When Nicole DeWald, nicknamed “Blondie,” first visited the bar that would later be known by her moniker, she was afraid to step foot on Valencia Street.
Along with prostitutes and drug addicts, “I was dodging garbage bags being thrown out of the second and third story windows,” she remembers.
The facade of the building consisted entirely of black brick. The one peephole-like window was painted black too. She wasn’t exactly there by choice — she had been “flailing” in her college studies of drama and music when she was summoned by her mother, Ricci Cornell.
Cornell, a petite woman with a sonorous voice and a no-bullshit attitude who disappeared into the dark back of the bar as I sat down with DeWald, sensed her daughter had other talents. She made a phone call in 1990.
“She was like, ‘Hey, I just bought a bar and named it after you. You’re gonna run it,’” DeWald remembers.
When she arrived, she balked. Her reaction to the dark watering hole, which had been a bar under various owners since 1937, was refusal.
“Absolutely not. No. There is no way,” she remembers saying.
But there was. Though she was flung in the deep end, learning how to run a bar by trial and error at 21, the fact that Cornell owned the building helped see the bar through its first two years, during which there was virtually no business.
Meanwhile, Cornell let in the light, opening the front facade and installing long windows — a move that also allowed bartenders to monitor and discourage illicit activity out front.
Years later, DeWald convinced her mother to replace a brass tubing frame and a few short cocktail tables in the front with the narrow wooden bar in place today. The ceiling-mounted brass glass-rack and neon light accents on the interior, however, stayed — at Cornell’s behest. “She likes it, because she’s stuck in 1988,” DeWald teased.
The décor and the vibe still attract customers, despite their alleged retro style.
“It has a nice feel, it’s got the Cheers vibe going on,” said Tiffany Whipps, sipping on a glass of wine with a friend in the late afternoon. They, like several other patrons in the bar that day, were there because it was open — hours are from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. every other day.
“Every other place is closed despite their posted open hours,” said Ben Martinek, enjoying a beer on the mini patio out front. He pointed out the Mexican restaurant next door, the pizza joint across the street, a gastropub…all closed.
More compellingly, Blondie’s developed a reputation: Stiff drinks for a reasonable price (16-ounce martinis, served in a martini glass and the rest on the side in a water glass, cost about $14).
“It’s the best value in the city, and it’s a really good martini,” said Christian Dial. She and her friend Emily Desire agreed: “You only need one of these and you’re done.”
After its rough start, business picked up. DeWald remembers being constantly approached by strangers on the street who would greet her by name and ask her questions about her family and her personal life while she struggled to remember where she knew them from. Eventually, it clicked: Most were regulars from the bar, where she worked seven days a week. To help differentiate between bar regulars and other acquaintances, she limited herself to her nickname, “Blondie,” during work hours. While that helped her figure out where people approaching her on the street knew her from, it had its own minor consequences.
One day, a young couple walked in, wide-eyed and awestruck.
“Is it true? This place is owned by Blondie?” they wanted to know.
Bewildered, DeWald confirmed, only to have the couple congratulate her on an excellent show. It soon became clear they had mistaken her for the musician Debbie Harry, also known as Blondie.
In the mid-nineties, DeWald started having live music several nights a week, which brought in more clientele — often a cleaner-cut crowd with steady employment, she says.
Somewhere in that time, she remembers a newspaper review of her bar naming it, to her great chagrin, “the Marina outpost in the Mission.”
“I’ve been here since 1988, you probably just moved here… And you’re going to call me a poser?” she wanted to know.
Still, the bar’s feel has changed a little since its early days. A 90-inch TV now graces its rear corner and slippery black linoleum floors have been replaced by smooth, dark wood. “Blondie” no longer dances on the bar (fully clothed, by the way), or invites others to join her as she throws tee shirts with the bar’s logo and sassy slogans to the crowd.
Back in the day, the area “felt more like a neighborhood, instead of a destination,” she says.
On modern weeknights, there are still a few regulars: the gay couple that comes to Blondie’s to escape the Castro, a young Latino man whom DeWald watched grow up in the area, even the now grown children of some of last generation’s regulars.
“It’s a neighborhood kind of establishment,” said Whipps, who has enjoyed on a few occasions both weeknights and early evening visits to the bar.
One early evening visitor who wanted to be named only as Marilee was drawn to the bar in part because it was open early (she had planned to be next door at Puerto Alegre at that time but found it closed) and because she could hear her companion, but in part also because of the distinct absence of a crowd of loud young tech workers.
Martinek, another guest, said the crowd on weekend nights tends to be louder and “gets a little ragey.”
The concern about rude young newcomers is widespread. Though she acknowledges the exceptions, DeWald says, “Millennials don’t have much respect for their surroundings.”
Example? A young man, part of a group celebrating some kind of business success (DeWald suspected it was the acquisition of their tech startup), walked behind the bar with a fistful of cash. He tossed it in the air and let it fall to the floor, announced he was “making it rain,” and demanded a drink.
“The crackheads, the prostitutes, et cetera, that I don’t miss,” De Wald said. “but the entitlement of the people moving here is equally as ugly.”
She wasn’t sure if the man was thrown out of the bar, but she does recall that he was persuaded to pick up his bar-floor-residue soaked money.
“People who live in the city have a certain amount of respect for the city,” DeWald said. Still, only one kind of person is unwelcome in the bar: “It’s the people that don’t give a shit that I don’t wanna see.”
To everyone else, Blondie’s still serves its “bathtub sized” 16-ounce martinis, seven nights a week.