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.

Celebrating the neighborhood

WE ARE DELIGHTED to announce the publication of a lavish new book of stories and photographs celebrating one of the world’s great neighborhoods: our own.

This collector’s edition pulls together favorite articles and images from our pages of some of the people and places that make the neighborhood special. We hoped to create a book worthy of the neighborhood, but may have gotten a little carried away: This is a 268-page oversize extravaganza published by a meticulous local publisher, Norfolk Press.

It is available at Browser Books at 2195 Fillmore Street, or order by mail here.

PREVIEW THE BOOK

Three temples on Geary

At rear, tops of the Fillmore Auditorium, Beth Israel temple and Masonic temple in 1946.

LANDMARKS | BRIDGET MALEY

Since 1904, the south side of Geary between Fillmore and Steiner has been graced with a series of temples: a fraternal temple, a temple of worship and a majestic temple of entertainment. It’s a tale of three buildings, two earthquakes and one dangerously zealous religious leader, along with many other characters and stories. Only one of the temples remains today.

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Jonestown started here

The Peoples Temple was located in a former Scottish Rite temple on Geary Boulevard where the post office now stands.

FORTY YEARS AGO this month, on November 18, 1978, 909 men, women and children — many of them members of the Peoples Temple from the Fillmore neighborhood — died in the jungle of South America after ingesting a mix of cynanide, sedatives and Flavor Aid fruit drink at the urging of their leader, Rev. Jim Jones.

It was set in motion here, and two programs this month commemorate the tragedy with local roots:

• On Wednesday, November 7, the California Historical Society will present a program featuring historians, academics and survivors at its headquarters at 678 Mission Street. “Discussing Peoples Temple: Understanding the Social, Cultural and Political Influences on the Peoples Temple Movement” starts at 6 p.m.

• On Sunday, November 18, a “Day of Atonement in the Fillmore” is planned, beginning at 1:45 in front of the U.S. Post Office on Geary near Fillmore, where the Peoples Temple once stood. It includes a march down Fillmore to the mini park between Turk and Golden Gate and numerous guest speakers.

A LAUDED RECENT BOOK by journalist Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown, aims to tell the definitive story of Jim Jones and Jonestown. Guinn reports that Jones and his followers first came to the Fillmore in 1968 from their compound in Redwood Valley, up in Mendocino County, where they had earlier relocated from Indiana.

“Stories about an upcoming event in San Francisco caught Jones’s eye,” Guinn writes. “Macedonia Baptist, one of the city’s major black churches, announced a memorial service honoring Martin Luther King Jr.”

About 150 of Jones’s followers came with him to San Francisco to attend the service, all entering the church on Sutter Street near Steiner together, a sea of white faces in a black church. Friendships were formed and visits exchanged. Jones was later invited to offer guest sermons at the church, which were widely advertised.

“Beginning in 1970,” Guinn writes, “Jones conducted San Francisco services that were no longer directly affiliated with Macedonia Baptist. His preferred venue was the auditorium at Franklin Junior High on Geary Boulevard and Scott Street.”

Then, Peoples Temple “acquired an old multistory building at 1859 Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, a yellow-brick structure in the Fillmore District. The building had a large auditorium with a seating capacity of about 1,800. . . . The Temple paid $122,500, and renovation cost an additional $50,000 to $60,000.”

“It was in the right location,” Guinn writes. “Jones set up for business there.”

A business from the Old Fillmore

The Neuhaus Brothers clothing store at 1806 Fillmore Street.

By HOWARD FREEDMAN

At age 95, neighborhood resident Jerry Neuhaus is one of the last surviving business owners who operated in the Fillmore District before it was demolished by the Redevelopment Agency in the 1960s. And he’s still nearby — only four blocks from the clothing store he and his family ran for decades at Fillmore and Sutter.

Neuhaus was born in 1922 in Spangenberg, a small town in central Germany, where his father ran a department store. As conditions deteriorated rapidly for Jews in Hitler’s Germany, an aunt and uncle who had earlier come to San Francisco urged his family to join them here.

