Famed bartender Johnny Love lands in Marin

If you came of drinking age in the 1990s, then you know the name Johnny Love — not the singer, but rather the barman. Johnny Love’s real name is Johnny Metheny, but it was his nickname that became the name of his famous pseudo-eponymous club on Polk Street. That late-night fixture led to two more, one in Walnut Creek and one in San Diego.

Metheny got his bartending start at the famous, and perhaps first, “fern bar” called Henry Africa’s on Polk Street in San Francisco (“Henry” was actually Norman Hobday). Metheny began bartending while playing rugby for UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in economics. He would later take his own nickname and open his own bar, with help from another legendary barman, Harry Denton, who died in 2021. The Fillmore Grill was his first ownership stop, then the Blue Light followed. Then came the Love nightclubs. Metheny even started a vodka brand, in conjunction with Devotion Vodka, back in 2010 called Johnny Love Vodka. The clubs and the vodkas are gone but Johnny Love is still around and in the bar business.

“Oh, the stories I could tell,” says the legendary barman.

Metheny recently reacquired the Blue Light, runs the Toy Soldier and Trinity in San Francisco and is involved at Ditas in Sausalito. A party to celebrate the restaurant’s new partnership with Love will start at 9 p.m. Friday at the restaurant at 562 Bridgeway in Sausalito. For more information and to RSVP, go to ditasmarin.com/ditasevents-2.

Legendary barman Johnny Love teamed up with Duncan Wedderburn to open Ranch Water in San Rafael. (Courtesy of Ranch Water)
Legendary barman Johnny Love teamed up with Duncan Wedderburn to open Ranch Water in San Rafael. (Courtesy of Ranch Water)

Earlier this year, Metheny teamed up with longtime Palm House mixologist Duncan Wedderburn to open Ranch Water at 711 Fourth St. in San Rafael in the vacant Fourth Street Tavern space (hear more on my Barfly Podcast). Recently, I caught up with the San Francisco legend, Marin newcomer and Bartender Hall of Fame inductee to ask him how things are going.

Q You have a long history as a bartender. What, in your opinion, makes a great one?

A It’s a combination. First of all, you have to have a great personality. You have to engage with people; they have to enjoy their time with you. For me, that’s always been No. 1. For two, you have to have drink creativity, but still follow the direction of the bar manager to make the drinks correctly. It’s really drink quality and personality that makes for a great bartender. And for management, you’ve got to be there on time, follow the rules, back up your staff and be reliable. It’s a combination of different things, please the customer while you’re pleasing the boss. A customer needs to leave so happy that you’re going to get repeat business from them.

Q In the ’90s, people from Marin almost always opted to go out to the late-night bars in San Francisco. What has changed?

A There are plenty more places to go to nowadays. Back in the ’90s, there wasn’t much South of Market. It wasn’t really developed, or by the ballpark, even Potrero Hill wasn’t much back then either. Back in those days, Harry and I had the only North of Market dance bars. There were also no cellphone cameras. So, people could do more wild things. There also seemed to be more celebrities out and about back then. You don’t see them as much these days. Maybe those cameras have scared them away a little bit; everything they do now is going to be on YouTube immediately.

Q You’ve done this for more than 25 years. What keeps you going into work every day?

A I love it. The friends you meet. Duncan and I were friends before, and now we’re even better buddies. I love meeting people and interacting with them. Every day it’s something new, and a new creative idea might pop up at any time. You want to keep it entertaining for your customers, because it has always been entertaining for me. I am actually excited to go into work each and every day. I truly enjoy everything about it.

Q What ingredients/qualities do your staff have at Ranch Water?

San Rafael's Ranch Water features several different versions of their namesake cocktail. (Courtesy of Duncan Wedderburn)
San Rafael’s Ranch Water features several different versions of their namesake cocktail. (Courtesy of Duncan Wedderburn)

A The bartending staff is very professional. All the traits we just talked about, they all have them. They follow direction. Duncan is here day to day; they follow his direction. The people we hired are fun, nice and reliable — and professional, which is often overlooked. Customers don’t see everything their bartender has to do, and all these people do it very well. I often come here just to see them.

Jeff Burkhart is the author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender, Vol. I and II,” the host of the Barfly Podcast on iTunes (as seen in the NY Times) and an award-winning bartender at a local restaurant. Follow him at jeffburkhart.net and contact him at [email protected]


Ranch Water’s Ranch Water

1 ½ ounces Cenote Blanco tequila

¾ ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice

½ ounce mango puree

½ ounce agave syrup

2 dashes Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub

1 ounce Topo Chico sparkling mineral water

Tajin classic seasoning (for rimming)

Rim the serving glass with Tajin seasoning by wetting the rim and dipping it into the seasoning. Fill the rimmed serving glass with ice. Combine the first five ingredients listed in a separate mixing glass with ice and shake until chilled and combined. Strain into the serving glass and top with sparkling water. Stir and serve.

Note: A “classic” Ranch Water cocktail is just tequila, lime juice and soda water. San Rafael’s Ranch Water features several different versions on their cocktail menu.