Tenderloin Nouveau

Part of my Bold Moments series of articles. Note that this was called “Fruit of the ‘Loin” when it first ran for some asinine reason…

Undoubtedly, it happened sometime in the second half of 2009. While living in the Côte d’Ivoire, cast off from my beloved Tenderloin, I didn’t immediately see what had happened until I took a stroll for my welcome back burrito at El Tesoro on O’Farrell at Leavenworth. But it was in that time, that a critical mass not born of San Francisco’s anarchist cyclists had made the Tenderloin a place to “be” instead of just a place to “go”.

It seems a great many people await and speculate on the wholesale conversion of the Tenderloin to shiny condos and Starbucks in order to proclaim it the newest travesty of evil gentrification. But no, there are still the housing non-profits controlling the low-income rental market down on Golden Gate and there are still the addicts shooting up on streets and there are still the cardboard boxes that are so permanent they should have regular mail delivery and there are still the hustlers on Pill Hill with OC’s always on offer. All that is still there and still is the same. The changes… were more subtle.

Golden Coffee. At Sutter & Leavenworth, it’s definitely in what is most commonly known at Tenderloin Heights, the TenderNob, or (realtor-favored) Lower Nob Hill, but it’s a favorite among the locals from blocks far and wide. With its U-shaped counter wrapping around the square, hyper-utilized space and vintage feel, it defines the greasy all-American, affordable breakfast upon which the neighborhood feasts.

From morning to midday, heaps of eggs and fried potatoes come spiraling off the stove to hungry hipsters and the occasional misplaced tourist. The place undoubtedly looks nearly the same as it did 50 years ago. Eating is done quickly and once four o’clock rolls around, the establishment is closed.

Getting my Fix

Quite literally around the corner from Golden Coffee on Post Street, with the tell-tale sign of fixies locked up out front is farm:table. The menu focuses on the all-important San Francisco foundations of fresh, seasonal, organic food, prepared to order. The staff are tattooed. The coffee is from Santa Cruz’s Verve and is served up by refugees from Blue Bottle, who emerged from the roasted bean trenches to open in May of 2009.

Despite food editors of ad-heavy, glossy magazines popping in a review next to the latest Chanel or Calvin Klein perfume advertisement, farm:table is a joint for locals. Yelp users who are apparently from other neighborhoods complain about the fact that everyone just seems to know everyone in there, which for some reason is a taboo for those who just want to go to the neighborhood and not be immersed in neighborly camaraderie.

My dish this particular morning is of their signature poached eggs (they use up 1,700 eggs a month apparently) with leeks and mushrooms on a baguette. It’s nicely presented, very tasty, and people come back for these reliable vittles. I look to see that their One Night Show (one piece of art for one night on one wall) is the next week. “Biscuit Sunday” is at the end of the month, a neighborhood “coffee crawl” is being organized, and the list of events goes on from there. In essence, the owners, Kate & Shannon Amitin go above and beyond being simply a place to go, fill your stomach, and fuel your nerves. They are a hub of the neighborhood run by passionate locals who engage their customers in more than just in a service capacity.

Hook, Line, & Sinker

Down a few blocks at Hyde & O’Farrell, Hooker’s Sweet Treats shares similar values. Opened in mid-2010, it has built its own scene and following as well – for those “normal people” who live in the Tenderloin, many of which are found in the Hamilton Building on O’Farrell at Leavenworth. If you’re in the market, the days of good deals in that Art Deco building have passed given that even a studio (or “loft” if you will) costs $300,000 on up, plus HOA. If you think that this is a steep price for the Tenderloin, then you obviously aren’t aware of the large number of TIC’s that have been popping up to contribute to a higher degree of ownership in the neighborhood.

I always enjoy watching the couples who come in to Hooker’s, dogs in tow for a walk. This particular morning, the bread pudding with persimmon and a caramel glaze is in excellent form and my latte from Sightglass beans works over its sweetness harmoniously. The owner, David “Hooker” Williams had tweeted about the merits of said pudding earlier. As is usual with our banter, I chide him about opening on Sundays, which he tells me in his always easy-going Southern manner, “I’m looking in to it.”

