Happy 20th, Kilowatt! The Life & Times of SF’s Favorite Punk Rock-Sports-Biker-Pool Dive Bar
Today’s the 20th anniversary of the The Kilowatt! Or as my hot biker roommate used to call it back when it was her pick-up bar for tattooed punk rock guys, “The Kill-Your-Twat”. The beloved Mission neighborhood dive bar institution turns 20 years old Monday, having opened August 4, 1994. Drinks will be rolled back to 1994 prices all night Monday and Tuesday for the anniversary proceedings, which obviously means less because drinks there are already ridiculously Kilowatt-cheap.
For the historic anniversary, we present this comprehensive, no-holds-barred, totally accurate, thoroughly retrospective, takes-a-half-hour-to-read, authorized dog-friendly biography of The Kilowatt. Why is it called “The Kilowatt”? What was it before it was The Kilowatt? Are all the Quentin Tarantino stories really true? Why is it a punk rock-sports bar? Why are there pictures of dogs everywhere? What’s with all the motorcycles? Why does one guy have a reserved seat and a placque? Why is there a barstool hanging from the ceiling? Why is there a little crab holding a ‘Fuck you Todd’ sign behind the bar? Let’s turn the clock back 20 years and walk through these and other historical ephemera from two decades of Kilowatt wastedness.
What was it before it was The Kilowatt?
“It was Paula’s Clubhouse” says Peter Athanas, owner since the day The Kilowatt opened. Paula’s Clubhouse was described by Michelle Tea as a “queer punk dance club”, and Peter first set foot in the place in on Ballgown Night. Ballgowns were mandatory at Ballgown Night.
“I walk in, jeans and a t-shirt, and the place just stops,” Peter recalls. “Everybody’s got a ballgown on — the bartenders, the door person, the people performing, the people in the audience. So I ordered a beer, sat at the bar and I just looked at the building and basically pictured two pool tables over here, tables over there and a stage.”
And you know what? That’s exactly what he put there. And they’re still all there at The Kilowatt today.
Why is it called “The Kilowatt”?
“I’m a licensed electrician, I wanted something with energy,” Peter says. The Kilowatt lost its shirt in the early years, so Peter worked two full-time schedules as both an electrician and a bartender.
“I had to work for the first three years, it was very slow,” he says. “I worked an electrician’s job from 7 to 5, then I came to the bar and worked 6 til 2 in the morning. I got home to Oakland at 3:30-4 in the morning, then I got up to go to work at 7 in the morning. For 3 years.”
My one friend says s/he saw Quentin Tarantino at The Kilowatt. Is this true?
Yes, this is probably true. The Kilowatt is known to be Quentin Tarantino’s favorite SF bar, and he often pops by when in town. He orders a giant tumbler of whiskey and retires to a certain, specific favorite booth to cavort with his attractive lady entourage.
The rule is that you don’t fuck with him. You don’t take cell phone pictures, you don’t tell him ‘I love your work’, you don’t approach him with a script and ask if he can get Helen Mirren involved. You leave Quentin Tarantino to enjoy his time like a regular Kilowatt person, albeit one with way more money and an attractive lady entourage.
What’s with all the motorcycle stuff?
Peter fixes motorcycles. There is motorcycle parking outside The Kilowatt. There was a Kilowatt Racing motorcycle team for awhile. And if you ride, The Kilowatt is the best bar for those times when you randomly find a shrap of metal stuck in your eyeball.
“One day I was riding my bike to the bar from work and something flew into and got stuck in my eye,” says longtime Kilowatt regular Elisabeth Miles. “I saddle up to the bar and start complaining about something being stuck in my eye, and my friend Rob looks at it and tells me it’s a piece of metal. Before I know it the entire bar is gathered around looking at my eye discussing methods on how to remove it.”
“So I’m kinda freaking out, but we collectively decide that as a community we are going to get this metal speck out of my eye,” she continues. “Rob, the bar surgeon, leads me to the ladies room with about 5 ‘assistants’ in tow. I’m given a shot of Jim Beam as a sedative. Using the frayed end of a match stick under the watchful eyes of the other 5, Rob delicately removes the metal speck from my eye.”
