As an enclave that has always been chockablock with bars, North Beach is, not surprisingly, a place where bartenders are held in high esteem. The neighborhood’s barkeeps have an outsized place in our hearts and in our history, as should be the case in any well-functioning city.

I’ve had the pleasure to know a few of the best of them. And one of my favorites has been slinging drinks in North Beach since the days of the original Washbag (that’s Washington Square Bar & Grill for the noobs): Paulina Krol. Today, she’s running the show at Grant Avenue’s tumultuous Tupelo, Teague Kernan’s homage to Elvis Presley’s birthplace.

Paulina with a few of her devoted admirers. | Photo courtesy Paulina Krol

A roadhouse-style bar revolving around a solid roster of live music, Tupelo has become one of the busiest, and liveliest, spots in North Beach. Kernan opened the place in 2011, and Paulina has been at the helm since 2013. She recently took a short break from the chaos to talk with us, and today we have the pleasure to publish that interview on her birthday: Saint Patrick’s Day.

Joe Content: I’ve known you for about a decade now. We met at Dell’Uva, the wine bar that occupied Belle Cora’s current spot. That was hardly your beginning in North Beach, though.

Paulina Krol: No. My very first job was at the Condor, when it was a sports bar. I cocktailed there briefly, and then I went to the North Star, working for the old owners, who have long since moved away. It was an interesting place to start, because it had been in the same hands for a long time, and these new guys  bought it. There had never been a woman behind the bar.

Well, a lot of these oldtimers weren’t too psyched to have a young woman back there. So it wasn’t a….gentle  way to enter North Beach. Luckily, I was from the East Coast, and scrappy enough to hold my own.

After five years there, I went to the old Washbag, back when it was still owned by Pete Osborne.

When was that, roughly?

Early, mid-Nineties. Mikey D. was just getting ready to leave. Pat Cannon was still there, Wiz may have still been there also (Ed: Mike and Wiz later became co-owners of the former Amante). I wasn’t there for long. I went over to Little City across the street and worked there for a while. After that I toured around and did some time in the Marina, a little bit over by the ballpark. But I’ve always come back here.

Paulina represents behind the bar at North Beach’s Tupelo. | Photo courtesy Paulina Krol

Where did you and Teague meet?

We used to be next door neighbors! Wait, that’s actually not true. I first  met Teague at the Blue Lamp. I think that was his first job in the city, so I’ve literally known him since he first came here. And then he was working at the Buck (the Buccaneer, on Polk), a Boston bar right around the corner from my house, so I used to visit him down there.

Anyway, he came to me about five years ago and told me he bought a bar, and it was going to be a live music venue. But on Sundays, he really wanted it to be a Patriots Bar. He said to me, and I quote: “I want a real Masshole to run it. Not some pink-shirt-wearing wanna-be. I want a real  Patriots fan.” I immediately told him, I am your girl.

So I came here, and Sunday days, that was my baby. In the beginning there were just a few people here. Brendan Cohen was one of our first regulars, and now it’s this huge thing for Patriots. It’s my shift, and I bounce out of bed every Sunday. I know everybody here, and people sit in the same chairs, and it’s like Cheers, if Cheers was a sports bar. It’s great!

So needless to say, you’ve got a lot of stories. Tell me about the night the Giants won their first World Series.

Phew….I was working around the corner at the little wine bar, the old Dell’Uva. There was a little outside seating, a little indoor seating, no real way to secure people in and out. And I don’t know if it was a Monday or a Sunday, but somehow no one had thought to add extra staff. It was just myself and Chelsea (Chelsea Bradford, now behind the stick at Bell Tower).

The bar exploded, basically. We shot champagne all over the place, we chugged bottles standing on the bar, and we sold every bottle of champagne that we had. People were buying our most expensive bottles and just shooting them off in the middle of the street. We eventually just closed the bar at 1:00am because we were terrified we would lose our entire inventory. Glassware was just walking away, and the street was full of people. It was anarchy, and it just seemed prudent to secure the place (laughs).

I remember trying to cross the street to Sotto Mare, and it must have taken a half hour.

Oh yeah, it was utter chaos. It was a nice thing to see, because it hadn’t happened for San Francisco before. And it was a cool thing to participate in, living here, but being from Boston.

But again, being from Boston, last year’s Super Bowl, the dramatic 20-3 comeback, that was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of. To see people singing Dropkick Murphys, and jumping up and down until bottles were shaking off the shelves….I have to say, that was my moment.

