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Mr. Fillmore moves on

Photograph of Vas Kiniris by Chloe Jackman

By CHRIS BARNETT

After nearly three decades of involvement with the Fillmore Merchants Association — as board member, vice president, president and the last five years as executive director — Vasilios Kiniris, the personable man-in-perpetual-motion known to some as Mr. Fillmore and to all as Vas, is exiting stage left.

For most of that time, he’s been working — sometimes visibly, sometimes behind the scenes — to wrangle the neighborhood’s diverse coalitions into a cohesive and positive force. A lifelong merchant himself, save for a brief detour into architecture, Kiniris, 55, isn’t giving up on small businesses. He’s just crossing the street, so to speak, to a new entrepreneurial venture he calls NextSF, an agency that will offer his marketing savvy to other merchant associations and individual businesses and organizations seeking to build their brands and business.

Timothy Omi of Liberty Cannabis is the new president of the Fillmore Merchants Association. Patti Mangan is the new executive director. Continuing board members are Beverly Weinkauf of Toujours, Victorian Dunham of HiHo Silver and Chandler Tang of Post.Script. 

A candid long-hauler who believes in relationships, the Greek-born Kiniris sees life as a series of “half-empty opportunities,” but he’s no Pollyanna. He doesn’t shrink from the hard facts plaguing San Francisco and the Fillmore in particular. 

“Crimes are happening, no doubt about it,” he said during an exit interview this week. “Fillmore needs to be a safe place for its merchants, their employees and their customers.” The street, battered by the pandemic, has an unprecedented number of empty storefronts. But Kiniris remains upbeat. “Many are currently in contract with new leases,” he says. “They are filling up again.”

Kiniris has been swimming upstream all his life, and not without failures. “I’ve made my share,” he admits. One of his more visible ill-fated ventures was moving his Zinc Details home design emporium south to a huge vacant space on Fillmore near the Geary bridge, where an old dollar store once stood. It didn’t pan out. Zinc Details had been on Fillmore for 27 years when it closed in 2018.

Kiniris was 7 when he and his family arrived in San Francisco from Macedonia in northern Greece. At first they lived in public housing in the Mission “to get our bearings.” His dad Nick was a dishwasher at Nob Hill hotels, including the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins. “My mother was a garment worker,” he says. “Dad quickly realized he had to go into business for himself.”

The family opened one, then another, small corner grocery store. Young Vas went to work there as kid and grew up stocking shelves and checking out customers while his dad made sandwiches. “We worked every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day for 15 years,” he says. “For me, it was my baptism in retail. Some people call it a sacrifice, but not me. The stores, the business, the customers were my social glue, my family. I didn’t get a chance to party much, and I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. But it was a learning experience.”

So were four years at UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in architecture. “But the practice was not to my liking,” he acknowledges. “And frankly, my mechanical skills were not all that good.”

He had a side job waiting tables in the ’80s at Stars, celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower’s once-glittering restaurant near City Hall. Remembers Kiniris: “I waited on people like Walter Cronkite and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and all the socialites and movers and shakers.”

He says he was first exposed to the finer things in life as an exchange student living with a prosperous German family. “Here I was, a blue-collar immigrant surviving day to day by extreme frugality and I was introduced to the extras, the intangibles of life, this joie de vive. Even now I still consider them my second family,” he says. “We all have many parents in our lives.”

In 1990, accustomed to living with no safety net, Kiniris and his wife, Wendy Nishimura Kiniris, plunged into retailing on their own with a small store at Post and Hyde in the Tenderloin, with drug dealers and prostitutes just outside their door. The rent: $500 a month. Their wares: contemporary furniture. The name: Zinc Details.

“We were credited with introducing modernism to San Francisco,” he says. “In those days, you were either old money or you had no money. We appealed to both. Our look was so fresh to the market, which had been dominated by Macy’s.”

From there they were thrust into the public arena. “We were both designers and highly edited curators,” he says. The couple was invited to set up a “store within a store” in Macy’s, created products for the Gap, and launched a wholesale business and private labeled to top retailers in Paris, London and Tokyo.

