Author: Martin, George

A memory of Juanita

Legendary restaurant owner Juanita Musson died Feb. 26 at a hospital in Sonoma after suffering a stroke. The 87-year-old was a well-known character in the greater Bay Area. In her earlier years she was often mentioned in Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Customers followed her from restaurant to restaurant -- 11 in all over a period of 40 years or so.

Once you experienced Juanita, you never forgot her. She wasn’t very tall but she was large, some 250 lbs. in her prime. She always wore flowered muumuus and usually had her hair up in a bun. She sold postcards of herself au naturel in a big claw foot bathtub wearing one of those lacy headdresses that you see on flamenco dancers.

She became well-known back in the late 1950s when she ran a place called Juanita’s Galley on a grounded ferryboat in Sausalito. Juanita had a “colorful” vocabulary and was known for yelling at the help and at any customer who drew her ire, particularly anyone who would criticize her food. When in a more playful mood she was said to enjoy walking up behind a seated patron and embracing his head between her (shall we say) “ample” breasts.

Juanita’s became the place to go. Celebrities that hung out there included the Smothers Brothers, Joseph Cotten, Shelley Berman, the Kingston Trio, Robert Mitchum, various San Francisco and Marin County People of Importance, and Sally Stanford, the famous ex-madam who ran a much fancier restaurant of her own on the north side of Sausalito.

Juanita was not careful about her taxes and the IRS shut down her original Galley. She embarked on a years-long odyssey, starting restaurants in various places, among them El Verano and Fetters Hot Springs in Sonoma County, and in Port Costa in Contra Costa County for a time.

I only met Juanita once, but amazingly enough, the encounter had bluegrass content, plus a neat insight into her character (generous to a fault, especially with the boss's money), which is how a potty-mouthed old lady who liked to have a monkey, cats and sometimes even a goat running loose in her restaurant is making it into the hallowed pages of

Back in the summer of 1973 or ’74, I forget which, I spotted a tiny story in the paper that there was going to be a July 4 fiddle contest at the Fetters Hot Springs Hotel, where Juanita was presiding over a restaurant. I was playing in a band called The Boomtown Lulus at the time, and looking for any sort of gig I phoned the hotel, got Juanita on the phone and asked if she had a band, and/or a PA system for her event.

We chatted a few minutes and it became obvious she hadn’t given a moment’s thought to how she was going to run this contest. We agreed that the Lulus would come up and bring our PA system and play a set or two depending on how many contest fiddlers entered. I believe the price was $150, not bad for the early ’70s.

The big day arrived and we set up our speakers on a stage in front of the hotel. My memory is hazy but it might have been a big-rig trailer. There was a fair-size crowd but I don’t remember very many contest fiddlers. I believe we played two sets. We were in the sun on a warm day, so it wasn’t a particularly easy gig, but the crowd was into it and we had fun.

When the show was over I went looking for Juanita to get paid. She said, “Come with me, I’ll get you your money,” and we walked around to the rear of the hotel where there was a tiny office.

Inside was a woman who was dressed very well, with stylish hair and jewelry and makeup and an air of authority. The thought flashed through my mind that the sign outside said “Juanita’s” but it looked like the money was with this woman in the back.

Juanita said to her, “I need a check for $250 for this young man and his band.”

I almost blurted out, “No, we had agreed on $150,” but Juanita had been looking right into my eyes when she said $250, and I thought I detected just the trace of a smile. The woman cut the check and gave it to me. As we walked back to the front of the hotel I thanked Juanita profusely.

“That’s OK Honey,” she said. “You did a good job.”

On the way out I bought one of her postcards. I think it is still in a box in my basement.

Epilogue: While checking some details I googled “Juanita’s Galley” and discovered there is a Facebook page with some photos of Juanita, including the infamous tub photo and another of a laughing patron peering out from between her bountiful ta-tas. Check it out.

Posted:  3/10/2011

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