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Minnie’s Can-Do Club was a gathering spot

Photograph of Minnie in the 1970s by Ed Brooks

FIRST PERSON | DENISE KORN

’Net surfing can get you into a whole lot of trouble. That’s what happened to me. I rarely get bored — even during these crazy pandemic days. But, one night, Netflix just wasn’t doing it for me. It was late and there I was in bed scrolling again under the glare of my phone’s blue light. I wasn’t really searching for anything in particular. I was just … looking. 

I happened to run across an article on the New Fillmore website. The piece, dated several years ago, was about my neighborhood — the Fillmore. 

When I was young, there was no “upper” or “lower” Fillmore. It was just the Fillmore. Lots of people called this area the Western Addition. But for the thousands of African-Americans who strolled past the old Melrose Record Shop, or got their ’fros tightened up at the barbershop near the corner of Geary, or browsed the jumble of shops between Geary and Sutter; this didn’t happen in the Western Addition. We lived the rhythm of our lives in the Fillmore. 

The night I discovered the New Fillmore website, I scrolled through looking at old pictures and articles about a time I remember so well. Then I happened upon an article and — even better — a painting featuring an old family friend, Minnie Carrington. I couldn’t believe it!

I live in Atlanta now, and seeing someone I knew so long ago, looking just as I remembered her, pulled me down the rabbit hole of my memory. I decided to see if the once-famous proprietor of Minnie’s Can-Do Club on Fillmore was still around. 

I’m happy to report that I was able to track down a phone number and speak with Minnie. She’s over 80 now, and living in an East Bay senior facility with her daughter, Felita. Minnie is confined to her bed, but she still loves to talk. She’s the true old-school San Franciscan, interested in everything and interesting to everyone. San Franciscans are natural storytellers.

So, here’s mine.

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He created the Elite Cafe

SAM DuVALL | 1940 – 2020 

In the 1970s, the two blocks of Fillmore Street between Clay and California were the prime blocks for retailers; south of California was a desolate strip of lifeless shops and joints. Leasing broker Carol Chait broke through that barrier when she listed the Art Deco Asia Cafe space that had been vacant for a couple of years. She narrowed it down to two prospective tenants. 

“Restaurateur Sam DuVall saw the space as a diamond in the rough,” Chait says. “It was a bookie joint with a card room and the Croatians from Tadich Grill used to hang out there.” Jeremiah Tower — the former Chez Panisse chef who later opened Stars near City Hall — was the other bidder for the space. Chait had to choose between the two, who were both willing to pay $2 a foot plus a percentage of the gross revenue.

Her decision was driven by one thing: a dead rat.

“I was showing the space to Jeremiah,” Chait says. “There was crap all over the floor and all of a sudden I saw this rat in the corner. It was dead, but I was afraid to pick it up. I asked Jeremiah to put it in the trash, but he didn’t want to touch it either. Later that day, I was showing the space to Mr. DuVall and I said ‘Sam, would you do me a favor and get rid of that thing?’ He did — and he also had the best ideas for revitalizing the restaurant. I said to the owner, ‘Sam’s your guy.’ ”

Chait adds that DuVall did a painstaking restoration of the space, renaming it the Elite Cafe. “The Elite did such enormous volume even on that block that the owner, with his rent and percentage, got this windfall of cash,” she says.

— Chris Barnett

FAREWELL: “Restaurateur Sam DuVall dies at 80
EARLIER: “There’s a reason they call it the Elite

Harry’s comes alive outside

Harry’s Bar’s expansive new parklet announces itself streetside.

SALOONS | CHRIS BARNETT

As Fillmore Street continues to come alive again, Harry’s Bar has reopened with a palatial new parklet for outside drinking and dining, a revised menu and an expanded happy hour — now from 4 to 6 p.m. seven days a week, rather than five.

And the owners hope to make the outside expansion permanent.

Harry’s has created “a socially distanced beer garden,” mused Dan Max, the congenial retired globetrotting professor of art, a regular at Harry’s who has lived across the street from the popular sports saloon for more than 50 years.