A recession brought them back to earth, which Kiniris now calls “a great opportunity, if you take advantage of it.” They moved upmarket, from the Tenderloin to Fillmore Street. “We looked at Union and Fillmore,” he says, “and Fillmore was coming up at the time.”

As the years passed, the Kinirises at one point had three Zinc Details stores in the neighborhood, with 20 employees, and he embedded himself as a passionate and engaged merchant. So when longtime Fillmore Merchants Association president Thomas Reynolds resigned in 2015, Kiniris stepped up to the plate. “Thomas left us a very good merchants association and his were very big shoes to fill,” he says.

Kiniris took some big steps in different directions. Using his social media skills, he expanded the association’s communications and membership. Pedaling on his electric bike, he integrated the small business owners on the street with representatives from the corporate and international brands that had been moving into the neighborhood. He reached out to merchants on lower Fillmore and in Japantown.

“My goal was to create a dialogue and potential collaboration among all groups,” he says, “and to help the big chain stores demonstrate good corporate behavior by engaging with the community in a meaningful way.”

Kiniris says he is proud the FMA has built relationships with many sectors of the community. “We have a strong relationship with District 2 supervisor Catherine Stefani and District 5 supervisor Dean Preston,” he says. Indeed, the supes handed him a certificate of honor when he announced he was stepping down from the FMA.

He has worked closely with the S.F. Police Department and the city’s top cops. Kiniris is a graduate of the SFPD’s community police academy, helped secure a two-officer foot patrol on Fillmore, and is co-chair of police chief Bill Scott’s small business advisory forum. Recently he helped organize a small business summit with all 10 captains of the the city’s police districts. “We had breakout sessions where each captain met with merchants in his district.” he says. “I realized the merchants don’t know what the police do, and vice versa.”

More ambitious and still a work-in-progress are partnerships between merchants with mega-companies including Google, Facebook, Uber and Spin, the city’s micro-mobility scooter renter. “We have to demonstrate how they can be true community partners,” Kiniris says. “They can’t sit in their ivory towers.” While many San Francisco streets remain dirty and littered, Kiniris has worked with cleanup groups like the city’s Department of Public Works, Together SF and Refuse Refuse.

During his years as Mr. Fillmore, Kiniris says he has sought to “reach across many aisles” to bring people together who can help Fillmore Street and other merchant corridors.

“The role of the merchants association is to provide three things to its members and the community: security, maintenance and marketing,” he says, repeating his frequent mantra.

Despite San Francisco’s well publicized woes, Kiniris is convinced the city — and especially the Fillmore — is on the verge of a rebirth, or “a regeneration,” as he calls it. 

And not for the first time.

“It’s part of our history,” Kiniris says. “The Fillmore Merchants Association is the city’s oldest, formed 115 years ago after the 1906 earthquake. This neighborhood was the birthplace of the rebuilt city, and the Harlem of the West, and the Summer of Love. It was a hotbed of business opportunities with its big Jewish, Japanese and African American communities over the decades,” he says. 

“It was diverse, an ethnic collaboration, and it is again time to work with many partners,” he says. “It’s the Phoenix rising.”

Neri first exhibited on Fillmore

Manuel Neri (left), with roommate and fellow artist Henry Villierme, during their student days.

ART | JEROME TARSHIS

Manuel Neri, one of America’s leading figurative sculptors, died a couple of months ago. It was no great surprise: He was 91 years old and had been in poor health for a long time. But I felt a particular twinge, because when I moved to San Francisco, in 1968, I found Neri to be an easy, welcoming presence.

Neri was exhibiting at Ruth Braunstein’s Quay Gallery, one of the most respected in the city. Three years earlier he had been appointed to the art faculty of UC Davis, where his colleagues were such Northern California superstars as William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson and Wayne Thiebaud. As a relatively major Bay Area artist, he had definitely arrived.