Matt, the next-door neighbor and Hooker regular (sometimes even caramel dipper) whom I most always encounter when stopping in, happens to be running off for a haircut that day at Public Barber Salon on Geary at Jones. Opened in 2008, it’s more than just a place to get your hair cut and has quickly become a favorite among locals. While the prices are what keep people coming back, it’s the approach of being part of the neighborhood (both the owner and manager live three blocks away) that makes them popular with casually rotating exhibits on the walls. Probably serving beer and playing carefully selected tunes helps too.

Spin Cycle

Places such as Public contribute a small part to the even larger vibrant gallery scene that has risen to take on the outdated concept that an evening in the Tenderloin is full of drugs, booze, and hookers. While the age-old (and city-wide) vices are still there, such places as Kokoro Studio, The Luggage Store Annex, Gallery Heist, 941 Geary, Ever Gold, Space/Lopo, Gallery 1988, Whitewalls/Shooting Gallery/Gallery Three, Timezone, and others are where you go to be seen on the first Thursday of the month when, instead of doing a bar crawl, you can do a gallery crawl and visit all their exhibit openings. Obviously I’m not one to throw stones at those who choose to mix in a little booze with their culture given that the bar scene in the neighborhood eternally thrives. While stalwart watering holes such as The Brown Jug, Nitecap, Geary Club, etc. are always reliable; there has been a shift in how drinking establishments are interacting with the neighborhood as well.

Five o’clock means that Koko Cocktails on Geary at Van Ness opens. Koko is owned by locals Lori Martens, Justin Long, and Christopher Keith. All veterans of the neighborhood bar scene, they left their previous tending jobs at Tunnel Top on Bush to open their own establishment in 2007. Not content to be just “another bar” in a neighborhood awash with bars, they engage the locals in a number of ways.

Sipping on a Buster Brown (Bourbon, lemon juice, sugar and orange bitters), I gaze over their calendar of events. Tonight is going to be the spinning of Black Gold by DJ Senator Soul, aka Jonathan, the creator of the ‘Tenderloin Reading Series’ that also happens quarterly at Koko. This particular Monday isn’t the only night with featured entertainment though, it’s every night. People come not just to drink, but also to meet other regulars as proven by the three guys of indeterminate age sitting at one end of the bar sharing drinks and unrelated stories. It’s the neighborhood bookend to farm:table or Hooker’s which wire you up at the beginning of the day only to have Koko spin you down at the end of it.

Do the Hustle

At this point, the questions arise: “Has the Tenderloin turned that all important corner? If I bought a place in the neighborhood would it be a continual battle of me vs. the sidewalk feces? Is there such a thing as Tenderloin Nouveau and is this it?”

I submit that if what we’re seeing came about because of “all hat and no cattle” social initiatives, one would say that no, the Tenderloin will indeed remain the same. Take for instance the $11 million Central Market Cultural District Loan Fund which, despite the name, covers most of the Tenderloin and was set up to provide low interest loans from the city in the general amount of $250,000 to $1,000,000. While exceptions might be made for loans as “small” as $50,000, the problem is that most small businesses (those needed to make the neighborhood sustainable) don’t need and can’t justify such a large loan, especially as there is the provision that for each $50,000 of loan money one new, full-time job must be created. It sounds great on paper and in sound bites, but is having next to no effect on the neighborhood. Those taking advantage of this are very, very few and none of the vibrant small businesses in this article were part of it.

The reality is that what we’re seeing is the result of passionate locals saying, “screw it” digging through their couch cushions, borrowing from friends and family, and opening up shop with the intent of being part of the neighborhood as opposed to just taking what they can from it without any personal involvement. It’s less asking, “Is this new phase of the neighborhood sustainable?” but more saying, “This was inevitable.” Despite over 50 years of neglect, the Tenderloin simply can’t stay downtrodden forever as it is the true heart of San Francisco and those who can and care are sensibly making it their home.