Born and raised in San Francisco, Flicka owns Pier 23, an iconic waterfront cafe and music venue on the Embarcadero, and Sweetie’s Art Bar at 475 Francisco Street, a neighborhood favorite. She is an accomplished painter who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, and she enjoys open water swimming, singing and playing conga drums. Her three adult children, Meighan, McGurrin and Lelogoa, manage Pier 23 these days, while Flicka spends much of her time at Sweetie’s and in her painting studio. Flicka maintains an adventurous spirit and a firm commitment to North Beach.
Transcript: Flicka McGurrin (1945- )
The following oral history transcript is the result of an interview with Flicka McGurrin on July 21, 2022. The interview was recorded at her home at 475 Francisco Street in San Francisco, California. The interview was conducted and transcribed by John Doxey, manager of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project.
Format: Interview originally recorded on a Canon XA11 camcorder. Duration is 43 minutes.
Attribution: This interview transcript is property of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. Quotes, reproductions and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Flicka McGurrin, July 21, 2022, Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project.
Summary: Flicka McGurrin was born in 1945 and raised in San Francisco, the oldest of two daughters. Her father, Howard McGurrin, was a successful businessman, and her mother, Elizabeth Ulman McGurrin, was a homemaker. Flicka attended private schools in San Francisco and Virginia before entering U.C. Berkeley in 1963, where she studied architecture and painting. While at Berkeley, Flicka met and married Michael Leibert, a drama student, and the couple moved to Greece, where Michael was involved in a Ph.D. project. After returning to Berkeley in 1965, Michael founded the Berkeley Repertory Theater, with help from Flicka. After her five-year marriage to Michael ended, Flicka moved back to San Francisco with their two children, daughter Meighan and son McGurrin. By coincidence, Flicka and her kids moved into the very same Telegraph Hill apartment where Flicka lived when she was a baby. After placing her undergraduate studies on hold while focusing on family responsibilities, Flicka eventually completed her U.C. Berkeley B.A. in the late 1970s. She went on to study painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, earning an M.F.A. By this time, Flicka had a third child, daughter Lelogoa Levi, and the family was living at 775 Francisco Street. Ever the entrepreneur, Flicka started a catering business, called the Cooking Company, with her longtime friend Peggy Knickerbocker in the early 1980s, which was originally housed at Mooney’s Irish Pub on upper Grant Avenue. Around 1985, Flicka and Peggy agreed to take over the kitchen at Pier 23, known since the 1950s as a ramshackled Dixieland jazz joint. Flicka and Peggy ended up buying out the owner, Joanie Boyer, and upgraded the ambiance and outdoor access of Pier 23 Cafe. Taking full advantage of its large back deck overlooking the Bay, a rarity at that time, Pier 23 Cafe became a hot destination for both San Franciscans and tourists by the late 1980s. In 1997, Flicka purchased the 475 Francisco Street building, originally a stained-glass factory and the location of several previous restaurants. She opened Sweetie’s Art Bar in 1998 in the front portion of the building, a hangout popular among locals. The building’s rear section serves as a residence and painting studio for Flicka. Today, Flicka continues wearing many hats, including business owner, painter, mother, grandmother, partner, conga drum player and open water swimmer. She enjoys singing at Sweetie’s (the bar was named after her father), and she was one of the first female members of the Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club at Aquatic Park. She maintains strong faith in her business instincts, an adventurous spirit and a firm commitment to North Beach. Her three children now manage Pier 23 Cafe. Flicka currently sings at Sweetie’s on the first and third Friday of each month from 6pm-9pm.
In this interview, Flicka speaks of growing up in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood and attending private schools; studying architecture and painting at U.C. Berkeley; a year studying art and history in Florence; marrying Michael Leibert; spending a year in Delphi, Greece, with Michael; the founding of Berkeley Repertory Theater; returning to Telegraph Hill with her two children after divorcing Michael; completing her B.A. in the late 1970s; studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute; how she developed an interest in art and painting; running the Cooking Company with Peggy Knickerbocker, a business originally housed at Mooney’s Irish Pub; how she and Peggy ran the kitchen at Pier 23 and eventually bought out the owner; the outdoor deck and waterfront location as key to Pier 23 Cafe’s success; how she purchased the building at 475 Francisco Street in the late 1990s, when the neighborhood was rougher; opening Sweetie’s Art Bar in 1998; her family’s history of running restaurants; open water swimming at Aquatic Park and in Monterey Bay; subjects that inspire her painting; how her three children now manage Pier 23 Cafe; the origin of the name Flicka.
Flicka McGurrin has had an opportunity to review the transcript and make corrections and emendations. The reader should keep in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
JOHN: [00:00:46] This is John Doxey with the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project, sitting with Flicka McGurrin at her home at 475 Francisco Street in San Francisco. It is July 21st, 2022. Great to be with you. I thought in our talk today we would kind of take things in chronological order. That makes sense. And please, if there's some things that I am not asking that you think would be interesting to include, you know, by all means...
FLICKA: OK, great.
JOHN: So I'd like to ask you a little bit about your early life. You were born and raised in San Francisco, right?
