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Lefty O'Doul's Bloody (Mary) Secret

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 11.00.21 PMThe old Geary Street restaurant Lefty O'Doul's is no secret to the lunch crowd.

Tourists, office workers and barflies slip into the old-time Hofbrau for corn-beef sandwiches, stiff drinks and walls lined with pictures of the joint's founder, baseball great Lefty O'Doul.

Though the restaurant is a character out of San Francisco's past, few have any idea that somewhere above the 20-foot ceiling is a forgotten world filled with hidden gem's from the City's past.

On a recent visit, Lefty's owner Nick Bovis popped a padlock off a door in the middle of the dining room, revealing a hidden stairway, with dark, wooden steps worn from a century of footsteps.

The walls were layered with cobwebs and chipped paint. Bovis, alone with well-known Bay Area publicist Lee Housekeeper directed their flashlights around the 1907 darkened hall, as if searching for treasure. And darned if they didn't find it.

"It was rumored it used to be an old vaudeville theater or strip joint or something," says Housekeeper, who is a San Francisco character himself.

Bovis doesn't come up here much. Years ago, he was poking around and a flock of pigeons scared him. He hasn't been back since.

Around another corner, a staggering sight materialized: A ceiling of glass skylights illuminated a massive room of wooden beams and ornate molding. At one end of the 70-foot long room, the wall is a faded powder blue. Sculptures of fish hung on every corner, standing guard over a place time and progress have forgotten.

There isn't much known about the building's original use other than it was constructed just after the great San Francisco earthquake.

Inside a small alcove, Bovis pointed out artifacts he has discovered:

  • an old Lucky Lager beer can
  • a carton of Homo-brand milk
  • a tube of old Crest toothpaste
  • a box of 78 records filled with handwritten notes by Lefty O'Doul himself.

The real find was a golf bag, minus the clubs. It was here Bovis found a true relic -- Lefty O'Doul's handwritten Bloody Mary mix.

To understand the significance of this you have to know a bit about Lefty's. The bar is famous for its Bloody Mary's recipe, crafted by Lefty when he opened the place in 1958. The recipe was passed down from bartender to bartender, but was never seen in written form. Now in Bovis's hand was the original, dated 1966.

"Lefty was real particular to make sure they made it a certain way," says Bovis. "When we found it it was almost identical. There are a couple small things that through time, probably got changed."

Lefty's currently bottles the mix, based on the oral version, but Bovis said he's thinking about marketing the original 1966 recipe.

As we filed back down the dusty stairs, back into the world of cell phones and computers, you couldn't help but feel a sense of nostalgia for the old world, looming above the ceiling. A time when men put a suit on to walk outside, and theater was the center of the social scene.

It's a reminder that through decades of modernization, forgotten San Francisco still lurks in every corner.

Random festivities for Lefty O'Doul's Bloody Mary

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 10.56.38 PMThe top-secret recipe for the world's greatest Bloody Mary, newly discovered in a San Francisco attic, is such a secret that nobody knows what's in it.
Not even the people in on the secret.

That's the way it goes in the world of top-secret Bloody Mary recipes. Maybe there's supposed to be two teaspoons of crushed black pepper in the mix, and maybe not.

Wednesday marked the official introduction of Lefty O'Doul's bottled Bloody Mary mix, an event of possible significance. It took place at Lefty O'Doul's, the landmark hofbrau a half-block from Union Square, where people have been drowning their sorrows in Bloody Marys about as long as the San Francisco Giants have been failing to win the World Series, which is forever.
The restaurant has started selling bottles of the fabled mix, for $7, with part of the proceeds going to support youth baseball.
But exactly what it's selling is mired in more serpentine mystery than O'Doul's curve ball.
For five decades, thirsty San Franciscans have sat on the restaurant's famed barstools, made of old baseball bats, and ordered the spicy red cocktail. For five decades, the bartenders have been whipping up the Bloody Mary mix from a handed-down recipe that includes two giant cans of tomato juice and two teaspoons of crushed black pepper.


Search of attic
But not long ago, in a search of the hofbrau's attic, restaurant owner Nick Bovis discovered a scrap of paper deep in a pocket of a dusty old bag of golf clubs that was said to belong to the legendary San Francisco pitcher and restaurateur Lefty O'Doul. It was none other than the original recipe. It was in O'Doul's own handwriting. And it didn't say anything about two teaspoons of crushed black pepper.
Bovis contracted with a Gilroy beverage plant to bottle 4,000 bottles of Lefty O'Doul's Original Bloody Mary Mix. Here the plot, along with the red goop, thickens. The label says the mix includes "water and tomato paste," not tomato juice. It also says the bottle includes lemon juice, never mentioned in either the bartenders' recipe or the golf bag recipe. And it includes the pepper, even though O'Doul never did.
The pepper seems to have been added to O'Doul's original non-peppered recipe by longtime bartender Chuck Davis in the 1960s. Davis, who still works at O'Doul's, said the boss' original formula "needed more zip," unlike O'Doul's fast ball. Davis slipped in the pepper without telling O'Doul, who went to his grave in 1969 none the wiser.
If that wasn't curious enough, what happened at the official Bloody Mary mix unveiling was curiouser and curiouser. On hand for the festivities were an antique fire engine, retired Giants infielder Tito Fuentes, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and a genuine survivor of the 1906 earthquake who, being three months old at the time, didn't remember anything about the earthquake.
On the other hand, he remembered as much about the earthquake as the recipe people remembered about the Bloody Mary recipe.
It was the 95th birthday of O'Doul's pal, baseball great Joe DiMaggio and, even though 95 is not a particularly round number, it was enough of an excuse for the restaurant to hire the Marilyn impersonator (DiMaggio was married briefly to the actress). Nobody seemed to know why earthquake survivor Bill Del Monte was there, although he is a very nice man. Fuentes is a nice man, too, although he said he does not drink Bloody Marys and never played with O'Doul.
Those folks piled into an antique San Francisco fire engine (because the restaurant donates to the firefighters museum) and drove three times around Union Square. The fake Marilyn and the real Fuentes waved bottles of Bloody Mary mix at sidewalks full of holiday shoppers, who tried to look like they understood what was happening and why. Del Monte sat in the front seat and clanged the alarm bell like a kid 100 years his junior.
When the engine arrived back at the restaurant, everybody climbed out and tried to get to the bottom of the recipe mystery. Bovis, holding a flashlight, led several Bloody Mary fans into the spooky attic to show them O'Doul's dusty golf bag. Meanwhile, the fake Marilyn (actress Catherine Grillos) sang some real torch songs at the piano bar and kept the crowd as overheated as any Bloody Mary could.


Details of recipe
For the record, the golf-bag recipe calls for 92 ounces of tomato juice, 3 tablespoons of cream horseradish, 5 ounces of Worcestershire sauce, 4 ounces of sweet-and-sour mix, 2 teaspoons of celery salt, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder and 18 dashes of hot sauce. That makes nearly a gallon of Bloody Mary mix that, when properly combined with the requisite firewater, is more than sufficient to keep a platoon of Giants fans oblivious to the lack of any world championships.
Del Monte, in a pastel tam-o'-shanter, sipped a glass of the crimson goop. He proclaimed that the stuff - whatever its ingredients - passed the test. He also said he never tires of telling folks that his parents ferried him in diapers across the bay to safety in San Leandro in the hours after the 1906 quake and that he doesn't have the slightest memory of it.
"I do remember that my brother told me that was what happened," Del Monte said. "That's what I remember."


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