franciscan adds to it, building new San Franciscos on the remnants of older ones. Many San Franciscans embrace the sentimental vision, mourning and loving their city in one unified emotion of frenzied love. For them, the ghosts of all those San Franciscos mix and layer, and become the hallmark of this place they call home.

For me, it’s 527 Columbus, the Gold Spike. Now I’ve added it to the list too: another San Franciscan’s identity built on the shaky ground of yet another city that was. “[A]ll your San Franciscos will have to fall eventually and burn again.”  (Jack Kerouac, from “October in the Railroad Earth” )

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31 Comments

  1. Gareth says:

    Great article, I lived in sf in 2002-2005, many moments that I will never forget took place at the Goldspike, especially a shout out to Randy the best bartender that I’ve ever met.

  2. Paul Mechetti says:

    Devin: A very good friend sent me your article about the Gold Spike and I can’t express how touched I was. It was beautifully written by someone who understands the meaning and importance of family, heritage, tradition and community. There are so many things I miss about the Gold Spike but first and foremost I miss the wonderful customers- people like your grandparents (I recognized them in the photo) and yourself who really appreciated the history of the Spike. We were very fortunate to be a part of so many families’ special occasions. There were numerous times when bride and groom would stop by on their way from the church to the reception for photos because they got engaged at the Spike. It was heart wrenching to let the Spike go after 86 years and not a day goes by that I don’t miss it. It saddens me to see the changes in North Beach from when I was young. We, you and I, were lucky to be a part of something special, a family that places importance on history and tradition. Your article really made my day. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Paul Mechetti

    • Paul: What a (admittedly, belated) joy to read this response. I can think of no other person I would have been be more honored to have had this forwarded to. If you feel so inclined, I would greatly appreciate it if you would contact me at devin.mccutchen@gmail.com so that we could continue this conversation. I would love to talk with you about your family’s restaurant. Thank you. Devin McCutchen.

  3. Jimmy The Exploder says:

    Wonderful article. My wife and I ate there on our honeymoon several years ago. This piece really illuminates and makes me appreciate the history of the piece. Well done!

  4. Kris Ohler says:

    Nice Piece Devin. I also grew up 2 doors down from the McCutchens as I am Curt Gordons sister. I remember Bill, Jim and your grandparents. We had alot of fun on that street and their were alot of kids living there. I just got back from San Francisco last night. My husband had an appointment at UCSF. We went and saw Kezar Stadium, the old home of the Niners. You wrote a very nice story.

  5. Benji says:

    That a boy, Luther!

  6. Steven Arthur Nelson says:

    Bravo, Devin. Beautifully written and a wonderful evocation of San Francisco past and present. A piece worth quoting (or stealing) from. I had never seen a photograph of your grandfather before. I’m sure I’m not the first to remark on the resemblance to your pop —uncanny.

  7. Katie Schramm says:

    I would love this even if it wasn’t about my grandparents. I sure miss those stories. Here’s to Cliff and Maxine, and here’s to the Gold Spike.

  8. Becky Matthews says:

    Love it Devin. Well done!

  9. Bill McCutchen says:

    Thanks for the beautiful piece Dev. The Spike was the kind of place that could really feel like home away from home (I like Sharon’s third place idea). I was there after a Giants game sitting at the bar with some friends, when someone said they were hungry Paul went into the kitchen (it was already closed for dinner) and brought out a bowl of cioppino sauce and a loaf of bread. That’s really “family style”.

  10. Karen Wise Roselle says:

    Hello Devin,

    You’re a gifted writer! This is a beautifully written story and you really brought me back to those years. We lived across the street from the Gordons and your grandparents, who were my parents’ best friends in Sunnyvale. Maxine was a second mother to me as I lived there from ages 5 to 18. I have fond memories of many happy times when we would play, ride our bikes, and generally show off for the parents who were often chatting and laughing, having cocktails on one of the porches.

    A magical time and yes, it looked like a street in a Leave it to Beaver episode (I actually called the your grandparents the Cleavers from an early age), although the tapestry that was the combined personalities of this Elderberry Bunch was as varied and rich as could be. In 1999, your father, Jim, drove some of these Elderberry elders to my mother’s funeral and said, “I drove very carefully. I think I have about 600 years of life in my car.”

    Your grandparents were very, very special people and are in my heart still.

    Karen Wise Roselle

    • Ah yes, I’ve heard many a story about the Wises. I’m so glad that this gave you the excuse to think about my grandparents and the Elderberry Drive days.

  11. Vanessa Chan says:

    This is remarkably beautiful. You took me back and forth through the years and now I’m sad that I can’t go to get a drink at the Gold Spike. Keep writing – I’m looking forward to so many more! :)

  12. Curt Gordon says:

    Devin, nicely done. I grew up 2 doors down from your Grandparents, you described the times and Sunnyvale perfectly.

  13. Wonderful story Devin! It sounds like the Gold Spike was a true “third place” (http://www.pps.org/articles/roldenburg/). Thank goodness SF still is a city of “third places” (first place being where you live, second is where you work, third places are where you go to be part of your community). The English locals (pubs) were historically such places– bars mostly, but places to congregate. When many neighborhoods lose a vital third space such as this, the entire neighborhood can lose its cohesion. To me, it is the third places of SF that make this the vibrant city it is. Let’s hope as things change (as they will), SF can maintain this cohesive thread…

  14. Patrick Brundage says:

    I long for a Picon Punch.

  15. Rebecca Hu says:

    As a native San Franciscan, I think that you’ve definitely captured what it means to have the San Franciscan spirit, an intertangling of the past and present, ever-changing, yet always present.

  16. michelle young says:

    Devin, I absolutely love this piece. It gave me goosebumps! Thanks for transporting me into San Francisco for just a few minutes.

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