FLICKA: [00:01:36] Right. And I was born … my first year was spent on Lombard at Grant with my older sister and my parents. And that's where I ended up raising my kids when they were little kids. And we had a wonderful time. We were right down from Coit Tower, and the kids had a lemonade stand up at Coit Tower. And it was just a wonderful neighborhood. Always has been, always will be.
JOHN: So you were there for … you were born … that's the home that you were born into?
JOHN: Was it on Lombard or on Grant?
FLICKA: Lombard and Grant. Right down from … it was up from Grant and right down from the Telegraph Hill … whatever that boulevard…
JOHN: The road that leads up to Coit Tower. Great neighborhood. And how long did you live there when you were young?
FLICKA: Oh, just for a year.
FLICKA: And then my parents moved to Vallejo and Baker, which is over near the Presidio.
JOHN: Right. And what was your … what did your parents do?
FLICKA: My dad was in real estate, and my mother was a homemaker.
JOHN: Was your … I think your father, did he work with Coldwell Banker? [Transcriber’s note: per Wikipedia, Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC is a real estate franchise that was founded in San Francisco in 1906. Now owned by Anywhere Real Estate, the company has approximately 3000 offices in 49 countries and territories.]
JOHN: And what was his title with Coldwell Banker?
FLICKA: He was one of the partners. They were at 57 Sutter Street. The building's no longer there. And he had a … very successful career there.
JOHN: And what was his name?
JOHN: Howard Mc…?
JOHN: And your mother was staying at home and raising you, and I think you had a sister, is that right?
JOHN: Just the two of you?
FLICKA: Just the two of us.
JOHN: OK. And what school did you go to?
FLICKA: We went to private schools. And then we went back east to prep school in Virginia. And then I came home and went to U.C. Berkeley.
JOHN: Which private school did you go to when you were in San Francisco?
FLICKA: Oh, Burke’s. [Transcriber’s note: Katherine Delmar Burke School, commonly known as Burke's, is a private girls' school for kindergarten through eighth grade located at 7070 California Street in the Sea Cliff neighborhood. Per Wikipedia, the school was founded in 1908 and its first location was at Steiner and Pacific streets in Pacific Heights. It then relocated to a house at 2310 Broderick Street and in 1918 moved to a new building designed by architect Julia Morgan at 3065 Jackson Street. The school began acquiring property in Sea Cliff in 1929. At first, only the Kindergarten and First grade were located there. The rest of the property was used as a sports venue for the upper classes. In 1949, grades 2 through 6 were moved there after the completion of new classrooms. The high school and grades 7 and 8 remained at the Jackson Street building until 1975, when Burke's high school closed and the building was acquired by San Francisco University High School.]
JOHN: Was that already located out where it is now in Sea Cliff?
FLICKA: Oh, yeah. It had been there for quite a while.
JOHN: OK. And then you went to what school was it on the East Coast?
FLICKA: Foxcroft. In Middleburg, Virginia. [Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, Foxcroft School, founded in 1914, is a college-preparatory boarding and day school for girls in grades 9-12, located near Middleburg, VA.]
JOHN: And you finished high school there?
JOHN: And then did you go directly on to Berkeley?
JOHN: OK. And then and what did you study when you were at Berkeley?
FLICKA: I started out in architecture, and then I went to painting.
JOHN: Painting, OK. And I believe you said you had taken a year to go to Italy.
FLICKA: Yeah, I went to Italy my second year. And actually I wasn't in control of any of this. My mother was the director. And so she, uh, she and my dad sent me to Italy and which was a wonderful experience in Florence. And so I spent a year there. And then when I came home, I went back to U.C. Berkeley, and I then met my husband at that time … well, it’s my only husband … and we got married and moved to Greece. Delphi, Greece.
JOHN: It was … we’re covering a lot of ground quickly, so I'll ask you some fill-in questions, OK? So … and your husband, what is his name?
FLICKA: Michael Leibert. He's the father of my two oldest kids.
JOHN: OK. How do you spell that last name?
JOHN: And he was also a student at Berkeley?
FLICKA: He was, yes.
JOHN: And, um…
FLICKA: He was in the drama department.
JOHN: OK. And when you went to Italy, were you … is there anything that you focused on there? Is that, was that … you were interested in architecture and painting … is that one reason that you or your mother chose Italy?
FLICKA: Oh, Italy, yes. Exactly.
JOHN: And Florence in particular?
FLICKA: [00:05:27] Yeah, it was a school, it’s called Villa Mercede. And it was on top of … Florence in the Piazza Bellosguardo. And it was just, you know, so beautiful to be around all that old architecture, that beautiful sculpture, the Michelangelos, the … oh, it's like, you know, eating ice cream.
JOHN: Were you actively painting at that time?
FLICKA: Yes. I was doing sculpture and … some music and some painting and some study of history.
JOHN: OK. So you were you were kind of continuing your Berkeley studies, but doing other things as well.
JOHN: Yeah. And did you learn Italian?
FLICKA: Yeah, I did. I did. I learned Italian, and that was great. But now I've got it all mixed up with my Spanish, so...
JOHN: Do you think that your kind of … Italian experience and maybe other European travels that you've had … has kind of helped to lead you back to North Beach?
FLICKA: [00:06:30] Oh, no, I'm a North Beach girl from the get go. I’m committed. There is no way I would live anywhere else.
