The Casino’s Evelyn Casini on the importance of hippies, shoes, and feeding the people.
Frequent the Casino Bar and Grill in Bodega and you’ll gain a sense of the place that goes far beyond its wildly popular and affordable gourmet meals scratched up on a hamburger grill. There’s something more than the scruffy stuffed raccoon and tangled deer antlers that keep watch over pool tables, the piano, and an exceedingly friendly and eclectic crowd. There’s even more to it than the tasty well drinks, the at-your-service-but-don’t-cross-me bartenders, the strange little stage that hangs over the bar, or even the 30-seat theater tucked quietly into the back of this creaky old place with the ancient 7-Up sign out front.
A play on the surname “Casini,” the Casino has operated at least since 1939. Evelyn and her late husband Art Casini, who was informally known as the Mayor of Bodega, bought it from his brother after its first decade. Art passed away some time ago, but Evelyn continues on, unable to retire from her “living room.” More than a place to throw back a long neck and shoot a game of pool, the Casino has been fully in service to Bodega residents coming up on 80 years.
What is it about the Casino and its long-time owner, Evelyn Casini? Heck folks, that’s a lot of pressure. You’ll need to make your own dang quesadilla on this one. That’s what I did. I sat down with Evelyn to ask a few questions.
About as local as you can get.
Since this is an interview, I asked about her upbringing, school, and work. “I was born and raised right here,” Evelyn said, gesturing to the window. “Out on Bay Hill Road, three or so miles from town. Went to school here and over in Tomales. Haven’t strayed too far, as you can tell. I guess I’m about as local as you can get. I graduated one day, started working here the next as a waitress. That was before we owned the place. But before that, even as kids, after we’d finish the chores on our ranch, Mom would load us up, stop in town, load up more kids, and then we’d head out into the orchards to pick up the apples. We had to work, there was no one else to do it. It was the war. I also spent over 20 years working at the Fulton Chicken Plant. I’ve always been a worker—and a lot of the time with two jobs.”
Eveyln Casini is a shoe person.
My wife and I had heard something about cigarette auctions during WWII and so I asked. “Yep,” Evelyn said, “This was where the cigarettes were auctioned during the war. At that time the gas, the tires—everything was rationed. Even the shoes.” And with a smile and a perk to the gravel in her voice she added, “And I’m a shoe person.”
Art came back from the war.
I asked her how she and her late husband Art, who passed on in 1983, got the place. Evelyn didn’t pause in reply. “It was July 1, 1949, to be exact. Art came back from the war. We purchased the place from my brother-in-law and have run the place pretty much straight through.”
Daycare and dispatch.
It soon became clear that the Casino’s been used every which way to serve Bodega and the surrounding families. “It’s all about the community here,” Evelyn said. “Always has been—and in more ways than one. We’ve been a bar, a restaurant, an emergency shelter, a day care center. And for a long time there, if you can imagine such a thing, we were the dispatch operator for the fire department.”
Evelyn remembers when spuds grew like grapes out in her part of Sonoma County. “Oh, yeah,” she nods. “You bet. We grew potatoes around here. This area grew a lot potatoes in the ’40s and ’50s. We shipped them to the soldiers. Know why I remember this? Because I was out there picking them! I think kids could use a bit more work like that these days. I really do.”
Hippies always help out.
I asked about the ’60s and ’70s, those decades when the counterculture discovered cheap land and rural freedom in our neck of the world. “It was a bit of a shock to some when the hippies came, but Art truly and really did accept them,” Evelyn said. “He didn’t care where they came from, where they were going, who they were, and who they weren’t. That was quite a time, and Art was ahead of his time. Even when you didn’t ask, they’d help out. Now all their kids, like ours, have grown up. Hell, we’re more hippie than they are, now!”
A casino’s history of food.
We finally got around to the topic of food. It’s fascinating to hear how trends, like the Casino’s pop-up-style food scene, get going. “Since the start we’ve always served burgers,” Evelyn said. “Good, basic hamburgers. I remember one guy who worked a night shift. He’d often get here at 1am, and if he needed food, I’d cook him a burger. That’s just the way we operate. Feed the people. The restaurant and this ‘pop-up’ deal really started sometime, oh, I can’t really remember exactly, sometime in the ’80s I think, when this local fisherman kept talking about how great a chef he was. So we said, ‘If you’re so good, prove it,’ and he’d take an empty fridge and turn it into a gourmet meal. His food was great, just like he said it would be.
They’re like my kids.
“We started on Mondays, just giving the food away,” she continues. “Then we put out a tip jar. And pretty soon, Stevie Rudolph came along. My, that woman could cook!” Evelyn said, hitting her fist to the table. “And then came Mark Malicki and he brought in Moishe and now it’s Jodie Rubin and the gals. I love all the kids helping run the place now. We’ll, they’re actually young adults, to be fair. They’re all so responsible, so caring, do such a good job. They’re like my kids.”
Documenting Evelyn’s stories is like harvesting solo in an apple orchard. It’s straight up like forcing The Bhagavad Gita into a set of CliffsNotes. Seriously peoples, it’s impossible. The only way to rig this up is to get out there to the Casino and ask Evelyn yourself.
The Casino Bar and Grill is at 17000 Bodega Highway, Bodega. They’re open seven days a week for dinner. They’re also open Saturdays and Sundays for breakfast. Oh, and if you’re hungry and you need a late-night burger, they’ll figure it out for you.
About the Author
Nick Papadopoulos lives and works at Bloomfield Organics farm, which operates a CSA program delivering fresh food to community drop points. The co-founder of the online food waste action network CropMobster.com, his new project is DirtCred.com, which is aimed at helping local farmers and those who support them.