Rhythm and blues and Boulevardiers at one of SF’s best bars
(SAN FRANCISCO, CA) – We have a dinner reservation to get to, but it’s cold and pouring outside, and as soon as I enter, I don’t want to leave the Royal Cuckoo. The bar’s warm hunting-lodge feeling draws me in, past the quarter-size Christmas tree, still twinkling in February, past the old wooden church pews, the paintings of ships, the taxidermy on the wall and one illuminated blowfish dangling from the rafters.
Red-tinted lamps illuminate couples in conversation. Post-work drinkers clink glasses at the bar. I settle into a couch, trying not to spill my velvety Cuckoovardier — a barrel-aged Boulevardier — as soul singer Freddie Hughes takes the mike.
Hughes, 75, grew up in Oakland’s Harbor Homes housing project, singing in church with Edwin Hawkins, who would soon rise to gospel stardom. Hughes did OK, too, recording a hit single in 1968 called “Send My Baby Back.”
“I didn’t receive the money … yet,” Hughes tells the crowd with a wink before launching into the song. “But I’m still here.”
You can order drinks on only one end of the Royal Cuckoo’s bar. At the other end, there’s a Hammond organ tucked in, where accompanist Chris Burns sits, backing up the singer’s take on a Marvin Gaye tune with bouncy licks that fill the room.
Few hunting lodges — and even fewer San Francisco bars — have such a good soundtrack.
The Royal Cuckoo’s long-haired, cherub-faced owner, Paul Miller, tells me later that when he bought the bar eight years ago, he pictured pretty much exactly this place. “I said, ‘I’m gonna have live music’ — I didn’t say an organ, but live music — ‘and records, and tons of little sources of light everywhere.’”
Miller, now in his 50s, learned to bartend at Bruno’s in the late ’90s. “It was a way different place than it is now, more like a throwback, with jazz and a beautiful dining room,” he says. He began scouting for a bar of his own, pooling his funds with a nephew who was in the Army, returning home from Iraq.
While having a drink at Belinda’s — the rowdy joint previously housed here at 3202 Mission St. — Miller heard owner Belinda Lopez mention that she was looking to sell the place. Lopez had been serving homemade food to customers, but the health department shut that down. Business suffered.
“It was pretty wild in here — fights, and people getting wasted,” says Miller of Belinda’s. “If you got kicked out of every other bar in the city, you could still get a drink here.”
Concerned that Miller wouldn’t be able to secure a bank loan on his own, Lopez loaned him half the cost of the bar herself, with reasonable interest. “God bless her,” he says.
Miller dug into the building’s history, learning that there had been a grocery-saloon at this address as far back as 1881. With help from a few relatives, he polished up the space — including the wooden backbar he believes dates back to 1915 — over the course of just three weeks, decorating it with chairs, sets of drawers and light fixtures he already owned.
“I just gutted my apartment,” says Miller. “I took the drawers and just dumped everything on my floor, so for a couple months my whole house looked like a squatters’ demolished dwelling.”
Over the Royal Cuckoo’s eight years, the bar has remained largely a family affair. Miller’s wife, Debbie, his sister Kathy and a handful of old friends bartend, and his nieces and a cousin pick up work when they’re in town. His father has helped out with carpentry and maintenance. A photo of Miller’s mother, Paula, who died in 2011, hangs next to the shelf of Four Roses bourbon.
On Sunday nights, Miller’s other sister, singer Lavay Smith, performs with her husband, organist Chris Seibert. Seibert and Smith also manage the live music schedule and post it each week on Facebook.
The organ was their idea: “We remembered that one of the hippest jazz clubs in the world, the Green Mill in Chicago, has a Hammond organ built into the bar,” Seibert recalls. “Organ lounges were widespread in the ’50s and ’60s, especially in great music cities like Chicago and Philly, and many of our veteran band members had played them.”
Seibert and Smith tracked down an organ for sale on Craigslist and soon developed a regular rotation of musicians, including Hughes, singer and guitarist Carmen Getit and visitors like jazz star Mary Stallings.
“As far as we know,” says Seibert, “we’re the only organ lounge in Northern California, and we book nothing but Hammond organ music.” That means jazz, blues and soul — five nights a week.
Miller’s favorite memories in the bar are when family members take the mike. His nieces like to step up, for example, or his father, who likes to sing oldies like the Cole Porter tune “Don’t Fence Me In.”
Old songs are the rule at the Royal Cuckoo, even on Monday and Tuesday nights when records are played instead of live music. “Some of these records,” Miller says, pulling albums from a collection of crammed shelves, “I bought when I was 5 years old, you know, with birthday money.”
You won’t hear anything released after 1975. “There was some cool music after that, obviously, that I like, but it’s a slippery slope,” Miller explains. “There was a lot of really horrible music in the ’80s and even the late ’70s.”
But his love of vintage records is not confined to the United States. Miller has a penchant for the “cool psychedelic rock scene” in Bulgaria and the Philippines in the ’60s. His stash includes old Argentine and Uruguayan records, and a Mandarin-language album of Rolling Stones covers that he bought on 24th Street.
That doesn’t mean the Cuckoo attracts exclusively older patrons, though. He often sees grandchildren accompanying their grandparents. If people are getting too wild at the Cuckoo, he says, he puts on Glen Campbell.
A visit to the Cuckoo feels like a dip into some other time, some other place. Maybe it’s the rosy light or the old furniture, the blues music or the sense that everyone’s welcome.
Around 8:30 p.m., after crooning and dancing his way through “Stand by Me” and “Next Time You See Me,” Hughes takes a smoke break, and I sit down next to him on chilly patio furniture.
I ask how he likes the crowd tonight. “You know, it’s a new generation,” he answers. “Some of these folks weren’t even born when I had my record. And they don’t have this music on the radio anymore.”
He’s working on a new song called “I Don’t Play No Games.”
“Young folks need to think,” Hughes explains, “and be sincere with one another. When you’re young, you don’t think about commitment. It’s all about sex.”
Hughes pauses, and says, “I’m just glad to be here.” It’s been harder, lately, to get to the bar, walking from the 24th Street BART with a cane. But he’s happy to be performing.
As I make my way to the bar to order another drink, I pass two 20-something women making out on barstools.
Before he bought the place from Belinda Lopez, Miller had asked her why she was so eager to get out of the bar business. She explained that she was “tired of the same old drunks.”
I ask Miller if he feels the same way, eight years in. “No, no,” he laughs. “Our same old drunks are pretty cool.”
Photos: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle