Here come the regulars
East Sacramento’s BonnLair, a cozy British-style neighborhood pub, celebrates 20 years of friendship, soccer and beer
“Yeah, those are wrong,” said Dave Boyet, who owns BonnLair with his wife, Bonnie. “We opened January 29, 1994; ’93 was when we spent most of the money. In hindsight, that poster was a mistake, wasn’t it? I’m really not a marketing guy.”
No, he is not.
And that’s just one of the charms of Sacramento’s most perfect casual tavern. As Sacramento, and pop culture in general, trends toward louder, bigger, more electric styles, BonnLair, on J Street between 36th and 37th streets, remains what it has always been: an earnest haven of community cheeriness and a place where you become a regular by walking in the door.
Calling anything a Cheers-like bar has become a cliché, so let’s just say in the search for neighborhood bars, this pub with no pretensions, a laid-back disposition and a sly sense of humor is the holy grail.
“We just wanted to make a living,” Boyet said. “This was where we wanted to hang out.”
This is where a lot of people have wanted to hang out for two decades, including the hundreds of dependable regulars (some have their own mugs on hooks above the bar), the people who moved away from Sacramento but come back often, the Sacramento State University students and other rookies who drop in and find an authentic British pub. (It actually is. More on that in a bit.) And they seem to end up becoming entangled in each other’s lives.
“So many of us have become friends, real friends, not bar friends,” said Jenny Willis. She was hanging out in the back patio on a recent Friday night. “Weddings, graduations, funerals—parties, of course—we all show up for each other.”
“Later on, we all sleep in the same bed,” said Fritz Wagner with a deadpan delivery.
“It can get awkward,” Willis said.
OK, people can get silly, too. That’s kind of the point.
“You just come in and instantly relax,” said Christina Morgado, another in that back-patio group. She’s a Sacramentan but was visiting from her current home in Salzburg, Austria. “And the age goes from 21 to 88, but no one seems out of place. Everyone treats everyone like they’re regulars.”
A strong soccer dependence runs through the pub, too, like BonnLair’s insistence on opening for every World Cup match—even at 4 a.m.—and its two decades of mounting local teams.
It sponsors teams made up of bar patrons and friends (who, naturally, become bar patrons) and of kids of customers and friends.
“It’s pretty rare to find somebody in town who plays and hasn’t played for or against Celtic,” Boyet said. The teams started with the name Celtic, introduced Young Celtic for the youth teams, then when Boyet and others turned 40, they added Celtic Old Boys.
“When we hit 50,” he said, “we became Celtic Relics.”
The celebration for all of this runs from Friday, January 24, through Sunday, January 26, with lots of food, specials, silliness and, well, beer. Like every day there, really.
In those 20 years, BonnLair has never been closed, not for holidays, blackouts (it has a hand-crank cash register) or even a wedding. (Staff locked the front door to stop interruptions, but the back door and bar were open.)
BonnLair, for all its hominess and nonmarketing charm, is also something of a groundbreaker for Sacramento. It was the city’s first no-smoking bar (and, ironically, because Boyet built a smoking porch out front, the pub and porch now attracts smokers who have just a few places where they can smoke and drink their beer), it helped introduce the region to some of the great beers of Europe, and it became a local template for how to do pubs right.
And all Boyet wanted was a place to hang out. It was an idea he got when he was living in south London.
“There was a pub near where I lived,” he said. “It was run by a family, everybody knew everybody, the sons were working there. I didn’t know anybody, but I would go in and it was always great.”
That was in the early 1980s, when Boyet was a professional dancer, mostly doing character dance, which is a something of a combination of ballet and classical folk dance. He toured the United States and Europe and taught at the San Francisco Ballet, and that is definitely not a usual path for the guy-grows-up-to-own-bar-in-old-neighborhood story.
Here’s the short version: Boyet was a collegiate runner at Sacramento City College and then UC Santa Barbara. He was an athlete, and he was fit. After college, working in the corporate world, he met a girl.
“There’s always a girl, isn’t there?” he said. He met her at a wedding, went to watch her dance in San Francisco, and thought, “I’m as good as those guys.”
Turned out, he was. He left his job to dance, moving to Los Angeles, then London, then San Francisco, dancing as a pro for 15 years. He married the girl and divorced by the time he was 27. That was when he discovered that London pub.
“I was thinking this would work in East Sac,” he said. “A dancer has a short career. I wasn’t 30, but I knew I wanted to open a pub.”
In the middle of his dancing life, he reconnected with Bonnie. They’d been an item back in Kit Carson Middle School, also in East Sacramento. She’d also been married and divorced. They got married in 1985, and by the end of the decade, were in Sacramento planning for that pub.
Boyet poured through newspaper want ads (reminder: No Craigslist. No Google. No Internet.), looking for pieces that might add up to a publike bar. Then he saw an ad that said, “British pub for sale.”
“I went, ’Huh? What?’” Boyet said. “’A whole pub?’”
A wealthy woman who lived in Sacramento was moving back to her native South Africa. She’d bought an interior of an English pub, had it shipped to Sacramento and planned to ship it to South Africa for a room in her new home. She measured the house. It was too big.
Boyet bought it but was nowhere near ready to open his own place. Instead, he stored it with his mother, who by then had moved to West Sacramento.
“For a couple years,” Boyet said, “my mom’s garage was the best looking pub in Sacramento.”
That pub is the majority of BonnLair’s interior, which has a cozy bar, high-backed wood booths, two living-room areas, lots of medium-dark wood accents, gentle lights and a general sense it could have been built by elves.
“It’s all so homey,” said Casey Wadle, a longtime bartender there. “The vibe of the place kind of makes people behave. Subconsciously, you just know this isn’t a bar for shots or screeching.”
Actually, it’s only a bar for beer and wine. No spirits. It’s also a family operation. At the beginning, Dave and Bonnie tended bar; Dave’s sister, Janine, was their first manager; and their twin sons, Shawn and Conner, both tended bar when they turned 21.
Boyet had been collecting pub-appropriate knickknacks in Europe, but when BonnLair opened, decided not to use them. All he hung up were three framed pictures over booths across from the bar.
“We just waited for people to bring us stuff,” Boyet said. “That felt more natural. Like those two plates with pictures of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. They belonged to Betty’s mom.”
Betty would be Betty Madden, and if anyone embodies the spirit of BonnLair, it’s her. Madden, now in her early 70s, is from the neighborhood, has been coming for almost all those 20 years, and she hangs out with everyone, including some of the youngest regulars. She was the first to get a personal mug over the bar.
“I’m safe here,” she said. “These people keep me young.”
“Not that young,” one of her “friends” said.
If you boiled down BonnLair, you’d get this: When Madden got divorced a few years ago, she had one big concern. She wanted to be the one with BonnLair visiting privileges. He got the divorce. She got the bar.
“Best deal I ever made,” she said.