I've heard it a hundred times -- "why aren't there more outdoor cafes in San Francisco?" Good question, I say. I know it's a bit foggy at times, but in a city this beautiful, this visual, it still makes sense. We should be the Paris of the West. Some people think we already are. Except we need a bit more outdoor seating. I decide to take a look around my fair city to explore the options.
Caffe Greco, 423 Columbus Avenue, North Beach
Caffe Greco is a couple of doors down from Caffe Puccini on Columbus Avenue. Both coffeehouses have outdoor seating, and although there's a clothing store in between the two, the tables on the sidewalk seem to run together. If you're not paying attention, you might not even be sure which cafe you're in. On this particular day, I make a conscious decision to enter Greco. I quickly realize I've made the right choice. Turns out that Hanna Suleiman, who opened Greco in 1988, was a key player in leading the fight at City Hall for outdoor seating. Apparently, the process to obtain a permit was cumbersome, expensive and frought with red tape. Hanna was made keenly aware of this around Columbus Day three years ago. He had set up a handful of tables outside his cafe for the annual parade, and once it was over, the Police Department demanded that they all be removed since he didn't have a permit. So Hanna got to work. Over the course of the next year he worked with the Department of Public Works to modify the permit procedure. He also circulated a petition among the customers and merchants in the neighborhood and obtained over 3,500 signatures in two weeks. He took his case to the Board of Supervisors and after numerous hearings, Caffe Greco was granted the city's second permit for outdoor seating, on September 29, 1993. Since that time, several hundred cafes and restaurants have been granted permits. And Hanna Suleiman deserves a lot of the credit. Next time you stop into Greco, give Hanna a big thank you. He's earned it.
There are about a half a dozen tables outside. They are those small, round green tables that you see in all the parks in Paris. With those small green folding chairs. Warning: do not try to move the table. The tabletop is simply resting on the legs. You try to move it and it collapses. The tables are placed close to the curb, so there's still plenty of room for pedestrians. Although the cafe is on busy Columbus Avenue, it doesn't seem overly noisy. The wonderful old four-faced clock owned by R. Matteuci Jewelers is directly across the street. The clock has been there since 1908 and Matteo Ciuffreda, who owns Matteuci, still winds it every Saturday morning. Galletti Shoe Repair is next door. You can get heels while-u-wait. There's a Wells Fargo ATM across the street if you're low on cash. Biordi Art Imports is near the corner. You can buy a gift while you're in the neighborhood, and the recipient will love you. The Church of St. Francis of Assisi is next door to Biordi. Yep, I knew this neighborhood was blessed.
While you're at Greco, you can sip a cup of delicious Trieste coffee and sample the pastries from the large glass case. The sandwiches and salads are also tasty. I may not be sipping my espresso on the Champs Elysees, but it's not half bad here.
Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room & Cafe, 579 Hayes Street, Hayes Valley
I hear there's a nice patio in the back of Mad Magda's, so I walk in and make a beeline for it. I walk through a lot of Russian kitsch to get there. The cafe is a long, rectangular space, with small tables along the walls in the front of the cafe, and a service counter in the rear. The patio is small and cozy, with maybe half a dozen tables. The table in the middle is round and covered by an umbrella. The landscaping is lush. A touch of South Florida in the heart of San Francisco. Two sides are draped in ivy, a couple of trees loom overhead and there are flowering plants with blooms of deep purple and orange. There is a fountain peeking through the ivy, the face of a man with a trickle of water coming out of his pouty lips. The sound of the water is soothing. It's late in the afternoon, so no direct sunlight overhead, just a clear blue sky. A soft breeze rustles through the trees. I notice a buddha tucked in behind some of the flowering bushes. He looks as peaceful as I feel at this moment. Suddenly a gust of wind blows through and everyone notices. Leaves fall off a tree overhead and land on my jacket. It's nice to be outside.
