Nick Pavoni, longtime Graton roadhouse proprietor, dies at 80

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Nick Pavoni, the old-school roadhouse proprietor who flipped a mountain of burgers and made legions of friends through the 34 years he ran the former Skip’s Bar and Grill in downtown Graton, has died.

Pavoni was delivering a sofa to a charitable thrift store on Wednesday when he collapsed from an apparent heart attack. The Sonoma County native, graduate of Sebastopol’s Analy High School and longtime resident of Graton was 80.

Among his most avid admirers were a couple of generations of west county sheriff’s deputies who could rely on him to discourage would-be troublemakers and, when trouble happened, to watch the deputies’ backs.

“If the deputies got a call that there was a problem in Skip’s, we knew that it was bad,” said retired Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Brown. “Real bad, because he usually handled the problem himself.

“Many of us have personal stories of Nick leaving his bar full of customers to come outside and help the deputies with fights in the street.”

One of Pavoni’s nine children, Angie Sulme of Santa Rosa, said he aspired as a young man to become a CHP officer. But he didn’t attain the CHP’s then-required height minimum.

“He was 5-7, on a good day,” said Sulme, who began working alongside her dad at Skip’s when she was 11 years old. “He was a short, stocky Italian.”

Sulme added that though her father didn’t make it into the public safety profession, all his life he was a staunch supporter of law enforcement and the fire service.

Pavoni was born in Santa Rosa June 1, 1938. His parents divorced and from age 5 he spent most of each year with his maternal grandparents in Graton, and the summers with his father in Healdsburg.

Always enterprising, young Pavoni raised chickens for sale and worked as a laborer in construction and for Sturgeon Tree Service.

“When he was barely 21, he bought Skip’s Bar,” daughter Sulme said. She said an uncle and aunt of her father’s helped him with financing.

Skip’s was even then, in 1959, a west county drink-and-chow institution. Skip Henderson had opened it in 1939.

Through most of the years that Pavoni was behind the bar, the heart of Graton was not the refined and orderly place it is now.

Recalled Brown, the retired career sheriff’s officer, “There were three bars on the one-block-long main street of Graton in the early days and up until around 1990. There was lots of drinking and the other two bars didn’t keep as good a lid on things as Nick did.

“If he saw that trouble was brewing or that someone was acting up, in his bar or on the streets of Graton, he took personal responsibility for putting a stop to it.

“If it hadn’t progressed too far he would admonish them. If it got physical, Nick was well equipped to use physical force quite effectively to end the problem.

“He was fearless. And he was tough. If Nick hit someone with his fists, they went down for the count.”

Deputies so deeply appreciated Pavoni they presented him a plaque of gratitude that bore an actual Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office badge.

“He hung that plaque in his bar proudly for many years,” Brown said. “We considered Nick an honorary Sonoma County deputy sheriff.”

Pavoni typically opened the door of Skip’s at 6 a.m., seven days a week. He’d start cooking and pouring for his early-morning regulars.

“We had a tiny, little kitchen,” daughter Sulme said. “The food didn’t come out real fast, but it was good.”

The joint was renowned for its huge, juicy Skipburger, and for the steaks, lobster, abalone and chili.

Pavoni enjoyed feeding people, and as a supporter of public safety he felt it was important for people in and near Graton to have a local bar.

“The guy before me (at Skip’s) said you want people drinking close to home,” he told The Press Democrat more than 20 years ago. “There should be a tavern in town where guys can let off a little steam without getting into trouble. If you don’t have a tavern, those boys will be driving to Forestville and Occidental and you don’t want them driving.”

In 1967, Pavoni donated one of his kidneys to his father, Antonio “Tony” Pavoni, then the fire chief in Healdsburg. The elder Pavoni died in 1975.

Nick Pavoni was 55 when he sold Skip’s and retired in 1993. By that time, Graton’s small commercial core was being gentrified. What had been Skip’s for 54 years was gussied up by the owners of a new establishment, Underwood Bar & Grill.

Among the many upgrades, Pavoni’s daughter noted, “There were no bullet holes in the ceiling.”

In retirement, Pavoni savored being outdoors, and gardening.

“He raised worms for fishing and for worm castings,” Sulme said. “He was a farmer a heart.”

In addition to Sulme, Pavoni is survived by his wife, Lupita Pavoni of Graton, by his children and stepchildren, Nicholas Pavoni of Hollister, Marina Goldwater of Santa Clara, Marcy Fabing of San Jose, Nicholas Pavoni of Hollister, Joe Patrick of Las Vegas, Kathy Lindsay of Lake County, Victor Rivera of Graton, Damaris Carmona of Sebastopol, Moises Rivera of Washington State and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A celebration of Pavoni’s life will be held at a later date.

Memorial contributions are suggested the Redwood Gospel Mission, or P.O. Box 493, Santa Rosa 95402.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211.

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