Golden Gate Park Casino had rich history in park, Richmond

by John Freeman

The Golden Gate Park Casino had a fascinating 40-year history in San Francisco, but there is no physical trace of it left today except in photos and historic archives.

The original Casino was, by the popular meaning of the word in the 19th Century, "a place of social amusement." It was a one-story building built in 1882 as a restaurant and social hall, just west of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

In 1900, the building was moved about 100 feet south to the crest of a knoll and rotated to overlook Main Drive (now J.F.K Drive). It was also enlarged with a second story.

Because "spirits" were served and it competed with concessions at the Mid-Winter Fair in 1894, the restaurant was closed and the first floor was used briefly as the City's natural history museum, displaying 15,000 stuffed birds, animals and rock specimens. The second floor served as offices for the Park Commission and police.

In 1896, the Casino building was sold and moved from the park. A newly completed rail grade had been extended along "D" Street (name changed to Fulton St. in 1898) as far as 24th Avenue, and for $400 a contractor named Menzies moved the building a mile and a quarter west to now face the park. For the next 25 years, the Golden Gate Casino was a roadhouse just outside the 25th Avenue entrance to the park.

The history of the Casino as a roadhouse is sketchy. It had a bar, restaurant and bedrooms. Some years it was listed in the city directory as a hotel, other years as restaurant. The Leonhardt family owned and operated it, with Carl and his wife Vivian managing the restaurant and hotel and brother Carl bartending. The attraction of the roadhouse was as a discreet location with a high quality of service. A menu from the Casino lists imported champagne, Bordeaux and Rhine wines. The food side of the menu offered oysters, served 10 different styles, frog legs, lobster, four types of fish, duck, chicken, squab, lamb and numerous cuts of beef, often with fine French sauces.

The Casino remained in operation until about 1921. It's demise was probably hastened for two reasons: Prohibition took effect in 1920 and put a crimp in all bar business and the other was simply progress. The Casino had started as a remote, discreet roadhouse, but by the 1920s, residential construction was very active throughout the western neighborhoods. Those seeking a romantic dalliance could travel farther in an automobile than a horse and buggy so the property was sold for home development.