April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
Inside his restaurant, where the modern flat screens contrast with an old wooden bar back and a stuffed leopard standing above the bar, 71-year-old Gio enjoys a carbonara pasta with a glass of Negori. While sipping on his colorful Campari, Gin and sweet Vermouth concoction, he took me back in time of San Francisco history.
He is no regular in this restaurant. He owes it its name: Gio’s, an old-school bar restaurant in the heart of the Financial District. Giovanni Costabile is a short man with a thick head of hair, a perfectly trimmed mustache, a mischievous smile and tons of stories to share.
“Very few of those folks are still floating around,” said David Poindexter, a patron of 12 years who discovered Gio’s – and met Gio – “thanks” to his smoking habits, back when it was one of a few places you could smoke in.
“As willie Brown represents the political scene, Gio represents the tradition of San Francisco restaurants, Poindexter said. “Talking with him, it’s like talking to somebody from 40 years ago.”
Gio, as people affectionately call him, has been in the restaurant business ever since he came on vacation to San Francisco from his native country of Mexico. Like any other 17-year-old, he liked the freedom of being away from home. His father agreed for him to stay, in the care of his uncle, if he went to school, which he did.
He first studied English at an adult language school. He then went on to San Francisco State University, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts. “I liked to draw and was good at it, so I thought I’d become a graphic artist,” he said.
Meanwhile, it was through friends and acquaintances that Gio got his first job as un underage “bar back” in what is now the Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. He then became night manager at a Tenderloin steak house.
After his studies, he got a scholarship to study graphic design at the Arts Center in Los Angeles, “but I hated L.A. and I kept coming back up here every time I got the chance,” he said, smiling.
Back in San Francisco, while he had job opportunities in the field of his studies, “it was half the pay from working in a restaurant”. So he stayed in the business that paid, and his next work place was La Strada, a fancy place on Broadway, which then was a “wonderful dining mecca,” he said. Unfortunately, he explained, the topless business started in the North Beach area, transforming the neighborhood forever.
With more restaurant experience and growing connections, he joined Bill Newsom – Gavin’s father – El Cholo, the city’s first upscale Mexican joint. But when Newsom decided to sell, Gio couldn’t buy him out.
His next restaurant venture was Giovanelo’s with pals Nello Piccinini and Joe Piccinini. There Gio worked the bar and two or three years into it, sold his share. “And there are some stories there,” he said in a raspy smoky voice, as if sorting through memories in his head before continuing on.
For a few years, he worked in the footsteps of his grandfather, a metallurgical engineer, working as a trader and later working as coal director for a Japanese company, which sent him to work in Mexico with his wife and daughter. Unfortunately, his wife got into an accident so the family returned to the US so she could have surgery.
Once back in the states, he kept on working in the international trade but eventually, in 1987, he bought with a friend what became Gio’s. He bought his friend’s share and has been here ever since.
While finishing his late lunch, around 3 p.m., Gio took the time to say goodbye to all of his workers as they ended their shift. Most of his staff have been here for a long time, friends from college, former customers and old friends from the business.
“He truly is one of a kind. His wit, his caring attitude toward both patrons and staff is what makes him special,” said Lingel Winters, a lawyer who works a few blocks away and has come here since 1987. Winters met his friends Peter Brown and Bob Brown at Gio’s for an afternoon drink and chat, as they did for a long time.
And “he hired the most beautiful bartenders in San Francisco,” Lingel Winters said as he and his two friends reminisced about the names and hair color of former cocktail waitresses.
Throughout his stories, Gio describes a different era, a male-oriented society where a two-martini lunch was the minimum, where men from all walks of life came to converse and do business deals. “It was bad manners to talk business before drinks,” said Gio with a hint of nostalgia.
But, in the last decade or so, Gio saw the impact of the new technologies on how people interacted. The early years were more fun, he said, there was no cell phones, and real interaction between patrons. And customers were loyal to their hang-out place.
Now people change jobs every few years, they choose different kind of spots. Back in the day, there were no celebrity chefs, maybe a hostess or an ambiance brought people in, he said. “People used the bar as a living room,” Gio explained.
“It is more than a bar, it is a forum for people and ideas. At Gio’s we all walk in the door and we leave where we were behind us. If we were a high-profile attorney we sit here and if we’re a delivery boy we sit on the stool there so when we come in, we’re all friends,” Peter Brown said.
For Poindexter, today’s world is lacking substance and authenticity. He finds it when he comes to Gio’s, in “that the tradition of hospitality (is) encompassed by someone like Gio. He is a loving wonderful man, giving and caring, a great human being.”