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    San Francisco’s LGBTQ Restaurants of Yesteryear

    By David Landis–

    I had the loveliest lunch recently at Fable when New York Times reporter Erik Piepenburg invited me to talk with him about some long-ago LGBTQ+ restaurants in San Francisco. It’s for an upcoming book he’ll be publishing about that topic, concerning such restaurants nationwide. He defines these restaurants as not simply those that are owned by a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but places where LGBTQ+ people gather. His thesis is that, even more than gay bars, gay restaurants (where LGBTQ+ people congregate) are a kind of community center. They’re a place to meet, feel safe, and not have to drink or be on the prowl. And, P.S., everyone must eat!

    Because I’ve lived here since 1980, it got me thinking about many of San Francisco’s now-gone gay restaurants that we loved. So, herewith, is a walk down memory lane that hopefully will spark evocative remembrances.


    From 1996–2009, this Market Street establishment had it all: glamour, upscale food, drag queens, hunky bartenders, and socialites to boot. My editor and publisher, Betty Sullivan, used to host entertaining “Ladies Nights” regularly there. A large, oval cocktail bar dominated the dining room, which is why Mecca called itself “the birthplace of cocktail culture.” Even better, private booths were a level up so you could survey the scene while sipping a martini and eating a delectable piece of fish.

    The original Hamburger Mary’s

    Before it became a franchised institution nationally, the original Hamburger Mary’s was an independently owned San Francisco nightspot at 12th and Folsom. It’s where you went later at night (or sometimes for brunch). The design was “hippie-funk,” with pictures askew on the walls and comfy rustic, mismatched tables, and chairs. As I recall, the waitstaff had a punk yet welcoming vibe. You went to Mary’s for the delicious homemade soups, and most of all, the hamburger served on two slices of whole wheat bread.

    Hamburger Mary’s

    Alta Plaza

    Sometimes dubbed, “Ultra Plastic,” this is where you went to find a sugar daddy with the bucks to back it up. The restaurant, located on Fillmore and Clay, was on two levels. The clientele’s fashion de rigueur? Let’s just say we called them “the sweater set.” I remember a very good prime rib entrée, and fun cocktails at the bar. But the best was the live jazz on the lower level. It’s where vocalist Kim Nalley, among others, got her start.

    Chef Amey Shaw, co-owner and chef at Alta Plaza,
    also served as Executive Chef at the historic Café Flore. Shaw was lauded for the amazing menus
    she produced at both venues.

    Compton’s Cafeteria

    According to Wikipedia, “Compton’s Cafeteria was a chain of cafeterias owned by Gene Compton in San Francisco from the 1940s to the 1970s. The Tenderloin location of Compton’s at 101 Taylor Street (at Turk)—open from 1954 to 1972—was a popular meeting place for transgender people, especially trans women, to congregate publicly in the city. The cafeteria was more of a place to socialize than a restaurant. Compton’s was one of the few places that they could meet, as many trans women were unwelcome in gay bars due to transphobia. The Compton’s Cafeteria riot occurred in August 1966 in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. The riot was a response to the violent and constant police harassment of drag queens and trans people, particularly trans women. The incident was one of the first LGBT-related riots in United States history, preceding (by three years) the more famous 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. It marked the beginning of transgender activism in San Francisco. Before the riot, the cafeteria was open all night, so trans people and drag queens could meet up after work (many transgender folks worked nights).”

    Compton’s Cafeteria
    Netflix Photo

    The P.S. Bar and Restaurant on Polk Street

    As many folks know, Polk Street preceded Castro Street as San Francisco’s official gay neighborhood. Many long-gone bars (Oil Can Harry’s, ‘N Touch, the Giraffe) lined that street and side streets, but a more upscale offering was the P.S., which opened in 1969 or 1970. One of the main bartenders was a character named Dixon Olivier, also known as “Polk Street Sally.” A restaurant as well as a piano bar, the P.S. hosted well-known pianist Bob Sanders, who tickled the ivories while playing Cole Porter and Rogers & Hart. The P.S. also had a tasty brunch, where I first sampled a Ramos Fizz. I remember that when I worked at the San Francisco Symphony, I took award-winning composer David Del Tredici there for an authentic slice of San Francisco.

    The Neon Chicken

    When I moved to San Francisco in 1980, this was one of the stars of the Castro dining scene. Located on 18th Street (at the now defunct Eureka Bar & Grill, another great gathering place), the restaurant was on two stories, with two first-floor dining areas separated by a kitchen, and an outdoor courtyard as well. The fare was upscale California cuisine but in a relaxed, casual setting.


    Another 18th Street haunt, Fanny’s was where I first heard the great jazz singer Faye Carroll (who still performs around town, even recently at SFJAZZ). Fanny’s was a combination dinner restaurant and cabaret, plus the site of legendary brunches. Dinner was upstairs; for the shows, you had to sit on the stairs to watch the singers, where waitress Claudia made her mark wearing chopsticks in her hair.

    Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint

    The brainchild of Donald Montwill and Ron Lanza (who had worked together at the shuttered Valencia Rose), Josie’s was located where Starbelly’s is currently located on 16th near Noe. Josie’s was a great vegetarian restaurant with a cabaret in the back (and camel heads on the walls). This may have been one of the first places I saw the marvelous Marga Gomez, Lypsinka, and Varla Jean Merman perform.

