Historic, beloved North Beach dive bar Specs turns 53 years old this week, and after nearly 14 months of being dark, the bar and museum of curios is planning to light up again next month and start slinging its cheap drinks outdoors.
Bars still aren't allowed to open indoors in San Francisco — though that may be allowed with restrictions when the county reaches the "Yellow" tier, which may be soon. Specs has been holding off on reopening given the limitations of its outdoor space, the possibility that San Francisco could backslide and force them to close again, and the bar's identity as a dark and quirky dive, but now co-owner Maralisa Simmons-Cook tells Eater that it's time to get things rolling.
"The one reason we hadn’t decided to reopen until right now is because we would not be able to afford opening and closing," Simmons-Cook says. "We had to be careful and cautious about when to make the jump to reopen... We’re ready to make that leap … the real goal was to have people inside."
She explains that, until they can serve people indoors without the food requirement, Specs will be partnering with Unco Frank’s, a pop-up that has been supplying a few bars with fried fish sandwiches on Hawaiian rolls — something Simmons-Cook says works with the nautical theme of Specs.
Simmons-Cook is the granddaughter of original owner Richard "Specs" Simmons, who opened the bar in 1968 across the street from iconic Beat Generation hangouts Vesuvio and City Lights Bookstore. Simmons passed away in 2016, shortly after his 88th birthday, and shortly after the bar was named one of the city's first Legacy Businesses under the then-new program aimed at preserving and supporting historic businesses around the city.
Simmons-Cook now runs Specs — the official name of which is Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe — alongside her mother, Elly Simmons, and the pair reached out to the community for crowdfunding support like many beloved neighborhood bars did in 2020. That campaign has raised over $80,000 of its $100,000 goal, and the mother-daughter team would appreciate anything more that fans may want to toss their way.
"We would like to reopen and continue our 52 years of drinking, poetry, art, rabble rousing, political and cultural discourse and all that good stuff," Simmons wrote last year, on GoFundMe. "We are reaching out to you, those who love Specs the man and Specs the bar, to enable us to have funds to not go belly up because of this shutdown."
As SFGate reported in February, the co-owners have struggled over what to do to keep the bar afloat, and the reason the crowdfunding campaign hasn't been quite as successful as some others around town may be the nature of the bar's following. "Our patrons don’t have a lot of money... it’s not a fancy cocktail bar, we don’t bring in drinkers who can donate a ton of money online, so they’ve mostly been smaller individual donations," Simmons-Cook said.
In addition to its cheap drinks and eclectic crowd, Specs is known for its hodge-podge of wall-mounted signs, newspaper clippings, and general oddities — a kind of idiosyncratic museum to one man's sense of humor and love of the sea. The collection of items on display include a mummified walrus penis, and a stuffed mongoose doing battle with a taxidermied cobra. Also, a noted sign declares the space a State of California cockroach sanctuary — "Do not molest or annoy insects," the sign says.
When it reopens on a mid-May date still to be announced, Specs will be sharing one parking space's worth of parklet with neighboring Tosca Cafe, and will be able to have just 12 tables between there and it's little side alley — and Simmons-Cook tells Eater she's worried she'll have to shoo away regulars who are used to smoking in that alley.
But hey — maybe by mid-May bars will actually get to open up indoors after all.