Valencia is a humming thoroughfare teeming with restaurants, bars, vintage stores, galleries, furniture vendors, shops hawking expensive curiosities, construction projects, pigeons, and one small, loud street performer with a bright blue guitar. I don’t know what the street was like in the 90s, but it’s changed remarkably since I arrived just seven years ago. The blocks have built up, becoming denser. Spaces have changed hands, but fewer proprietors without public relations teams still hold court over the bike lanes, shimmering cars, and busy pedestrian paths. Notably, many restaurants have closed, and many new ones have taken their place. The climate brims with potential, yet it’s simultaneously harsh: with so many eating options tangling in such close proximity, survivors must stake out unique corners of the market — or place a premium on a convenience they provide. Ironically, every Indian restaurant on Valencia — unless I’m forgetting one down by the 16th Street corridor I tend to avoid — sits clustered around the street’s intersection with 21st. When I first came to town and lived up on Mission, near 26th, a New Orleans-esque restaurant called Le Krewe was installed in the space Dosa currently inhabits. Once I walked by on a toasty September afternoon. The sweaty host was planted on the sidewalk, handing out piping-hot gumbo samples, visibly happy to be removed from the maelstrom of silly fake trees and dangling beads inside his restaurant. While I knew nothing of the space’s history — the fact that many significantly better restaurants had failed there in spite of the desirable location — I nibbled a particularly tasteless morsel, paused to peer briefly at the menu pasted on the door, and realized immediately the place had no chance of success.
After Le Krewe, a wretched Italian joint called Spiazzino moved in, followed closely by Dosa, which seems to have handily broken whatever dark spell had caused the carousel of doomed ventures to spin for so long. I’m not merely invoking Halloween’s sallow after-glow. The notion of a real curse was half-jokingly bandied about a Chowhound board seven years ago. If some great chef’s ghost, vengeful in the wake of his ancient restaurant’s untimely demise, meddled with the revolving residents of 995 Valencia, the curse was piddling compared to the dastardly pox enveloping the 1100 block of Valencia, further up, on the Noe Valley side, between 22nd and 23rd.
That strip has been gutted like a fish. More crowbars swing behind the block’s entrances than whisks and knives. Until 2006, Saigon Saigon occupied the large space adjacent to Lucca‘s parking lot. The food — decent Vietnamese — perked up a part of town lacking in lemongrass, but until very recently, through haphazard strips of lumber across the front facade, a squatter’s paradise was visible within. Currently, its “For Rent” sign matches the one on the door of the old Watergate space. In 2003, when I moved into a building on the block, my apartment — a massive converted one bedroom with a slanted floor and dirty beige carpets — was positioned directly above the kitchen of that good French-Asian fusion restaurant. Almost immediately, Watergate moved to Nob Hill, where it later expired. The very solid Watercress took over the space yet closed three years later. I’m not sure what came next — the much-maligned Senses or the endearingly clueless Janitzi with its convoluted “cuisine of the Americas” — but currently the space is for rent. With walls that felt no further apart than my outstretched arms, Caffe Ponte Vecchio was a doll-sized trattoria. The food, especially the S.F. Weekly-approved lasagne, was tasty enough, but the charming atmosphere (lots of candles, silent soccer on the television) kept the tables tight with customers — until the Tuscan proprietor closed up shop and moved to Florida, purportedly to spend more time with his mother. Bistro Annex came next and collapsed after a few years.
Aside from Lucca, the esteemed Italian grocery on the corner, the Columbian restaurant El Majahual has been the block’s only survivor — though I’ve never seen more than a few people in there at a time.
I left my apartment on the 1100 block in 2004, due in some small part to an increasingly fragile neighborly relationship with the social worker who lived upstairs. He’d blast James Taylor at high volume yet charge down the stairs screaming and purple-faced if my roommate and I had a few friends over for dinner. Even watching television was risky. The landlord was a character but not any slimier than most I’ve met. Something would break — the sink disposal, a faucet — and he’d figure out a temporarily satisfactory method of repairing it swiftly and inexpensively. It would break again and the process would start over. I see parallels in the state of the block’s restaurants. If restaurants unworthy of the prime location routinely open and sputter, diners expect less. Each weak new attempt feels like a band-aid on a deep wound.
Maybe that’s why the owners of Zaytoon have taken two years to renovate the Cafe Ponte Vecchio space; they’re waiting to open once people have had time to clear their heads of negative associations with the block’s run of failures. According to its website, Zaytoon will sell falafel sandwiches and shawerma wraps. For now, the interior — an expanse of shiny pea-green tile — is visible, nearly ready for action. As much as I like falafel and shawerma, and feel that, with Ali Baba’s teetering towards major mediocrity for the past five years, and Old Jerusalem being more conducive to dining in, room exists for a newcomer to the genre to make a mark on the neighborhood, I fear Zaytoon won’t succeed — if only because of its strange and sickly color scheme. I hope I’m proven wrong.
My knowledge of the 1100 block is, of course, quite limited. I’ve only lived in San Francisco for seven years. My brief history is but one possible narrative of a discrete period of time situated around a small stretch of sidewalk many others know better. My difficult upstairs neighbor had rented his apartment for eleven years by the time I showed up. He’s probably still there, and has seen many more restaurants come and go.
The cycle of trumpeted launches, seasonal specials, and eventual shutters spur your memory. The people I saw a lot of back when the Ponte Vecchio space belonged to Pont Vecchio aren’t, in large part, the same people I see now. I recall the only truly good dinner I had there, before I practically lived next door. My first San Francisco roommate, a college friend, and I were celebrating his birthday. He’d been through a break-up; we were new arrivals, without a lot of friends, eating ravioli and swilling Chianti. There was something funny and a little lonely about a platonic, dude-ly supper for two at Ponte Vecchio, a place with a serious romantic pretense. The moment crystallized the start of a new era. College was over; there were fewer people around to help us celebrate the landmarks in our lives; going out for dinner was a good time, and while we were earning enough money to do so comfortably, there was still a whiff of irony about it, like we were play-acting. While I went there once or twice during the year I lived next door, by the time it closed just three years after that inaugural meal, I’d almost forgotten it ever existed. I was comfortable in the City. My first roommate had moved to New York. I was a few years into a serious relationship. I was leaving my second post-college job and searching aimlessly for the third, and I’d lived at other apartments and houses scattered across various parts of the neighborhood — on short blocks with their own long stories.