20th Century Cafe

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The incomparable potato knish. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Housemade bagel and smoked salmon. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Tomato and Bulgarian pepper soup. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The famed honey cake. Yup, nine layers in there. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Michelle Polzine and a honey cake that’s about to get cut. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The inviting room (with a banquette you will want to settle into). Photo: © tablehopper.com.

As someone who loves dressing in vintage clothes, sitting on vintage furnishings, and eating off of vintage plates, the time capsule that is ~20TH CENTURY CAFE~ speaks to me on many levels. Chef-owner Michelle Polzine gained many fans while making gorgeous desserts at Range, but now this beguiling corner café in Hayes Valley is all hers. Polzine is in her proper habitat, bustling around behind the counter in her vintage apron, with the gorg brass and amber lights overhead.

You can come by for your morning Blue Bottle coffee off the copper espresso machine, lunch with a friend (get the Reuben!), or an afternoon tea and cake moment (or maybe it’s a beer and knish moment?), and there’s a weekend brunch that will pose some hard questions (you will overeat, mark my words). The hours have expanded to 8pm, so an early dinner can now be in the mix as well—the menu switches over at 5pm. You’ll be able to have a glass of grüner veltliner and other Austrian (and Hungarian) wines with your meal too.

The menu takes a lot of inspiration from the Danube, with dishes like apple strudel and Sacher torte (both $6), and a homey tomato and Bulgarian pepper soup ($8.50) with a tender greens dumpling and a dollop of sour cream. Yes, there are as many savory dishes as there are sweet.

Go farther east with a divine Russian honey cake ($6)—you absolutely have to get this beautiful multilayered cake. Nine fluffy layers. It’s a wonder. Polzine said when they make it, the bees come and fly into the shop, how amazing is that? The bees know.

I have already written about how much I adore her potato knish ($8)—just try to find a better one in the city, so flaky and savory. And yes, buttery.

I am also so taken with the chewy house-baked poppy seed bagel with its dark golden exterior (you have to get it with the oh-so-thin slices of smoked salmon—order it open-faced for $11, closed for $8). Pssst, bring a few extra bagels home—allow yourself to pay the $2.50 charge, it’s worth it.

One snag: The service component is a little creaky. On our visit, the food was brought out all at once and too many dishes covered our table, and no one was really looking for when we were finished to take some away. Just let them know if you want to pace things slowly.

You can’t find a prettier place to enjoy your Sunday paper or a book, with the light streaming in the windows, with big band and bluegrass playing in the background (and maybe a little klezmer and Bollywood and ragtime with some fun food references too—her hubby curates all the music). It’s the European café we have been missing, with marble-topped tables, classic Thonet chairs, a mohair banquette, and all the mismatched vintage plates, teacups, and flatware that feel good to eat with. It’s a place to slow down.

Since the crew is always adding new dishes and seasonal items (um, hot butterscotch that you can drink, are you kidding?), follow along on Twitter for further temptation. As if the countertop loaded with cookies and cakes wasn’t tempting/torturous enough.

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198 Gough St. San Francisco
(at Oak St.)
415-621-2380
20thcenturycafe.com
$$
Michelle Polzine, chef

Cuisine

  • Bakery
  • Californian
  • Dessert
  • Eastern European
  • European

Features

  • Breakfast
  • Brunch (Daily)
  • Brunch (Weekend)
  • Lunch

Special Features

Open Tue–Fri 8am–8pm, Sat 10am–8pm, Sun 10am–4pm.