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