Steve Jennett: Perhaps the Longest-Serving Bartender in Benicia

Photo by Luke George Photography

Steve Jennett, the bar manager and bartender at Sailor Jack’s, has a unique distinction. He may be the longest-serving bartender in Benicia history.

He has worked at the First Street waterfront restaurant for 33 years.

Add in nine more years of tending bar at two other popular Benicia establishments prior to that, and you have a man who has arguably poured more drinks to more thirsty Benicians than any other.

“I was a quiet and shy kid,” he says. “The restaurant business gives quiet and shy kids like myself a chance to come out of their shell. The appreciation and love we get from the customers is the biggest reward. It makes everything worthwhile.”

Being the quiet and shy type, like many good bartenders Steve would rather listen to your story than tell you his own.

But he has a pretty good story, worth hearing. Now the proud father of a 22-year-old son Thomas, he enlisted in the Navy as a senior in high school. While stationed at Mare Island, he got to know Benicia and after finishing up his hitch in the service at a base in Washington state, his Honda motorcycle pointed him in one direction: south, toward the spot that reminded him of the Connecticut valley where he grew up.

Back then, when he first started listening to people’s stories and pouring them drinks, you practically needed a bartender’s bible to find out the recipe for a given cocktail. Those days are long gone. “New drinks come up every day,” explains Steve. “With smart phones people can look them up right away. You can tweak a classic recipe, come up with a variation, and there’s another recipe.”

People’s tastes have naturally shifted since the eighties and nineties when, as he says, “we used to serve a lot of Scotch—JB and water, Cutty water. We rarely get that anymore. Now people are more interested in mescal, single malt Scotch, craft Bourbon, craft beers. They drink Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, made with small craft Bourbons.” 

They also drink less than they used to, he reports, being more conscious of their health and the dangers of drinking and driving.  

First Street boasts a number of fine drinking and dining establishments, all with their own distinct charms and all more than happy to mix up a Cadillac Margarita or any other adult beverage with whatever variation you prefer. Like the other barkeeps at these places, Jennett has to stay up on the trends in a demanding, trend-driven business. “There are a lot of trends. You’ll see a new drink being featured on an Internet home page and a few days later somebody will come in and ask for it. That’s how we get a lot of information. From our customers. They ask for certain drinks and we’ll add it to our menu.”

Also like other First Street eateries, Sailor Jack’s has found a way to survive and even thrive amid lockdowns, Covid, supply chain breakdowns, wildfires, an incredibly wet winter, and high prices for everything. The mood downtown seems lighter and brighter than it has been for a long time. People seem happy to be out among other people, enjoying what this little town on the strait has to offer in the way of a good time.

Characteristically, Jennett is quick to give credit to Carey and Jim Morgan and John Hernandez, the owners of Sailor Jack’s, for the way they run things at the restaurant. But he also speaks warmly about past owners and managers of Captain Blyther’s (the former name of Sailor Jack’s) and other people he has worked with in the restaurant business, citing them all by name.

This may be one of the secrets to his success and longevity.

If he learns your name, he will do his best to lock it into his memory. “I try as well as I can to remember people’s names,” he says. “I write their name down or put it in my phone. It’s very important.”

Four names he knows very well are Li’l Tone, Colette, Brando and Angel. They are four of the friendly ghosts that, according to legend, frequent Sailor Jack’s. Another of the phantoms is named Karl, who on some nights is said to sit out on the brick patio of the restaurant sipping a bourbon. Long ago the building that houses Sailor Jack’s was a house of ill repute. A lady who worked there, Rebecca, met an untimely end at the hands of a patron in an upstairs room and her gentle spirit hovers around, too.

Late at night, when he’s closing up the bar, “you do feel Rebecca’s presence,” Steve confesses, adding that he takes comfort from the idea that her spirit, as well as those of Karl and the others, are “still watching over us.” If you’re ever in Sailor Jack’s and you see a ghost, it may be a sign that you’ve had too much. Or, conversely, it may be the perfect time for a good stiff belt of craft bourbon. In any case, now you know the person who can fix it for you.