Of the Moment
Very few things scare the shit out of me. And virtually all of them hang out in Mid-Market.
I pop out of a cab on 7th Street, a block from SF's city-splitting artery. Walking toward me is one of those shit-scaring things: a 50-ish, spastically flailing dude who's screaming, alternatingly, "Kill! Fuck! Kill! Fuck! Kill! Fuck!" Luckily, he does neither of these to me as I slide past him and across Market to the flatiron-shaped Renoir Hotel.
Built in 1909, the 130-room Renoir is seven stories of historical awesome. It has brick exteriors, ornate columns, and gilded elevator doors that belie what has, for almost two years, been a mostly-vacant, entirely-scary ground floor filled with boarded-up storefronts, a sorta strip club, and – a 50-ish, spastically flailing dude who screams, alternatingly, "Kill! Fuck!"
But not this week. This week is grand opening week for A Temporary Offering.
Bought by LA hotel group Kor in February, the Renoir has found itself in the middle of a pricy social experiment. Can ATO and its three new storefronts, filled with craft coffee and clothing, the city's best mixologists, and an innovative dining concept, coexist with one of the city's most downtrodden blocks?
That's what I'm here to find out.
I begin with Trailhead. This mini-retail spot on the triangular-shaped building's tip is, if you can believe it, an artisan coffee shop-cum-denim boutique-cum-altruistic plant exchange.
The space is imagined entirely by the not-actually-suitcase-sellers of The Luggage Store Gallery, and paid for entirely by Kor.
“We don't want this boarded up,” says Brian De Lowe. He’s one of three partners behind Kor – which is like a Flip This House operation, except they tackle historic hotels. Their purchases to date have included Campton Place and Canterbury, plus they created the now-global Viceroy brand. Brian, who lives above Trailhead inside a kitchen-less Renoir room, grew up in San Ramon, lived in LA for 15 years, and has been back in SF for three months.
"We want to activate the space," Brian starts to explain. "Especially because we have this whole block."
A guy with a Santa Claus–style beard steps into the doorway and interrupts Brian with this gem: "BRUTALITY, MOTHERFUCKER." Then leaves.
Trailhead's interior is almost as raw (half-tiled floors, crumbling concrete walls, exposed wiring) as the street corner it sits on. It's anchored by Roast Co., a coffee bar that takes up more than a third of the Chevy Suburban–sized space. On the opposite side: a high-end menswear pop-up from Holy Stitch!, a local denim boutique on Market run by 26-year-old Julian Dash. Most of his gear (which runs from $15 tees to $950 jeans) is huddled, hung, and draped around a mobile sewing station he’s used to get his business off the ground.
"I've had people drop their pants on Market to have them stitched," he says.
Another (different) Santa Claus–bearded dude leans against the doorway. He's clearly drunk, and probably one of Julian's former Market Street pants-droppers.
"You did a greeeeat job with the sssspace," he slurs. "Hella cool. Keeeeep it up."
As it turns out, the hella coolest part of Trailhead is actually in front of the space: five massive planter boxes in the middle of the Market Street sidewalk, filled with 3-4 ft. tall pine trees and blooming marigolds. It's part of Luggage Store Gallery's Tenderloin National Forest project. Its mission statement: to "transform a place emblazed in a health-hazardous cesspool of bodily fluids, non-supervised open-air chemical experiments, and illicit, criminal activities into a vibrant community commons." They do so with soothing bits of green space like this one, which, even despite a brown-bagged tall boy on the backside of one of the boxes, is still somehow a comforting presence.
It's also one you can support: The mix of succulents, cacti, and forest-y trees are for sale and benefit the project. They give the space a decidedly woodsy smell, which I take in, then take off for ATO's bar, two doors down.
Josh Harris greets me at Rio Grande, Renoir's new Texas-border-town-meets-From–Dusk-Till-Dawn watering hole. He's decked in Native American finger jewelry and a deep-V white tee.
Josh is one of three guys behind The Bon Vivants, lauded cocktail consultants responsible for the drink programs at 15 Romolo, Wayfare Tavern, and Quince.
"I grew up in San Francisco,” he explains. “I've spent more time in the last month on this part of Market than I have my entire life."
Rio Grande is kinda like Josh's mustache. It's down and dirty, with a touch of hipster.
There are Wild Turkey, Espolón, and Dos Equis brand murals on opposite walls, pillars with the words "Cerveza" and "Tequila" scrawled in sky blue, Navajo blankets, a Virgin of Guadalupe shrine, and elk-cow-pig-covered barstools. It’s an impressive transformation considering the eclectic interior of the previous tenant, a nightclub called Fuel (think swings and tiny mirrored squares on everything).
