On a break: The author behind the bar at the Restaurant at Saks Fifth Avenue, circa 1987.
Saks in the City
by Hank Donat
I think it's good to know a little bit about the people whose opinions you read in the newspaper, so I'm disclosing that in my young adulthood I was the worst waiter in the history of the Restaurant at Saks Fifth Avenue on Post Street. This was one of those lunch houses tony enough that it needed no other name than Restaurant. I'm sure there's still a lady on the fifth floor waiting for an iced tea refill, even though the restaurant has been closed for years. It's now the successful Salon Z, Saks' plus-sized boutique kept tip top by the sparkling Gayle Eckland. (Cheers, by the way, to Saks for recognizing that women do wear sizes greater than 12.)
As an introduction to the mid-to-late 1980s social milieu of the City, slinging Chinese chicken salads and gravlax at the likes of Danielle Steel - Saks' best customer - was a wonderful experience. Surrounded by ladies who lunch, I was very busy just being young and daydreaming in front of the view of Union Square from the restaurant's rotunda. Trust me, this kept me extremely busy. My lack of interest in food service, and the fact that a lot of the ladies who lunched at Saks lunched alone, put me on the listening end of a lot of gossip about people I didn't know except for what was written in Herb Caen's or Pat Steger's columns.
Often, something marvelously San Franciscan would happen, like the time the restaurant hosted an exhibit of oversized photographic portraits of the Junior League leadership and one of the women came in with a Sharpie to draw over her bald spot. Another time, the makeup artist David Star sat at my table for three and a half hours admiring his own face on the billboard atop the corner of Geary and Powell, where the Macy's ads are today.
The occasional political handshake or secret romantic meeting took place at our tables, too. Unlike the well-watched Stars, Saks was an unexpected setting for what we called "discreet indiscretion."
Mikio Hirata, the Japanese cabaret performer who's always so good in the Noh Christmas Carol was also on the Saks restaurant crew. Visiting stage stars from Union Square area theatres would frequently stop in to visit Mikio or for something custom made by Saks' chef, Frank Waugh, who died from AIDS in the mid-90s.
One of Frank's cooks, Eddie the Gypsy, had also, after leaving the restaurant in 1989, died from AIDS-related causes. If you're now in your own salad days, you might not realize that more than 10,000 San Franciscans - friends, neighbors, relatives, lovers - died during that time. This is always worth remembering.
Jeanette Enman, a San Franciscan by way of Sweden, worked with us and still does sales at one of Saks' perfume counters. Jeanette charmed us with stories about being a new immigrant, like the time she boldly announced to her host family that before dinner she likes to douche. Jeanette hadn't learned the English word "shower" yet and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.
In San Francisco they can't take that away from you. No high rise, waterfront hotel, monster home, or Gorilla gym can erase the memories of hopeful, multi-cultural young people coming together on this, the other side of the mirror, San Francisco. A city so blessed by natural beauty, startling social coincidences and a keen sense of the absurd was an ideal place to gaze out a window dreaming of finding love, paying the rent, having a career...
There's an energy that a bunch of young people responsible for a few hundred dollars a month each in a flat on Fell Street can bring to the City that nothing else can. When I see so many For Rent signs in every neighborhood, I frequently wonder about the next tenants. Who will be the new San Franciscans? Will they appreciate the legacies of Old San Francisco, the Grateful Dead, or San Francisco Bay as much as we do?
Whoever these new San Franciscans are, my wish is that they're given the same access to the hearts of people that was given to me and to so many like me who came here from all over the United States and the world. The dot com experience has made us weary of newcomers. They take over our neighborhoods, run out our movie houses, and take down our signs!
I believe that San Franciscans have matured despite all the current tensions and will know the difference between an icon such as a sign and what matters even more deeply to neighborhoods in all corners of San Francisco, which are the character of the people and their dreams for tomorrow. But, the heart of the City needs more than just optimism; it also requires care. The glass might be half full, but someone's got to refill it - or so a harried busboy once told me.
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Copyright 2002 Hank Donat