The famed Savoy Tivoli club in North Beach has been many things to many people over the years—as its tagline goes, “a favorite of hippies and Beats, punks and preps, ladies and gents.”
These chameleon-like capabilities are perhaps the key to ensuring the club’s enduring survival through so many eras. Opened shortly after the 1906 earthquake as a place to play bocce and eat homestyle Italian food, it morphed into a Beat hangout and, later, a punk mecca.
The original location for the most hat-filled of San Francisco spectacles, Beach Blanket Babylon, it also shows up in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. When Mrs. Madrigal orchestrates a friendship with Mona, she does so with a basket of Alice B. Toklas pot brownies at the Savoy Tivoli.
As Tablehopper revealed last month, Tito Avila, a member of the new ownership group taking over the Savoy Tivoli, wants to keep its history alive. The Standard has reached out for comment, but all we know so far is what Avila revealed in a very brief interview: that he wants to revive the venue’s ability to elicit creativity and rebellion, without making radical changes to the interior.
Given its 115-year history, looking back at the stages of the Savoy Tivoli becomes a timeline of San Francisco itself.
When Nick Finocchio opened the New Tivoli—the business’ original name—at 1434 Grant Ave. as an Italian restaurant in 1907, its back rooms were divided into three bocce ball courts. The restaurant served traditional, seven-course Italian meals to the masses. (Nick Finocchio is not the same person as Joe Finocchio, who opened the world-famous drag club of the same name.)
One frequent New Tivoli customer remembered the restaurant fondly, citing its mouse-shaped petit fours with cloves for eyes and Finocchio’s overall friendliness. He would have coffee with the adults while the kids tossed around bocce balls as if they were shot put.
When Finocchio could no longer provide meals at prices working-class people could afford, he sold the business to Fred Kuh in 1967. Kuh renamed it the Savoy Tivoli and used one bocce court for screening experimental films and turning the other two courts into a theater, setting the stage as it were for what was to come.
“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion,” Jack Kerouac once said.
This quote, which hangs in the front window of the Savoy Tivoli, is a nod not only to the spirit of the place but also to some of its more famous customers, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“It’s the only palace in the city where a passerby could see Allen Ginsberg sitting at one table, and next to him some millionaire sips champagne while some punk star is strolling by,” The San Francisco Chronicle wrote on Sept. 18, 1979.
When Steve Silver moved his beloved variety show—which was his M.F.A. project— from the streets to one of the bocce courts of the Savoy Tivoli in 1974, Beach Blanket Babylon as we knew it was born.
He covered the floors with real sand and strung the room with lights made from Folgers cans, ushering in an era that eventually became iconic in San Francisco, with the musical revue moving to Club Fugazi and performing an unprecedented 45 years, as much a part of the city as cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge.
When the Ramones played at the Savoy on Aug. 22, 1976, it birthed the punk scene in the Bay Area.
“In the back room of the Savoy Tivoli on Upper Grant Avenue about 30 people had their ears blasted and their lives altered by the leather-jacketed boys from the East,” muses one recollection.
That performance was followed by a show in December of the same year at famed punk mecca Mabuhay Gardens that included the Nuns and the Dils alongside the Ramones. By that point, punk rock was already an established subculture, and the Savoy Tivoli became the stomping ground for yet another rebellious movement.
During a mid-November visit to the famed watering hole—still under renovation—a representative conducting job interviews estimated the business would reopen in December, promising a new sound system so as to avoid the noise complaints that once stymied the spot back in 2002.
Correction, Dec. 13, 2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Tito Avila as a "longtime owner." The Kozel family, longtime owners of the Savoy Tivoli, brought on Avila to relaunch the business.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org