JOHN: OK. So Berkeley you met Michael there and … did you finish your studies at Berkeley?
FLICKA: Over a period of 13 years.
JOHN: OK, that's what I thought. You had children along the way, right?
FLICKA: Yes. Yes, I had kids along the way. And then I … I did … I finally got my B.A., my B.A. from Berkeley. And that was probably, well, around 13 years after I started it. And then I went to the Art Institute, San Francisco Art Institute, for my B.F.A.
JOHN: And when … you said Michael was in the drama department at Cal and … that you spent time living in Greece together. Was that part of his work with the drama program?
FLICKA: Oh, yeah, it was totally a drama program. That's why I was there was because … let's see, we got married and then decided, you know, that that would be where we would go. So we went on our honeymoon to Casablanca. And then went on to Delphi, Greece. And that was where he was committed to … his drama studies, which was all part of his Ph.D. program. And we were there for like a year in Delphi. And he performed … Hector in the … I don't know, Antigone, one of those guys, one of those writers, in the first performance in the amphitheater there. And it was really interesting. It was … the government was involved because of UC Berkeley, and it was just a very interesting experience. [Transcriber’s note: Flicka may be referring to Euripides' play The Trojan Women, which features the heroic character Hector. The production Flicka references may have taken place in the ancient theater at Delphi, which dates to the 4th century BCE.]
JOHN: And when you came back then from Greece was … I believe that you and Michael were involved in starting the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Is that right?
FLICKA: [00:08:33] Yeah, we came back from Greece and then he decided that he wanted to direct. So he directed a Woyzeck, the first performance of Woyzeck, a Bertolt Brecht, in the International House Theater. And he had so much … enjoyment and success with that that he decided that he wanted to start a theater. And he was very much in the classical tradition. And so he … we rented the … theater on College Avenue, and … it was at the same time that the Committee was in San Francisco. We had tremendous debate over the color to paint the building. And so we … painted the building in green because the Committee was blue in San Francisco on Broadway. And then he started his theater. And really … of course, it was a struggle, but it was a successful struggle. [Transcriber’s notes: per Wikipedia, Woyzeck is a play by Georg Buchner, that was first performed in Munich in 1913. Since then, Woyzeck has become one of the most influential and most often-performed German plays. Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck is based on Buchner’s play.; The Committee was a San Francisco-based-based improvisational comedy group that helped introduce the counterculture of the 1960s to mainstream America and helped shape modern American satire. The group became the resident company of the Committee Theatre on Montgomery Street in the 1960s.]
JOHN: Then that's the origin of the now world-famous Berkeley Repertory Theater?
JOHN: So where did where was it located after the initial performances at the International House?
FLICKA: Oh, on College Avenue. That's when he started … he did the one performance of Woyzeck, and then we went and rented the College Avenue space and made a theater.
JOHN: Was that in Elmwood?
JOHN: And was he … did he then, Michael, stay on with Berkeley Rep and, you know, up until a point where it was very well-established?
FLICKA: [00:10:11] Oh, he did great. He was great. It's just he had a drinking problem, which did him in. But he … carried on for ‘til they moved downtown and got all those wonderful grants and built the theater down there and had all this support. And he did extremely well. Until he didn't. [Transcriber’s note: Michael Leibert (1940-1984) founded the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1968. Per SFGate, Berkeley Rep “has become one of the country’s leading regional repertory companies, a Tony award-winning institution with two theaters in downtown Berkeley, known for innovative new work.”]
JOHN: Mm-hmm. And you have two … three children?
FLICKA: I have three kids.
JOHN: OK. And what are their names?
FLICKA: Meighan is the oldest. M-E-I-G-H-A-N. McGurrin is the next one. M-C-G-U-R-R-I-N. And Lei is by a different father, and her name is Lelogoa. L-E-L-O-G-O-A. And she is … her father is Samoan. That's why she's got a beautiful name. And her last name is Levi.
JOHN: And so you … how long were you together with Michael after…?
FLICKA: I was with Michael for five years.
JOHN: So you … the children were still quite young when you split up?
JOHN: And they, did they live primarily with you?
JOHN: And where were you living at that time?
FLICKA: On Lombard Street.
JOHN: On Lombard. Oh, you went back to the…?
JOHN: Already? You went back from Berkeley to Lombard and Grant?
FLICKA: Michael and I lived in Berkeley. And then we built a house in Pleasanton, a beautiful house. And … he was building the theater at the same time. And then I was going in between San Francisco and Pleasanton. And then I … we ended up selling the house in Pleasanton. And I was moving. I moved to Lombard Street.
JOHN: And … how close to the place where you were first born on Lombard Street was it? Was it...?
FLICKA: [00:11:55] The same apartment.
JOHN: The same apartment?
JOHN: Had it stayed in your family then?
FLICKA: No, it was all rental.
JOHN: Oh, that's really quite a … coincidence that you moved into the very same apartment.
FLICKA: Yeah, it was great.
JOHN: And so you raised the kids primarily in San Francisco then?
JOHN: And then you started your studies at the Art Institute?
