San Diego’s Gay Roots — The Brass Rail

The Brass Rail has gone through many changes throughout the years since patrons had to “put all hands on top of the bar” when vice police would come through with flashlights looking for hanky panky. The bar was originally located downtown at the corner of Sixth and B in the Orpheum Theatre building. It was a restaurant for many years, with a window that looked into part of the kitchen. Old timers will tell you about watching meats roasting on the rotisserie as they lined up for a movie.

When Lou Arko bought the eatery in 1958, it was a popular lunch spot for attorneys, 101-another-option-railjudges and professionals. It also had a lively happy hour with the downtown businessmen and their secretaries met up. The evening crowd changed and more men came in to socialize around the piano bar, then at night the clientele became mostly gay men since this was one of the only place in town where they felt comfortable.

The building was sold for a new high-rise in 1963, and Louie moved to a Hillcrest location at the site of today’s Washington Mutual Bank. The bar was smaller and no longer had a restaurant, but men found a home around their new piano bar. Hillcrest’s gay community took root. Ten years later, redevelopment again forced Lou to move the Rail across the street to its current location. Carol met her husband in 1976, when the bar was half the size, and the couple acquired the property in 1992.

The following year Art Cunningham bought the bar and began expanding the footprint into storefronts that was once housed Finest City Properties and Hillcrest Travel. Gail Santillian took over the business after her father’s death and oversaw an extensive remodel in 2007, but she retained some original fixtures including a 1940s phone booth (now a cell-phone closet) and a chandelier from the old Orpheum Theatre. One thing that hasn’t changed over its almost five decades is the friendly atmosphere still tucked inside this colorful corner. Follow the neon to 3796 Fifth Avenue (at Robinson) where the Brass Rail continues to make history.

First published in HillQuest, an Urban Guide to 92103 & Beyond, volume 5

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