The parklet has 38 chairs and tables for two and four, separated from the street by a nicely stained wooden enclosure topped with plexiglas to shield guests from the wind. Five tall heaters throw off a flame when lit, providing warmth, and a new exterior sound system pumps out the music, but not so loud it drowns out conversations. There’s even a big-screen television hanging in the window facing outside.

The parklet has 38 seats at tables for two and four.

On a recent Friday afternoon around 5 p.m., the al fresco incarnation of Harry’s Bar was practically full as patrons ducked in. Two locals — Mecca, who works for a fashion store, and her friend Rhea, a personal trainer — were soaking up the sunshine and sipping Aperol spritzers. Said Rhea: “They’ve done an excellent job. We love the classic Harry’s vibe and the Aperol is the best I’ve ever had.”

They were also eating. City reopening rules allow eating and drinking establishments to have outside seating and service, but patrons must also have food with their drink.

Harry’s new general manager, Charles Johnson, formerly sous chef and GM of Fred’s, the restaurant in the late Barney’s New York  department store near San Francisco’s Union Square — and a former U.S. naval officer who once ran the legendary officers’ club at Subic Bay in the Philippines — has created eight new house cocktails for $12 to $13.

Examples: The North Beach — with gin, Cointreau, limoncello, sweet vermouth with a lemon twist — and The Fillmore, with cucumber vodka, lemon juice, fresh watermelon and a cucumber garnish. Other drinks feature Ving Kale Vodka, Gold Bar San Francisco Bourbon and Hendricks Midsummer Solstice Gin, and some have bell pepper and cilantro garnishes.

Photographs by Jean Collier Hurley

For suds lovers, Johnson has added Screaming Hand Red IPA, Hell or High Watermelon Wheat, El Sully Mexican Lager and the Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA from Oregon, all on draught, at $9 for a 15-ounce glass. A slew of other beers in cans and bottles start at $6.

The menu also has new offerings, including a smoked salmon crostini, a chef’s select cheese plate and a bacon-wrapped hickory hot dog, all $13; an impossible meatball sub at $15, smoked salmon salad, $15, and a Mediterranean chicken salad, $16, plus two new pasta dishes. The tater tots and Harry’s deluxe cheeseburger remain.

Harry’s has also been remodeled inside, although not drastically, with a new ceiling, mural, bathrooms and a tricked-out kitchen, plus new finishes.

“Being shut down gave us an opportunity to make all these improvements,” said co-owner Rick Howard. “We would like to keep the new outside area permanently, but we don’t know what the city’s position will be.”

Farewell to the Artists Inn

The Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street, near Fillmore.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Even during the first weeks of the virus lockdown in early April, the Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street was at full occupancy, brimming with love and laughter. But it was a bittersweet time.

Beloved owner Denise Shields had recently returned from her second home in Mexico with an ache that turned out to be pancreatic cancer. The cozy little blue house half a block from Fillmore, behind a white picket fence, quickly filled with her two sons, Will and Jason, daughter-in-law Lily and five granddaughters. Will’s partner Elisabeth was home in San Diego awaiting the birth of grandchild No. 6. “We’re sort of hoping for a boy,” Denise said during a brief break from a family Parcheesi game, “but we’ll be delighted with any healthy baby.”

Two months later, on June 6, the family welcomed a sixth granddaughter into the world. Three days after that, Denise died.

Now the Artists Inn, in one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, is ending an era as a center of warmth and hospitality for guests from around the globe. Following the death of their mother on June 9, Denise’s sons reluctantly decided to permanently close the four-room inn. They will host a garage sale — masked and socially distanced — from August 14 to 16.

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‘We’re seeing a huge retail fallout’

Palmer’s and other restaurants, now serving outside, may lead the recovery.

STREET TALK | THOMAS REYNOLDS

Almost a dozen Fillmore businesses have permanently closed, and more are likely to follow.

“It’s a tumultuous time for Fillmore Street right now,” said Vas Kiniris, executive director of the Fillmore Merchants Association. “We’re seeing a huge retail fallout.”

Kiniris listed numerous businesses that are permanently closed: Frye Boots, Samovar Tea, Prana, Illesteva, Lip Lab, CBD Garin, Aday, Asmbly Hall and Repeat Performance, the S.F. Symphony resale shop.