FLICKA: [00:12:21] Let's see. Multiple boyfriends later, I ended up on Francisco Street with two of my … with my son and my youngest daughter, because my oldest daughter had moved on. And … then I was living at 475 … or 775 Francisco Street. And I was able to … go to the Art Institute because I was right next door, and also start Pier 23 Cafe with my partner Peggy Knickerbocker. [Transcriber’s note: Pier 23 Cafe Restaurant & Bar, located on San Francisco's Embarcadero, is known for its outdoor waterside deck, live music and lively atmosphere.; Peggy Knickerbocker, a native San Franciscan and a longtime friend of Flicka’s (they were in the same debutante class), has had a long and varied career in the world of food. She taught cooking, ran a catering business in the 1970s and co-owned two restaurants. In 1989 she left the business to write about food, and Flicka took over full ownership of Pier 23.]
JOHN: So about what year was it that … I think you said you finished Berkeley in about ’88?
FLICKA: Oh, no, that was what Berkeley thinks. That's four years from when I started. Oh, no, wait a minute. ‘63. I started in ’63-‘64. And yeah, I probably finished in ‘88. You probably got that right. [Transcriber’s note: if Flicka started her U.C. Berkeley undergraduate work in 1963 and it took her 13 years to complete her B.A. degree, then she probably finished around 1977.]
JOHN: And then you and … then your time at the Art Institute was coming shortly after that? Am I getting my years right that you would...?
FLICKA: Oh, no. No. Well, yeah, let's see … we started Pier 23 Cafe ‘87, ‘88. So, yeah, you got that right. You must have gotten that from our last conversation.
JOHN: So, OK, we'll get back to Pier 23 in a minute. But I would like to ask you about your experience at the Art Institute.
FLICKA: [00:13:45] Mmm, I just love the Art Institute as much as I love North Beach. And unfortunately, we have a lot to cry about in the last couple of days. But hopefully it's not the end. It's just got such a great spirit. It had a lot more spirit before … before my time there, it was a lot more, you know, ridiculously artistic. But still, what the Art Institute is about is about artists finding their own way. And a lot of people have a lot of trouble with that. So that is the real challenge. That was the artist.
JOHN: In other words, do you think it's best for people who are … best suited for people who are self-directed and are able to find, take what they can from it on their own without as much structure as they...?
JOHN: Did you … when you were at the Art Institute, were there people who you found to be influential in your … with regard to your artistic development. Other, you know, professors or fellow students?
FLICKA: Yeah, that's really hard to say. Julius Hatofsky was one of my favorite friends, mentors, teachers. But it's hard to say. I don't listen as well as I could. So I was pretty much marching to my own drum. [Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, Julius Hatofsky (1922-2006) was an American painter who first studied art as a teenager in the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project and later studied at the Art Students League of New York, the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris and the Hans Hoffman School in New York. He began painting in New York during the 1950s and moved to San Francisco in 1961 to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute, eventually retiring in 1995. Hatofsky designed a section of the hardwood bar at Sweetie’s Art Bar.]
JOHN: What … I'm curious, you know, what was it … how old were you, do you think you were, when you initially realized that you had a real interest in art and doing art?
FLICKA: [00:15:24] Well, for me, growing up, I was in a very … unpleasant, structured environment. And I was given a lot of advantages, which I didn't necessarily appreciate. So I spent my time drawing and hiding my drawings. So that's kind of where I started out when I was very young.
JOHN: But is there … was there someone in your family that you modeled that on or learned that from or…?
JOHN: …you just picked it up on your own?
FLICKA: I think it was in my DNA because my whole family really is … into art and into the restaurant business. So there's a lot of history of that in my family. So I think I just kept moving forward and that's how I've ended up.
JOHN: And do you … I guess you've studied art and continued to do art on your own through the high school and college years and all along. And I mean the style … I really love the piece that is behind you now … is just using, learning how to use the materials and developing a style and … I mean is that something that you've evolved really just on your own?
JOHN: OK. And I mean now, in the years since the Art Institute, do you continue to spend time with a lot of other artists?
FLICKA: I have a cadre of artists that I'm … we're constantly communicating. But … I wouldn't say that I … I spend a lot of time … well, it's all COVID-related now. I spend a lot of time by myself, and with my partner who's upstairs.
JOHN: And he's an artist as well?
FLICKA: He's a sculptor.
JOHN: A sculptor.
FLICKA: A fabulous sculptor. Those are his dogs over there. [Transcriber’s note: Flicka is referring her to a pair of dogs sculpted by her partner David Ng, which were on display in her apartment. Per his website, David Oddman Ng studied art in the 1970's at the San Francisco Art Institute, U.C. Davis and Mills College, graduating from Mills with an M.F.A. While studying at Mills, he was teaching assistant for Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro. David divides his time between San Francisco and Hong Kong, where he works as president of his family's herbal medicine business.]
JOHN: Oh, we'll take a look at those later, yeah … and I mean, the Sweetie’s Art Bar, which we'll get to in a minute, has … been a venue for exhibiting art?
FLICKA: Oh, yeah.
JOHN: And I mean, how do you select … are these people that you know in the community or are they students from the Art Institute or...?
FLICKA: A little of everything. Yeah. I have, uh, Laura Atkins, who is a swimmer at the Dolphin Club, and she handles the art wall. Which is all that stuff is … takes a lot of attention. So she handles it and gets the artists in there and does a great job.
