The Weeknighter: Tony Nik's Cafe
Weekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That's why each week Stuart Schuffman will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, giving you the lowdown on how and where to do your weeknight right. From the most creative cocktails to the best happy hours, Stuart's taking you along on his weeknight adventures into the heart of the City's nightlife. So, who wants a drink?
Over time, certain bars develop qualities that the proprietors may or may not have intended. Just as Danny Coyle’s became the go-to spot for Charger fans and Benders became host to tons of blogger meet-ups, Tony Nik’s has become, without a doubt, a service industry bar. I spent a lot of time in North Beach in the early and mid 2000s. I had various gigs up there, including slanging candy at Z.Cioccolato (I joke that I was a professional fudge packer). I eventually landed myself at Pasta Pomodoro when a girl named Rizzo, who was a candy store regular, got me a job working with her.
Most nights during my few year tenure at Pasta P (as we called it), we’d leave the restaurant after closing and head over to Tony Nik’s. There we’d find other servers from surrounding restaurants and commiserate over shitty customers and brag about the occasional exorbitant tip. The service industry is a strange brotherhood (sisterhood too) where no matter what someone’s background is or where they come from, there is always common ground: Booze, cash in pocket, and taking pleasure in talking sneeringly about the shittiness of customers. Pasta P was a cheap mediocre Italian restaurant at best, but post work we’d be there at Tony Nik’s, elbow to elbow with servers from fancy establishments like Rose Pistola and The Washbag (RIP).
Tony Nik’s isn’t solely for industry folk, though. Like any good neighborhood bar, you’ll always find handfuls of regulars at the short end of the bar, some saltier than others. And because of its solid cocktails and location, random drinkers flitter in and out throughout the night. It’s also a great place to have a quiet little date on a week night. If you can get one the little tables in the back, you can flirt with your sweetie over the candle light while drinking stiff drinks made with expert care.
Years ago, when I was a service industry-style Tony Nik’s regular, I befriended a bartender named Pete. When he found out that I was a huge soul music fan, he did me a huge solid. One of the owners of Amoeba Music had made an incredible ten disc compilation of rare and B-side soul songs called Can You Handle It, and Pete had a copy. Every few weeks he’d show up with a burned disc or two for me and we’d talk feverishly about our favorite soul singers while I figured out ways to flirt with Megan, the cute barista from Café Roma, who I had a crush on and who was another service industry regular. She used to call it Tony & Dick’s because some nights back then were total sausage fests.
All these years later, Megan’s married, Pete manages nearby Bottle Cap (formerly the Washbag), and I finally managed to get myself out of waiting tables. Tony Nik’s is still there though, doing what it does best: Holding it down for the happy hour drunks, the late night servers, and making sure North Beach still feels like a real neighborhood. What’s funny is that even though I spent many, many nights at Tony Nik’s in my early 20s, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this piece and I googled the place, that I found out I’d been calling it the wrong name for years. I had always thought it was Tony & Nik’s.
Awesome side note: Although it was first opened in 1933 the current proprietors have owned Tony Nik’s for 12 years as of today, which is conveniently 12/12/12. They are having a big anniversary party. As the legendary soul singer Bobby Womack says, “You’re Welcome, Stop On By.”
Stuart Schuffman has been called "an Underground legend" by the SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero" by the SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap" by Time Out New York. Follow him @BrokeAssStuart.