“I’ve been on the street for 25 years and I’ve never seen so many closings,” Kiniris said. “It’s a little bit alarming.”

A leader and close observer of businesses citywide, Kiniris said he expects the recovery of neighborhood commercial districts to be sparked by restaurants and bars.

“These businesses really pull traffic to the corridors,” he said. “They give rebirth to those corners.” Bars remain closed for now, and indoor restaurant service has been pushed back, but eateries are now allowed to serve outside, in addition to the takeout and delivery service that has kept them alive for the past four months.

“We see this right now with Noosh,” he said. “Noosh opened, then Kiehl’s opened, Glaze is opening, so there’s activity there” at the corner of Fillmore and Pine.

The city’s shared space program, which has let stores and restaurants serve on the sidewalks and in parking spaces, has been helpful, Kiniris said. “It’s another revenue stream for the merchants,” he said. “But it’s also very important to the visual well being and the rebirth of our street. It makes the street visually more enticing, and it makes it more sticky, so people want to linger — and therefore they’ll go to other stores as well.”

At least one new business is preparing to open. Liberty Cannabis, after two and a half years, finally has the permits for its new shop in the former Unity Church space at 2222 Bush Street, near Fillmore, and plans to open in the fall.

Formerly bustling upper Fillmore Street still “is pretty healthy overall,” Kiniris said. But he added: “It’s gonna be a rough ride. We’re all in startup mode now.”

Fillmore restaurants finding a way

There’s a new takeout window and new offerings at Noosh.

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Fillmore’s restaurants are morphing into sidewalk dining and drinking spots as they find a way forward, with the eateries on one key block — between Pine and California — showing different recipes for creating the al fresco experience.

• At the corner of Pine and Fillmore, NOOSH has reinvented itself and opened a window counter with adjacent menus that spell out its new offerings. Patrons punch in their order on a computer terminal that feeds straight into the kitchen. Noosh will soon unveil a breakfast menu, a bakery with pastries and a deli-charcuterie with cured meats. In September, a small grocery will be added.

Noosh and Bun Mee share a stylish parklet on Fillmore.

• To create a large outdoor cafe, Noosh has teamed up with its neighbors at BUN MEE, the popular Vietnamese restaurant two doors down, and jointly created a large area filled with socially distanced tables along Fillmore and wrapping around to Pine. It extends into the street, taking several parking spaces and guarded by a stylish protective barrier.

Colorful tables now spill out onto the sidewalk at Apizza.

• A few doors up the block, APIZZA has set up sidewalk tables and the straight-from-Paris manager, Pierre Laugha, is pumping out amazing thin-crust 9-inch gluten-free pies made with organic dough and toppings for prices starting at $3.75. (Yes, the original insanely inexpensive $2.75 margherita pizza has gone up a buck.) Apizza now has interesting salads starting at $3.45, up to $7.75 for a large kale Caesar salad.

Tacobar has a takeout window and tables on Fillmore and California.

• At the corner of California and Fillmore, TACOBAR’s personable Guadalajara-born general manager Antonio Solano works the corner like a skilled maitre d’, with outdoor dining on both sidewalks and usually a line at the take-out window. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tacobar has its signature $4.85 tacos, $11 quesadillas, salads, burritos and sides, plus plenty of salsas. Brightly colored, both the decor and the food are authentically Mexican, with the menu items more gourmet than just to-go. For al fresco diners, service is swift.

Curbside Cafe has added more sidewalk tables, and a parklet is coming.

 • Around the corner, CURBSIDE CAFE owners Olivier and Gwyneth Perrier have perhaps the most authentic outdoor bistro setting, now with eight tables dressed in white properly spaced on California Street just east of Mollie Stone’s. Perrier promotes what he calls a “contactless menu” on his website, rather than handing out a paper menu. The tiny restaurant, a neighborhood fixture since 1978, serves a French-American breakfast, lunch and dinner, and soon will be adding a covered parklet that will allow two more tables.

