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.” 

Peter Athanas, the founder and owner of Kilowatt on 16th Street, is selling the bar before his lease ends. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

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. 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Peter “Midas Touch” Athanas! Man oh man, if anyone deserves a little R&R, you sure the hell do! What a great bar. When we catered your 10 year anniversary of opening the bar, it was in its heyday! I used to stop in after a Niner home game at the ‘Stick during those really bad years with Ericsson and Nolan and a few other mediocre OC’s and HC’s who sucked so bad. Seeing the jerk that Rodgers is, I’m happy we had Alex Smith after all. Good ma, as honest as the day is long. Went to work, got busy and never had a bad thing to say. Sounds kinda like my man Peter Athanas. Solid, honest, firm, fair & friendly! Let’s do dinner at our place Pete! Soon. Congrats on a lifetime of being one of the finest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working and partying with over the past 3 or 4 decades. Love you man. Cheers to you and yours! Pablo!

  2. Was just in there last week with a friend who was visiting from Bordeaux. He enjoyed Marty’s usual excellent cocktail mixology, and I had my usual shot-pint combo.

    Used to consider the place “my” hockey bar till inevitable changes, like the tides, modified things a bit. Still have the team jersey from when Peter sponsored ’em for an SF team that migrated, in part, from the Oakland rinks (both teams kicked everybody’s asses 😁).

    Hope to catch Peter before he heads off into the sunset. Always enjoyed a gab with him when I’d step out for a smoke if he was working the door.

    Thanks for a nice send off article.

    – TS

  3. Peter Athanas,

    Are you related to the St. Louis Athanas family?

    ‘Speedo’ (Spiro) from there is good friend of mine from high school 60 years ago.

    He ended up owning pizza parlors in Indiana and is accomplished artist and has your exact kinda sense of humor.

    h.

    1. Sir or madam:

      Confusion about a headline can be cleared up by actually reading the article. This is a pun.

      Yours,

      JE

      1. Getty racy …

        Other day you had a ‘head’ line announcing that the DA “blew-off” some citizens ?

        Ahhh levity is always in short supply with all the covid and war and the Billionaire Blitz to destroy our democracy.

        h.

  4. Some quippy one liners from Peter! The comment around the “generations” of patrons moving through their lives stuck with me; I’m not sure if I fell into that 1st or 2nd generation, but there’s almost a schoolteacher vibe here in watching your customers graduate and the next cohort coming in.

    Happened to walk by Kilowatt last Sunday and hoped to catch a quarter or two of NFL (definitely 1st or 2nd generation!) and was shocked to see them running on limited hours. Glad to hear they’re continuing on — thanks Peter!