A Local: Working at Smitty’s

By Steefenie Wicks, Sausalito Historical Society

Smitty’s Bar has been known as Smitty’s since 1938. Frank Smith, whose nickname was Smitty, leased an old Caledonia Street saloon and re-opened it as a local tavern that year. When he passed on, it became the property of his sister Suzie. For years it was called Suzie’s; then when it sold the new owners decided to go back to the name Smitty’s.

William ‘Bill” Dorsey MacDonald behind the plank at Smitty’s. Photo by Steefenie Wicks

William ‘Bill” Dorsey MacDonald behind the plank at Smitty’s. Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Smitty’s has become a legend in Sausalito. William Dorsey McDonald III tends to the bar and is known simply as Bill.  He became a working partner in 1991. He remembers the days when the old timers would come in, in the mornings to have coffee and hang out, calling this establishment their second home. Bill is a Sausalito native for the past 70 years, having grown up here, attended school here, met and married his wife here. As fate would have it, they met at Smitty’s.

When Bill was born at Ross General in the late 1940s his family lived in what was known as the “flats” of Marin City for 8 years before moving to Sausalito. His grandfather, uncle and his dad were all volunteers for the Sausalito fire department.   He spent time on the waterfront as a youngster paddling a little 9-foot rowboat that he built with his dad in their garage. It was around this time that he worked for the Purity Market, which led to a job for the Golden Gate Market.  He then got the job of delivering groceries for the Caledonia Market. Bill has worked in local establishments for most of his life, so it seems only logical that he would now be part of Smitty’s, the local friendly neighborhood bar.

He began as the 20-year-old doorman for a local bar called the 4 Winds, which was next door to what was once the 7 Seas restaurant on Bridgeway.  When he turned 21 the owners asked him if he wanted to learn how to tend bar, beginning a lifelong profession.  Later he spent over 11 years working for Gatsby’s (now F3 on Caledonia).

He remembers, “Gatsby’s was first known as the Gold Dust bar; when it sold the name was changed again but it finally ended up becoming Gatsby’s, the Jazz Club.  Many famous jazz artists came and played there.  Then the place changed from jazz to rock and roll, on Sunday afternoons, Santana would come perform. This was something that the local residents did not appreciate.”

He continued, “But then the new owners decided to bring in Chicago deep-dish pizza, which was a big success”.

“I can remember when going to Central School,” he adds,” one of the things we kids would do was crawl up inside the ice house, get a block of ice, break it up and then sit around sucking on its coolness.  This was a favorite thing to do during the summer.”

Another favorite thing to do was chasing down the fire engines when kids heard the fire whistle.  When the whistle blew the local kids would get on their bikes and ride to the area to see if they could catch some of the action.  “I remember when I was a sophomore at Tam High School,” he continues, “there was a big fire at Whiskey Springs.  There was a real distillery there; they made all kinds of alcohol so during the fire all of this alcohol that was stored blew up, it was quite the fire.  Both my father and grandfather fought that fire. Yeah, growing up in Sausalito was the best.”

When asked if Smitty’s has changed much since 1938, he says not that much.

“Smitty’s started out as a local bar, a place where the locals, the old timers could come to hang out while they exchanged bits of local news.  That part has changed some because most of those old timers have either passed on or moved on. For instance, for over 30 years Smitty’s had a yearly Pig Feed. “We would take over the parking spots in front of the bar and Sausalito’s favorite handyman, Jessie Thomas from Marin City, would make his secret Barb-B-Que sauce, then take over the entire food scene.  Now that Jessie has passed on this event is no longer done but we all remember Jessie, a wonderful man.”

Bill feels that Smitty’s hasn’t changed a lot but one of the biggest changes is that Smitty ‘s is now a sports bar.  They have always had television in the bar but now with the interest in football, basketball and baseball they have installed at least 8 TV’s that are tuned into whatever games are being played.

But he still remembers that one of the best things to do, as a kid was to go to the Bait Shop, which used to be the old Yacht Club.  That was where local character Juanita ran her sandwich shop, long before she had her restaurants. Bill could watch her telling off the tourists, then throwing them out of her shop.

Bill closes with,” Sausalito was the best place to grow up in because being a local from Sausalito is really something special.”