Located just blocks away from San Francisco’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s bar/restaurant is mini museum of its own, showcasing 40 vintage motorcycles of various makes and models.
“Forty Cycles of Yesteryear: The riders are gone; the bikes are still here!”
The sign displaying those words aroused our attention while strolling through the financial district of San Francisco on our way to attend the city’s Supercross round at nearby AT&T Park. Hanging from Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s, a bar and restaurant, vintage bikes were visible from the windows as the first stirring of the lunch crowd began to wander in for a bite to eat.
Located at 2nd Street and Minna, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s is just blocks away from San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), which is fitting, as it is something of a miniature museum all its own.
The owner, Norman Hobday, opened the eclectic bar 20 years ago. Chances are if you stop in for a drink or some grub, you’ll find Hobday the same way we did, propped up on a sofa located in the front corner of the bar watching television with his orange cat, Higgins.
Hobday is a something of a local character in San Francisco, due to the fame surrounding his previous bar, Henry Africa’s. A San Francisco hotspot in the ’70s, the establishment is credited as the city’s first “fern” bar – defined as a ritzier enterprise than your typical dive, spruced up by sophisticated decor and serving fancier mixed drinks. In fact, Henry Africa’s is even reputed, by one account, to be the birthplace of the Lemon Drop martini.
Henry Africa holds court at Rickenbacker’s sitting next to his cat Higgins on a sofa at the front corner of the bar.
Dressed in overalls, T-shirt and light jacket, Hobday was perusing the newspaper when we wandered in out of the light rain that had begun to fall outside. Introducing himself as Henry Africa, an AKA he inherited as the former bar’s proprietor, he was happy enough to answer our questions when we wandered in to check out his current tavern. Our conversation started out on his eclectic mix of vintage motorcycles hanging throughout the bar, but when it comes to stories, Africa has more than a few.
Perhaps Africa’s best yarn involves how he became a well-known tavern owner in the first place. Hailing from a tiny agrarian community in upstate New York called Pumpkin Bend, Africa found himself in San Francisco after being discharged from the Army following the Korean War. Out of work and with $1200 in mustering pay burning a hole in his pocket, Africa and an army acquaintance dropped into a bar to have a beer before they both hopped onto a Buffalo-bound flight back home.
“We went into a bar down on Mason Street (located in SF’s Tenderloin district) and had a beer, just to kill the time. And the guy (bartender) gave us a Mickey Finn, or give me one,” recalled Africa. (If you don’t know what a Mickey is, go out and rent a couple ’50s Film Noir movies.)
Waking up about 12 hours later in a parking lot across the street, Africa found himself in dire straits. “It was raining like hell, and here I was with no money, my barracks bag was taken, with nothin’, absolutely nothin’.”
Believing that going to the police would be futile, Africa returned back to the bar the next morning to confront the owner.
“He looked at me and sized me up and says, ‘here’s 20 dollars, why don’t you go out and get yourself a clean shirt and some breakfast and come back and I’ll give you job.’ So, that’s how I got into the saloon business.”
From that humble beginning the Army veteran would go on to open the aforementioned Henry Africa’s. He thought he’d gotten out of the business for good when he sold his namesake establishment, but after a year of doing nothing, when the property opened up for Rickenbacker’s he signed on to the lease.
In the beginning, however, there weren’t any motorcycles. The roundabout, unintended way Africa happened into “the saloon business” extended to his motorcycle collection as well. Although he had ridden from a young age, Africa wasn’t obsessed with two-wheeled transport or showed any typical gearhead inclinations.
The fine collection of Tiffany lamps on display have a direct role in Africa’s acquisition of his first motorcycle.
“As far as being a real aficionado of motorcycles, I’m not. I’ve never even pulled a cylinder head off a bike,” explained the accidental collector. “I just buy them. If they look good to me I hang them up in the bar, or sell them.”
