On September 6, 1991, Potrero Hill nightclub Bottom of the Hill hosted its first rock show, headlined by a now-forgotten band, the Bird Killers. Over the following quarter-century, the unassuming, out-of-the-way venue introduced alternative-rock fans to a multitude of names they’d never forget, including Oasis, Alanis Morissette, Marilyn Manson, Pavement, Modest Mouse, the White Stripes, Arcade Fire, and Death Cab for Cutie.
While some of the artists who got their start at Bottom of the Hill have gone on to sell out arenas, the club itself, as it approaches its 25th anniversary, remains, in the words of its owners, “the same as it always was”: a friendly, low-priced, all-ages, cash-only music spot with the sort of eclectic, disheveled charm that inspires preemptive nostalgia, as if the place were already a long-lost relic of a quirkier, more hospitable time in San Francisco’s history.
In the view of keyboardist Roddy Bottum of Faith No More and Imperial Teen, Bottom of the Hill is “enough out of the fray of the hubbub of the new San Francisco to keep it separate and special.” For bassist Jeremy Bringetto of Vue and Bellavista, the club symbolizes “a time when a service worker or artist could afford to live in San Francisco, and Bottom of the Hill was a crossroads for all the people who lived and loved the indie rock scene.” Songwriter Ash Maynor of Ghost & the City was more succinct: “Bottom of the Hill is home.”
On a stretch of 17th Street where rising rents have pushed out a skate shop, venerable art supply store, record manufacturer, and the auto body shop that once neighbored Bottom of the Hill, the nightclub has managed to survive because its proprietors—Ramona Downey, Kathleen Owen, Lynn Schwarz, and Tim Benetti—own the building. “We’re not going anywhere,” Schwarz affirmed.
In fact, the two-story Edwardian structure at 1233 17th Street has served Hill residents as some form of restaurant, club, bar, soda fountain, or speakeasy almost without interruption since 1911. In 1964, the Seventeenth Street Restaurant changed its name to Bottom of the Hill, advertising itself as a “banquet room for all occasions, specializing in Italian foods.” For decades, local warehouse workers and Merchant Marines ate lunch there.
In 1989, realtor Ana Lisa Belli purchased the location, hoping to fix it up and resell it. Her plans changed when the stock market crashed that October. With the help of former owner Bill Catechi, restaurant operations eventually resumed, but Belli, a punk rock fan, decided to add live music to the mix.
“We had, like, 50 employees,” recalled Owen, who started as a bartender. “Every shift, there’d be a maître d’ and a host and a hostess and a pizza oven and cappuccino machines.” It took some time to learn that customers “don’t want to sit there and have a nice dinner” in the middle of a punk show, so “for the first few years, we got into debt really fast. We couldn’t pay our bills. It should have closed a few times,” but “Ana Lisa would go out and sell a house, make a $50,000 commission, and put it back into the bar.”
Owen describes a period of paring down, of losing the “linen service that we paid $500 a week for” and halting breakfast and lunch operations. “Basically, the music took over.” Much of this success is owed to Ramona Downey’s knack for booking up-and-coming talents, which she honed during stints at the Hotel Utah and the Blue Lamp before coming to Bottom of the Hill alongside Owen in 1991.
Still, there was a lot yet to be learned. For years, Bottom of the Hill operated without a tally counter because, initially, the concerts didn’t attract “that many people” anyway. But after two packed, sweaty shows, in which more than 700 people squeezed into a space whose official capacity is 246, management realized that they’d have to start keeping track of the number of people on premises, and that they might want to invest in an air-conditioning system.
Several more years passed before staff noticed that many music fans were simply slipping in through the club’s unlocked backdoor without paying. “We hear it now from bands that play here: ‘When I was 12 years old, it would be sold out, and I’d just sneak in the back” Owen said. “I never paid for a show; I always jumped the fence.’”
Bartender Dianne Catechi – daughter of former owner Bill – noted that such entry would be impossible today, as a “giant building” now abuts the rear of Bottom of the Hill’s property. She was referring to the four-story condominium structure under construction at 131 Missouri Street, which will hold nine two-bedroom units.
“Our neighbors are really cool,” Owen reported. “We’ve had really good luck.” Still, she’s wary of new construction in the neighborhood. In 2013, a 700,000-square-foot Kaiser medical complex threatened to overtake the historic industrial space across from Bottom of the Hill, at 1200 17th Street. After community pushback, Kaiser pulled out. Now, however, a roughly 400-unit residential structure has been approved for the site.
Because of its relatively remote location, most of Bottom of the Hill’s customers, like its musicians and employees, arrive by car. Street parking has never been hard to find. However, as the area’s population increases, that’s changing. There’s also the rising likelihood of phone calls to the police during late-night hours, when rowdy patrons may forget that others are trying to sleep.
Following a liquor license suspension prompted by frequent noise complaints, the South-of-Market music venue Slim’s was forced to spend $269,000 on soundproofing to mollify new neighbors. In 2014 and 2015, Bottom of the Hill supported San Francisco Board of Supervisors president London Breed’s legislation aimed at protecting nightclubs from unjust noise-related lawsuits and preventing noise disputes by requiring that potential residents be made aware of nearby nightlife before buying homes or signing leases.
As newcomers move in, “our fan base and musicians have left the City in droves,” lamented Lynn Schwarz. Today’s San Franciscans “are a lot healthier. They drink less and like to get home at more reasonable hours,” and it can be “exceedingly difficult to get folks out on a weeknight.” To fill in the gaps, Bottom of the Hill rents itself out for private events, including “custom rock & roll weddings” with Blag Dahlia from the Dwarves as the “in-house preacher. We have hosted probably ten weddings over the years, and a lot of them are people who either met at our club or had their first date at our club,” Schwarz explained.
This may speak to the special place that Bottom of the Hill holds in the hearts of concertgoers, a sentiment that’s shared by its tightly knit staff of 14. “We are all family,” said Guido Brenner, who has manned the club’s door for 20 years. The passion of Bottom of the Hill’s workers—including Downey, Owen, and Schwarz, whom, as co-owners, continue to tend bar—creates, in turn, a warm, welcoming atmosphere for its musicians. “We give individual attention to musicians’ needs and try to make them feel valued,” said Downey.
For the venue’s 25th anniversary, a slightly belated birthday bash is planned for September 12, followed by “a month’s worth” of special shows featuring some of the owners’ favorite bands – including the aforementioned Dwarves and Imperial Teen – as well as temporary resurrection of the club’s long-dormant Sunday barbecue tradition.
See bottomofthehill.com for up-to-date details.