From Ferries to Fine Dining

By Larry Clinton

The property at 660 Bridgeway which houses the Barrel House Tavern and the year-round Holiday Shop has played several important roles in Sausalito’s history.

In the 1860s, the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company began to operate ferry service from a wharf built at the foot of Princess Street. The small steamer was thus named Princess, and became the first Sausalito ferry to serve San Francisco.  When rail service came to town in the early 1900s, a new ferry terminal was built to connect with the trains, on the site of the current ferry plaza. 

For a time after that, the property housed Sausalito’s City Library.  In 1941, a Purity Market was opened there, featuring a distinctive arched roof.  It was “our proto supermarket,” in the words of Sausalito native Rick Seymour. 

Purity Market in 1941                  Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Purity Market in 1941                  Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

According to the book Saucelito/$au$alito by George Hoffman, “The Purity store was well liked. Although it was one of a huge chain of stores, it had a homey feeling to it. It was not large, all the clerks were local, the manager was a native of Sausalito, the butchers knew everybody, and all customers knew each other. It was a very important business establishment, and although they had a monopoly in town the prices weren't high because the manager wouldn't be a part of it. The policy at Sausalito Purity was dictated by the manager mainly, and not by a hard and fast rule from Chicago. This was one store where it was safe to say that everybody shopped. The floor was like an old school room; heavily oiled, dark, worn in places and squeaky. The butcher counter was near the entrance so there was always a trickle of sawdust where you entered, and tracks leading further in. A favorite drinking fountain dispensed icy water that came through pipes within the heavily walled refrigerated meat storage room. Stepping into the store, you were immediately greeted by a friend; customer or clerk.

“What would be classified as a phenomenon today, was the manner in which the parking lot next to the store was operated. It was not policed, lined off, or attended in any way. Residents used the lot at will, but no one abused it. It's doubtful if ever a fender was bumped, or a door scratched. It held only twenty cars, but it served a thousand a day. The consideration for each other was unwritten and infectious. On Saturdays the shoppers hurried through, always with an eye on the parking lot to see if anybody was waiting to get in. No one waited long.”

The website reports: “When big supermarkets invaded the area the market was finally closed in 1968 and converted to a visitor-targeted mini-shopping mall, and throughout the 1970’s the building was extensively remodeled. The current facade dates to 1981.”

Since then, a series of restaurants have occupied the space.  Houlihan’s, a chain operation, was famous for its Houlihan’s to Houlihan’s fun run over the Golden Gate Bridge. The Water Street Grille was operated by Bob Freeman, who runs the nearby Trident and Ondine today. 

After an almost two-year renovation, which retained the arched roofline, the property reopened as the Barrel House Tavern, an award-winning restaurant with a bar that features classic Manhattans and Negronis aged (appropriately) in oak barrels, plus a seasonal selection of craft cocktails, and some adventurous appetizers, such as crab donuts.  From the bayfront windows, you can watch the ferries come and go ─ just like the old days.