The Weeknighter: The Tunnel Top
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?
The Tunnel Top sits a half block down from where Brigid O’Shaughnessy shot and killed Miles Archer in Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon. Maybe if Archer had fallen differently he would’ve rolled down to the bar’s front door instead of onto an embankment that had something or other to do with the Stockton Tunnel. That is, of course, if the story wasn’t fictional and if The Tunnel Top had existed in 1930. It didn’t, but it does now, and just last week I rolled into its front door to meet my friend Brittany for happy hour drinks.
From the outside, The Tunnel Top doesn’t look like much. The signage looks like some dive from the 70s, the windows are difficult to see into, and just below, next to the mouth of the tunnel, is a rub-n-tug massage parlor called The Green Door. But once inside, you’re treated to a two story bar far lovelier than expected. Sometimes the best things in life look drab on the outside and are perfect once you’re allowed in. At night The Tunnel Top is darkly lit with most of the light coming from bar candles, a chandelier made from wine bottles, and whatever movie is being projected onto the wall. The rest of the loungy atmosphere is provided by a DJ situated upstairs by the projected movie, talented bartenders making drinks with fresh ingredients, and good looking patrons most nights of the week.
I first started going to The Tunnel Top many years ago when I was working in a mediocre Italian restaurant in North Beach. A few of us would get out of work, navigate through post hustle-and-bustle Chinatown, and then end up at The Tunnel Top. Back then they still allowed smoking inside for some reason, which was gross, but it did lend a bit more of the Dashiell Hammett mystique that still haunts the area at nighttime. Afterwards, we’d stumble out of the bar and into the fog where, if you squinted just right, you could imagine being in the Nob Hill of yesteryear.
I was thinking about all this as I sat at the bar waiting for Brittany to arrive. It was 6 pm on a weekday. No fog, no smoke, no darkly lit bar, just a handful of regulars getting a daylight buzz going before heading to the Giants game or heading home to make dinner with their husbands or wives. I’ve got a problem with nostalgia. Not only for things in my own life, but for shit I never even lived through. I romanticize the past for reasons I can’t explain. Sitting there, munching on the bar-snack trail mix, I remembered the nights I’d spent there and I imagined all the ones the existed before my time. They say Dashiell Hammett used to live right up the street. I don’t doubt it, I just wonder if The Tunnel Top would be his kind of bar. It certainly is mine.
Pro tip: There’s a breathalyzer by the bathrooms so you can see how drunk you really are.
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. He is also the host for the IFC travel show Young, Broke & Beautiful. Follow him @BrokeAssStuart.