JOHN: So let's go to Pier 23 … can you tell me a little bit of the history of how that … how you got involved with Pier 23? ‘Cause it had, as I understand it, it existed … it was an existing entity when you came on board, right? But you and Peggy Knickerbocker started working there. And then tell me … what all happened?
FLICKA: [00:18:17] Well, I was offered the opportunity by a friend of ours who’s no longer with us, John Clancy. And he was a part of … Warren Hinckle’s group of friends and Mark Lebarle and a bunch of wonderful, goofy drinking people. And he … had a relationship with the owners of Pier 23 Cafe, which was Joanie Boyer and her partner, Whitey. Whitey … I can't remember his last name. Anyway, he had died, and Joanie was having trouble maintaining the business by herself. And she was … she had a Dixieland … music schedule of four days a week and was only … oh, she must have been open for … no, she … only her bar was open. So … I don't remember. She had been serving food. And so anyway she had Melody Anne and Jack “Jive” Schafer and the Rhythm Rascals. And they played there. Melody Anne was this beautiful tall chick … was is, I don't know if she's with us, and she could play two saxophones at one time and she could sing and she was just a glamor puss and fabulous. So she was a big draw. And so John introduced me to Joanie and said, you know, would I want to be involved. And so we decided, Peggy and I decided we'd run the kitchen. And so we opened up running the kitchen, and then it just has morphed into what it is now. [Transcriber’s notes: internet research by transcriber shows that John G. Clancy was an attorney and friend of “gonzo” journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson.; Warren Hinckle was a San Francisco-based journalist remembered for his tenure as editor of Ramparts magazine, a muckraking publication magazine that was heavily involved in New Left and anti-Vietnam War politics. He helped create Gonzo journalism by first pairing Hunter S. Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman.; correct spelling of Mark Lebarle is unknown.; Melody Anne recorded at least one album with the Jack “Jive” Schafer Band at Pier 23.]
JOHN: And did you have experience working in a kitchen?
FLICKA: Yes, we’d had … a catering business for quite a while … called the Cooking Company at Mooney's Irish Pub, 1525 Grant Avenue. And Sean Mooney was the owner of the bar. And Deanna is, was his wife. Is, was … is his wife. Sean's no longer with us. Deanna is, and she's one of my good friends. And Mooney's Irish Pub was a fabulous bar. And so we served brunch and … lunch there and had a lot of fun doing it and got a lot of press. That was when, you know, press meant something. People would come around because they read about us. [Transcriber’s notes: Sean Mooney owned Mooney’s Irish Pub, located on upper Grant Avenue, until 1979. He died in 1990; Flicka owned the Cooking Company, a catering business, with Peggy Knickerbocker.]
JOHN: So when you went to the kitchen of Pier 23 you had some of a reputation, people knew your cooking and things like that?
FLICKA: Yes. Well, Peggy's cooking, not mine.
JOHN: She was the primary cook?
JOHN: What were some of the specialties or things that you prepared?
FLICKA: She had her mother's meatloaf recipe, which was very popular. And she had her ex-husband's barbecue sauce, which was very popular. And let's see, we did like a croque monsieur. And … oh, our Chinese chicken salad, which was fabulous with Mandarin oranges … that's some of it.
JOHN: And the … I mean … what is the history of Pier 23? When did it actually open originally as a kind of a cafe?
FLICKA: Well, let's see. I think the … building was built around 1930, the same as this building, 1931. And I think it might have been like a way station for like for … union workers and dockworkers. And then I think it became like a blue-plate special cafe and … was open during the day. I don't know when that happened. Havelock Jerome was the salami king or something, and I think he owned it before the Boyers. So it kind of morphed into what it is now. So, you know, it was pretty casual, and now it's a little bit more … casual upscale. [Transcriber’s notes: Internet research by transcriber shows that Havelock Jerome owned Pier 23 in the 1950s. There is little information available about Havelock and the source of his money.; Pier 23 got its start in the early 1930s as a haven for longshoremen who worked on San Francisco’s docks. There were many such waterfront establishments at that time serving inexpensive food and drinks. A few of these places evolved into lively music houses – including Pier 23 Cafe, which developed a reputation among locals for its jazz and bar scene.]
JOHN: When Joanie was running it initially anyway, was it packing people in? Was it a very popular place?
FLICKA: Yeah, actually, I had … a date there one night with Dick Thieriot, who ended up being the … editor for The Chronicle. And he … took me there, and I wasn't that fond of Dixieland. But, anyway, the music was … I love Dixieland in Dixieland places, but put Dixieland in Alaska I might not like it that much. And so anyway … we went there, and it was crowded all the time. And she had the little round tables, you know, with like four chairs around them. And she served … Perrier in the bottle. And then when you got it, it never had the top on it. And it's because she'd filled it with the soda gun and just called it Perrier, which I thought was quite fabulous. [Transcriber’s note: Richard Thieriot was editor and publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1977 to 1993. Thieriot’s ancestors, Michael and Charles de Young, founded the Chronicle in 1865.]
JOHN: And then when you and Peggy came on board did Joanie kind of fade away and you really took over the ownership or…?