In fact, the beginning of his motorcycle compilation can be tied to another collection on display at Rickenbacker’s – over a half-million dollars worth of Tiffany lamps.
Searching for the valuable antique lamps out in Death Valley, he ran into a 1939 Indian Scout, which had been owned by a female prospector. The woman had used the bike to go searching for rocks and ore but after passing away, a relative sold the machine to Africa, who decided to pick it up on a whim.
“I happened to fall into it. I was down there hunting for some Tiffany lamps and I bought the motorcycle from her niece,” said Africa on his first two-wheel acquisition. “It got so much attention in here [in the bar]. It wasn’t that I was clever and calculating. It just sort of happened.”
From that purchase spawned an enviable collection of vintage machines, with Africa picking up most of his bikes from Hemmings Motor News or Las Vegas auctions.
Vintage motorcycles from all over the world hang from the walls and ceiling of Rickenbacker’s as the San Francisco financial district lunch crowd sits down for a quick bite and maybe a drink or two.
After the positive feedback from the first bike, he decided to hang up a couple more. The motorcycle collection then evolved into the focal point of the bar and has since grown to 40. Many of them are now mounted around and above patrons when they enter the pub.
And there is a ton of history surrounding them. Some of the notable machines on display include a 1941 Indian which Hollywood legend Samuel Goldwyn presented to yet another Hollywood icon, Clark Gable, for the actor’s performance in Gone With the Wind.
Another bike on display is a 1918 Reading, which had at one time been owned by a New Zealand sheep rancher. The Kiwi shepherd had used the accompanying sidecar to transport abandoned new-born lambs to and fro. As such, the sidecar, which is stowed away in the mezzanine of Rickenbacker’s, is claimed to emit a suspicious odor on particularly warm days.
There are quite a few old Indians and Harley-Davidsons on display, but the collection at Rickenbacker’s has a wide array of makes and models. Moto Guzzi, Excelsior, Henderson, Ariel and New Imperial designs all make appearances.
This 1938 Nimbus has an interesting story behind it, with German troops commandeering the machine from its Danish owner during the WWII occupation and returning it two days before the end of the war.
There’s even a 1938 Nimbus. The Inline-Four shaft-driven machine was a Danish model and one of the first bikes to feature telescopic forks. This particular machine was seized from its Danish owner by German soldiers during the country’s WWII occupation. Interestingly enough, two days before the end of the war, the Germans actually returned the bike back to the original owner.
Another odd addition hanging above the bar is a 1922 Motosacoche. A Swiss company founded in 1899, the particular model in Africa’s bar was used by a legionnaire of the famed French Foreign Legion during the North African Rif War in Algeria and Morocco. As its accompanying display tag explains, it wasn’t very powerful or adept in the sand, “but it beat walking.”
All told, it is an impressive display for the vintage aficionado to take in for one sitting.
Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s is instilled in the legends of local San Francisco lore and is a great place to pop in for a pint.
Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s is a definite piece of San Francisco character. Tiffany lamps and vintage motorcycles make for an eccentric combination, but meld well with the wooden bar and long mirrors to give the place an old-fashioned feel. The odd decor is further juxtaposed by an upscale crowd. You might expect a joint displaying 40 motorcycles to be crawling with patch-wearing toughs looking for trouble, but during our lunch-time visit the place was decked out with polite, non-threatening office professionals who had drifted out of their cubicles in the nearby high-rise buildings of the financial district. As for new visitors, motorcycle enthusiasts will appreciate the vintage decor, while the less enthusiastic will be content to soak in the old-school charm and knock back a few drinks. If you’re in the neighborhood, drop by and pay a visit.
(Post Script: The bar was at the center of some recent scrutiny for a culturally insensitive display which included the teeth of an American Indian. Giving our undivided attention to the bikes, we didn’t notice the display during our short visit and only found out about it after the fact. Reports indicate that the offending teeth have since been removed. We’ll pass on editorializing, but it bears mention, and potential patrons may take offence.)
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