When Original Joe’s was jumping, Adam Richey would be mixing drinks with both hands, carrying on multiple conversations and ringing the fire engine bell behind the bar if the Giants or the 49ers scored. But he’d still manage to greet anyone he recognized coming through the door.

“He just made it feel like this was his living room when you walked in,” said former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr. “The number of people he knew by their first name was unbelievable.”

Richey, who opened the bar at Original Joe’s in North Beach and Westlake, was involved in designing Little Original Joe’s, coming soon to the Marina. He took a day off on Sunday, April 10, and attended the weekly neighborhood barbecue on the North Beach alley where he lived with his wife and two daughters. Sometime overnight he suffered a fatal heart attack in his home, said his wife, Michelle. He was 51.

“Nobody that young should die, and nobody who lived that well should die that young,” said former Mayor Willie Brown. “You’ve got to assume that the Lord was looking for a maitre d’.”

Adam Richey stands in an alley in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, November 10, 2010. Richey died April 11, 2022, at age 51.

Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle

In a 30-year career in San Francisco that began as a lowly barback and ended as facilities manager, Richey the plank at Kuleto’s, Splendido, Enrico’s, Momo’s, Moose’s and the SoMa nightclub DV8 before finding his niche wearing a white coat behind the traditional restaurant bars at the Tadich Grill and Wayfare Tavern in the Financial District. He knew how to make hot buttered rum, and he owned the specific bowl for mixing a batch of Tom and Jerry for Christmas. He was not the kind to get out a mortar and pestle to start grinding spices.

“Twenty-five minutes later you’re like, ‘It’s … still … not … ready?'” he once told the Chronicle in describing an encounter with a Mission District mixologist. “And he’s like, ‘Well, I have to flambe the eggs and I have to do this with the oyster.'” And you’re like, ‘I just wanted a drink. I’m not waiting for filet mignon.”

Richey was old school. He understood that people came into a bar with a thirst for conversation. Presentation of an adult beverage was just the start of the transaction.

“Ten percent of my job is making drinks,” he said. “The other 90 percent is talking to you and listening to your stories.”

One day in 2005, as he was working at Tadich Grill, a woman came in with her mother for dinner. While they waited at the bar for their table, Richey chatted them up and got the woman’s name, Michelle Graves, and learned that she was an acupuncturist in the Mills Building. He asked her for her card in order to call for an appointment, and followed through.

“The one thing about Adam is that he was such a gentleman, through and through,” she said. Six months later they were engaged. They were married in October 2006 under the rotunda at City Hall, officiated by Brown, a Tadich regular. The reception was at Tosca.

“He out-dressed me on my own wedding day,” Richey said.

Adam Billingsley Richey was born July 10, 1970, in Aspen, Colo. When he was 4, his parents divorced and he moved with his mom to a bungalow 150 feet from the beach in San Diego. His mom later married Kirby Pray and they combined families.

Richey started working in restaurants at age 13, delivering pizzas on his bicycle and washing dishes. At 16, he got a job at a bakery, thinking he’d like making cakes. When he was again washing dishes, he switched to Quig’s, a seafood restaurant in San Diego’s Ocean Beach neighborhood. One night at the end of his shift he came home at midnight and woke his mother up with the exciting news that he wanted to attend culinary school instead of college. She managed to change his mind by offering to pay for his college education provided it was two hours away by car.

So Richey chose a school more than eight hours away by car, the University of San Francisco. He enrolled after graduating from San Diego’s Point Loma High School in 1988. As soon as he’d moved into his dorm, he went downtown and landed a job at Kuleto’s on Powell Street.

Adam Ritchey in front of Original Joe's in North Beach, in 2017.

Adam Ritchey in front of Original Joe’s in North Beach, in 2017.

Andy Berry Photography/

Richey got his BA in history and a minor in Spanish in 1992. By then, he was 21 and bartending at Splendido in the Embarcadero Center. He scored a cheap rent-controlled place on Fresno Street and only left it to buy a tenancy-in-common unit two blocks from Original Joe’s. He got around on a Vespa, but his preferred mode of transit was the 45-Union or on foot. Either mode was good for talking to people.

“Adam never met a stranger,” said his mom. “He liked hearing about what people did, their family stories. He cared about people.”

When Wayfare Tavern opened in 2010, Richey was one of the first employees. Two years later he was hired away by Original Joe’s, which had lost its beloved Tenderloin location in a fire and reopened on Washington Square.

“Adam worked the room better than anybody,” said general manager Jarrod Brown. “He just had a way to make everybody feel like a king or a queen.”

The true queen of Original Joe’s is Marie Duggan, whose father, Ante Rodin, opened the restaurant in 1937. Duggan grew up in the joint, started working there as a teenager in the 1960s and has seen a lot of bartenders come and go.

“Adam was a throwback to the great bartenders like Mike McCourt and Mike Fraser,” she said. “When the three of them were working together it was like having the old Yankees of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra.”

Three weeks ago, Duggan and Richey met for lunch at Rocco’s Cafe south of Market. They were there for three hours, to the point that Rocco’s owner Don Dials sat down at the table with them. When Richey finally drove off, Marie called him on his cell phone to keep the conversation going.

“Adam could connect with people at every level, and appreciate what they do,” Marie said.

Richey’s daughters, Elle, 13, and Sloane, 11, attend neighborhood schools, and even when Richey worked nights and got home after 3 am he was up to walk the girls to school in the morning. In the afternoon, he’d either be there again to pick them up, or they’d walk to Original Joe’s to wait in their favorite booth for their mom to come by after closing her acupuncture business for the day.

Richey liked to swim with his daughters in the public pool at Joe DiMaggio Playground. In summers they went to Camp Mather, the Rec and Park family camp in the Sierra.

“Adam was not a native San Franciscan, but he knew things about the city that even we natives don’t know,” said Duggan. “He was an old soul with a modern edge.”

Survivors include his wife, Michelle Richey, and daughters Elle and Sloan, of San Francisco; mother Marilyn Billingsley and stepfather Kirby Pray of San Diego; father HE Richey of Aspen, Colo.; sisters Erica Garcia and August Welch, both of San Diego, and Piper Smith and Reagan Richey, both of Salt Lake City; and brother Hank Richey of Aspen.

A public memorial will be held at noon Saturday, April 30, at Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Washington Square. Donations in his memory may be made to the Salesian Boys & Girls Club, 680 Filbert St., San Francisco, CA 94133.

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @mwhitingsf


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