“That’s the power of drunk community,” Ms. Miles concludes.
The Kilowatt enjoys great financial failure as a punk rock bar (1994-1998)
Old school 90s punks might remember seeing bands like Creeper Lagoon, The Mieces, Turbonegro, Pink and Brown and Men’s Club on The Kilowatt stage (That is, when you weren’t off at The Trocadero or the KUSF Rock’n’Swap).
“We had great shows here,” Peter recalls. “Our legal capacity was 200. We had 350 people in here once. The bands loved it. The promoters loved it. I was the only one at risk.”
The problem? Punks don’t really have much money to spend at a bar. Punks buy 40-ounce cans or pocket-size liquor bottles, drink those in an adjacent alley outside your bar and then just pack your bar ordering water all night long. “It just doesn’t add up. You need a bigger volume to carry those smaller shows,” Peter says, clearly choosing his words diplomatically.
“November of ’97, we stopped doing music in anticipation of the smoking law January 1,” Peter said. (He refers to the California smoking ban in all workplaces that took effect for bars on January 1, 1998.) “Little did I know, my strategy with the smoking law basically made the bar.”
The Kilowatt enjoys great financial success as an illegal smoking bar (1998-2002)
The early ‘No smoking in bars’ era was a period of wild loophole exploitation. Some bars skirted the legalities of the smoking ban by having only the owner tend bar (Pop’s), others by making the place a worker-owned establishment with technically no employees (Amber Lounge). Peter Athanas had concocted a third way that gamed the new law beautifully.
“I read the law 5 times start to finish. The law didn’t say you couldn’t let people smoke,” he insists. “The law said you have to notify them that it’s against the law [to smoke in a California workplace]. You didn’t have thrown anybody out.”
“So I came back to my employees and I said okay, this is what we’re gonna do. January 1, when somebody lights up, you’re going to tell them ‘Did you know it’s illegal to smoke in a public place in the state of California? And what would you like to have?’”
“And within three days, my business went up 40%,” Peter laughs. “All the kids just started telling each other, ‘Don’t want to get hassled? Go to Kilowatt’. And I couldn’t have bought advertising like that.”
The agency in charge of smoking law enforcement was the San Francisco Health Department. Those guys closed and went home at 4:30 p.m., whereas The Kilowatt opened at 4:30 p.m. You can see how this arrangement could persist for years.
But after 4 years, a letter arrives at The Kilowatt threatening a $25,000 fine. On that day in 2002, this smoking-at-The-Kilowatt shit comes to a complete halt. Smoking is no longer permitted at The Kilowatt.
Since we’re on the topic, the satellite sports arrangement wasn’t always legal either (1994-1996)
“Back then the technology wasn’t that great”, Peter remembers of 1990s sports bar satellite offerings. “It was cheaper to have the [satellite] receivers registered at my home address than it was to have them registered at a business address. I used to take the receivers home and I would have them programmed and I would bring them here.”
This is back in the 90s before anything like DirecTV or Sunday Ticket ever existed for modern plug-and-play sports bars. Bar owners were reduced to tinkering with 10-12 foot satellite dishes bolted to their roofs. Sports-loving transplant boozebags were reduced to no SF bars except The Kilowatt, Pat O’Shea’s, Kezar Pub, and that shitty dystopian airport lounge-looking thing at the bottom of the 4th & Mission Marriott for our out-of-market games.
Why are there pictures of dogs on the walls?
But people, I regret to inform you that The Kilowatt is no longer a dog bar. “For 19 and a half years, we allowed dogs here,” Peter says. “There were only 2 rules. They couldn’t bark and they couldn’t lay in the booths”.
“Last January, late night on a Saturday, a dog bit somebody. And the owner took off,” Peter explains. The next day he is deluged with angry phone calls from the dog-biting victim’s family. “I decided that I never wanted to have phone conversations like that again,” he said. “We stopped dogs from coming in here in January .”
Why are there Polaroids taped up everywhere behind the bar?