His earliest work had been in cheap and almost pointedly unpretentious materials: cardboard, newspaper, cloth and plaster. As his career and reputation grew, he moved on to bronze and marble, which are considered noble materials. Eventually he bought a studio in Carrara, around the corner from Michelangelo’s house, where he could work with marble from quarries that dated back to ancient Roman times.

Today his work is in the permanent collections of major museums in the United States and elsewhere in the western world. But his career had humble beginnings, and his earliest exhibitions were in the resolutely noncommercial galleries that made Fillmore Street a major center of artistic innovation during the 1950s and ’60s. When Bruce Conner founded his deliberately odd artists’ group, the Rat Bastards Protective Association, sometime in late 1957 or early 1958, Neri was one of its first members.

He lived on Fillmore Street for a short time. In 1959, when the painter Bill Brown separated from his wife, fellow painter Joan Brown, and moved out of their studio at 2322 Fillmore, the legendary Painterland, Neri moved in with her. But they soon relocated to North Beach, where they eventually married.

It was almost an accident that he became an artist at all. He was born in Sanger, an agricultural community, in 1930. He and his parents, immigrants from Mexico, found themselves employed as migrant farm workers after two of his father’s business ventures failed. In 1939, after his father’s death, his mother got a good job in Oakland and the family was back on its feet.

He decided to become an engineer and enrolled for preliminary courses at City College of San Francisco in 1950. Hoping for an easy A — or at least that’s the story he told — he took a course in ceramics and found himself fascinated by the possibilities of art. Although he went on to study engineering at Berkeley, his eyes had been opened to other possibilities. In 1952 he transferred to California College of Arts and Crafts. In 1957, after military service in Korea, he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

Neri’s first exhibition, while he was still a student, was a two-person show at the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore, in 1956. In 1959 he had a one-person exhibition at the Spatsa Gallery, on Filbert Street off Fillmore, followed by another in 1960 at the Dilexi Gallery, then located at 1858 Union Street, between Octavia and Laguna.

From the beginning of his career, Neri was in the right places and attracted the right kind of notice. Reviewing his very first sculpture show, Alfred Frankenstein, then the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, spoke favorably of the work and also discussed the philosophy that seemed to inform the Six Gallery in general and this show in particular: “The group that runs this institution commits itself to exhibiting not only the successes and matured achievements but the half-steps, blunders and fumblings by the way.” Frankenstein had mixed feelings about that. “This emphasis on process, on the doing rather than the thing done, is displayed in an extreme form in the 6 Gallery’s current show. The whole thing is both fascinating and a little appalling.” 

More than 60 years later, I am happy to add that even when Neri was working in marble and his sculpture was both carefully composed and informed by long study of the European figurative tradition, he managed to retain something of the air of youthful spontaneity that characterized so much art made on Fillmore Street in the 1950s.

As I might have imagined from seeing his work, Neri in person had nothing of the presence of a major art world figure, although by the late 1960s he was well on his way to becoming one. I would look at him, he would look at me, and it felt like a naked soul looking at a naked soul.

EARLIER: “For a time, Fillmore was home to a circle of artists

‘Craziness, just craziness’

Aesop, at 2450 Fillmore, was one of three businesses on its block hit by burglars.

CRIME WATCH

SOME PEOPLE took a holiday over the Labor Day weekend, but not the thieves who have been plaguing Fillmore Street merchants.

At least six businesses — Ruti, Post Script, Velvet, Heidi Says, Aesop and the UPS Store — were attacked over the long weekend, some suffering loss of merchandise, and all rushing to replace broken glass. Pots of flowers on the street were also vandalized.

Amid calls for more police protection, stronger glass and bars over doors and windows, one merchant shrugged: “Craziness, just craziness.”

Post Script, at 2413 California, was also hit in the Labor Day weekend crime spree.

Compton’s Coffee House is keeping it real

Aiden Compton is the proprietor of Compton’s Coffee House at 1910 Fillmore.

