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It's Always Five O'Clock at the 2am Club
Thursday, April 19, 2018 -- Enter a nondescript doorway off a side street in the San Francisco suburb of Mill Valley and an All-American girl-next-door bartender greets you like family but doesn't get into your business.
"What's your pleasure?" asks Sheila Lynch, with a mile-wide smile, locking eyes like she gives a damn and doesn't just see you as another rube on her barstool.
That's how it goes at the 2am Club, a 112-year-old saloon that may be the ultimate dive bar. It's cheap and charming, gritty and a little glamorous.
Frozen in time on the corner of Miller and Monfort in the tony Marin County hamlet just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, the vintage saloon is a throwback to the 1930s and beyond. Except there are sleek Teslas and Beamers in the tiny parking lot instead of boxy Packards and bulky Buicks.
It's dim inside but not dark. Takes me a minute to get my bearings. The bar itself is long--a good 50 feet---and busy at five o'clock on a Tuesday. There's a nice mix of guys and gals, mostly regulars, I reckon, because Lynch seems to know them all by name and chats them up. That's refreshing in this day when far too many bartenders have hipper-than-thou attitudes and fancy themselves as mixologists or libational chefs.
Working the long bar solo--no bar backs, no servers--and gliding along the plank like a ballet dancer, Lynch gently nudges me for an order.
"Manhattan, Woodford Reserve, straight up, extra bitters," I say.
I didn't ask the price. I didn't have to. Across the bridge, in San Francisco's city limits, that's a $20 cocktail today, with tax, tip and a couple mandatory bucks for the employee's health insurance fund. Here at the 2am Club, it's $10. And it arrived with a perfect to-the-brim infinity pour.
Suddenly, I fancied myself Mitchum or Bogart, sipping a classic old drink in a classic old bar. I shut my eyes and picture a mill worker punching out after pulling his shift, stopping off at the 2am Club for a Boilermaker and a game of pool.
The years have flown by--Mitchum and Bogie are gone and there are no mill workers in Mill Valley--but nothing much has changed at the 2am Club. There are still two pool tables and it's easy enough to scare up a game. Lynch and her colleagues still set up Boilermakers. The tariff for a whisky and a beer is $7, an incredible bargain. Well drinks start at $6 and a pint of a great draft craft beer is only $4.50. Elbow-bending starts at 11 a.m. at the 2am Club.
This corner joint has kept a low profile most of its long life. It was opened in 1906 by a transplanted Chicagoan named John W. "Bill" Brown. He named it The Brown Jug. It morphed into a feed and grain store during Prohibition, but was also rumored to be a speakeasy. In 1939, Mill Valley bluenoses passed a law requiring saloons to shut down at 10 p.m. But The Brown Jug, perched just across the street from Mill Valley town limits, was exempt. It stayed open later and was almost instantly renamed the 2am Club.
The current owners, general contractor David Marshall and career barkeep Amanda Solloway, practically grew up in their joint.
"I lived around the corner and drank here seven nights a week for years," says Marshall, who just celebrated his tenth year of sobriety. "Amanda was my bartender."
Marshall claims he hounded the owners for years to buy the place. "Every time I saw them, I'd get in their face. 'Hey, when are you going to sell it to me?' I'd write a price on a beer coaster and slide it down bar to them. They would slide it back to me with the words 'not enough.' "
But a threat to pull the bar's liquor license--state agents began snooping around after reports of drug use--forced the owners to sell. "Since I was always bugging them to buy it, they paired me with Amanda, who knew how the bar ran, and we did the deal," Marshall explains.
As saloon lords for the last eight years, Marshall and Solloway aren't just hosting and glad-handing. Marshall still remodels houses by day and pulls bartending shifts at night. ("Now I'm swinging drinks instead of swigging them!") For Solloway, it is business as usual behind the bar, but now she has skin in the game, too.
The 2am Club's homey hideout ambiance has always played well. The cover of the 1983 album Sports, which catapulted Huey Lewis and The News to international fame, was shot at the club. The band often played the 2am Club in the early days and returned for a 2013 photo shoot (above) tied to the album's 30th anniversary re-release. The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir played some gigs on the 2am Club's makeshift stage. When he lived in Marin, Sean Penn would occasionally slide in for a cold one. The late Robin Williams would drop by, too. The band 2AM Club is named after the bar.
Marshall doesn't fiddle with the 2am Club's successful ecosphere. There is still no blender behind the bar, "No fru fru, chi chi drinks here. We're still a shot and a beer kind of place," he says. But he doesn't fight progress: An Internet jukebox with an endless playlist sits in the corner and there's gratis WiFi throughout.
Meanwhile, it's 7:30 p.m., the regular crowd is shuffling in. Lynch, the bartender, is juggling a half-dozen drink orders and making every customer feel like they're the only guest in the house.
Turns out that she's working a double shift, too. Bartender by night. Marin County psychotherapist by day.
No wonder my Manhattan felt so good.
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