Heart of the City Archives

Buh-bye: F.A.O. Schwartz says "Ciao, San Francisco" in 2003.
SF 2003: City of Sentimental Reasons
by Hank Donat

I'm always surprised when someone tells me they go to sleep before midnight on New Year's Eve. Maybe there are those who are just too hip for 12 o'clock, but in San Francisco the occasion is an opportunity for reflection that's just too good to pass up. 

The San Franciscan is a maudlin, sentimental creature. Of course that's a generalization, but one supported by plenty of evidence. In 2002, locals mourned losses of institutions like Panelli Deli in North Beach, the Cypress Club in Jackson Square, the Philosopher's Club in West Portal, the Backflip bar in the Tenderloin, and any number of beloved pit stops that were shuttered over the past twelve months.

Closings are hallowed occasions for sentimentalists. When Bus Van for Bargains auctioned off the remaining furniture and other decorative artifacts at its Battery Street location in August after 56 years in business, Rob Murray and I got in line for a last look at the wax figures from an old Chinatown museum and an automatonic clown from Playland at the Beach. It was a long line.

The Mission district is still reeling from the loss of a sign over Thrift Town and if you're wondering why, I can think of 17 Reasons. Downtown, at mid-Market, a 2001 storm revealed a well preserved 1950s soda sign beneath the siding of the Hewes building. The fight to save this "miracle art" continues into 2003.

Saturday night at the Perlot restaurant in the Hotel Majestic, chef Chris Steinbock thought of a few more reasons for feeling sentimental. Perlot closed for good that night, leaving the Majestic without a dining room for the first time in its 100-year history.

Mel Hollen's closed in November. That was fast. The restaurant opened earlier in 2002 in the Little City space at Union and Powell. Bartender Mike Fraser didn't seem too distressed over the turn of events, except to raise a glass and toast, "Here's to better days in the restaurant business." 

Last week, Mike jammed with his tuba quartet at Perry's on Christmas Eve. Mike, who has previously mixed and poured at Perry's and the Washington Square Bar & Grill, has seen enough changes in San Francisco over the years to take a few on the chin.

Speaking of the Washbag, that local favorite is thriving since returning to the landscape in 2002 after a couple of years as the Cobalt Tavern. The redux Washbag proves it's possible for a San Francisco legend to make a comeback from waning popularity. 

Finocchio's was a San Francisco institution that was famous all over the world. It closed in 1999 after 63 years, presumably because gender bending is no longer so astonishing that a tourist would fly all the way here just to gape and wonder, "Is it really a man?" These days you can do that at the corner store in many communities. 

In 2003, the SOMA restaurant Asia-SF is the new Finocchio's. The next time your uncle visits from Dayton, Ohio, stop in for some fusion dishes like Dragon Fried Rice and Smoked Salmon Flat Bread. See if your uncle notices anything unusual about the waitresses. 

Like the Washbag, Union Square made a comeback in 2002. Though the new design leaves many cold, Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, reports that the new plaza is wildly successful, which means that people use it.

The point to this sentimental inventory is that while San Francisco has shed its skin a dozen times, it's always grown a new one. The Fillmore Street storefront that for many years housed the upscale boutique Fillamento reopened this year as Shabby Chic. The continuing story of this Pacific Heights shopping district is written somewhere between the unemployment lines.

A year from now you won't be able to duck into FAO Schwartz for some child's play, but don't try to wipe your tears with the Chronicle pink pages. They've gone the way of luggage locks and well, the Chronicle green pages.

However, at the dawn of 2004 San Francisco will have BART to SFO and a new incoming mayor who will presumably be poised to lead the city through economic and political sea changes, particularly if the Bush administration follows through with its World War III rhetoric. This specter was brought home for me on Christmas Eve when, even from a 38 Geary bus, I spotted the Examiner headline from twenty feet. "We are capable of fighting two major regional conflicts." - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. 

With the mayoral election ten months away, people have begun choosing sides. Nina Wu, who writes the Examiner's Q&A column, is asking her subjects, "Who do you like for mayor?"

My choice is the candidate who will resist the temptation to take the worsening economic realities out on those with the least political clout. This will affect the heart of San Francisco far more than any sign, bistro, bar, or favorite dive. 

That's what I'll be thinking about when the sun rises tomorrow on 2003. Then I'll walk over to my neighborhood coffeehouse which, with any luck, will still be there. 

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Copyright 2002 Hank Donat
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