Fruit of the 'Loin
Undoubtedly, it happened sometime in the second half of 2009 while I was living in the Ivory Coast, cut off from my beloved Tenderloin. I didn’t immediately see what had happened until I took a stroll to get my welcome-back burrito from El Tesoro on O’Farrell at Leavenworth. Somehow, a neighborhood-centric critical mass not born of San Francisco’s anarchist cyclists had made the Tenderloin a place to “be” instead of just a place to “go.”
It was hard to spot at first. There were still the addicts shooting up on the streets, and there were still the cardboard boxes (so permanent they should have regular mail delivery), and there were still the hustlers on Pill Hill with OCs (oxycontin) always on offer. Absent were any SOMA-esque condos with those god-awful modern bay windows, and Starbucks was still confined to the one at the Civic Center. Nothing really stood out to proclaim that the Tenderloin was the newest victim of that seething beast known as gentrification.
Having spent the last eight years in this neighborhood, I have to say that the changes were more subtle. I really only saw them clearly when I took a closer look at my day-to-day life.
I always know I’m getting close to farm:table when I see the telltale sign of fixies locked up out front. The menu focuses on the all-important San Francisco foundations of fresh, seasonal, and organic food prepared to order. The staff are tattooed. The coffee is from Santa Cruz’s Verve and is served up by refugees from Blue Bottle, who emerged from the roasted bean trenches to open farm:table in May of 2009.
Despite food editors of ad-heavy, glossy magazines popping in for a review to run next to the latest Chanel or Calvin Klein perfume advertisement, farm:table is a joint for locals. Yelp users often complain about the fact that everyone seems to know everyone else in here. For some reason this neighborly camaraderie is taboo for those who just want to visit the neighborhood – they’re not looking for an immersion, just a destination.
My dish this particular morning is farm:table’s signature poached egg dish (apparently, upwards of 1,700 eggs are used here a month) with leeks and mushrooms on a baguette. It is nicely presented, and very tasty. People like me come back for these reliable vittles.
I look and see that its One Night Show (one piece of art for one night on one wall) is happening next week. Biscuit Sunday is at the end of the month, the Tenderloin Coffee Crawl (third wave roasters have all washed up on the shores of our neighborhood) is being organized, and the list of events goes on from there. In essence, the owners, Kate Adelle and Shannon Amitin, go above and beyond simply offering a place to go, fill your stomach, and calm your nerves. Farm:table has become a hub for the neighborhood.
Down a few blocks at Hyde and O’Farrell, Hooker's Sweet Treats shares similar values. Opened in mid-2010, it has built its own scene and following for those “normal people” who live in the Tenderloin, many of whom are found in the Hamilton building on O’Farrell at Leavenworth. (If you’re in the market, the days of good deals in that Art Deco building have passed, given that even a studio or loft costs $300,000 on up. If you think that’s a steep price for the Tenderloin, then you obviously aren’t aware of the large number of Tenancy in Common’s that have been popping up to contribute to a higher degree of ownership in the neighborhood.)
I always enjoy watching the couples who come into Hooker's, dogs in tow for a walk. Both always seem in a bit of a daze, taken aback by being outside. This particular morning, the bread pudding with persimmons and a caramel glaze is in excellent form and my latte made with Sightglass beans works over its sweetness harmoniously. The owner, David “Hooker” Williams had tweeted about the merits of said pudding earlier that morning. As is usual with our banter, I chide him about not being open on Sundays, which he responds to in his always easygoing Southern manner, “Yeah, I’m looking into it.”
Matt, a next-door neighbor and Hooker's regular (and sometimes caramel dipper), whom I most always encounter when stopping in, happens to be running off that day to Public Barber Salon on Geary at Jones for a haircut. Opened in 2008, it’s more than just a place to get your hair cut – it has quickly become a favorite amongst locals. While the prices are what keep people coming back, it’s the neighborhood approach that makes them popular: Both the owner and manager live three blocks away, and rotating exhibits by local artists hang on the walls. Probably serving beer and playing carefully selected tunes helps too.
Haircuts, beer, and art may seem like an odd mix, but I’m not one to throw stones at those who choose to mix in a little booze with their culture. After all, it’s true that the bar scene here in the neighborhood eternally thrives alongside a new and vibrant gallery scene that includes Kokoro Studio, Ever Gold Gallery, the Luggage Store Annex, Gallery Heist, and White Walls among many, many others. As a reflection of this, drinking establishments have shifted the ways they interact with the neighborhood.
Five o’clock means that KoKo Cocktails on Geary at Van Ness opens. KoKo is owned by locals Lori Martens, Justin Mulford, and Christopher Keith. All veterans of the neighborhood bar scene, they left their previous ’tending jobs at Tunnel Top on Bush to open their own establishment in 2007. Not content to be just “another bar” in a neighborhood awash with bars, they engage the locals in a number of ways.
Sipping on a Buster Brown (bourbon, lemon juice, sugar, and orange bitters), I gaze over the calendar of events. Tonight is going to be the spinning of Black Gold by DJ Senator Soul, aka Jonathan, the creator of the Tenderloin Reading Series that also happens quarterly at KoKo. This particular Monday isn’t the only night with featured entertainment, though; there’s something happening every night. People come not just to drink, but also to meet other regulars, as proven by the three guys of indeterminate age sitting at one end of the bar sharing drinks and unrelated stories. It’s the neighborhood bookend to farm:table or Hooker’s – those places wire you up at the beginning of the day only to have KoKo spin you down at the end of it.
At this point, the questions remain: Is there such a thing as Tenderloin Nouveau? Has the Tenderloin turned that all-important corner of being a truly livable, vibrant neighborhood where once an urban wasteland stood? And of course, if a small merchant moves into the neighborhood, will it be a continual battle of them versus the sidewalk feces?
Current social initiatives, like the Central Market Cultural District Loan Fund (which was set up to provide low interest loans from the city in the general amount of $250,000 to $1,000,000 for small businesses), are not bringing about change to any quantifiable degree. It sounds great on paper and in sound bites and some exceptions may be made for loans as “small” as $50,000, but they are still too large for most merchants. None of the vibrant small businesses mentioned in this story have been able to take advantage of this broad-stroke initiative.
The reality is that what we’re seeing is the result of passionate locals saying “screw it,” digging through their couch cushions, borrowing from friends and family, and opening up shop with the intent of being a part of the neighborhood regardless of the obstacles. As a result of these pioneers, we’re seeing an increasing “live-ification” of the neighborhood as well as a more stable population that isn’t chasing out other communities that have been in the neighborhood for decades, such as Vietnamese families.
Despite over 50 years of neglect, the Tenderloin, as the true heart of San Francisco, simply can’t stay downtrodden forever. Those who care and can are sensibly making it their home. I’m happy to be one of them.
Want to check out the Tenderloin Nouveau for yourself? Check out farm:table ( @farmtable ), Hooker's Sweet Treats ( @hookerstreats ), KoKo Cocktails ( @kokococktails ), or any of the other spots listed in this story. Follow the Tenderblog for your daily cut of the ‘Loin, or come out for an event listed on the Tenderblog Calendar .