FLICKA: [00:23:32] No, no. She was running the bar. And so then I said to her, I said … oh, and then there was a fire, and the fire closed down the business. And … so then I said to Joanie, I said, “Hey, I got three kids. I'm not making any money. Can we split the bar because we're bringing in all the people because we're serving the food?” And she said, “No.” And I went, “Well, OK, well, then can we buy you out?” And so we ended up buying her out. I can't quite remember how that worked out, but it worked out well, and we bought her out. And then we had the bar and the kitchen and the lease. We were on, I think, month to month … with the Port of San Francisco.
JOHN: That's really a dream situation, isn't it? And that's always … Pier 23 has been a very popular, successful place it would seem.
FLICKA: Well, it's just a great location. And the thing is that I knew the minute I got the opportunity … I knew that having grown up in San Francisco, that we were always looking for a place to go and eat on the water. And the only place we could go to was Sam's. And I guess Scoma’s wasn't really something that was in our purview. And … and I love Scoma’s now … but, anyway, so we … I thought, “Hey, this is perfect.” So when we first started at Pier 23 Cafe there was the bar and the entry way from the Embarcadero, but there were no doors going out to the … that patio area. And it was like a no-brainer. There were no birds, there wasn't anything out there. It was empty space. So we opened up one door, and immediately it was a very … a very obvious well-used space. Then we opened up another door. Now we've got three doors going out there, plus a gate, and it's just filled with people all the time. And it was just so crazy that that had been empty for so long. But those were different times. [Transcriber’s note: Flicka refers here to Sam’s Anchor Cafe in Tiburon and Scoma’s Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. Both establishments are renowned for their waterfront locations.]
JOHN: It is a unique spot in the city. Maybe now more places are using the water, but at that time I think it was...
FLICKA: [00:25:54] Yeah, we were very lucky. We had really one of the only spots on the water. But now everybody got hip to it, and we've got … there's tons of [competition] … and the places are all jam-packed, down at The Ramp, Mission Rock … Water Bar, all those places. La Mar … yeah, La Mar is jam-packed there. That's just a beautiful place. It's too big, but it's beautiful. [Transcriber’s note: Flicka is naming bars and restaurants along the Embarcadero that now compete with Pier 23.]
JOHN: And this also was … it couldn't have come at a better time, it would seem, from the perspective of raising three kids in San Francisco. The … to have that income.
FLICKA: Oh, you got that right.
JOHN: And then … when does Sweetie’s come into the picture then?
FLICKA: So I had looked at this building for a long … all I wanted was 6,000 square feet in San Francis … in North Beach, where I could open a business and have a painting studio. And so this fell into my lap through … a series of sales.
JOHN: When you say this, we're talking about 475 Francisco?
FLICKA: The building, yeah.
JOHN: The building where we are right now?
FLICKA: Yes. And I managed to get it, which is great. And then it took me a long time to open the bar because I had a lot of … neighborhood resistance. ‘Cause this was a dangerous street. And when I lived up on the hill next to the Art Institute, McGurrin, my son, would have to run from store to store to get home and not get, you know, hassled by the gangs. So it was...
JOHN: Uh-huh. Are you talking about gangs from the housing projects?
FLICKA: Yeah. So this was a heavy duty street. I used to not drive down this street because … one time I drove down and someone threw a bottle at my car. So it was just really heavy and really dangerous. But anyway, I … so I got it for a great price...
JOHN: And what, excuse me, but what year would that have been?
FLICKA: Ninety-seven. And I … was delighted. And I had friends come in and say, you know, are you, what are you doing? They didn't get it, you know. But I … it just made so much sense to me. So then finally I had the liquor license. I'd purchased the liquor license. At that time, liquor licenses were $8,000. They’re now 250. So I'd purchased a liquor license, and it took me forever to get open because I had a lot of resistance. And a lot of neighbors came to City Hall and supported me and supported opening up this business. So I finally got it open.
JOHN: And what had this space been? Was it already … a restaurant space?
FLICKA: It had been … in my … I think when I was like in my 30s it had been Le Gare, a French restaurant. And it had a … caboose out right beyond that fence. And the caboose was here when I got the building. And so that was why it was called Le Gare. Then it was … the first Rusty Scupper. And I still have a little piece of a menu stuck on the wall upstairs, a surf and turf, from when it was Rusty Scupper. And then it became El Tapatio, a Mexican restaurant. And the bar was upstairs, and this was all dining area. [Transcriber’s notes: Le Gare was a French restaurant located at 475 Francisco Street. Flicka states that the Rusty Scupper chain had its first restaurant location in the same building, followed by El Tapatio. Sweetie’s Art Bar is now located in the front portion of 475 Francisco Street, with Flicka’s residence and art studio in the back half of the building.]
JOHN: So where we're sitting now for the listeners is … Flicka’s private residence, which is located directly behind the Sweetie’s bar space. And you're saying that this residential area that we're in now was actually dining room area for the...?
FLICKA: Yeah, this was dining room. And as you can see, the kitchen is a restaurant kitchen.
JOHN: So it took some vision on your part to say, wow, this could be … this area could be a bar, this area would be a great studio space, this would be a great living space?
