Ave Bar And Lounge: Pouring Drinks And Building Community

Despite a pending eviction to make way for a development project, the 70-year old bar's current owners focus on building their clientele and community.

Ave Bar and Lounge co-owner Lucia Fuentes Zarate tending bar for the after work crowd on an April weekday. David Horowitz/Ingleside Light
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When Bomani Caungula took full ownership of the Ave Bar and Lounge in 2007, the San Francisco native and firefighter wanted to make Ingleside’s nightlife welcoming for everyone. The longstanding business owner has just one suggestion for guests: Walk in with a smile.

“I can dictate what I don’t want the bar to be, which is unwelcome to anyone,” Caungula said.

Caungula and his wife Lucia Fuentes Zarate made the bar their own. They quadrupled the number of taps and specialized in Northern California craft beers. In tribute to Fuentes Zarate’s heritage, they serve Chilean wines. The whiskeys are sourced everywhere from Japan to Kentucky. Expert whiskey tasters occasionally come in to teach the staff about their products.

“The neighborhood is high-class,” Caungula said. “We’re talking about Westwoods, Saint Francis Woods, Ingleside, Ocean View.” An Ingleside fixture for nearly 70 years, the Ave features a narrow bar with a corrugated steel ceiling, Chilean tables and wooden shelving. A mostly unexceptional storefront belies the four-generation neighborhood gathering place, where longtime regulars often greet each other with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“The vibe is inclusive, open, welcoming,” five-year regular Marcus Herman said. “People are touching, they’re hugging, they’re communicating, they’re supporting one another.”

One of only two liquor bars in the entire neighborhood, the black-owned bar became a San Francisco Legacy Business last year in recognition of its history and importance to the neighborhood.

However, the bar’s last call may be coming. In February, the Ave’s landlord real estate developer TJ Development entered its Environmental Impact Review in a plan that would demolish the building and three neighboring parcels to build a four-story condominium.

According to the present proposal, the commercial space of the project would be reduced by 60%. Caungula said that if TJ Development’s plan comes to fruition, he would want to return to the same location once the new building opens.

“We want to stay here,” Caungula said.

The building at 1607 Ocean Ave. turned into a bar for the first time in 1949, when 49er John Schiechl bought the former hardware and electric shop and turned it into “The Avenue Club.” It has changed ownership six times since then.

Caungula bought the Ave Bar with his friends Franco Calzolai and Rodney Glover in 2006. A year later, he bought their shares to fulfill his lifelong dream of having his own business.

The Ave’s lease expires in late August, and the city’s EIR usually takes between six and 18 months. But in the midst developers’ plans, the Ave has continued to thrive.

“It’s a great neighborhood gathering space with good folks on both sides of the bar,” 10-year regular James Collins said.

Although they own the bar 50-50, the two owners prioritize cleaning the bar over serving drinks, preferring to let their bartenders focus on bartending.

“Give my hands the shovel. That’s what I like,” Caungula said. “I fell in love with beer. That’s what changed the whole game right there.”

In addition to firefighting and working at the Ave, Caungula, a proud blue-collar worker, raises chickens, ducks, rabbits and goats at his farm at home in Sonoma County. Although he and Fuentes Zarate can each carry out any task the Ave requires on any given day, Fuentes Zarate is the Ave’s primary administrator.

“For me, it’s my life,” Fuentes Zarate said. It was at the Ave where she learned much of her English, and where she made her friends in the States. She learned how to drink spirits, run a bar and manage a business.

She is also an elected member of the Ocean Avenue Association board of directors as well as a volunteer on the OAA’s Street Life Committee and Business Committee. She gives back to the community through the Ave, which participates in toy drives, fundraisers, San Francisco Beer Week, tastings for local breweries, live music performances and more.

“Hopefully, along our journeys, we find a comforting clubhouse,” Herman said, pondering what Ingleside might be like without the Ave. “But it will not be like this clubhouse.”

The Ave Bar and Lounge is located at 1607 Ocean Ave. and can be reached at (415) 587-6645.

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