La Med turns 40

Photograph of La Mediterranee founder Levon Der Bedrossian by Daniel Bahmani

WHEN LA MEDITERRANEE founder Levon Der Bedrossian moved from Lebanon to California in 1967 to attend Chico State University, he lived in the neighboring town of Paradise, which was devastated by the recent Camp Fire.

Then he moved to San Francisco and opened La Mediterranee on Fillmore Street on May 11, 1979, serving the Middle Eastern meza dishes from Lebanon and the Armenian family recipes he had begun experimenting with for his fellow students in Chico. They were unique on the culinary scene in San Francisco at the time.

So it should come as no surprise to those who know Der Bedrossian and his special restaurant — which has consistently been voted the best Mediterranean restaurant in the Bay Area — that he would celebrate its 40th anniversary by donating all of the proceeds to support survivors of the Camp Fire in Paradise.

The 40th anniversary party will be held on Saturday, May 11 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the restaurant at 2210 Fillmore.

Der Bedrossian is still involved with the business, but his son Vanick and longtime managing partners Alicia Vanden Huevel and Trevor Lederberger have taken the helm. In addition to the flagship on Fillmore, La Mediterranee also has locations in the Castro and in Berkeley, plus a catering kitchen in North Beach.

EARLIER: “Still cozy after all these years

How I helped my dad die

Kelly Johnson and his daughter Leda Meredith as he was dying on May 7, 2018.

FIRST PERSON | LEDA MEREDITH

When I landed at SFO in mid-April of last year, the first change to hit me was that my dad, Kelly Johnson, couldn’t pick me up at the airport. He wasn’t able to drive anymore. The reason for the visit to my hometown was that he had gone into hospice care. I’d canceled everything on my schedule and come to be with him. We didn’t know how much time we would have together.

Seeing the elevator chairs that had been added to the two flights of stairs in his Victorian building was a jolt, as were the tubes in his nose; he was on full time oxygen at that point.

But every detail of the home was familiar — from the books on the shelves to the ceramic owl container that he used to hide an Easter egg in when I was a kid.

Neither of us knew then that he would choose to die in less than a month, embracing California’s End of Life Option with gratitude, courage and relief. As he sat hunched over his desk trying to summon up the appetite to finish a piece of toast, we couldn’t have imagined the next few weeks would become a nonstop musical and gustatory celebration with friends.

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Brown Bag broke all the rules

Michael May took the owner’s ideas and turned them into windows.

FLASHBACK | JO MANCUSO

The windows at the Brown Bag, the quirky office supply store long on the corner at 2000 Fillmore Street, were the topic of an item in Image magazine in 1991:

This is the store that breaks all the rules. Its Fillmore Street windows are really shadow boxes, maybe 4 feet square but only about 6 inches deep, so the displays look more like collages. The employees, all collectors of various kinds, bring their own stuff in to use as props. The store itself, which is supposed to be a stationery shop, sells dishes and tiny plastic eyeballs.

“We don’t want to be commercial,” says owner Dawn Christensen. “There’s nothing I won’t buy.” She is considering a “national mammogram week” window this spring using greeting cards with voluptuous Victorian women.

Employee Michael May takes Christensen’s ideas and turns them into windows. A scissors window. A cowboy window. A magnet window. A recent gold window included crowns, swans, pencils, dice, stamp holders and doilies. “It’s a far cry from forming men’s suits,” says May, a former men’s retail display worker.

“We don’t just pull merchandise from the store — we buy things for the windows and then sell them,” says Christensen.

A window sometimes has a hidden message, she says, but “the people who would be offended don’t get it.”

EARLIER: “Practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles

A rabbi and a priest walk into a neighborhood

Rabbi Lawrence “Larry” Raphael at Congregation Sherith Israel.

A memorial service for Rabbi Lawrence Raphael will be held on May 4 at 6 p.m. at Congregation Sherith Israel, located at 2266 California Street. His friend Father Xavier Lavagetto recalls their time in the neighborhood.

I WELL REMEMBER when Rabbi Larry Raphael came to Sherith Israel. I was pastor at St. Dominic’s Church, and we had an immediate connection: We both faced the challenge of repairing buildings, while what we wanted most was to build up our people.

I admired greatly his courage; he stepped out of academia into the fray of leading a congregation that faced a daunting challenge. But it would never be enough to retrofit the synagogue; he wanted to strengthen his people.

From our first meeting, it was apparent that he had a passion for learning that shined, invited and blessed. Learning is not something static; Judaism is a living dynamic, a conversation ultimately with the God who always walks with his people. He shared his passion and set his people’s hearts and minds ablaze. He made Sherith Israel a light on the hill, and it shed light on this priest from St. Dominic’s in the valley below.

