Walk into Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and you step into history! Under many names and owners, the Schooner Saloon has outlasted a plethora of saloons that served Bolinas since the mid-1800s when today’s Wharf Road was a bustling business center where schooners and other boat traffic facilitated the local economy, traveling between Bolinas and the markets of San Francisco.
The saloon served its customers through the great earthquake of 1906, two World Wars, and a rapidly changing modern culture. The Temperance movements in the 1800s and the 1920s national Prohibition, attempted to enforce alcohol abstinence; but in the end, a good drink won out. The lively saloon is still a gathering place for characters of fame or infamy, local regulars and interesting visitors.
In the late 1800s it was Nils Odin’s Schooner Saloon and Odin, who lived next door, watched the settlement grow into a town and automobiles replace horses. Marion Bettencourt and his wife Ida owned the saloon and lived upstairs through the tough years of Prohibition and the Great Depression in the 1920s and 30s. A barber by trade, Bettencourt installed his barbershop in the front corner of the bar. Prohibition created a booming black-market for alcohol smugglers arriving by boat along Marin’s coast, monitored by The Bolinas Coast Guard crew. Local legend has it that the Schooner Saloon never missed a day of serving spirits in the back room.
The next owner, Mr. Langestin was also a barber. Then Ed Nott, a descendent of the Briones pioneer family of Bolinas took over in the 1940s. His focus was serving the hard-drinking, hard-working, deer-hunting locals. He called his saloon Ed’s Nott Inn, and often he wasn’t.
In 1955 Italian immigrant Ismaele (Smiley) Bianchini bought the saloon. He had been a successful restaurateur in San Francisco, but he was tired of retirement. He loved hunting and fishing, so the saloon became Smiley’s Bar and Bait Shop. He lived upstairs, had a big garden, added the motel rooms and knew just about everybody in town.
In 1966, Ray Gill and his wife became the owners and kept the name Smiley’s. Thanks to a loud conversation by developers overheard in the saloon in 1967, activists saved Bolinas Lagoon from becoming a yacht harbor with condos and casinos. In the 1970s, Bolinas had an interesting downtown triad: opposite Smiley’s saloon was Scowley’s café and Snarley’s deli.
The next owner, attorney Vernon Bradley added pizza to the saloon’s menu in the 70s. When Robert Glenn took over in the early 1980’s, the building was badly in need of repair. He handsomely restored the structure including rebuilding the long-missing upstairs front porch. Pulling up old flooring revealed many an unexplained oddity including someone’s glass eye.
Don Deane bought the saloon in 1990. Upstairs he produced the Coastal Post, a newspaper that never shied from local or world controversy. Downstairs, Deane turned the saloon into a destination for good music. Even midday, the raucous saloon patrons gave one an inkling of scenes from the town’s wild past.
A fresh era began in 2015 when Smiley’s Schooner Saloon was purchased by a team led by Leila Monroe, an environmental lawyer and surfer, whose parents formerly owned a small town saloon. The new owners kept the name and are dedicated to celebrating its storied past while making it a welcoming place for friends and strangers to mingle. Leila is passionate about supporting outstanding musicians, and Smiley’s now hosts artists ranging from local superstars to regional independent acts, to occasional larger names artists.
The continuity of this one business through more than 150 years of Bolinas life makes Smiley’s Schooner Saloon a window into history and a cornerstone of the town’s vibrant community.