North Beach has changed a lot since you first navigated these streets.

A lot. I remember, I used to walk home at 3:00 in the morning, and you never worried about safety. It’s still an incredibly tight-knit neighborhood, we take care of our own here, more than any place I’ve ever been. But it’s different now.

Tupelo, keeping it real every night on Grant Avenue.

What do you see as the biggest change?

There’s a lot more crime on the street, and some of the small businesses have been pushed out, and that’s unfortunate. It’s probably a bit of nostalgia, because I’m older, but some of the romance has gone out of it. There is also a little less diversity than there used to be, because of the influx of tech money. A lot more bottomless mimosas. Ha!

But there are positives, too. Live music has always been embraced here, and that’s still happening. There are a lot of great new businesses that have popped up and are doing well. We still have small cheese shops, and there are mom-and-pop restaurants. I think it’s amazing that we still have that, and that North Beach has never allowed a major chain to come in. We keep it small, we keep it neighborhood, and we keep it family-owned-and-operated.

That is pretty unique.

It is, especially considering the large amount of money that has come into this city. Too often, it seems like people can just throw money at an obstacle and it disappears. But here, that only goes so far.

One of the things I love about North Beach, more than anything: you see new businesses that come into the neighborhood all the time, trying to make their way. And I’m not trying to say you have to go around and gladhand. But if you don’t patronize the neighborhood and get out there, people won’t support you. You’ve got to make yourself a part of the community in a positive way.

There is a little bit of a slope to negotiate.

Yes, there is! But, once you become established in this neighborhood, people will do anything for you. If you run out of something, you need something, someone has a problem down the street….everyone helps each other out. It’s nice.

So, let’s back up a little bit. What was your first bar gig?

My first bar gig? Ho boy. It was in a pool hall. I worked in this place called Boston Billiards, which no longer exists. Right around the corner from Fenway Park. I spent probably two years as a pool hustler; that was my idea of a misspent youth. I thought it was incredibly romantic. I traveled all around the Northeast for a while. I played a lot of the pros, and I was in a bunch of the magazines as this young talent to watch out for.

I had a really good friend, and we’d go on little road trips and hustle games. I dated a gangster, and he’d front the money…

(Incredulous laughter)

I did! An Asian gangster guy, he’d front all the money…

Jesus! How old were you then?

I was 19. You can bartend when you’re 18 out there. It’s funny. I was waiting tables at one point, and you can imagine, I’m this little 18-year old, I’m telling guys “Hey, I bet I could take you.” I’d get a game, tell my GM I needed 10 minutes. He’d get a cut of the winnings, and that’s how I got my break.

After that, my first bartending job was at the Cask and Flagon. It was Boston’s answer to Momo’s, the bar you’d go to if you were going to Fenway. Since then they’ve had a massive remodel, and it’s very fancy. But back then, it used to be a hellhole….that’s the wrong word. It was a dive bar. Low ceiling, you could smoke in the bar. During baseball games there’d be fifteen security guys.

Fifteen security guys?!

Yep, fifteen. And I was the first woman to ever bartend there. My favorite story about the Cask and Flagon from that period: we had some angry drunks in there, ‘cause we hadn’t won anything, the Red Sox were cursed, you know. I remember Roger Clemens used to sit at the end of the bar drinking; he was a dick back then and he still is, whatever. But we wouldn’t start a tab, unless you were getting food. This was before credit cards, the way they are now, this is ’91. So this guy gets a burger and a bud, I’ll never forget, it comes to $9.75.

So, I’m running him a tab and he goes, “Hold on, I’m just going to the bathroom.” So I’m running around working, and I see him, and he’s walking out the door. He looks at me, makes eye contact, and knows he’s running on his tab.

So I’m trying to hail him down and the security guys can’t hear me, and I can’t get out, because the door is at the other end of the bar. So I hop on to the bar, and I run–because you have to pay the tab if you get stuck with it, mind you–I run full sprint down the bar, hop off the end, and literally fly out the front door. There’s six security guards standing out front. I hit this guy from behind in a tackle, and he goes face down on the floor. I’m on top of the guy, shaking him by the collar, yelling “You owe me ten dollars!”

The security guys were laughing so hard they couldn’t even move. But I got my ten dollars. No tip, of course. And that  was the Cask and Flagon.

1337 Grant Avenue, SF

Clearly, Paulina is a gem, and the rest of the crew at Tupelo is terrific as well. Go down and have some drinks, talk a little blarney and see some music. And Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! We’ll see you back here soon.