NEW NEIGHBORS | CHRIS BARNETT

It takes brass to open a coffee dispensary in the San Francisco these days. But cuppa joe impresario Aiden Compton has worked in the neighborhood for Peet’s, La Boulangerie and Starbucks, and is blood-related to a family-owned Brooklyn outfit called Variety Coffee. So he took over the tiny Samovar Tea shop at 1910 Fillmore earlier this year determined to bring back the old neighborhood feeling to the ’Mo.

Compton, at 36, has done just that with Compton’s Coffee House. The proprietor himself and his “strong right hand,” Heather Orell, personally pour the coffees (starting at $3) or whip up the lattes ($5) with a smile, and without the flamboyant chatter that sometimes ricochets off the walls of the chain operations.

After six months, Compton has a fan club. 

“We like the coffee, but what we really like is to see the same familiar faces every time we come in,” says Courtney Chuang, a marketing executive who lives in the neighborhood. Compton points out that artist Dan Max, who has lived on the street for 50-plus years, comes in every morning for coffee. “That’s true,” boulevardier Max acknowledged. “I love the place, the staff, the people who drink there. I go back there for my afternoon coffee. Compton’s makes the best cappuccino on the street.”   

Compton stuck with the Samovar’s colors and cozy-without-being-cramped spatial setup, but added some vintage cable car illustrations and paintings by local artists — including one by his mother, Lynn O’Brien — turning the coffee house into a small gallery.

Sipping a vanilla latte, Fillmore clinical psychologist Chelsea Siwik judged Compton’s as “very friendly” and praised it for “supporting locals.”

Both are among the reasons Aiden Compton opened the store in the first place. “I always had the idea of being an entrepreneur — my own boss,” he says. “I’ve been working in food service 18 years. I love its energy, waking up every day and saying ‘Okay, here we go again.’ ”

Aiden Compton’s mother, Lynn O’Brien, works the register on Mondays, under her painting celebrating the family business.

It might seem suicidal to challenge well-financed chains like the ones he once worked for that have multiple outlets nearby.

“I felt I had a responsibility to the community to create a place that’s inclusive, welcoming and friendly,” Compton says. “The chains are built on customer efficiency: ‘I need coffee. You’ve got coffee.’  It’s a transaction.”

What distinguishes a local coffee house like Compton’s from a link in a chain of coffee stores, he says, “is that we want to be personal. We want to know customers’ names, what they order when they walk in. We want to be people’s go-to for coffee.”

When he went looking for a storefront, “I wanted a place that had longtime San Franciscans in the neighborhood, plus young people moving in and becoming part of the neighborhood. We wanted locals, young professionals, people who want to connect, who feel a sense of ownership. And that’s what’s happening. My wife is expecting twins in October and every day people come in and ask, ‘How’s she feeling?’ even if they don’t buy anything. There’s that connection.”

Compton isn’t making connections only inside his front windows and the small square footage inside. He took over Samovar Tea Co.’s lease when Samovar went to an online business model during the pandemic, and says he never would have succeeded if not for Woodhouse Fish Co., the popular seafood restaurant next door. “Woodhouse let us use their nautical parklet during the day, and they took it back at night,” he says. “That saved us.”

“I want to see Fillmore return to its roots as an entrepreneurial and family retail shopping area,” Compton says. “We have a father-daughter bakery [the nearby Fillmore Bakeshop]. We have a family gelato shop [the Philmore Creamery, also nearby]. My family did a lot of the work here and my mother, a retired registered nurse, volunteers here at the cash register on Mondays. And I don’t think this entrepreneurial recycling is just limited to Fillmore. It can be San Francisco — the entire Bay Area.”

Still, Compton is a realist. “We’re not taking this opportunity lightly,” he says. “Peet’s and Starbucks may not be the greatest personal coffee experience of all time, but they have consistency and you know you’ll get the same drink and sandwich at the same speed everytime.”

But fiddle with a highly regarded brand and you can have instant problems, he says, speaking from first-hand experience. “I worked at La Boulangerie when it was a small local French bakery, and everything was baked fresh, and there were lines out the door. When Starbucks took it over, the value perception (of its baked goods) changed overnight.”

That’s another reason Compton wants to keep it real.        

