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The most inconspicuous bar in San Francisco is located in North Beach. If not for a rundown sign with broken neon letters hanging above a green door with a cloudy, submarine-like circular window, this storied watering hole could easily go unnoticed.
It’s also an odd man out, blending into the background where bright lights and lively outdoor dining areas from adjacent restaurants, such as Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Red Window across the street, call out invitingly to potential patrons.
But Tony Nik’s, at 1534 Stockton St., has been serving drinks in North Beach since 1933 and it still has that familial vibe that keeps regulars and those in-the-know coming back. First owned by an Italian immigrant and his wife, two generations later it was operated by his grandson who wanted to carry on the family legacy.
When proprietor Mark Nicco and his husband Dan Kent decided it was time to sell the bar, Nicco knew he wanted someone that would keep his family’s legacy alive, especially in a neighborhood that keeps getting younger and younger, resulting in more nightclub-type bars and raucous live music venues.
Nicco knew there was only one person he could turn to — a former patron and later employee of 16 years — Sebastian Scala.
“North Beach’s reputation for bars is a certain way,” Nicco told SFGATE. “I think we buck that reputation. Once people discover us, they just see how different we are.”
In the 1920s, Antonio "Tony" Nicco and his wife Angelina originally opened Madame Nicco’s French Laundry, a dry cleaning business in the heart of San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood. When the Prohibition era ended in 1933, Antonio immediately opened Tony Nicco’s Café, a bar that served food.
After remodeling the cafe’s interior in 1949, many of those changes are still in pristine condition today, including a back wall mural by a local artist named Nadine Torrance, and another wall filled with unique checkerboard wooden tiles.
When Antonio and his wife decided to sell the place, they turned to a long-time friend and local bartender, Charles “Butch” Lavigno, who changed the name to Tony Nik’s and operated the bar for close to 50 years. He sold the place to Mark Nicco, grandson of Antonio Nicco, in 2000, who's run the establishment for the past 21 years.
(Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE) (Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE)
Now, Mark Nicco, who grew up in the Marina District, and would visit his grandfather at the bar each Sunday after church, has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. Nicco turned to a friend, someone who knows and understands the essence of Tony Nik’s, to keep the place alive.
“[Scala] was a bartender and then manager, [he’s] responsible, professional, he’s an extension of us,” Nicco said of his friend and the bar’s new owner. “He’s invested his blood, sweat, tears and love into this place. There really was no other choice.”
Sebastian Scala, who was born in San Diego, moved to San Francisco in 1993. After living briefly in the Sunset District, he made the switch to North Beach in 1994. At the time, he was managing the Italian Athletic Club at 1630 Stockton, just down the street from Tony Nik’s.
After long, grueling days of work, in dire need of a drink, Scala would often walk down the block to Tony Nik’s to alleviate his stress. One day, after having gone there many times, he stood up on a chair and yelled, “This is my new favorite bar in the world!”
“It was the energy, the intimacy. It was just a nice place to convene,” Scala recalled of that moment in time. “I just fell in love with the place.”
Scala even remembers when he first met Nicco, on a rainy January day in 2004, and asked him if he could take on a few bar shifts whenever needed.
“I started out doing one Saturday a month,” Scala said. “But I loved it and I kept wanting to do more. There was an immediate unison I felt with Mark.”
Slowly over time, Scala worked his way up to full-time bartender and eventually general manager, which was his position before becoming the owner. Scala has called it his second home for the past 16 years and said he is eager to keep Tony Nik’s successful.
Prior to the pandemic, the bar was known as mostly a beer bar that featured your regular rotation of brand name beers: Bud Light, Stella Artois, Budweiser. Now, though, Tony Nik’s has re-invented itself as a cocktail bar focusing on the classics such as martinis, Manhattans and boulevardiers. It was a “tectonic” shift, as Scala described. In fact, just recently, it was named one of the best cocktail bars in San Francisco by Eater SF.
This switch to a cocktail lounge makes sense, if you’ve ever been to Tony Nik’s. The small, intimate bar looks about the size of one Muni train when you walk in. To the immediate left, a tall table sits next to a wall of glass “bricks” that look like huge ice cubes stacked on top of another and curve into a little nook. On the right, is the wall with the checkerboard wooden tiles that have been around since 1949. As your eyes make their way down the long, J-shaped bar, a huge mural with shades of maroon, brown and dark green takes up the entire back wall.
It would not be surprising to see the ghosts of Humphrey Bogart as legendary San Francisco fictional private detective Sam Spade sipping a Manhattan by himself at the end of the bar, fedora covering his eyes as he contemplates the nature of the Maltese Falcon mystery.
The bar will mostly stay the same and will welcome all, whether it be Sammy Hagar leaving through the back door, or Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder cuddling next to each other on the bar stools, as Nicco said. The familial aspect runs through the taps, the wiring and the patronage of Tony Nik’s. A long history of regulars still frequent the bar, but newcomers are welcome just the same. Many times, newcomers become regulars because of the magic in the walls — once you get a taste of Tony Nik’s you keep coming back.
“This is a legacy place and I don’t want to change that,” Scala said. “I could change it to ‘Sebastian’s’ tomorrow, but there’s history here. There’s relationships here. I want to honor [Nicco’s] family’s legacy. But it’s mine now and maybe one day my daughter or son will assume the reins and it will become part of our legacy.”
Tony Nik's, 1534 Stockton St., San Francisco. Open Monday through Friday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.-2 a.m.