The Kilowatt long offered a birthday deal where if you brought in six friends, you’d get a free bottle of champagne and the use of a house Polaroid camera for the evening. Or as longtime Kilowatt regular Caitlin Tanya Reid explains it, “We always had to make an appearance on our birthdays because we got that free, crappy bottle of ‘champagne’ and use of the Polaroid for the day.” To this day, most of the Polaroids tacked behind the bar depict birthday shenanigans that took place under the auspices of this deal.
The Polaroid Corporation stopped making Polaroid film in 2009, so Polaroid photos are no longer included in the Kilowatt birthday deal. You do still get the bottle of champagne, though.
Why is there a barstool hanging from the ceiling?
The barstool hanging from the ceiling at The Kilowatt is specifically reserved for two individuals who no longer live in San Francisco. “Andy and Susan Brown were very good friends of my first manager Fred. They came here when, like, 4 people came into this bar,” Peter explains. “Those 2 brought people here when we were brand new and no one knew the place.”
I told Andy, ’You will always have a place to sit here. No matter how crowded it is, there will always be a barstool for you’. So I rigged it, it’s on a pulley system. It actually does come down”
“Whenever they come around, if Andy wants his barstool, we lower his barstool.”
The Kilowatt goes to Disneyland (2004)
“My all time favorite memory is when Peter chartered a bus and took all his employees to Disneyland,” remembers Ms. Reid. This was the 10-year anniversary of the Kilowatt in 2004, and there are still photos of this Disneyland trip hanging in the bar.
“The bus was completely loaded with booze and we spent 2 nights in Anaheim,” Ms. Reid says.”Let’s just say that not everybody made it to Disneyland.”
Why does one guy have a placque and a reserved seat?
“It’s about friendship, it’s about loyalty.” Ted says. “My Redskins have always been on this corner TV. One day I walk in and there’s a placque there. They said, ‘No one can watch the Redskins here except you’.”
“I’m the oldest customer. I don’t know what that says about me,” Ted says. “I just drink here.”
Why is there a little crab with a ‘Fuck You Todd’ sign behind the bar?
As seen at left, there is a little crab with a sign that says “Fuck you Todd”. Todd himself is holding the crab in this photo, though it has brought him years of consternation. The crab itself is the work of a former Kilowatt bartender named Jason Finazzo.
“One day, someone brought the crab in as a gift to the bar,” Mr. Finazzo recalls. “I guess the crab had a brief stint as the SF Giants mascot in the 80s. So, we put it up by one of the TVs.”
Everyone hated the little crab. Especially a guy named Todd. Mr. Finazzo remembers how Todd would complain constantly of the crab ruining his Giants-watching experience. “I can’t fucking concentrate on the game with that fucking crab staring at me!” he would complain.
“This delighted me to no end,” Mr. Finazzo recalls. “This went on for a couple days, he’d bitch and moan, I’d laugh and watch. One day before happy hour I was looking forward to this driving Todd nuts, but I feared that maybe he had resigned to the fact that the crab was there to stay. So, I made a little sign that said ‘Fuck you, Todd’ and taped it to the crab’s claw.”
The crab remains in place to this day, indeed continuing to drive Todd nuts. “That awful horrible mascot,” Todd grumbles. “Now it’s been at least ten years. I do my best to avoid looking at it,” though it is situated precisely in the line of sight from Todd’s favorite chair.
And in a way, Todd has become strangely fond of the little crab that taunts him so. “The day I die, I want that to be put in my casket,” Todd says. “I want to be buried with that Crazy Crab that says ‘Fuck you Todd’.”
“The Kilowatt is my other living room, with family around,” says longtime patron Heather Brown. In a San Francisco overcome by douche-y boutique bars, The Kilowatt is a no-pretense bar that cares more about community than trendy ambiance. The Kilowatt is the bar that will have a birth date gambling pool when you’re pregnant, and throw a benefit to pay your funeral costs when you die. The Kilowatt is the place where people will shave their heads in support if you’re going through chemo.
And you will probably do all of the same for them.
Patron Julia Renedo puts it best, “There’s been lots of love, lots of good times, lots of loss and just… Life.”