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Last Call at The Teacup

[whitespace] Don Yee & Geoffrey Dunn
Claire Rubach

Men About Town: Teacup owner Don Yee (left) and writer Dunn take a moment to pose at the old Teacup.

Remembering the best little bar in Santa Cruz

By Geoffrey Dunn

THE TEACUP, you ask? Yes, I say, the Teacup. Best little bar in Santa Cruz. Ten years gone now. Hard to believe.

Located in the upstairs triangle of the original Flatiron Building at the vortex of Pacific Avenue and Front Street--then the oldest building in downtown Santa Cruz--the Teacup was a throwback to the days of Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade. Imagine Jake Gittes there, drinking with Evelyn Mulwray. Bogey and Bacall.

The Teacup was a poem and a monument and a Buddhist temple and a den of thieves all rolled into one. Dark. Musty. And great bartenders, always great bartenders. To know it was to love it, and a few of us knew it all too well.

During the 1970s and 1980s, I drove my editors mad by writing about it every chance I could. I once called it "a gathering spot for an eclectic lot of literati, self-indulgent moral degenerates, two-bit philosophers, three-time losers, happy drunks, love-struck mannequins, women who love too much, at least one who loved too little, and maybe even a couple of saints." Which was pretty accurate. Where the "one who loved too little" is now I have no idea.

To walk up the faded green steps from Pacific Avenue was to take a step back into Santa Cruz history, to a time and place that are no more. Trust me, it was an excursion, an existential journey into another dimension. Especially after several drinks.

The Teacup was owned and operated by Don Yee, the venerable native of Canton, China, who was sent down by the Chinese Six Company out of San Francisco to run the place in the 1940s when some gambling debts threatened to bring it down. Don and his wife, Lillian, were there to greet customers at all hours that the place was open. Lillian took care of the restaurant side, while Don took care of the bar. It seemed like a pretty good arrangement to me.

Last call was at 11pm--which always left time for further excursions.

Stairway to Heaven

DON AND I went back to the early days of my youth. Even before. My parents had their first date there in the 1940s. By the time I was 5 I was crawling up the stairs with my uncles and older cousins delivering fish. There was usually a Scotch and water waiting for them at the top. One of my great uncles took a legendary fall one evening down the steps, but that is another story.

By my early 20s, when I was supporting my writing habit by cutting fish at the wharf, I realized that I could trade fresh salmon collars and gopher cod for kamikazes and shots of Herradura Silver tequila. Pretty soon it became like my second home. I even got mail there.

Every night was like a little play with a different cast of characters--the Mad Farmer and the Mad Photographer, and daydreaming denizens like Octavio Schwartz and Jose McCuen. Alice Through the Looking Glass. Queen Jane and Louise. I drank there three or four nights a week, but never more than six. The bar was closed on Mondays.

It was during the Loma Prieta earthquake in October of 1989 that the Teacup came to its unglorious end. Don and Lillian were upstairs when the temblor hit at 5:04 that ill-fated Tuesday afternoon, along with some cooks, a busboy and bartenders Richard Trebbian and Melody Maas, the latter of whom had stopped by to take care of some bookkeeping details.

"We had just turned on the TV in the bar to watch the World Series game," Maas later told me, "when all of a sudden, the building started to shake. You could see it swaying back and forth, two feet one way, then two feet the other. I ran over to a doorway and hung onto the wall."

Don immediately sensed that the situation was grave. He went upstairs, turned off the ovens, locked his doors, and went home.

Three weeks later, when business owners were finally allowed back in their buildings, Don asked me to join him on a recovery mission.

I learned an important lesson that day. As we made our way to the top of the stairs and surveyed the scene, I said to Don, "It's not that bad ..." I was trying to cheer him up. It didn't work.

"It's bad enough," he said. It was the only time he ever reprimanded me (and, trust me, there were plenty of times when he could have). He had lost thousands of dollars in foodstuffs and lost business. His livelihood--and those of his employees--was in limbo. My perspective had been too detached. Don understood much better than I what was coming down.

He was right. That was the end. The Teacup never opened its doors again.

Don put me in charge of the salvage job over the next several months. We relocated the front bar to "1007" on Soquel Avenue. Chairs and tables went to the Poet and Patriot, and to Pearl Alley Bistro. Some of them are still there. A lot of items went to the Museum of Art and History. A painted poem went to the Crepe Place--have Gary translate it for you some evening.

I distributed lights and tassels and menus and some busted-up liquor bottles to Teacup aficionados and regulars, and on the last day before the demolition, I found a small broken Buddha that still sits in my office.

In the decade since, Don and Lillian have enjoyed time with their family, most notably their beautiful grandchildren, Christina and Michael. Don still gets out for a little of the night life once in a while, but after a lifetime of working in bars like the Teacup and San Francisco's legendary Forbidden City, he's had to slow down.

And people still ask me about the Teacup. Oh, it was a good bar, as good as it gets. I still miss it. I will always miss it.

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From the June 16-23, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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