John Barleycorn must die

An unscrupulous entrepreneur targets a Nob Hill institution
Larry Ayre
Photo by Rory McNamara

"There was three men come out o' the west, their fortunes for to try,

And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die.

They plowed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throwed clods upon his head,

And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn was dead."

From an old English folk song

It's a dark, rainy Friday night, and Larkin Street is eerily quiet except for one beacon of light: the John Barleycorn pub. Inside this almost 40-year-old watering hole, logs crackle in a fireplace built with cobblestones from old San Francisco streets.

Neighbors, law students from a nearby university, and longtime regulars cluster together on cable car benches and onetime church pews, tippling and talking quietly beneath a ceiling made from the beams of an old Petaluma chicken coop.

Behind the bar, owner Larry Ayre, with rosy cheeks hugged by a pair of spectacles, serves drinks and good cheer the same way he has for more than three decades. Some of his customers have been coming here for just as long.

"There's only one bar you call your home bar, and somehow, they have to take you in," Ayre said. "In here, you can be whoever you want to be."

Unfortunately for the Barleycorn, its lease is up, and it's part of a building that was recently purchased by Louisa Hanson, a controversial local entrepreneur who owns several other properties in the area, including Louisa's on Union Street and Delaney's in the Marina. Hanson refuses to renew the Barleycorn's lease, and it's rumored she plans to turn the building into a new restaurant.

So tonight the mood is bittersweet. Ayre's birthday is tomorrow, and neighbors are already stopping by. But no one's forgetting that the pub's doom is imminent, and unless a miracle happens the beloved bar will shut its doors October 26. For good.

Pub supporters nonetheless began appealing to Hanson last December when they heard of her plans not to renew the 'Corn's lease. They tried to make the case that the popular pub is the right size and scale for the neighborhood, that any other venture would be hard to support in such a tough retail environment, and that the bar is so well loved, Hanson would alienate potential future customers by closing it.

But the notoriously elusive Hanson — who's obtained licenses for more than 22 businesses in the past two decades, most of which closed within two years or never opened at all — wouldn't discuss the future of the 'Corn, much less consider their pleas.

In an effort to save it, weekend bartender and longtime patron Tony Antico helped found the Save the John Barleycorn Coalition. Volunteers gathered more than 4,000 signatures from friends and fans in 30 countries and 20 states. They staged a demonstration outside Hanson's Union Street restaurant. They lined up formal support from the SF Appreciation Society, the Polk Corridor Business and Middle Polk Neighborhood associations, Lower Polk Neighbors, and Sup. Aaron Peskin, who represents the district. The Board of Supervisors even passed a resolution commending the pub and recommending it be kept open.

"In America you can be a mean nut, and if you own property, the law protects you," Peskin told the Guardian.

Despite all the effort, Hanson is heavily invested in the property and appears to have little incentive to back off now. Public records show that she first bought it for $2.3 million in autumn 2005 and then took out two loans against it totaling $2.5 million.

She seems so eager to develop the property, in fact, that in June city building inspectors found ongoing construction work being conducted at Barleycorn's neighbor, the former Front Room, without a permit, including taking out a wall and removing fixtures.

But Hanson is no stranger to conflict.

Also from this author

  • Music mitzvah

    Jewish Music Festival turns 25 with a crosscultural lineup

  • Our weekly picks

  • Stage listings