December 22, 2021

December 22, 2021

The coveted outdoor tables for a sunny brunch at Universal Cafe. Photo: Charlie Villyard.


The iconic dining room and counter at Universal Cafe. Photo: Charlie Villyard.


We’re going to miss seeing this star. Photo: Erika Castaneda.


Longtime business partners Wendy St. John and chef Leslie Carr-Avalos.

The news of some restaurant closures can feel like such a big thud, and the closure of ~UNIVERSAL CAFE~ certainly did that for a number of longtime customers and locals. This cherished and off-the-beaten-path restaurant just served their last brunch on Sunday—my friend Julia let me know that they were quietly closing their doors after the weekend.

This iconic neighborhood restaurant opened in April of 1994, the same year I moved to San Francisco. The Multimedia Gulch area of the Mission was a buzzy tech hotspot—there was so much happening over there, with Slow Club and Gordon’s House of Fine Eats, all with that burgeoning industrial modern style that was also at the nearby 42 Degrees in Esprit Park in Dogpatch, and later, Foreign Cinema in 1999. It was such a lively time, with late-night dining and lots of frites and Cosmos—it was also a loud time, with all that laughter bouncing off the concrete floors at these places. At Universal, they evolved into serving such a uniquely San Franciscan and well-sourced style of NorCal cuisine. It was our own kind of SF bistro.

I’m grateful I had the opportunity to connect with chef-partner Leslie Carr-Avalos, who has been at Universal Cafe since 1996. She told me Universal was originally opened by Bob Vorhees and Gail Deferrari, who envisioned an edgy café where they’d roast their own coffee, serve sandwiches, and foster an artistic and creative scene. When chef Julia McClaskey came on board, she really elevated the profile of the place and her Rising Star Chef accolade helped put Universal on the map. Leslie was a sous chef there during the dot com boom, and was also there when the dot bomb crash came, along with 9/11 and the recession, such tough times. But in 2004, she partnered up with her then-husband Armando Avalos and Wendy St. John to buy the restaurant, and they have owned and managed and shepherded it as a trio since.

But here we are, in even tougher times, once again, and due to many reasons, they made the difficult decision to close the restaurant. Leslie said throughout the pandemic, all three of them worked every shift, and tried so hard to roll with all the punches. They did takeout and prix-fixe meals and greatly diminished their operating hours and fed frontline workers. Wendy was busy applying for federal government assistance and loans and grants (it was extremely time consuming, but it also helped them a lot). They are so thankful for their staff—many of them stayed on through the years and then the pandemic—but additional staffing issues have been problematic (as it is for everyone in the industry). The place was also in need of a renovation. As Leslie noted, you really have to do a lot to make it in the restaurant business these days, with savvy marketing and the formation of restaurant groups, but that wasn’t their path.

Instead, they were a restaurant beloved by many regulars, longtime San Franciscans, and in-the-know brunch fans. Leslie said when they started telling their customers they were closing, there were some who came in to eat every night. She was very moved by her customers’ reactions, with some of them crying over the closure: “I didn’t expect that. But we’re like an old friend, we always showed up. You don’t survive for 28 years without caring for people.” Their dishwasher and a server have both been there for 20 years. It says a lot.

As for what’s next, Leslie says she’s going to focus on building something more sustainable for herself, and should have some projects she can talk about hopefully soon. For now, they are dismantling the restaurant until the end of January and sifting through so many memories. Meanwhile, we’ll be left with our memories of their herb-roasted chicken under a brick and charcoal-grilled hanger steak and impeccable soft-scrambled eggs. It felt good to be in that lively dining room or at their sunny front tables. You could always tell what season it was by the dishes on the menu. Thanks to the entire team for feeding us like close friends for all these years. It really feels like the end of a certain era of SF with this closure—but as Leslie shared, “Cities change, and I have to change.” Indeed. We all do. 2814 19th St. at Bryant.


A moment and dish from Osito’s R&D period. Photo: Rob Schanz.