Coming soon: wine, a woman, and song

Victoria Wasserman is bringing wine and music to 1870 Fillmore.

NEW NEIGHBORS | CHASE ROBERTS

There will be no jazz festival on Fillmore this Fourth of July weekend, but Victoria Wasserman is determined to bring music back to one block of the street. Wasserman is opening Vic’s Winehouse at 1870 Fillmore and turning the Wine Jar into a wine bar with music.

“I was devastated to see all the closures on Fillmore Street,” Wasserman says, “and given its rich history of music and culture, I decided it was time to fulfill my lifelong dream of opening my own bar.” 

The new name, Vic’s Winehouse, has a double meaning. Not only will there be locally sourced wines not found in stores. The name also reflects Wasserman’s love for the late singer Amy Winehouse, and her music — jazz, R&B, blues and hip hop — will set the theme for the bar.

Wasserman previously led an eight-piece Amy Winehouse tribute band, “The Back to Black Band,” which played at the Blue Note in Napa and other venues. Wasserman sings and plays the ukulele, and her husband, Jacinto Castaneda, sings and plays bass and guitar. Both are rooted in the Bay Area music scene.

Most of the wines will be from small family-owned wineries in the Russian River, Sonoma, Lodi and Paso Robles. Happy hour specials will be offered daily from 3 to 6 p.m. Flights will be offered from Argentina and from Balletto Vineyards, a family-owned winery in the Russian River Valley that grows its own grapes on what was once the largest vegetable farm in Northern California.

Vic’s will also offer Argentine empanadas handmade and baked locally by Nuchal Empanadas, a family-run business in San Francisco. Brunch will feature its quiche and frittatas.

Wasserman says a familial and community spirit will be at the heart of her new venture, and that she hopes to create “a neighborhood place for gatherings and community events such as art exhibits and CD releases.”

Updates on the opening and the offerings are on the Vic’s Winehouse website.

Sunrise at Alta Plaza

Photograph by Robert Starkey

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

While most of his neighbors are still asleep, Robert Starkey can be found roaming Alta Plaza Park, searching for new angles to photograph the dawn.

“Walking to Alta Plaza to photograph the sunrise I get exercise, connection with nature, the unconditional love of dogs — and a feeling of accomplishment,” he says. He shares his photographs of the sunrise on Flickr with those who slept through it.

The sunrise photography project began in January after Starkey moved from Sonoma County back to San Francisco. It was occasioned by the darkest period of his life. 

“My entire body collapsed with Stage 4 bone cancer,” he says. “I was in hospitals, nursing homes and care facilities for a year and a half, and lost everything.” When he finally recovered, he was offered a place to live in a friend’s home near Alta Plaza.

“One of the most important aspects of my healing is to find purpose in each day,” he says. Shooting the sunrise and sharing the photographs helps provide that purpose.

Photograph by Robert Starkey

Photography has been a lifelong passion for the committed globetrotter. Sunrise at Alta Plaza is only the latest of his photographic obsessions. His work in series began in earnest when he moved to the Oakmont community in Sonoma County. 

“I found myself in the middle of 12,000 acres of protected land, with wildlife everywhere to photograph,” he says. “Also at Oakmont there is a polo field, where I found I could photograph beautiful sunrises.”

Now he is inspired by the sunrise at Alta Plaza.

“This morning it was clear, with beautiful blue skies when I left home,” he says. “But about the time I got to the park, the fog had rolled in and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees.” Still, he managed a few great photos of the fog-infused sunrise before heading back home to warm up.

“I keep thinking I’ll run out of new perspectives,” Starkey says, “but that hasn’t happened yet.”

Photograph by Robert Starkey

MORE: Robert Starkey’s photographs on Flickr

Like a good neighbor …

SALOONS | CHRIS BARNETT

Harry’s Bar at 2020 Fillmore has rolled out the welcome mat to merrymakers who live and work within a five-block radius. The venerable saloon has created a “Fillmore Street Neighbor” card that gives locals a 10 percent discount on all food and drink.

