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    Restaurateur Rachel Herbert’s Brilliant Mix: Cafés, Parks, Music, Art and LGBT Good Vibes

    cafe4What is the value of relaxing at a beautiful neighborhood park in San Francisco and then enjoying a leisurely delicious meal with friends or family afterward at a sunny café? Priceless, we’d say, given that such moments are some of the best times that anyone can have in the Bay Area. Rachel Herbert is the creative visionary force behind Dolores Park Café, Duboce Park Café and Precita Park Café, so we have her and her life partner, Dana Oppenheim, to thank for many well-spent days and evenings that add to the quality of life in San Francisco and help to build and strengthen our community.

    Herbert, along with Oppenheim and other members of their team, operate the enterprises under the umbrella of the Park Café Group. What a brilliant idea it was to connect local parks to cafés. Herbert and Oppenheim also add incredible music nights and art to the masterful mix, which kicks into even higher gear during Pride. Have you seen Dolores Park Café before the Dyke March, for example? It’s little wonder that many people say this café is the best spot to people watch in all of San Francisco.

    Herbert is also famous for her support of countless LGBT efforts. Google her name plus words like “benefit” or “fundraiser” and you’ll see what we mean. The Trans March, Art for AIDS and “Betty’s List” are just a handful of the groups, projects, organizations and more that have benefitted from Herbert’s work. We were delighted when she agreed to an interview.

    cafe5San Francisco Bay Times: We’ve read that by the age of 9, you had already explored and tasted the cuisines of India, Pakistan and Brazil! Please tell us about these and other early travel adventures, and how they influenced you.

    Rachel Herbert: I think my love of food came from growing up outside of the U.S. When I was six months old, my family moved to Calcutta, and to this day, my favorite food is Indian cuisine. In El Salvador, I learned how to make pupusas, and I remember being introduced to tropical fruits like tamarind and papaya. Every new flavor was an adventure and no matter where we lived, as kids we were encouraged to eat anything and everything that was put in front of us. To refuse a dish when we were guests in someone’s home was considered rude, so we ate everything, and as a result, developed an appreciation for a wide variety of food from other cultures.

    cafe3San Francisco Bay Times: Who were some of your early mentors, and how did they affect your life and work?

    Rachel Herbert: Mrs. Meader was a family friend and neighbor and she was a gourmet cook. She had a very slight refined New England accent and had a husky voice from smoking too much. At the same time, she always wore pearls and Lauren Bacall hair. She would take me out to lunch to talk to me about the virtues of getting a good education and would tell me how special she thought I was. At Thanksgiving, I would sit on a stool in her kitchen before dinner and would watch her fly around the kitchen in a black dress and her pearls with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. There would always be a soiled copy of the Joy of Cooking spread open on the counter, and gravy spattered on the walls, which become a casualty of her furious cooking style. Mrs. Meader made everything from scratch, and it was always delicious. She taught me how to make bourbon cakes and gravy, stuffing and béchamel sauce, and the importance of using fresh ingredients in every dish. But most of all, she taught me confidence and how to move boldly through the world. Mrs. Meader was unapologetic about the choices she made. She used to say to me, “Kid, when you make a mistake, and you will…make it big. You can always clean it up later.”

    cafe2San Francisco Bay Times: How did you get your start in the restaurant business?

    Rachel Herbert: I worked in restaurants for 15 years before I opened Dolores. I supported myself through school, and after that, through every artistic endeavor I ever tried until I woke up one day and said to myself, “I should open a restaurant. That’s where I have the most experience, and I love hospitality.” I was lucky enough to open Dolores Park Café with my previous boss. He showed me the ropes, and I bought him out three years after we opened.

    San Francisco Bay Times: The concept behind your restaurant group, Park Café Group, is absolutely brilliant. Please tell us about that, and how you and/or your business partners came up with the idea.

    cafeRachel Herbert: The park concept started with Dolores Park Café. I lived up the street from 18th and Dolores just off of Dolores Park, and noticed there was nowhere in the neighborhood for the people who lived in the neighborhood to have a sandwich or a decent cup of coffee. I was at the park every day with my dog, or would go there to hang out with friends and people watch. It was a big beautiful space, and it was free. Anyone from any background could hang out at the park and enjoy the green space. The park brought people together. I wanted the café to be an extension of the park in that way, and to create the same feeling of belonging for the people who came through the doors at Dolores Park Café. The idea of more than one café on the park just sort of fell into place when the space on the corner of Duboce Park became available. In 2012, when I opened Precita Park Café with my partner Dana Oppenheim, I was like, “OK. I think we’ve got a theme going on here.”

    San Francisco Bay Times: Please briefly describe each of your restaurants, and what makes each of them unique.

    Rachel Herbert: First of all we make everything from scratch at all three places, and we use only organic ingredients. We even make our own mozzarella and we use mostly local purveyors.

    Dolores Park Café is the first of the Park Cafés opened in 1997. We have rotating art exhibits every month there where we highlight the work of local artists. We also have music on Friday nights, and that’s mostly local too.

    At Precita Park Café we have full on dinner service and an extensive dinner menu after 5pm. We make our own burrata, mozzarella, handcrafted pizzas, made-from-scratch pastas and practice whole animal butchery. We also have an extensive collection of local beers on tap. It’s much more than a café, and we are really proud of our dinners there.

    Duboce is the most intimate of the three restaurants. It definitely has a strong neighborhood vibe. We have an amazing brunch on the weekends at Duboce as well as pizzas after 5pm, all made from scratch, and local beer on tap too. And we will be carrying Mitchells ice cream there soon. Stay tuned!

    San Francisco Bay Times: Your restaurants are so tied to the community. Not only do they connect dining experiences to parks, but also—you always give back to SF, and particularly to the LGBT community here. What drives you to do so much?

    Rachel Herbert: I believe that as a small business owner I have a responsibility to give back to the community and the neighborhood. Owning a small business is all about being a part of your community and improving the lives of the people around you. If you don’t give back, then what are you doing there? Small businesses also have the ability to change the neighborhoods around them and to make urban life better by bringing people together. So far, I haven’t ever opened a business in a neighborhood that I didn’t want to live in.

    San Francisco Bay Times: You are a great role model, particularly for women who want to be entrepreneurs and own their own business. Any advice that you could share?

    Rachel Herbert: As women, we are taught to admit it when right away we don’t know something. And we need to remember to go for it and act “as if” until we figure things out. Men do that all the time. I would also say that when you want something, don’t take “no” for an answer. As women, we are taught that “no” means “no” while men are taught that “no” means “not now, maybe later.” We can learn from men in that respect.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are your future plans for the Park Café Group and, if not already mentioned, how will the rest of Pride Month be celebrated at your restaurants?

    Rachel Herbert: We may open at other locations. We are just looking for the right spot at the moment. We are always celebrating Pride. Really, it’s all about giving back to the community. I feel so privileged to live in a city where a person can be out and proud every day, and where gay people have a voice politically. In San Francisco it often feels as though we are paving the way for the rest of the country. I think that’s why I live here, apart from the fact that I own and operate businesses here. The Park Cafés are a big supporter of the LGBTQ film festival Frameline. We donate our catering services to Frameline throughout the festival. The Trans March and Dyke March happen right outside our doors at Dolores Park, and we make a point of contributing to each of them as well. We also give to organizations throughout the year like Fresh Meat, Project Open Hand, Art for AIDS and Dine Out for Life, to name a few. And every year on Pride Sunday, we donate our goods and services to SF Pride by providing hospitality backstage at the Main Stage for the performers and staff. It’s so much fun.