To be on a panel with him was an adventure. It was the insights that he brought that made every conversation a light in the darkness. His was a passion for people that welcomed even those on the margins. In a world that is too eager to build walls, he built bridges.

His care for the larger community was real. I pray he saw it in us, too. The rule at St. Dominic’s was simple: If Rabbi Raphael asks, the answer is yes!

— Fr. Xavier Lavagetto OP

From the ashes of St. Paul’s

Grand Central Market at 2435 California Street shortly after it opened in June 1941.

ARCHITECTURE | BRIDGET MALEY

Since it opened in June 1941, touted as the city’s “newest drive-in market,” the Grand Central Market, now Mollie Stone’s, at 2435 California Street, has been a bustling neighborhood grocery.

The News Call Bulletin declared that “a program of entertainment would signalize its opening.” A photograph appearing with the article showed a gleaming white building with a black tile base and a Streamline Moderne blade sign. There were two entrances on California Street and one facing west toward the parking lot, for customers who took advantage of the readily available parking. This modern grocery was inserted into a block that had once housed a stately Episcopal church.

The south side of the 2400 block of California Street looked drastically different in 1915 when it was mapped by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. At the southwest corner of California and Fillmore Streets was a drugstore with apartments above it. Several other businesses, including a Japanese laundry, were west of the drug store along California Street. Mid-block there were several small single family dwellings and the imposing St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. At the southeast corner of California and Steiner were two additional small-scale store buildings.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s, designed by the architect Samuel Newsom, was a small ecclesiastical building with a steeply pitched main gable and a red stone facade. The church, which was completed in 1896, burned in 1933, and several adjacent residences, also owned by the Episcopal Church, were damaged by the fire. The church was not rebuilt and the land then became available for commercial development.

The architect of the Grand Central Market was Albert W. Burgren, who was at the twilight of his career when he designed this modern grocery. Burgren, who was born in San Francisco in 1876 to Swedish parents, began a prolific partnership with T. Paterson Ross in 1900 that lasted until 1913. Their projects included a number of hotels and apartment buildings built after the 1906 earthquake, as well as the iconic Sing Fat Building in Chinatown. After his split with Ross, Burgren opened his own office, but continued some collaborative work until Ross was severely injured in 1922 at a construction site. Burgren served in Europe during World War I, returning to San Francisco and working mostly in commercial architecture until his death in 1951 after a long and prolific career.

The Grand Central Market included a meat counter run by the Petrini family, which also had counters at the Lick Super, Sunset Market and Manor Market. Petrini’s was established in 1935 by Frank Petrini, who immigrated from Lucca, Italy, at the age of 12, and was known to have the best meats in Northern California. Petrini’s advertisements are remembered for their inspiring quotes, which also appeared on walls and signs throughout the stores. The quotes were published in a collection in 1992 titled The Proverbs of Frank Petrini: Food for Thought.

The Grand Central Market became Mollie Stone’s in 1998, one of nine stores across the Bay Area. When the new owners remodeled the building, Mollie Stone’s kept the Grand Central blade sign, with some modifications.

Elite no more

Photograph of the Elite Cafe on Fillmore Street by Daniel Bahmani

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Long a Fillmore Street landmark, the historic Art Deco building housing the Elite Cafe has been bought by the two saloon and restaurant investors who own Harry’s Bar across the street, and the Elite will close on Easter Sunday, April 21, after a 38-year run.

Rick Howard, who’s already an investor in the Elite, and his business partner, George Karas, say they pounced on the property when a 100-year-old family trust expired.

Originally it was called the Lincoln Grill. Later it was renamed the Asia Cafe and was a popular chop suey parlor until the SFPD vice squad busted the place for running a gambling operation in the basement. The tipoff: PacBell told the cops the Asia had 40 phone lines but no takeout service.

Originally it was called the Lincoln Grill, but until its final years it looked much the same.

After being boarded up for a while, it was rescued in 1981 by Bay Area restaurant impresario Sam DuVal — who beat out Jeremiah Tower, later to open Stars — and reinvented the space as a New Orleans Cajun-style eatery, saloon and oyster bar that would be called the Elite Cafe. DuVal’s instincts were perfect. With a well-traveled, free-spending Pacific Heights crowd just north of him, the Elite took off like a shot — and, with the opening of Fillamento a block north, spurred the transformation of upper Fillmore into an increasingly upscale shopping and dining district.

There have been three proprietors since Sam, including current owner Andy Chun, who made the place modern when he took over three years ago by ripping out many of the traditional furnishings and fixtures and painting the woodwork black and battleship gray. “They ruined it,” DuVal groused.

The restaurant is on the market and two competing suitors, one a prominent Italian restaurateur, are said to be vying to take over. Chun said his lease required him to continue operating as the Elite Cafe, but there will be no such requirement this time.

