Uptown, the dive bar and legacy business at 17th and Capp streets founded a day after Christmas in 1984, will close in early January, one of its owners said today.
The bar, at 200 Capp St., has struggled to make ends meet since the pandemic. Bolstered at first by an assortment of public monies — $200,000 in federal pandemic loans here, $10,000 in state funds there, and “other little grants” — the bar has since run out of runway. “Sales are way down, expenses are way up,” said Shae Green, one of seven worker-owners of the bar.
Since 2020, the pandemic loans have dried up, the rent has stayed high, and the customers have not returned. The bar will close when its lease is up in early January.
“I’m a savvy businesswoman,” said Green, a one-time bartender at Uptown who, along with five colleagues and a friend of the then-owner, purchased the bar in 2015 after founder Scott Ellsworth unexpectedly died. But “there’s no more miracle money left,” she said, “and sales just never got back to the pre-pandemic levels.”
Green, who began as a bartender in 2006, said that the pandemic was a death in phases. First, bars were closed entirely, then allowed to reopen, if they served food. “So, we would take food orders to fulfill the city’s regulations, and our staff would run over to Sycamore, pick up food, and come back,” she said.
It was undignified, Green said, and emblematic of a “slow phase of reopening” that never brought sufficient customers back. “On some weekends, early evenings, it’s empty.”
The bar paid $11,000 in rent every month since March 2020, “except for the equivalent of a month and a half,” even when it was entirely closed. “There were times when we were paying full rent with zero income.”
Ellsworth founded Uptown in 1984, four years after he moved to San Francisco from Chicago. He was, reportedly, an Oxford-trained English and philosophy expert.
He was stubbornly attached to the dive bar aesthetic — “He refused to change the artwork, which is so bad it has now become great,” read a 2014 obituary, “It took a lot of convincing for him to get rid of the puke-covered couches, or put toilet paper in the ladies’ room” — an atmosphere that his successors embraced: The bar had cheap drinks, dim lights, and few frills. Its pool room was the first thing to bounce back after the pandemic, Green said, and regulars favored the “homey and welcoming” ambience.
“The furniture is the kind you’d feel great about getting off Craigslist for no money, and comfortable,” wrote Mission Local bar columnist Benjamin Wachs in 2019. “As the Mission changed around it, Uptown remained a downscale ’80s bar: a place where people from the neighborhood, who seemed like they could somehow afford to live here waiting tables or painting houses while they worked on their bands or their machine art, would all hang out.”
“Sitting at the bar, I look to my right and there’s some 25-year-old kids having some drinks, and to my left is Dale, one of our regulars who, by now, is 75 or older,” said Green, “and then maybe you’d have a group in one of the booths playing a board game.”
“It’s a bunch of misfits,” Green added. “We’re not the cool kids, but people love to gather and meet new neighbors and friends.”
Uptown received legacy business status in 2019, unlocking some city money, but not enough to make a material difference. The bar is just the latest longtime establishment to fall victim to a post-pandemic malaise: The Wooden Nickel, another dive at 15th and Folsom streets, closed earlier this year, and eateries Gracias Madre, West of Pecos and Rosamunde have all shuttered or announced their pending closures in the last few months.
For her part, Green said she was most thankful to the regulars who supported the bar over the years — “it’s not the physical space that makes it, it’s all the people that have come through in 39 years: They’re Uptown, we’re Uptown” — and hoped that, until closing day, people would bid farewell in style.
“I think the next two months are going to be a party.”