In many ways, Ali Razavi is obsessed with the old days. On a recent Thursday, Razavi blasted the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street through the 500 Club’s speakers as he bounced off the walls of the 65-year-old bar he acquired in the spring and now plans to give a slight facelift. Razavi said repeatedly he plans to change very little, but he spoke passionately about the little he plans to change.
“I want to elaborate on the good,” he said.
That, inevitably, means doing away with some of the bad: replacing the coolers (they are currently being held shut by screwdrivers), reupholstering a banquette in the back (“I wouldn’t recommend you sitting on that,” he said. “You’ll end up with an STD.”) and sanding, re-staining and varnishing the bar — not with “high gloss,” but with “matte.”
He will keep the bar running during the next two to three months while he does renovations, only closing the bar on some days when work needs to be done.
“This place needs to get simplified, not the other way around,” he said. “Most people, nowadays, they add layers, thinking that’s adding complexity and bringing in a draw.”
He held up a random bottle of liquor from behind the bar. “Right now, half this stuff has no reason to be here,” he said.
But it won’t be replaced with high-falutin’ spirits or 17-ingredient, $14 cocktails. “I want nothing to do with mixology — it’s just not my thing,” he said. “A well-made screwdriver can be well-crafted if you use fresh orange juice and good vodka — and a little dash of sea salt makes a big difference.”
And that screwdriver will be the same price as before: cheap. “Just being able to walk in here and get two drinks and a beer for 20 bucks — that’s special,” he said.
Razavi, a Bay Area native, kicked off his journey into the bar and restaurant world when he was 21 years old at the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach, and then moved to several other bars around the city. Other gigs followed: in the Chicago food scene, with several wineries, such as R.H. Phillips and Hoge, Voss water, and Casa Dragones, a tequila brand.
In other words, Razavi has been around the beverage and hospitality scene for most of his adult life. And he and his wife, Sadie, knew what they wanted when they decided to wade into bar ownership — and what they did not want to be: “We didn’t want to be the new owners of the Matrix in the Marina.”
So, in January 2017, they began hunting for bars, and came upon the Lion Pub on Divisadero. Just when Razavi was getting “hot and heavy” with the seller, a developer out-bid him and eventually turned the classic bar into an astronomically expensive single-family home.
Soon after, his agent called him and told him that the 500 Club was up for sale. Razavi knew the bar, because it was one in a regular rotation of Mission-District spots he would frequent when he was younger. He also liked Elbo Room and Blondies.
After some fits and starts, he and the previous owner, John Sherlock, worked out a deal. “At first he was not interested,” Razavi said. “Then he kind of warmed up to the idea once he realized I was not going to turn it into a hotel bar.”
During the escrow period, Razavi visited to observe what was working and what wasn’t. He would sit in the back with a beer to absorb the “flow” of the place before employees knew who he was. Sometimes, he would walk in through the front of the bar, and then out the back.
Several things caught his eye: the booths tended to obstruct the bar’s flow and make it seem more crowded. So now, he plans to cut them back to create more space — but not get rid of them entirely. He added that he plans to install a dishwasher and add barbacks, so the bartenders have more time to talk to customers.
He told his bartenders: “When you’ve got downtime, instead of washing glasses and picking up from tables, I want your elbows planted on the bar, like this,” he said, putting placing his elbows on the bar. “We’re a neighborhood bar — get to know everyone. You elbows should be planted right here.”
Other small renovations — getting the bathroom retiled, new ebony floors, and the new penny tiles the barstools will rest on, among others — will take two to three months, Razavi estimates. Razavi says, too, that he kept five of the seven former employees, claiming he needed to cut shifts to keep prices low.
And the grand opening?
“Everyone’s always asking me when’s the grand opening,” he said. “And I always say, “It was in 1953.”
However, at the Doc’s Clock sign lighting last Thursday, when Brian MacGregor gave Razavi a shout-out as the new owner of the 500 Club, everyone booed, according to a report by the Chronicle.
Razavi said he was “shell-shocked.”
“It’s like, with everything that’s happening to so many different historic bars and restaurants in the city, I’m trying to do good by the place and preserve it.”
To wit: he’s not turning it into a $5.9 million, single-family home.