EARLIER: “There’s a reason they call it the Elite

The Elite Cafe quickly became a hotspot after it opened in 1981.

Fresca is coming back

The sign is gone, but after a dark year, Fresca is planning to reopen.

By SHELLEY HANDLER

When a popular Fillmore Street restaurant like Fresca goes dark, locals get curious. When it remains dark and untouched for more than a year, questions mount. Owner and executive chef Jose Calvo-Perez has now supplied some answers.

A staple in the neighborhood at 2114 Fillmore since 2002, this branch of the Calvo-Perez family’s group of three Peruvian restaurants has been dealing with a string of structural and related bureaucratic woes. The family has been looking to streamline the kitchen and refresh and brighten the look of the restaurant. And as anyone who has dealt with the city’s complex code requirements knows, permits — even for the simplest changes — take time.

“We love the Fillmore Street location. Our neighbors and customers are great,” says Calvo-Perez. “So we were willing to take whatever time necessary to work it out.” As time stretched before them, the family also took the opportunity to adapt the menu, shifting the focus from full entrees to an enticing range of small plates.

“We wanted to make it fun, lighten the tone, and give the customers a chance to sample and share a wider selection of dishes,” Calvo-Perez says. “The heart of our food is still authentically Peruvian, with creative local twists.”

The menu shines a spotlight on a bevy of ceviches, served with traditional garnishes of crunchy large kernel corn and sweet potato. A range of wood-grilled anticuchos will feature skewers of beef heart, shrimp and chorizo, octopus or vegetables. Even paella will get the small plate treatment, with individual portions of either traditional or squid ink paella, known as arroz negro. Lomo saltado, Peru’s savory saute of sirloin, tomato, onions and fries, will still hold pride of place.

It will still be a few months before Fresca 2.0 reopens. With a new 10-year lease freshly inked, Calvo-Perez aims at an early July opening, ideally in time for the Fillmore Jazz Festival, whose main stage is at Fresca’s front door.

In the meantime, Fresca’s Inner Sunset and Noe Valley outposts continue to hum. Calvo-Perez will also launch a weekend-only food truck dubbed Lomo Libre. Tapping lomo saltado ingredients, he’ll turn out lomo-based nachos, burritos and other saltado delights a few blocks down the hill at Fillmore and Lombard.

She’s pulling up her roots

Traci Teraoka and her hound, Huckleberry, made Sacramento Street a more neighborly place.

By BARBARA KATE REPA

Traci Teraoka, the personable proprietor of Poetica Art & Antiques at 3461 Sacramento Street, believes in synchronicity. Growing up, her family moved every few years to accommodate her dad’s career in air freight. But after she landed in San Francisco two dozen years ago, she noticed roots growing out of the container of a lemon tree she’d bought.

“I took that as a metaphor that it was time for me to put down real roots here,” she says. And she did — sending her son Alexander to nearby Town School and Drew School, establishing a small business and living upstairs above her eclectic shop, taking a leadership role in neighborhood organizations.

“I really let myself be here on Sacramento Street more than any other place in my life,” she says. She even planted the lemon tree in her back yard — in the ground.

But now she’s being uprooted. Teraoka and her business partner had an agreement that when Alexander was a year out of high school, she would buy out her partner, or they would sell the building.

And now the time has come.

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‘1,000 Monks’ helped create a community

FIRST PERSON | TRACI TERAOKA

Over the years, many artists asked me to consider showing their work at my shop, Poetica Art & Antiques. One day a woman walked in who was looking for a place to present a special print, which she called “1,000 Monks.” Andrea Speer Hibbard was visiting from her home in Santa Rosa. She had created the original artwork back in 2001, and her son had encouraged her to make prints to make it more widely available.

Little did I know how important that serendipitous encounter would become.

Andrea and I quickly reached an agreement, and soon “1,000 Monks” was for sale in my shop. It has been my best-selling item, and one of the single greatest contributions my small business has made to the community. Andrea has been wonderful to work with, often hand-delivering prints so we can visit.

The giclee prints have been a source of joy and happiness, connection, strength and contemplation since the day they first arrived. Many people stop in their tracks once they make eye contact with “1,000 Monks.” They look, find a monk looking back and soon are transported, looking at different monks. The piece is instantly engaging. And that happens time and time again, day after day. Some people have told me they walk by just by hoping they can visit the monks through the window. 

For many years, the only sales I had on the website for the Poetica shop was the print of “1,000 Monks. “ I don’t sell them by the thousands, but when the bell on my phone sounds, notifying me of a sale coming through, more often than not it’s still for “1,000 Monks.”

Sales are often the result of someone seeing the piece in a friend’s home, creating a little chain reaction. A friend bought one and had it shipped to Jonesboro, Arkansas. That purchase led to several of her friends acquiring the piece in several cities in the South.

