While 30 years can be more than a lifetime in San Francisco’s ever-changing restaurant world, Fillmore’s venerable Elite Cafe on July 14 will celebrate three decades of serving up New Orleans cuisine in its historic Art Deco home.
And that’s only its third incarnation.
The woody, warm and welcoming spot at 2049 Fillmore is rich in history. It was built in 1928 during the height of Prohibition as the Lincoln Grill, then transformed in 1932 into the Asia Cafe, a chop suey house known to locals as a front for a gambling joint. Dozens of telephone lines were said to run into the basement.
It was also cheap.
“I remember getting a four-course meal — soup, salad and a meat dish with potato and vegetable, finished off with coffee and a dish of ice cream — all for a total cost of 85 cents,” recalls local resident Joe Beyer of his arrival in the neighborhood in the 1950s.
Times have changed, and so has Fillmore Street.
In 1981, Tom Clendening and Sam Duvall — a serial restaurateur who now owns Izzy’s Chop House in the Marina, renovated the space and opened it as The Elite Cafe. The neon sign that had hung out front for decades proclaiming The Asia Cafe was revised and rewired to announce The Elite Cafe. An enduring image is the raw bar with oysters and clams on ice beckoning to passersby in the front window.
The Elite was one of three businesses that opened in 1981, heralding the renaissance of Fillmore Street as a major shopping and dining destination. The others were Fillamento, the home design emporium that closed in 2001, and Vivande, Carlo Middione’s Italian restaurant, which closed last year.
Peter Snyderman took over as managing partner in 2005, doing away with the beckoning bivalves in the front window, but restoring the original mahogany details and adding outdoor seating. Chef about town Joanna Karlinsky revamped the menu, bringing along her signature Meetinghouse biscuits, which were born just up the block, and which remain on the menu still.
To celebrate its 30th birthday, the Elite is rising to its own occasion by erecting new two-seater booths in the back — the area used now mostly by napkin-folding staffers and locals in the know looking for a quieter place to talk. It will also offer a three-course prix fixe menu for $30 spanning the 30 days from July 15 through August 13.
EARLIER: “There’s a reason they call it the Elite“