"It was real special," Josh says of the pre-gutted space. "But you can do a lot with paint, lightbulbs, and love."
The bar is only maybe a third full, which probably has more to do with the neighborhood than the actual bar. If you transported this same space to anywhere not in Mid-Market, it would be overrun.
The name and concept of Rio Grande was actually born years ago when Scott Baird (a Bon Vivants partner) and Justin Simoneaux (exec chef at Boxing Room) were working at COCO500 trying to figure out a way to combine their favorite spirits: Scott loves tequila, Justin loves whiskey.
"They were just fucking around and made the Rio Grande," Josh says. The bar’s signature drink is a bourbon, tequila, lemon, and lime cocktail that arrives just as Josh finishes his story.
There's no menu at this place, despite the high-powered tipple mixers behind the bar, but the 'tenders (including Morgan Schick of Michael Mina fame, and Rickhouse vet Russell Davis) will steer you in the right direction. Aka the Rio Grande.
I drink the cocktail way too quickly while Josh shows off the bar's
jerry-rigged Jägermeister machine. It's loaded with three upside-down
Four Roses bourbon bottles (which fit just like Jagers) filled with
pre-batched Old Fashioneds that the machine instantly chills when
Josh leaves me to adventure on my own. I immediately get Morgan's attention and ask for an ice cold Old Fashioned.
One thing I realize Josh didn't mention: The cocktails come with lethal, hand-cut cubes that are pickaxed from an Xbox-sized slab sitting on the middle of the bar.
I ask Morgan if there's anything else worth getting. Out comes a can of Dos Equis (the only beer served).
"Do you want me to dress it?" he asks.
I'm not entirely sure what this means, so I just nod furiously. "Definitely."
He dips the can head in a bucket of salt, pops it open, and shoves a lime wedge in the hole. Then from under the bar come six hot sauce bottles: Melinda's, Cholula, El Yucateco, Castillo Salsa Habanera, Valentina, and Tamazula.
"Wild Turkey or Espolón?"
This one I know the answer to: "Wild Turkey." Out comes a shot, too. Combined they're $7.
"Which do I pair it with?" I ask, looking at the hot sauces.
"I'm a simple man," Morgan says. "I go that." He holds up the Cholula. "But the Habanera one is good too."
I pour in a bunch of them, enjoy the consequences, slip off my barstool, and head toward dinner.
Southern BBQ is permeating the air outside FoodLab, a sort of permanent pop-up where chefs and concepts cycle through almost daily.
Vendors have included: Sobo Ramen (Oakland restaurant), Lima Peruvian (Off the Grid food tent), Sol Food (San Rafael restaurant), and Southern Sandwich Co. (food truck). That last one is tonight's featured comestibles-slinger.
FoodLab looks like a hipster cafeteria. The obligatory reclaimed wood wall from Kelly Malone, chalkboards that change with each incoming food vendor, and a tableside BBQ buffet.
I remember coming here when it was still Cafe do Brasil. Suffice to say, it now smells much better.
I scoop out a little of everything (smoked-overnight succulent pig, house slaw, scratch hush puppies, pepper jack mac and cheese) and sit down. I am joined by Nathan and Brett Niebergall, the two bros behind Southern Sandwich Co. They're both in their early 30s – one spent time in San Antonio, the other in Raleigh.
Both owned a restaurant prior to launching Southern Sandwich in the height of the recession. FoodLab offers them an opportunity to return to their roots, without the permanent overhead. Nathan has to get back to the food. Brett sticks around so I ask him about setting up shop in Mid-Market.
"This is nothing for me," he says. "I live in West Oakland."
There are almost as many boarded-up stores across the street as there are recently opened ones on this side.
Market Street Cinema, though, is one of the few still in business. The theater bill is impossible to miss: "See the beauty. Touch the magic."
"That's where Nathan's girlfriend works," Brett says.
We share a laugh. Brett's wearing a bandana and shorts. He's aloof, but in an entirely endearing way.
"He hates when I say that,” he adds. “She doesn't work there."
I finish up, say good-bye to the Niebergall brothers, and make my way back into the Mid-Market fold. I step out of the door, look left, look right – my "Kill! Fuck!” friend is nowhere to be found.
I don't know if it's his absence, or the lingering effects of the Rio Grande’s Old Fashioned, but everything feels slightly less scary than earlier – however temporary that may be.
Trailhead, Rio Grande, and FoodLab are open Monday–Friday, with Rio Grande also open Saturday from 9 p.m.–2 a.m. For hours, scheduled food vendors, pics of Josh's mustache, and more, visit atemporaryoffering.com.