The man behind the bar at The Polo Lounge is as classy and colorful as the bar itself
Where can you hear the music of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and polkas played on an accordion, under the same roof? A bigger-than-life Cheers-type bar on South Virginia, starting its ninth year of business, called The Polo Lounge.
“I’m a saloonkeeper,” says owner Frank Perez.
The legendary New York restaurateur Toots Shor told Perez many a year ago, “If you sell whiskey, kid, you’re a saloonkeeper.” And that’s been Perez’s vocation for 55 years.
There’s a cast of real characters, regulars, at The Polo more colorful than the players from the TV sitcom take-off on a Boston bar. You’ve got gum-shoe Lou, the P.I. and former NSA operative during Vietnam, and Classic Car Bob, whose ’58 Buick, a convertible Road Master, is perfectly restored, and Construction Keith, who has no use for politics or politicians, Salsa Jack, who adds a touch of class when ordering the most common beer, Budweiser, by asking for a “St. Louis Red.” You’ve got the boys from Coldwell Banker; the Prince of Pasta, humble Paola; and a Venus de Milo, Julia.
And then there is the entertainment, never a cover charge. Four nights a week, there’s live music. There’s no generation gap at this watering hole. The clientele range in age from 21 to well beyond octogenarians.
“This is more than a bar, it’s really a traditional cocktail lounge and cabaret,” says Perez. “It’s a place where everyone feels welcome, and everyone gets along.”
“The King of Reno” Corky Bennett plays Wednesday nights beginning at 7 p.m. This keyboard whiz and internationally acclaimed accordion player brings in a senior crowd with all the big band favorites, and when he straps on the squeeze box, you bet the “Beer Barrel Polka” will roll out a few dancers. But mostly the folks come to listen and remember when. Bennett has written a book, Murder at The Polo Lounge, available from Amazon.
“I’m so proud of what we’ve done here for the seniors in town,” says Perez. “Its the one place they can come every week and dance and listen to the musical memories of their time.”
On Thursday nights starting at 7 p.m., Steve “Steve D” DiNicola has a Sinatra impersonation voice. He’s good, and will bring out the dancing crowd, everything from swing to a little rock ’n’ roll. And then on Friday and Saturday nights, beginning at 9 p.m., it’s Johnny Lipka and Andrea, the Gemini Duo. This brings in the 20- and 30-something crowd til the wee hours of the morning. Perez’s daughter, Gina, picks up the late night crowd around midnight and manages until closing when Perez goes home for his “beauty rest.”
If there’s one thing you can’t help but notice the minute you walk in the door, it’s the gallery of photographs that cover most of the available space on the wall throughout the establishment. More than 177 tell the pictorial anthology of Perez’s life behind the bar. Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, sports-types like Joe Montana, Jim Plunkett, Stan Musial and San Diego Charger veteran Pete Lazetich, who pops in from time to time. If the walls could talk, the stories they could tell, and if you ask Perez, he has a memory and a story on each one that will mesmerize you.
There’s the topless one of Carol Doda of the Condor Club in San Francisco’s North Beach—“her breasts would precede her into a room!” And there’s Sonny and Cher, broadcast legends like Jon Miller of Sunday Night Baseball, the late Bill King of the Raiders, and Oakland A’s and SF Giants great Hank Greenwald. Caricatures of local characters like Michael Kerivan of Harrah’s Steakhouse and Harry Spencer, who put the Mapes Hotel on the map back when. And Perez’s favorite pictures are of Gena, his cherished bride and very much that woman behind the man.
Perez grew up in South San Francisco and was an all-star first baseman for South San Francisco High. Later, he would go on the throw batting practice for the Giants in Candlestick Park. After high school, he worked for Pan Am, then Jay Biggs, a clothing store, which accounts for his impeccable appearance at all times. In 1958, he was drafted into the Army. Perez got stationed in Hawaii. But it wasn’t because of luck. He was put there because he could play baseball, and they needed a left-handed pitcher.
After the military in 1959, Perez went to work at the Roaring Twenties Saloon in San Francisco. He started as a door man and bouncer; the bar business was now in his blood. His first place was in a small cocktail lounge in San Francisco called Tiddly. He opened it with a partner, Jack Carney, a radio DJ for KSFO. A great memory from that place—he hosted Barbra Streisand’s 21st birthday party.
A stint at Hamm’s Brewery as the PR guy, next came Roland’s on-the-Marina in San Francisco, a high energy, classy cocktail lounge. The first Polo Club opened in Burlingame, Calif., in 1969, and many transplants in Reno from the Bay Area remember it well. Baseball players like Willie McCovey of the Giants were regulars.
Perez tried something new in 1974, an Italian restaurant, called Grazziano’s, in San Francisco, but it was the bar in the blood that made him leave. His first disco, at the time John Travolta was making the polyester jumpsuit popular, was Country Road in San Francisco. In 1975 came Grouchos in San Mateo, Calif., a rock ’n’ roll club. Keystone in Palo Alto in ’76; the club went from neighborhood bands to big name bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Blondie, Grateful Dead, Eddie Money, and the Ramones.
Perez made a side-trip to Vegas and a disco club, then back to SF to open The San Francisco Bay Street Bar on the water front with partner Gino Del Prete, who opened one of the first topless clubs in America, the Condor Club. (Remember the picture of Carol Doda on the wall?) In ’87, he hosted a TV talk show, even rode an elephant down Market Street to visit San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos.
That same year, Perez decided to leave the Bay Area and got a job at Caesar’s in South Lake as the manager of the Primavera restaurant. He worked there until Caesar’s closed down in 1994. The next stop was his restaurant, Joe Garlic’s in Carson City. The great flood of New Year’s Eve 1997 destroyed the place. He went to work for the Atlantis as the manager for the Seafood Steakhouse until 2001, followed by a short stint at the Siena. But the bar business was calling, and in 2003, he opened The Polo Lounge. What a ride for one so young at 76 years.