Call it a Christmas miracle: chef Seth Stowaway just opened his first restaurant this past weekend, ~OSITO~, as well as sister cocktail bar Liliana. This 100-percent, live-fire restaurant offers one extensive tasting menu nightly ($295), paying homage to his Texas upbringing (and many years living in the Mission), while highlighting peak seasonal produce and top local purveyors, with everything cooked over the fire. The opening menu will be focused on winter game birds, while February will bring a menu dedicated to local seafood. Stowaway has worked in the Bay Area for the past 15 years; he was a sous chef for Brandon Jew at Mister Jiu’s, and was executive chef of Bar Agricole Group.

He has most recently been hosting pop-ups as he developed the concept and was fundraising (which is still ongoing). He’s working with director of operations Lucia Camarda and service director Madison Michael (previously Merchant Roots), with beverage director Jon Prange and wine director Maz Naba—optional wine pairings are available for $95, or reserve wine pairings for $125.

You’ll be able to enjoy cocktails and “nostalgic coastal cuisine” from Osito chef de cuisine Bethany Hunt at sister bar Liliana, which is meant to be a place for folks to drop by for a more-casual experience. You can look at the menu (and cocktails and wines by the glass) here.

Studio Terpeluk designed the restaurant and bar, which features sustainably harvested sugar pine and dark reclaimed redwood, a communal table handmade by Yvonne Mouser, and custom brass chandeliers from Kurtis Major. All eyes will be on the steel and brick hearth created by blacksmith Jorgen Harle. There are two seatings nightly (5pm and 8:30pm). 2875 18th St. at Florida.


Nothing like a sunny Mission day on the rooftop. Photo courtesy of Good Good Culture Club.


A new mural by Kalani Ware at the upcoming Good Good Culture Club. Photo courtesy of GGCC.

I ran out of time at my last deadline to include this news, but the Liholiho crew has a big update: they’re ending the Liholiho Yacht Club pop-up on 18th Street in the Mission on December 31st and opening ~GOOD GOOD CULTURE CLUB~ in the space on January 11th, 2022. Boor Projects is behind the colorful and uplifting update to the space, which they began in 2019 with Liholiho’s move there.

For these last days, there will be a special holiday menu with original Liholiho classics and favorites until they close on New Year’s Eve. We’ll have to wait for Liholiho Yacht Club to reopen in its original Sutter Street location in spring/summer 2022.

Now, I don’t ever do this, but this press release was so thoughtfully written and personal that I thought I’d share it verbatim so you can really get a sense of the vision and reasoning and changes they’re making with this new project. (Also: I am exhausted and I don’t think my rewrite will add much.)

“Liholiho Yacht Club opened in 2015 with a goal of celebrating heritage and spreading aloha. We have been fortunate to be, by many standards, a successful restaurant. Now, as we reemerge from a brutal shutdown, we have realized that we don’t want to go back to the ways things were. We want to build something better.

“In our decades in the restaurant industry, we accepted and enabled so much of an archaic culture: The wage gaps, the long hours, the inequities, the lack of mental health, and so much more. Why does our industry have to be this way? Can it not grow and evolve, like so many others?

“Since reopening Liholiho Yacht Club in its temporary home on 18th Street earlier this year, we have been actively and thoughtfully implementing many changes in pursuit of this vision. As owners, we understand it requires us to be more inclusive, both operationally and financially. We have raised wages for staff, because a living wage is not sufficient; it’s our duty to provide a thriving wage. We no longer accept gratuity, and have executed an equitable compensation fee (20%) that allows for us to achieve more equality in wages. Our hiring practices have been overhauled to allow for a more diverse pool of applicants. We have shortened our hours of operation from 5 to 9 p.m. in an effort to enable healthy and full lifestyles for our staff. Our day-to-day operations are more collaborative, as we are constantly reminded of the strength of our dynamic leadership team, like Nana Guardia, Kristina Garbett, Sarah Lau, Heather Murphy, Millie Boonkokua, Hannah Montazeri.

“Above all, we are trying to broaden the definition of what it means to be leaders, while empowering—and sustaining—new voices. New voices who will be the future of this industry.