FLICKA: Right. And the bar … I built the bar. Like the bar was upstairs. So there was … that was an entryway.
JOHN: It's really a fantastic spot. And … you have this great backyard here. Was this where the caboose was located?
FLICKA: On the other side of that fence. Because it was before all of these buildings were built. All these buildings were built afterwards.
JOHN: And so Sweetie’s, you … bought the building in ‘97. And when did Sweetie’s open … did you open Sweetie’s shortly thereafter?
FLICKA: Oh, no, it took me forever. I finally opened in ‘98.
JOHN: Ninety-eight, OK.
FLICKA: But it was not easy.
JOHN: OK. And … it's … Sweetie’s does not serve food, right? It's just a bar?
FLICKA: Oh, yeah, we're a 40 … what are we, 47? We're a 47 license, liquor license. You have to serve food. So we have bar food. Pizzas, macaroni and cheese … shepherd's pie and nuts. [Transcriber’s note: California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) states that in order to be issued a Type 47 license to sell alcoholic beverages, the establishment must be a “bona fide eating place.”]
JOHN: OK … so Sweetie’s and Pier 23 … have there been any other businesses along the way, that you've owned?
FLICKA: No. We had the Cooking Company first. I … taught cooking with a partner and then I, she … she and I broke up. And so then I started cooking classes with Peggy, and then we started serving food at Mooney’s Irish Pub, and then we went to the restaurant business.
JOHN: And you say the restaurant business is, together with art, something that runs in your family's blood. Is your sister also involved in the restaurant business?
FLICKA: No, no. She's an artist.
JOHN: She's an artist.
FLICKA: [00:31:35] Yeah. And then I have … relatives down in the Monterey-Big Sur area that have … my first cousins still run Nepenthe. Their parents built Nepenthe in Big Sur. And then I had a … let's see, a great uncle who owned Gallatin’s restaurant in Monterey, which has just gone through several changes, and now it's a very upscale restaurant called the … something Adobe. The … anyway, I love going down there. I just love that area, and I love going down there. So my … great-grandmother started … Carmel with her husband, Frank Powers, and … their lawyer. And then the whole family got all mixed up and everybody absconded with everybody else's money. And anyway that's the way it goes. [Transcriber’s notes: Nepenthe is a restaurant in Big Sur that first opened in 1949.; Gallatin’s was an acclaimed restaurant for many years in Monterey. The proprietor of Gallatin’s was Albert Gallatin Powers, known as “Gal.” He was the son of Frank Powers, a successful San Francisco lawyer and businessman whose Carmel Development Company helped to establish the community of Carmel-by-the-Sea. A new restaurant, Stokes Adobe, is located in the former Gallatin’s space.]
JOHN: And maybe that's a good segue to talk about Monterey, because … one of the other things that I heard about you was that you are an avid swimmer. And you mentioned the Dolphin Club earlier. Is that where you first started kind of Bay swimming or cold water swimming?
FLICKA: Yeah, I did. I started when my youngest daughter was … when she was like about one year old. So she's now in her 40s. So, yeah, I've been swimming in the Bay for a long time. And it was so interesting to me to grow up in Pacific Heights on Vallejo and Baker, and just my room … I had a beautiful bedroom, you know, three floors up, looking out at Alcatraz, looking at the Bay, and never having the Bay be part of my life. I just thought that was such … it just blew my mind. And so then when I became … when I was little, we grew up down in the summertimes when we were lucky enough to take beautiful summer vacations for three months … you know, gone are those days … we would be on the beach, and we would be in the … we had a house down on Aptos Beach. And … so that was where my love really started, when I was a little kid. And so then to get back to it was so great. And I was pretty, you know, involved with the Dolphin Club in that I did all the swims. And I had a lot of fun doing that until … I guess until I was like in my 50s. And then I keep swimming, but I don't do all that competitive swimming. Now it's so competitive, and you’ve got everybody in their damn wetsuits, and they're just, you know, you got to watch it. It's like going on Market Street sometimes in the Bay, you know. [chuckles] You got to watch yourself. Because a lot of those other people don't know how to watch themselves.
JOHN: And … what do you think … about the South End Rowing Club?
FLICKA: I think they're great.
JOHN: And you swim sometimes with your children? Is that right?
FLICKA: Yes. My son swims at the Dolphin Club. My oldest daughter swims with me down in Monterey Bay. And my youngest daughter hasn’t really been doing distance swimming so much. But I have got her little ones. I've got four grandchildren. But the little ones, I've got them in swim class, and they're just doing great.
JOHN: Did you swim with your daughter from Alcatraz?
FLICKA: Yeah, I did one time. The last swim I did was with my daughter from Alcatraz. My oldest daughter. And I'd forgotten that my kids are really good swimmers. It was like, hey! And I was worried about her. So I was, like, kind of not able to really concentrate and enjoy my swim. But anyway...
JOHN: And then do you swim when you're in Monterey as well?
JOHN: How would you compare the swimming there? I mean is the water...?
FLICKA: It's just wilder down there. And the water is clear. Up here, you know, you've got a lot of … well, you've got the Sacramento River. The rivers are coming down, so the water isn't quite as salty. It's not really salty down there, but it's clear and it's so beautiful. But also it's alive with wildlife. So, you know, I kind of look around before I go in to make sure that I'm not going to meet anybody in there.
