To begin to fully appreciate the charm of New Taraval Cafe, and the quickly fading legions of old-fashioned diners like it, please refer to the origin story of Tom, Jim, and Guido.
Tom, Jim, and Guido, you see, are three regular folks who would frequent the restaurant with the bright blue awning on the corner of Taraval and 21st Avenue in San Francisco. The diner looks like most any other diner you’ve seen: a small yellow counter with a handful of circular, plush stools overlooking a griddle, cash register, and a double-barreled coffee machine that’s perpetually in motion. Some tables and booths lurk further back. On that yellow counter, utilitarian coffee mugs and platters of eggs — orbited by the requisite toast plates — fight for space with cream, sugar, ketchup, sriracha, and Tabasco.
Anyway, back to our three protagonists. Tom, Jim, Guido.
In a not-too-distant past, each of the three strangers would come in for breakfast, separately. They’d saunter in around the same time, maybe a half-hour apart. Perhaps you already know where this is going. They got to chatting, and before long, they were strangers no more. Over the course of years, they converged into a single table.
“Now they come in for each other,” says owner Stanley Lui. He took over the place a few years ago from his parents, Mary and Tony, who had been running it since the early 1990s. All in, the Lui family has lovingly presided over the cash-only establishment for nearly three decades. The key word there is lovingly.
“For people in the neighborhood, it’s routine. I have customers who are in every single weekend, at the exact same time,” Lui says.
“That’s the house my parents built. I’m trying my best to carry on.”
New Taraval Cafe, which has remained open for takeout during the shutdown but recently shut down indefinitely, is the kind of place where, once a year, Lui would buy a bunch of cheap seats at a Giants game for both staff and customers. The kind of place where a wayward tourist could find a stool and Lui would dole out his tourist advice. The kind of place where, if an older regular doesn’t show up at his normal time, Lui checks in to make sure everything is OK.
The kind of restaurant that really, really understands what it means to foster community. As Lui puts it: “There are not so many places in the city where you can make a new friend.”
So, as a generational crisis bears down upon the restaurant industry, now is the time to fully appreciate your local diner.
Even before COVID-19 devastated the restaurant industry, diners were already an endangered species in San Francisco, and many other cities across America. Like dive bars, diners aren’t born anymore, which makes it a one-way riptide. And within the last year, many of the city’s last-standing diners have succumbed to the current: It’s Tops Coffee Shop on Market; Art’s Cafe on Irving (which just reopened with new owners!); and Louis’ overlooking Sutro Baths, to name a few.
The diner genre itself has become an aberration, an anachronism. Democratic and accessible in nature, it holds a special spot in modern San Francisco. Many diners – like New Taraval Cafe, Eddie’s on Divisadero, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Portola — are run by immigrants or their children. They make cities special. They give San Francisco its identity. And they are irreplaceable.
Yet the things that make diners special are the same things that have made them especially vulnerable during the necessary takeout pivots of the pandemic. Diners are so much about their place, their moment, and especially their people. Eggs over easy and hash browns aren’t quite the same in a cardboard box, without the bottomless cup of coffee and the banter among your counter cohorts.
Survival for a diner is directly tied to a neighborhood. “A real diner thrives when you frequent them regularly,” says Lui. “I would love to see more proliferate, but I do think there is a maximum number of diners you can have in a city. Each neighborhood can only sustain a number of these places that can be part of your routine.”
Diners are an increasingly challenging business proposition in modern San Francisco. Growth — that is, new customers — can be difficult. Most diners don’t have a liquor license, a typical profit stream for restaurants. Then there is the idea of perceived value of food; when you go to a diner, you expect things to be relatively cheap and to do that, you need a lot of volume. And to do volume at a diner, you need a lot of regulars.
That repetition is central to the operation side, too. The menu doesn’t change much, though Lui has found his spots for experiments — burger night (bulgogi burgers! patty melts!), freshly baked cookies — in between those 80-hour work weeks. The blue-collar work ethic was something that he learned while hanging around New Taraval as an eight-year-old, watching his parents — and especially his mother — juggle countless tasks. (“There’s always one mom out there running around killing it, and I feel proud to have mine,” he says.)
To be clear, Lui isn’t one of those San Franciscans who pines for bygone eras, or gripes about tasting menus and avocado toast. He loves diners, of course. But he also loves hospitality, and he appreciates the role of fine dining and its artistry, and the diversity of options we have. He just wants you to appreciate the places you love.
“I think everybody should just make a list of the five places you don’t want to disappear,” he says. “Try and remember that list. You don’t even need to eat there every day, but as long as you remember them, maybe they keep a place in your mind.”
New Taraval Cafe: 1054 Taraval St, San Francisco. (415) 731-3816. www.newtaravalcafe.com. Open for takeout.
Eddie’s Cafe: 800 Divisadero St, San Francisco. (415) 563-9780. Open for takeout.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s: 2499 San Bruno Ave., San Francisco. (415) 468-8805. www.breakfastattiffanyssf.com. Open for takeout.
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