Sometimes the piece provides needed comfort. In 2015, three young people went on a murderous rampage beginning at Golden Gate Park after Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Their next stop was Marin, where they shot Steve Carter and his dog Coco multiple times. Coco survived. Steve did not. Steve’s wife, Lokita Carter, suddenly a widow, was also grappling with intense chemo treatments for a rare late-stage cancer. I heard the familiar bell notification on my cell phone that “1,000 Monks” had been ordered. It was Lokita. Andrea and I refunded Lokita’s purchase and gifted it to her. She recently told me the monks continue to be a cornerstone in her life.

Another story: Last fall, I was talking to a neighbor in front of the shop when a man stopped to look in the window and became mesmerized by the framed “1,000 Monks.” He said he was having a difficult and challenging week, and really wanted the piece. As I was processing his sale, he confided he was James Roche — a roommate at Yale of Brett Kavanaugh, then battling for confirmation as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Though raised in an ultra-conservative family — his father owned a MAGA hat — Roche said he had taken a leap of faith and gone public with his belief that Kavanaugh had lied repeatedly under oath and sexually assaulted another woman who was a friend.

There is something in this piece that creates connection, happiness, contentment — and solace.

The giclee print of “1,000 Monks” is $85. It’s in stock at Poetica, at 3461 Sacramento Street.

The dancer is a choreographer

Photograph of Myles Thatcher rehearsing S.F. Ballet dancers by Erik Tomasson

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Myles Thatcher first came to Pacific Heights when he lived in the dorm for San Francisco Ballet School students on Jackson Street. He joined the company in 2010, and still lives nearby.

As a member of the corps de ballet, he has danced in everything from Swan Lake to Balanchine gems to world premiere works by today’s hottest choreographers. In fact, Thatcher, one of S.F. Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s youngest commissioned choreographers, has created some 15 one-act works himself — and he’s only 28.

This month, you can see him perform when S.F. Ballet presents John Neumeier’s heart-wrenching story ballet The Little Mermaid from April 19 to 28.

When did you know you had to become a ballet dancer?

I started dancing when I was 8 or 9 years old and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I started training seriously at 13 or 14 and moved away at 15.

You left home at 15?

I’m from a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, and it’s hard to find a ballet school that’s high caliber enough to get you into the career circuit. I moved to Boca Raton to a place like a ballet boarding school. From there, I moved to New York City to train, and then I joined the top level of the S.F. Ballet School. I fell in love with the city and company when I did a summer program here at 17. I just knew if there was any way I could live and work here, I wanted to pursue it.

What about pursuing dancemaking?

I remember telling a dance teacher I wanted to do choreography, and she rolled her eyes. I kind of lost interest as I was getting my technical abilities up to par, but then we had this opportunity to choreograph. I made my piece on trainees at the S.F. Ballet School, and Helgi Tomasson chose mine to go to a festival the National Ballet School of Canada was hosting. That went well, so they asked me to do another piece for the S.F. Ballet School.

And you never stopped.

Helgi asked me to do work for the company, and from there I started working with other companies, nationally and internationally, for galas, competitions, films.

Would you prefer to be known as a great dancer or a great choreographer?

I would not give up choreography to pursue anything else. I’m happy that I’m setting the groundwork for when I can no longer dance. The average age to stop dancing is the mid-30s, though we have some dancers in their 40s. Right now, I’m balancing the two.

But you’re looking ahead.

I would not want to stop dancing yet, but it’s a short career. Creating dances is a beautiful way to express myself in this art form in a different way. It allows me to discover things with other people. You can’t do ballet alone. You can’t learn it off YouTube. The human element is why it’s survived all these years.

Explain a bit about The Little Mermaid.

It’s not your typical Disney version. It’s a really powerful and moving story about giving yourself to a person who doesn’t have the capacity to give back. The mermaid sacrifices a great deal to try to be with him. The story might be a metaphor for a poet character who is constantly at the mermaid’s side, who might have been in love with a straight man. By the end, we realize the mermaid and the poet narrator have been dealing with events in kind of the same way, like a thread through the piece.

What will you be doing in the piece?

John Neumeier is just a genius storyteller. Being able to work with him, you realize every step in that ballet has a narrative intention, down to the steps for the corps. I’m one of the dancers who make up the sea; we wear long blue skirts with white at the bottom. We also reflect the mermaid’s emotions: She comes from a peaceful place where she belongs and goes to a place where no one’s really happy, so there are moments we reflect tumultuous feelings. Once she gets on land, I am one of the ship’s passengers and wedding couples.

What do you do on a typical day off?

Many days, a few dancers will go to Roam on Fillmore to unwind and have a burger. A little bar called Fat Angel always has an interesting selection of wines and beers, and they have a really good mac and cheese. Upper Fillmore has changed a lot, but I kind of grew up going to La Med, and I still go back there.