    The evolution of the dining space at 2223 Market

    Burton’s was a fine dining restaurant at 2223 Market Street when I first arrived in San Francisco in 1980. I remember it being chic and quiet, with intimate, romantic booths and what we used to call “continental cuisine.” Leticia Luna took the space and morphed it into a sit-down, upscale Mexican restaurant called Leticia’s. Those margaritas were powerful! Following that, the restaurant became another upscale California cuisine eatery simply called 2223 Market, helmed by the talented chef Melissa Randolph. It was famous for its roast chicken topped with onion rings. For a short while, it became Jake’s and then a very good seafood restaurant called Pesce. Now the new Copas, a Tijuana-style taco joint, reigns supreme at the spot.


    On the corner of Church & Market, this was another sleek restaurant with a modern and clean design that brought class to the neighborhood. Owners John Hurley and Frank Everett (who owned Garibaldi’s at the time) created a space that raised the bar for food and wine. A long, contemporary bar dominated one side of the restaurant. The California cuisine always hit the mark, especially since chef Richard Crocker worked at Boulevard for years.

    Café Flore

    A Castro mainstay for years, this indoor/outdoor restaurant and community center was where you went to “see and be seen” in the ‘hood. The Flore boasted great morning lattes, salads, and sandwiches for lunch, as well as casual dinners and terrific people watching. I remember heading there with my straight pal Scott from Arizona during the Castro Street Fair one year. A local lesbian came up to my friend and asked him to sign her chest. He complied! Luckily for us, this venue is about to be reborn as a new endeavor called Fisch & Flore, a casual seafood restaurant with small plates. It plans to be open all day. The original opening date was set for this summer, but with construction delays, who knows?

    Café Flore
    Photo by Karina Patel

    Bits and Bites

    TripAdvisor came out with its “Best of the Best Restaurants” list for 2023 and there are two San Francisco winners: burger bistro Super Duper and Treasure Island favorite, MerSea. Congratulations!

    Boulettes Larder, the popular French-inspired restaurant in the Ferry Building owned by Amaryll Schwertner and Lori Regis, just announced a new Wednesday special. The enticing special consists of a prix-fixe meal that includes one 12-inch pizza, one salad, and one starter, all for $40. The rotating menu includes a variety of pizzas, salads, and starters.

    For a special occasion this holiday season, Cyrus Alexander Valley is dedicating the night to caviar and truffles. On Friday, December 15, guests can partake in a decadent evening celebrating the return of white truffle season featuring a nine-course menu created by Chef Douglas Keaneand Pastry Chef Josh Gaulin. Sommelier Cyrus Schultz will complement the menu with a stellar beverage pairing. It doesn’t come cheap: the dinner is $750/person and the wine pairing is an additional $500/person. But for your special honey, isn’t the splurge worth it?

    Bombay Sapphire had an enlightening event recently at 1 Hotel’s dazzling new restaurant, Terrene. The cocktail reception and dinner focused on educating diners and the industry about sustainability in the food and beverage sector. West Coast ambassador Eddie Johnson led a lively discussion, where I learned that Bombay Sapphire now can manufacture 1 liter of gin with a mere .82 liters of water. By comparison, many brands use up to 100 liters of water for the same result. The gin cocktails were spectacular. They included a tangy Viridian City Max Potion from Good Good Culture Club with Bombay Sapphire Premier Cru gin, lime, tonic, and cordial. Also on offer was a delicious Bay Tropicale cocktail (using Bombay Sapphire gin, leftover strawberries from the kitchen, orange bitters, pineapple, and soda) from Terrene. Kudos to Bombay Sapphire and Terrene for making sustainability a priority!

    Fan favorite Boulevard turns 30 this year, which is a great milestone for a terrific restaurant. Congratulations to talented Chef Nancy Oakes!

    On October 26 from 4:30–6:30 pm, Hotel Nikko San Francisco is throwing “an ’80s-themed Howl-o-ween Costume Paw-ty for the city’s four legged tastemakers. It’s hosted by the Hotel Nikko’s very own Canine Welcoming Committee. That includes COO (Canine Operating Officer), BUSTER, a Maltese mix, and his staff, BUSTERBEAU (Chief Pawblic Relations Officer), LILY (Executive Assistant), THOMPSON (Purchasing Manager), and LUNA (Sales Manager). The canines with the best costumes will win prizes, including a 2-night complimentary stay at Hotel Nikko & more. The event will also feature appetizers and gourmet dog food.” 

    Yokai, a new hi-fi listening cocktail bar and restaurant, recently opened in the city. The name is a Japanese word for spirits, ghosts, or supernatural beings. The establishment “brings new life into a pre-Prohibition era brick manufacturing building in San Francisco’s SOMA district. Guests experience Chef Zimmerman’s Japanese-influenced food and cocktails while listening to vinyl records at decibels that allow for spirited conversations.”

    On October 28, beloved Inner Sunset watering hole, The Little Shamrock, celebrates “130 years of operation with drink deals, free Victorian split pea soup, and live jams from 1 pm–2 am. Come out in your Halloween best. Victorian Era inspired costumes are encouraged. San Francisco’s oldest continuously operational bar, The Shammy (as regulars call it), provides a come-as-you-are/let’s get casual atmosphere. Known as a spot where regulars and weekend warriors alike can enjoy the cozy fireplace, admire the craftsmanship of the gorgeous old build backbar, or try a hand at darts for some old-fashioned competition.”

    Super Duper:
    Boulette’s Larder:
    Cyrus Alexander Valley:
    Bombay Sapphire:
    Hotel Nikko San Francisco:
    The Little Shamrock:

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: Or visit him online at:

    The Gay Gourmet
    Published October 19, 2023