Bottom of the Hill

'Gigging alone at the Bottom of the Hill.'

Square-shaped and peering out to the venue’s shrub- and succulent-filled patio, the window behind Bottom of the Hill’s stage is hard to miss. Framed by soft, yellow tea lights, it reminds me of the empty gold frame surrounding the peephole to Monica’s apartment in Friends. Then again, a lot of things about Bottom of the Hill remind me of the ’90s — which makes sense, because that’s when the venue opened.

The building, which was built into bedrock at the foot of Potrero Hill, was not originally meant to house concerts. Historical records show that the light-blue, two-story Edwardian was opened in 1911 as a saloon and eatery called 17th Street Restaurant. For the first few decades of the 20th century, Potrero Hill was home to a growing population of Italians and working-class families who found employment at nearby shipyards and warehouses. Aside from houses, little existed in the area, so the restaurant and bar was always packed, cycling through hundreds of customers each meal.

In the 1930s, the restaurant was turned into a soda fountain, and Bottom of the Hill’s current owners suspect it was also used as a speakeasy during Prohibition. For 20 years, it was a family-owned restaurant, before business fell off in the 1980s when many of the local shipyards and piers closed.

Though ownership changed hands a few times, it continued to operate as a restaurant, even after Tim Benetti purchased it around 1990. There was a twist to his plan. The venue, officially renamed Bottom of the Hill in 1991, still served three meals a day, but Benetti wanted to make better use of its entertainment license. A music fan, he started booking local punk and rock acts to play shows and exhibit art on the walls. Over time, the musical acts started attracting more people than the restaurant, and breakfast and dinner were soon phased out.

With this change of focus, a renovation was required to make the space suitable for live shows. The restaurant’s original, supremely long bar was shortened a few feet to make way for new restrooms. The back wall was jackhammered to create space for a larger stage, and the interior walls were rebuilt to look curvy and crooked. Booths and neon lighting were added in the back room (though the Fire Marshal has since removed the neon), and so, too, was Bottom of the Hill’s pricey, yet infamous blue neon sign.

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But it’s the acts that Bottom of the Hill was able to book that really put it on the map — as well as its inclusion in the lyrics to a song by NOFX. Because of its small size, it was viewed as a great starting point for up-and-coming rock, grunge, and indie bands, and Bottom of the Hill managed to book acts like Oasis, Alanis Morissette, Marilyn Manson, and Elliott Smith in their early days. A riot broke out in 1996 when a radio DJ spilled the beans that the Beastie Boys were performing a secret show that night under the name Quasar, and Green Day filmed a live show for MTV called Live at the 10-Spot there. In fact, for a good portion of the ’90s, one of the upstairs apartments was turned into a recording studio so that Bottom of the Hill could record and livestream its shows.

By the millennium, nascent indie darlings like Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, and The White Stripes were playing at Bottom of the Hill, along with wild card acts like Kid Rock. A fire wreaked havoc on the building’s upper floor office in 2003, putting an end to the venue’s recording and livestreaming efforts.

The main change to the building has been the gradual but steady construction of a gray condominium behind the venue. Though the lot next door to Bottom of the Hill has been empty since its opening, the lot behind it was sold around 15 years ago to a developer. For years nothing happened, until workers arrived in 2015 and started building. Now more than half-finished, the condo is estimated to open by the end of this year. Here’s hoping the people who move in don’t mind loud music.

Check out more of San Francisco’s storied venues:

The Fillmore
From roller rink to psych-rock mecca.

The Regency Ballroom
Thrones, trap doors, and double-headed phoenixes.

Warfield Theatre
Bullet holes, Anna Nicole’s lips, and (allegedly) a tunnel built by Al Capone.

The Great American Music Hall
Prostitutes, tax evasions, and the dotcom boom.

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