I pop back into the cafe to order. Most of the menu items listed on the blackboard are named after someone Russian -- Stalin, Lenin, Tolstoy. Is Gorby here? I always liked him. They also serve borsch. Someone had put a "t" at the end of borsch, but I can see it's recently been erased. I thought borsch had a "t," too. I'm not brave enough to try it anyway, so I settle on a latte and a brownie (no nuts, the best kind in my book). The gal behind the counter is telling one of the customers that it's her first day back. Her first hour back. She seems to be modeling for him, and is clearly pleased about something new. I assume it's her hair, which is done in bleached-blond rasta braids. She then starts talking about the scarring. I'm confused. At this point, she pulls aside her sleeveless t-shirt to expose a rather large left breast with a scar all around the nipple. I see, a boob job. The customer looks at me to see if I'm shocked. I let him know that I have many friends who have had breast implants. "No," the young woman tells me, "I just had my breasts reduced." She used to be a 38DD. She is ecstatic about her new svelte outline. "They used to be down to here," she tells me, and points to her waist. I'll never complain about my 34B's again.
When I return to the patio, a fellow is reading the romance ads from a local weekly. Out loud. He tells a drag queen who walks by that he can't read today "because my pants are too tight. I'm going dancing tonight." I nibble on my brownie and observe the goings-on. A lot of folks have joined me on the patio, and there is animated chatter at the various tables. The customers are a cross-section of San Francisco's most exotic and erotic. Young, hip, pierced. For a moment there this patio had reminded me of my mother's back yard in Miami. Nope. The plants, maybe. But I know my mother doesn't have her coffee with these folks.
Art Institute Cafe, 800 Chestnut Street, Russian Hill
As you walk into the Art Institute's lovely Spanish-style building, you are greeted by a spacious patio. You're indoors, yet still outdoors. A colorfully-tiled fountain graces the center of this open space. Flat benches as large as a bed invite you to take a nap in the sun. I notice one fellow who is thinking the same way. Large, leafy trees abound. There is artwork everywhere I look. A sculpture in one corner, large canvases lining the walls. I am reminded of many such spaces I found during my travels in Mexico. Except they didn't have the artwork I am enjoying here.
I work my way through several galleries on my way to the cafe, which is on the roof. Once I get there, I am astounded by the view. Now this is a view. The first thing you see is Coit Tower and lots of colorful houses enveloping Telegraph Hill. It's postcard-perfect. The cafe is straight ahead, a large room with big windows in front and back. The back windows face north. You're looking at Alcatraz and beyond. The outdoor tables are in the front of the cafe. Actually, they are five square concrete slabs protruding from the wall. The seats between them are the same flat benches I found in the patio. I sit on one of the benches for a moment and notice there is a basketball hoop on a far wall. There is enough room between the hoop and the cafe for a game of HORSE and then some. As I continue to explore the roof, I find a large sculpture of a camera. It's facing north, ready to photograph one of the best views in the city. I'm sold. This is what I was looking for.
The manager of the Art Institute Cafe is a fellow named Pete, which explains the sign over the door that says "Pete's Cafe." I ask him if he's a student. "I'm a cook," he tells me in a booming voice, and he sounds darned proud of it. The other employees look like students, and in fact are. Pete offers me a piece of fresh-baked dough with some sugar on top. It's the leftover crust from the nectarine cobbler that he just pulled out of the oven. It's warm and soft. I order a cup of coffee to go along with this treat. Everything at the cafe is made from scratch in their large kitchen, which seems to take up half the room. The blackboard clues me in: "Dona Lantz's herbaceous picnic chicken with black-eye pea salad;" "Pete's salute to spa cuisine: BBQ pork chops with mashed potatoes." The chops and spuds look delicious, but I resist, sticking to my coffee, a tasty Tom & Dave's blend. They serve breakfast and lunch here, and the prices are dirt cheap, an accommodation to the students. The long counter is painted in psychedelic colors. Kurt Cobain's plaintive eyes look down at me from the espresso machine. The room is filled with paintings and sculpture, all of it by the students, and rotated weekly. It's really good. This place would be terrific if there was no view.
I finally give in to temptation and order the nectarine cobbler. I take my heaping plate outside and plop down on one of the benches. My cobbler is incredible. This place may be the best-kept secret in town. It's a warm and sunny afternoon in San Francisco and no one else is out here. I guess the few lucky souls who know about this place are keeping it to themselves. Makes sense.
© 1995 Elaine Sosa