“We feel these initial changes are working. In other words: Change is good. So that’s why Liholiho Yacht Club on 18th Street will evolve into a new concept called Good Good Culture Club.

“With Good Good Culture Club, we will support and amplify the next generation of Bay Area rising talent in Aimee Arcilla, Kevin Keovanpheng, and Brett Shaw. This evolution will enable more creativity for these three, who have long been a crucial part of Liholiho operations, and now will have the opportunity to transition into larger roles and share their own heritage-driven cooking and hospitality.

“At this new restaurant, you’ll get a fun backyard vibe, infused with their exciting Laotian and Filipino flavors, wood-fired cooking, California produce, the Liholiho pantry, and of course, a quality bar program, anchored by Janice Bailon.

“Liholiho Yacht Club is not going away—that original mindset of heritage and hospitality through our San Francisco home remains our guiding principle, our ethos, now more than ever. But to allow our team to truly flourish, we don’t want them operating under the shadow of the Liholiho sign. We want to celebrate their voices, to nurture them as the restaurant industry leaders of tomorrow.

“We don’t know if these changes will work, but we do know that we don’t want to go back to the old ways. We are so grateful to have developed a strong following of diners and regulars in our six years of business. It takes a community to implement change, and we hope you can be part of it, too. That’s what Good Good Culture Club is about: positive change, heritage, love, aloha.”
— Ravi Kapur, April Storm, and Jeff Hanak

That was a good read, right? I hope it inspires some other restaurateurs and owners to be part of the change happening in hospitality and restaurant operations. Good Good Culture Club will be open Tue-Sat 5pm-9pm. Reservations open January 4th. 3560 18th St. at Dearborn.


Next-level barley waffle from Poppy. Instagram photo via @poppysfca.

It looks like team behind the “California breakfast” pop-up ~POPPY~ (maybe you caught them at Fig & Thistle this past spring and summer?) just got the keys to an amazing location! They’re moving into the classic Evergreen Garden location in the Mission—the longtime, neighborhood standby Vietnamese restaurant closed in May—according to their ABC license, Evergreen has been around since 2003, but possibly even sooner. Pour some out for their imperial roll bun and big bowls of pho.

As for the Poppy team, it’s Jessica Sullivan—the OG pastry chef for Boulevard Restaurant, Prospect, and the Delfina Restaurant Group, as well as Octavia and Frances—and Laurel Robinson, a restaurant consultant for bars and restaurants (including Anina, Tosca, Elda, and Trick Dog), previously a manager at Delfina for eight years. Yeah, these ladies know their stuff.

You can peek at their latest pop-up menu here, although you know the concept is going to be greatly expanded at this location, which comes with a nice atrium/patio. I’ll share more details soon. 3100 18th St. at Harrison.


Ramen from the new Jikasei Mensho. Instagram photo by @trocadero152.

~MENSHO TOKYO~ (some of my favorite ramen in the city) just opened a shop (today!) in The Market in the Twitter building, ~JIKASEI MENSHO~. Jikasei, which means homemade, is offering a few kinds of ramen geared for takeout (after a great deal of R&D). They all come in takeout containers—you specify if you’re going to eat them within 15 minutes or later and they prepare them accordingly. You can choose your own broth and chashu toppings, including roasted chicken or spiced ground lamb. There are also a few sides, like chicken karaage and potato salad. Check out a pic of the menu here. Open Tue-Sat 11am-3pm. 1355 Market St. at 9th St.

~SUPER DUPER BURGERS~ is opening a location in Laurel Village, and they’re offering a free mini burger to the first 50 guests who line up at lunch (11am) or dinner (4:30pm) Wednesday December 22nd and Thursday December 23rd. Open 10:30am-9pm daily. 3401 California St. at Laurel.

I had been hearing rumors that longtime brunch spot ~DOTTIE’S TRUE BLUE CAFE~ was closing their 6th Street location, and SFGate confirmed the news. Former (and longtime) owner Kurt Abney sold the business to new owners back in 2017, and sadly they couldn’t weather the “tough times brought on by the pandemic.” Truly the toughest times. 28 6th St. at Market.