I just finished [Susan Reynolds’s] fine piece on the Café des Amis, and the Marina/Cow Hollow restaurant scene in general [“The real story behind closing Café des Amis,” February 2015], and I want to share my experience with Café des Amis. When the restaurant opened, I took a look inside and liked what I saw, a decor that reminded me of Paris. So before long my wife and I went for dinner. The food was adequate (we are not zealous foodies), but the clamor was so loud that though we were seated across from one another we couldn’t hold a conversation. By the end of the meal, we were exhausted, and quite cranky. We never went back; why would we, when there are quiet, excellent places like Capaninna and Perry’s that don’t daunt one with din?
We are, admittedly, not young, so we have lived through the increased noise level that seems not to trouble younger people who have been dancing too near the speakers for years. But a meal should be an occasion for conversation, as meals are (for instance) all over Italy. To watch a companion’s mouth move, and not hear what he or she is saying, is a one-time, no-going-back experience. I have no idea if this is one of the factors that doomed a wonderful-looking restaurant, but it certainly couldn’t have helped.
The Union Street Neighborhood Commercial District (NCD) was the city’s first (they are now ubiquitous). It attempted through zoning restrictions to preserve neighborhood-serving businesses in the face of pressure to convert Union and lower Fillmore Streets into a regional shopping/entertainment mall. The NCD has been a qualified success, but it couldn’t stop the bleeding away of movie theaters (remember the Metro II, née The Rio?), drugstores, and grocery stores. Even real estate and financial services have, to some extent, abandoned the street. Rising rents, not zoning, bear most of the responsibility for this.
The original Union Street NCD zoning did not “stipulate” that a new restaurant could only replace an old one, but it had that effect. This unintended consequence was remedied, and the NCD today enforces a numerical cap on restaurants. Note that the full-service/self-service distinction no longer exists. A restaurant is now defined as an establishment that serves food and alcohol. The Union Street NCD may have 44 restaurants. Currently it has 36. There is no cap for “limited restaurants” like La Canasta and Lite Bite, which serve food but no alcohol.
I agree with you that the food at most of the new restaurants in new spaces in the NCD leaves something to be desired. You could not pay me to eat at Tacko, and I’ve never heard a positive word (or a negative one, for that matter) about the wine bar on Fillmore. The food at Bistro Unique (1849 Union) was quite good, but the establishment could not survive both high rent and lack of capitalization. If I ever felt the desire for sushi, I’d make a beeline for Umami, not Tamashisoul.
Atelier Crenn is surely a destination restaurant, but it doesn’t generate the foot traffic the NCD needs. The NCD needs a few good, reasonably priced restaurants that appeal to local grownups. How about a moratorium on hamburger stands? So long as Union Street caters to juvenile tastes and is perceived as a street overrun by loutish drunks, it will have a hard time attracting and retaining restaurants worth eating in.
The key to Union Street’s revival? I’m hoping (not betting) that the Bus Stop will develop a successful live music program, which will spawn imitators and draw people to the street for early evening entertainment who’ll stick around to have a bite to eat and maybe a night cap. I can dream, can’t I?
President, Golden Gate Valley Neighborhood Association