JOHN: Have you had any wildlife encounters in the San Francisco Bay?
JOHN: Sea lions?
FLICKA: [00:36:17] Well, seal. You know, some seal thought that I was his friend.
[Second recording segment of July 21, 2022 interview with Flicka McGurrin begins here]
JOHN: [00:00:03] [chuckles] Let me go back to art for a minute and … talk about what you're doing now and what you'd like to be doing … directions you might be heading with art.
FLICKA: Well, I'm … right now I'm very much … examining why I enjoy painting cows. I did paint swimmers with … really a lot of … fun interest from other people. And I could perhaps go back to that. But I'm … right now I'm doing cows. I've done restaurant series, I've done ocean series. So I tend to kind of do series based on what's important to me. Now why are cows so important to me? I think it's because when you drive out of town and you see cows … I think I really got interested in cows up in Arcata. ‘Cause I went to Afro-Cuban drum camp and … this farmer or rancher had these longhorn cows, and they were so beautiful. And I would go out every morning and go kayaking, like in those wonderful different areas to kayak. Like there's Arcata, there's … Eureka. And then there's, oh, god, it's so beautiful up there. It's like the Mediterranean without the sun. But anyway, so the cows just brought, bring a sense of calm to me when I'm driving and seeing them and they're all just hanging out. And I think that's something that I appreciate, is just that sense of calm before they get slaughtered. But anyway.
JOHN: And I mean is painting with acrylic or oil most…?
FLICKA: Mostly oil, but I paint with acrylic. If I'm painting like upstairs where I don't want the smell to permeate the bedroom, I’ll paint with acrylics. But downstairs I paint with oils.
JOHN: And what about … I mean is your work shown? Do you like to show it in public or are you producing it mostly for yourself? What…?
FLICKA: I do show. And I my favorite show that I had … I had two favorite shows. One was in Stinson Beach of swimmers. And I have swimmers that go way back, you know, for years I've been painting ‘em. And so there was sort of a series of my newer swimmers and my older swimmers. And then I had a big show at the Bank of America building on Kearny that was all in the lobby, so you could go by any time of night and see it. And they were my great big paintings of … ships and of the ocean … well, the Bay. And then I might have had the ocean series in there, too. But … those are my favorite shows. And otherwise I do little shows and a little of this and that. But, yeah, I would say mostly I paint for myself. I'm not that concerned with the shows.
JOHN: And getting back to the neighborhood a little bit. I mean, do you continue to see yourself staying in North Beach and being an active part of this community?
FLICKA: [00:03:25] Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. We're having a lot of fun here at Sweetie’s. We had a lot of fun at Pier 23 Cafe. Now my son's mostly running it. But I'm just sort of percolating the music business again and starting … to put a music plan together down at Pier 23 Cafe. But I have a permit to have music here at Sweeties outside in our parklet. And it's been a real draw for the neighborhood, which is great. [Transcriber’s note: The Bay Area Jazz Mobile is a traveling jazz venue that has helped make outdoor performances possible at Sweetie’s.]
JOHN: Are you having … difficulty with the labor shortage and so forth, and the number of shifts that you're able to stay open?
FLICKA: Well, I think … yes. And I think what's really important is I think that it's important … for me the word for the pandemic, the most important word, is pivot. You have to change what you're doing in order to make it work. And so that's what we're working on all the time at Pier 23 Cafe. The family’s involved now. I used to make all the decisions and fight all the battles, and now I've got the family…
JOHN: Your children?
FLICKA: …my three kids involved and caring and taking it on as their own. And I think that they're … they appreciate the amount of, you know, paychecks they can get out of it. And they're way more enthusiastic than they used to be, which is great. And so they work really hard now. Everybody's working really hard, just constantly trying to figure out how to make our percentages work and … keep our family income intact.
JOHN: We talked a little bit last time about, you know, why you like North Beach. The community, the village feeling almost is there. Are you still feeling that way here?
FLICKA: [00:05:18] Oh, I'll never stop feeling that way. I feel very lucky to have, you know … a neighborhood that I can walk down the street and recognize or know people. I just feel that North Beach is absolutely, you know, a wonderful, small, kind of neighborly place to live. And I appreciate it.
JOHN: One thing I have been wanting to ask you is the name Flicka. Is that a family name or...?
FLICKA: No, no. It's a storybook name.
JOHN: Is that your proper name … your official name, I mean?
FLICKA: I don’t know … I went to India and they made me change my birth certificate. So in order to get into India I thought, you know, god only knows what my name is these days. It used to be Flicka Alexa Maria Peralta McGurrin, and my dad had a business called Maria Peraltacia. Then it became Flicka Alexa McGurrin. And then it became Alexa M. McGurrin. I don't know where the M came from. It came from one of my CPAs and the tax documents. It's all a bunch of baloney.
JOHN: Is there anything that we haven't covered that that … you would like to add?
FLICKA: Well, no. But I think you're a good interviewer.
FLICKA: But I don't know. I don't know that I can think of anything in particular.
JOHN: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you very much, Flicka. It's been a real pleasure.
FLICKA: [00:07:14] Thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]