When Mission Local contacted the longtime owner of Kilowatt on 16th Street about an upcoming change of ownership, he insisted we were wasting our time: “There’s no story here,” Peter Athanas told us right off the bat. “I’m old enough to retire, and I’m retiring!”
Athanas, 66, founded and has managed Kilowatt ever since he bought the space at 3160 16th St. 28 years ago from a former queer punk dance club, Paula’s Clubhouse. Now, he’s ready to call it a successful run. A new group of bartenders from the popular Potrero Hill music venues Bottom of the Hill and Thee Parkside have already applied for ownership.
If the sale goes through, Athanas said, the new owners will probably keep the name, but are likely to bring back the live music that he gave up on decades ago. The new bosses are “perfect” for Kilowatt, he added.
Kilowatt has long been a proper San Francisco dive bar, complete with cheap drinks, pool tables and darts. The staff is sometimes-nice, sometimes-not, and caters to everyone: The skaters and hipsters, the sports enthusiasts, those “visiting from the Marina.”
When Athanas opened the place, several similar spots in the neighborhood offered the same perks, so Kilowatt had to set itself apart.
“You’re selling the same booze and beer, so that’s not the draw,” Athanas said of his and nearby dive bars. “The draw is bartenders, music, and what it looks like.”
Another big draw was Kilowatt’s attitude. In 1998, when California became the first state in the country to prohibit indoor smoking, Kilowatt became popular as one of the few spots that didn’t enforce those rules.
Athanas said he read the law “like 20 times,” before he found a convenient loophole that didn’t force bar staff to kick out violators of the prohibition, only advise them of the law. “I went back to my bartenders and I said, ‘this is exactly what you’re going to do: You’re going to tell people, “you really can’t smoke in here anymore … and, what do you want?”’”
Business boomed. He hired more staff, and never looked back.
“It was great. Everybody came,” Athanas said, chuckling. He pulled this off for four years, and was facing the prospect of steep fines from the health department before he ended the illicit practice. By then, many were already sold on Kilowatt.
“It gave me the advertising I never could have bought,” Athanas said. “When they got here, it wasn’t terrible. So they stayed.”
He remembers his “most incredible nights” at the bar: Barack Obama’s first presidential win in 2008, and the San Francisco Giants’ first World Series win two years later.
The crowds were such that people were watching the TVs from outside the bar, and “the roar was like a jet engine,” Athanas reminisced. “Just so incredibly fun.”
Now, the bar is on its third generation of regulars, Athanas said, explaining that people come in during their early 20s, find partners, new jobs, or move away by their 30s — or just stop drinking as much.
(Some stopped coming when he, after 18 years, raised the price of the pool tables from 50 cents to $1, and did away with free Sundays. “The real creeps left,” he laughed. “It was really a funny thing to observe.”)
Athanas has had other jobs: He is a licensed electrician and worked at BMW and independently for years while putting in nights at the bar. Now, he just works on his motorcycles in his spare time, and still does plenty of work at Kilowatt, where I found him emerging from the floor behind the bar on Tuesday.
“I will be, if this works, 100 percent retired, very happy, and just doing nothing at first,” he said.
But before that, he’ll help the new owners get adjusted, once the sale goes through.
In the early days, he said, the bar struggled with getting live music acts regularly as good musicians were priced out of the city. After a few years, he gave up and turned the stage into a now-beloved dart corner: “You know, there’s only so many times you want to see your roommate play,” Athanas said.