Neuhaus managed to leave Germany with his mother, father and sister in 1937, bringing along a sacred Torah scroll. Jews who were able to escape could bring little money with them. But some people in the know suggested they bring Leica cameras, which were in high demand in the United States.

Once in San Francisco, they were able to sell the cameras and use the proceeds to get established. His uncle helped Jerry’s father start a clothing store, Neuhaus Brothers, at 1806 Fillmore, just north of the corner of Sutter Street.

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A test of faith

Rev. Debra Low-Skinner is vicar of Christ Church Sei Ko Kai on Alta Plaza Park.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

“Our congregation reflects San Francisco,” says Senior Warden Gordon Park-Li of historic Christ Episcopal Church Sei Ko Kai, which graces the corner of Pierce and Clay Streets across from Alta Plaza Park’s grand staircase.

On any given Sunday, its small, warm sanctuary welcomes Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and Americans of assorted other heritages. In a neighborhood where houses sell in the multiple millions, the stately Victorian home of Christ Church offers a unique link to the good and the bad of San Francisco’s past, as well as its constantly changing future.

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The Brown Bag served up an eclectic mix

Treasures from the Brown Bag, the emporium and office supply store at 2000 Fillmore.

FLASHBACK | BARBARA WYETH

Every time I walk past the corner of Fillmore and Pine, I am transported back to the Brown Bag, the stationery store that was a mainstay on the northeast corner for many years.

Back in the day, I owned a small business in North Beach, but was struggling. I met Dawn, one of Brown Bag’s owners, when I was helping out on weekends at the nearby California Street Creamery. We had become friendly, and when I decided to quit my store, Dawn offered me a job at the Brown Bag.

I’d had ongoing connections with the Fillmore neighborhood since moving to San Francisco, so working at the Brown Bag seemed like a good fit. I loved its eclectic mix of practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles. It reminded me of the old-fashioned 5 & Dime in my Midwestern hometown. The place even included the smell of bacon wafting in from the Chestnut Cafe next door.

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The mystery of the three lamp posts

Three old-style lamp posts on Fillmore are dedicated to Katie Flavel. But who was she?

LOCAL HISTORY | JOE BEYER

For nearly a century, three lamp posts on the sidewalk in front of Calvary Presbyterian Church have added enlightenment on the busy corner of Fillmore and Jackson.

The two on either side have plaques attached dedicating them to the memory of Katie Flavel, who apparently died on August 19, 1910. But there is no record she was ever a member of Calvary.

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Curbside Cafe turns 40

THE CREW AT Curbside Cafe had no idea, but they were about to celebrate the restaurant’s 40th anniversary with the person who started it all. Lee Burns came for dinner on Saturday night, May 26, just as he had 20 years earlier, and 20 years before that, when he and partner Manuel Pena (above) opened the restaurant at 2417 California Street, just around the corner from Fillmore.

When they took over what had been the Maison Aji (below), the rent went from $150 to $300 a month. Two years later when the rent went up to $450, they sold the restaurant to concentrate on a second Curbside in Napa. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” Burns said.

How Pacific Heights got a 40-foot height limit

One of the flyers distributed during the fight for a 40-foot height limit.

By SUSAN SWARD

On a Friday in April of 1972, Charlotte Maeck got a purple postcard in the mail at her Pacific Heights residence that she initially thought was a hosiery advertisement from the I. Magnin department store.

On closer look, she saw it was a city announcement of a hearing the following Tuesday on a proposal to rezone the areas between Van Ness to Steiner and Union to Washington to permit structures of up to 160 feet — or 16 stories. Before then, height limits of 65 feet and 105 feet existed in various parts of Pacific Heights.

Maeck, who was busy raising her four children with her husband, orthopaedic surgeon Benjamin Maeck, in their home on Pacific Avenue, knew nothing about planning codes and had never been involved in the brawling political fights over development in San Francisco.

She came from Staten Island, where her grandfather founded a marine hardware company. “We were concerned about neighborhoods, and families watched what went on,’’ Maeck recalls. But “I knew nothing about zoning.”

That was about to change.

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