View from the bar
Talking whisky, “Baseball Jesus” and 25th anniversary with Duffy’s regulars
This piece is written as sort of a mandatory acknowledgement of the 25th anniversary of Duffy’s Tavern, the iconic (whatever that means) pub in downtown Chico that serves a cross section of imbibers and has become Chico’s quintessential locals’ bar. I was asked to pen this piece because over the last quarter century I’ve spent a good deal of my time (and money) patronizing the joint.
This is for good reason. I truly enjoy the ambiance created by patrons as well as the wall-hangings, which include the 60-year-old Playboy centerfold of Marilyn Monroe and the boxed guitar of late local musician Matt Hogan. My favorite is the Jesus with a baseball bat piece, created by former local artist Byron Maes when he worked as a store artist for Tower Books. The foamcore poster was a promotion for John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany (which, coincidently, was published 25 years ago).
Maes happens to be the stepson of Pageant Theatre co-owner Tim Giusta, whose partner at the theater is Roger Montalbano, one of the founders of Duffy’s and current co-owner with Doug Roberts.
Former co-owner Kelly Meagher, who also owns, along with Roberts, the building that houses Duffy’s, is a Friday regular. He said what makes the bar’s personality is not the owners and landlords but rather the bartenders, doormen, janitors and customers.
In honor of the anniversary, I interviewd a few of the bar’s lunchtime regulars, a silver-haired collection of social intellectuals, including two one-time members of a group called “The West-enders,” who patronized LaSalles before it changed ownership and began catering to the college crowd. Fortunately, that happened right around the time Duffy’s was born.
Kent Wooldridge is a retired Chico State professor who ’s been coming to Duffy’s regularly for about a dozen years. He said his relationship with the place began soon after he went through a divorce.
“I had time on my hands so I tried various places in town including Nash’s and the Black Crow. And then I came in here and [former bartender] April Boone was behind the bar. Right away I thought that these are really interesting people, so here I am. It’s remarkable how Doug has managed to consistently have such interesting people tending bar.”
One of those interesting people is current employee Tom Szczepanski, who has been at the bar for eight years and was originally hired as a doorman.
“I needed a job so I came over here and dropped my résumé off and had an interview with Doug and Roger. Roger was stoked because I went to his alma mater, Acalanes High School in Lafayette. He picked up my résumé, saw my schooling and said, ‘Oh sweet, hired.’ And Doug’s like, ‘Hold on, hold on, hold on. Let’s ask some questions here first.’
“It’s been very much a family experience. Doug looks after you, Roger looks after you. The staff are like brothers and sisters. We get along very well. I mean, we bicker just like siblings do, but it’s a very comfortable, welcoming place.”
Attorney Ken Roye, a former LaSalles West-ender, said he’s patronized the place since it opened.
“It has several layers of life,” he said. “In the early part of the day, we show up. We’re the old people. Then at night, a younger crowd comes in. It really serves the purpose for different generations. This is like our clubhouse. We meet every day, read the newspaper, talk sports and politics and discuss women.”
Attorney and another former West-ender, Denny Latimer, questions, good-naturedly, the authenticity of the anniversary, noting when the bar first opened its liquor license allowed only the sale of beer and wine. He began coming to the place once its license was upgraded.
“It is not the 25th anniversary,” he said. “You’ve got to start when they had whisky in here and they haven’t had it for 25 years. It’s a phony anniversary is what I’m telling you.”
But he does respect the place.
“The bottles behind the bar are polished like religious artifacts,” he said. “The bartenders are like priests. They must be obeyed.”