• Elsewhere between California and Pine, HARRY’S BAR is getting an extensive upgrading, from new front awning to an up-to-date kitchen. THE GROVE still hopes to reopen, but has set no date. And the former ELITE CAFE is completely boarded up and quiet as a tomb.

Photographs by Jonathan Pontell

EARLIER: “Fillmore al Fresco” — Sidewalk tables have proliferated since 1993, when they were first blessed by the city.

Keeping us fed, and connected

Photograph of Massimo Lavino at Via Veneto by Daniel Bahmani

STREET TALK | THOMAS REYNOLDS

A great joy of our neighborhood is the number of neighbors you run into walking up and down Fillmore Street. 

Not these days.

Much of the street is boarded up — an overreaction, many feel, but then come reports of another break-in.

One longs for the slightest bit of community and connectedness during the lockdown. A few still brave a walk on our high street, sometimes to pick up a take-out dinner from a familiar face at a favorite restaurant. Via Veneto owner Massimo Lavino is one of those who is keeping the neighborhood fed — and serving up a side of his boisterous good cheer as people wait for their puttanesca and tricolore salad, carefully standing six feet apart.

As I walked up Fillmore yesterday, Massimo hollered out: “Hey — do you know Betty Brassington’s phone number? I can’t find it.” I stopped to be sure he had the spelling right, but he had no phone book — who does anymore? — and couldn’t find the number online.

He wanted to tell her he had some nice ribeye steaks of the kind she and her husband Mike like.

Well, I told him, I’ll stop by on my way home and let her know. Betty and Mike live only a block from Via Veneto. I knocked on their front door, even though it seemed a little naughty in this time of social distancing. Betty came to the door with a bite of dinner already in her mouth. I told her Massimo had steaks he thought she’d want to know about, then walked two more blocks home.

That was yesterday. Today when I walked up the street in the late afternoon light, Massimo hollered out again. I stopped and walked in. There was Betty, picking up two steak dinners and a bottle of red wine.

EARLIER: “Opening night at Via Veneto

Illustration of Via Veneto by Christopher Wright

Elite’s new name: The Tailor’s Son

The wiring and lettering on the vintage sign were removed on February 28.

THE LAST TRACES of the legendary Elite Cafe — a beacon of hospitality on Fillmore Street for decades — have disappeared. The lettering on the vintage neon sign has now been removed, along with the wooden booths inside.

The Elite’s new name: The Tailor’s Son, in honor of owner Adrianno Paganini ’s father, who was a tailor. The sign is being reworked to announce the new name. During earlier incarnations, the same sign proclaimed the Asia Cafe and the Lincoln Grill.

EARLIER: “Elite no more

Elite Cafe is turning Italian

The new owner plans to restore the original Art Deco facade.

DRAGGED-OUT negotiations between Andy Chun, who held the lease on the now-dark Elite Cafe, and serial restaurateur Adriano Paganini have finally been resolved, and renovation work has begun.

The new owner of the iconic Fillmore building, Rick Howard — who also owns Harry’s Bar across the street — hopes to strip off some of Chun’s black paint and restore the building’s original Art Deco facade. The awning is already gone.

Also going: the blackened wooden booths inside — and probably the name, too, which means a reworking of the vintage neon sign out front.

Look for — but don’t bet on — a January 2020 opening.

What went wrong at Noosh?

It was on top of the world, but then Noosh, at 2001 Fillmore, went dark.

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Noosh, the hot new California-inspired Mediterranean restaurant at Fillmore and Pine, rocketed off the launch pad in February and soared to great heights, only to explode the week before Thanksgiving when the money partner suddenly announced he was firing and suing his two highly lauded chef partners.

CEO John Litz on November 21 locked out the chefs and staff and posted a sign on Noosh’s front door saying the restaurant was “cooking up something new” and would be “closed for a couple of days.” By early December, he was still trying to re-open, now with a new “culinary advisor” — prominent pastry chef Emily Luchetti.

Chefs Sayat and Laura Ozyilmaz, the husband and wife team who have cooked in five of the world’s top 50 restaurants and were christened “rising stars” by the Chronicle in September, declared themselves “devastated to have been separated from their fans, customers and the family they have built with the employee team at Noosh.”

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