Martuni’s, Zuni Cafe and It’s Tops Cafe: Old Glory in San Francisco’s Navel
Highway 101 blows a continual load of cars onto a zone of central San Francisco difficult to define. Not the Mission, not QUITE the Castro, nor Hayes Valley (although realtors would disagree with that), and not precisely the newly-minted “Mid-Market” either, it’s an odd knot of sinew connecting a variety of metropolitan appendages together while lacking the rubber stamp of any specific designation.
Standing on one side of this busy concrete urethra is It’s Tops Coffee Shop, a beautiful piece of mid-Century nostalgia in the form of a small diner, complete with plush vinyl booths, gleaming formica tables and tiny, white enamel coffee cups. Lest you dismiss It’s Tops as an exercise in fetishizing a bygone era, know that it was birthed in 1935, thus predating the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge by two years. For all I know, my grandfather (born and raised in S.F.) could have been a regular customer, sipping his coffee in silence at the counter in 1942 dressed in his military outfit, waiting to be shipped to New Guinea on a troop ship.
It’s Tops has changed owners only once in its 81 years of life, passing into the hands of Mr. Richard Chapman, recently returned from Korea, in 1952. It’s been a Chapman family affair ever since. The menu is mainly comprised of Mid-Century fare I find profoundly comforting, especially the breakfast: big stacks of pancakes, golden french toast, crispy bacon with eggs and hash browns, et al. They add little touches here and there, like soju cocktails and some delicious Louisiana hot links. One more remarkable thing about It’s Tops is the hours it keeps: everyday except Sunday they’re open from 8am to 3pm, and then 8pm to 3am! When the rest of Market Street is a veritable ghost town they’re still a warm, glowing little ember beckoning you indoors to sponge up with some french toast that last, ill-advised martini you were talked into down the street at Martuni’s.
I’ve been dimly aware of Martuni’s existence for close to 20 years; in the late 90s I used to visit my older brother in the apartment he inhabited three stories above it, back when a giant grey overpass still overshadowed the neighborhood, shielding it, for a time, from the inevitable process of gentrification. That apartment building is still the stuff of nightmares, a peeling, urine-drenched holdover from a time long before Google buses and rents to make Andrew Carnegie piss his pinstripes. But that cocktail bar, which is poised right at the gates of the Mission, is a far cry from nightmarish. It’s a small world to get lost in, featuring dim lights, a semi-circular bar behind which formal-clad bartenders shake vodka martinis and, through a door way in the back, crooners professional and amateur alike belt out cabaret and show tunes, accompanied by a skilled ivory-tickler. Walking outside onto the busy corner of Market and Valencia to drag on a cigarette or take the air, your eye might be drawn to the orange-yellow awning of Zuni Cafe just a couple hundred yards away.
If you’re unfamiliar with Zuni Cafe (impossible, nay blasphemous) it’s a 35 year old institution which helped launch the whole farm to table thing pioneered by Alice Waters’ Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in the late 70s. In fact, Judy Rodgers, who was the chef/owner of Zuni up until her death a few years ago (causing ripples of grief throughout the S.F culinary scene), was an alumni straight out of that aforementioned warhorse. She sourced produce and meat locally and her menu changed everyday according to what she could get her hands on; ubiquitous now but completely novel back in 1987. Bellying up to Zuni Cafe’s burnished copper bar and ordering oysters and champagne in the late afternoon is a classic San Francisco ritual. It can’t but produce in the client an immediate sense of louche swagger. That long stretch of gleaming, dented metal, from 2 to 5pm in winter, 2 to 6 in summer, is a bubble-sodden swirl of joyfully corrosive gossip and I expect it to remain so for some time. Oh, and get the chicken. It’s a legend on crispy wings.
While I have hopes for the endurance of It’s Tops and fear little for Zuni’s security, I worry about the future of that drab, hulking edifice across from the Travelodge at whose base Martuni’s has traded in Weimer-scented piano balladry since 1996. Let’s hope that the Conway Tong aren’t hatching plans to obliteration yet another indelible feature (I’m referring to Martuni’s, not the rat trap it’s attached to) on the bruised face of a city once renowned for it’s character and idiosyncrasy. Perhaps the spirit of David Bowie will disperse little shards of itself among all the little corners of San Francisco too weird to live in the current cultural climate, where they’ll whisper soft, lilting death threats to over-curious developers.
It’s Tops Coffee Shop
1801 Market St.
4 Valencia St.
1658 Market St.