Location1658 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Billy West opened Zuni Café in 1979, with a huge heart and exactly ten thousand dollars. In the early years, the restaurant consisted of a narrow storefront with a creaky mezzanine, roughly one quarter of its current size. To capitalize on the neighboring and highly visible corner cactus shop, (where Billy had been a partner, until it became clear cactus sales wouldn't support three partners), he hand-plastered the walls and banquettes of his new space to give it a southwestern adobe-look.
He chose the name Zuni, after the native American tribe, and decided to offer mostly simple and authentic Mexican food, drawing inspiration from Diana Kennedy's cookbooks. A Weber grill was an important early investment, and was rolled on to the back sidewalk for each day's service. Next came an espresso machine, which doubled as a stove since you could scramble eggs with the milk steamer. The waiters made this dish, to order.
Barely two years later, Billy hired Vince Calcagno to help run his struggling café, when helping to run the café meant managing the books and entire front of house operations. Vince occasionally called friends to help cook when Billy was understaffed in the kitchen. Ever resourceful and passionate, Billy and Vince made a success of the improbable restaurant. By 1986, Zuni had absorbed the adjacent storefront, and spilled into the former cactus shop.