The idea is the brainchild of Harry’s personable general manager, Charles Johnson, who is on the sidewalk daily schmoozing the crowd, seating guests and serving drinks.

“We want our neighbors to think of Harry’s as their go-to place — which it has been for well over 30 years,” he says. “So we’re trying to show our appreciation in creative ways.”

In addition to the discount card, he’s also extended the weekday 4 to 6 p.m. happy hour to seven days a week. 

“Harry’s Bar prides itself on being a good neighbor,” Johnson says.

To prove it, Harry’s has now chopped 21 feet off its palatial parklet, after the owner of the empty storefront next door filed a complaint with the city. More than 2,000 fans of Harry’s signed a petition favoring the parklet, which helped keep the bar alive during the pandemic. But as indoor dining and drinking returned, Harry’s agreed to a compromise that reduced the size of the parklet, but made it permanent.

Johnson is happy. Harry’s is buzzing.

EARLIER: “A third of $30,000 parklet may be removed

Signs of life on a boulevard of broken leases

A new Italian restaurant, The Tailor’s Son, will soon open in the former Elite Cafe. Photograph by Jonathan Pontell

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Empty stores, boarded-up windows, people sleeping in abandoned doorways, shoplifting and break-ins all testify that Fillmore Street is going though hard times one year after Covid hit with full fury.

But conversations with die-hard merchants and a reopening for some indoor dining signals an eventual turnaround in the fortunes of the once-booming upper Fillmore commercial district, which is now a boulevard of broken leases.

Vas Kiniris, a longtime Fillmore merchant who is now executive director of the Fillmore Merchants Association, is optimistic yet candid in offering his views on the state of the street.

Crime has long been a problem on Fillmore, but Kiniris reports that Northern Station has a newish captain in charge — Paul Yep — who gave the street back its own foot patrol, which was shared at one point with Japantown. More cops are visible.

Walgreens at Fillmore and Pine — regularly hit with swarms of grab-and-dash young shoplifters — now has an SFPD officer posted inside the front door, with a black and white squad car parked conspicuously outside the front door. There were recent rumbles that Walgreens might close its Fillmore store, as it closed others suffering a steady stream of thefts. But staffers say nothing is definite.

A peek inside the late, once-great Elite Cafe reveals a nearly completed interior makeover. A year after he planned to open, serial restaurateur Adriano Paganini will soon unveil The Tailor’s Son, his newest Italian restaurant, which pays homage to his childhood near Milan.

“My mom and dad are both working tailors, and my grandmother and grandfather were tailors as well,” Paganini says, hence the name. Paganini says that contrary to recent rumors, he “has no interest” in taking over long-shuttered Grove next door to Harry’s Bar. A reliable source maintains the Grove “will reopen eventually.”

From Hoodline: “An interview with Adriano Paganini

Another rumor turned out to be just that — only a rumor. Delfina, the uber-popular pizzeria on California Street, is not dead, despite the window boardings. Kiniris says it is simply undergoing a remodeling.

♦ 

John Litz’s Noosh, on the corner of Filllmore and Pine, has re-opened for pick-up, delivery and indoor-outdoor dining after being temporarily closed. Noosh is launching a multi-course tasting brunch on the weekend, which will feature its signature Mediterranean delicacies for $45 per person. At night, a multi-course Noosh dinner tasting menu will be offered at a price point, Litz insists, below similar San Francisco restaurants. The front windows of the restaurant have re-opened to the street, offering its full “fine casual menu,” including craft cocktails.

Many stores and brands on Fillmore have pulled up stakes during the pandemic. Kiniris lists International Orange, Dosa, Goop, Prana, the Repeat Performance resale shop, Illestiva, Frame, Ralph Lauren, Space NK, Alexis Bitter, Ministry of Supply, Samovar Tea, Asmbly Hall, Sunhee Moon, Atelier de Cologne, Flor, James Perse, Lexe, Alice and Olivia, Cotelac, Minted and the Artists Inn.

But there have been some openings: Liberty Cannabis is now open for business in the former Unity Church around the corner on Bush Street. Byredo, a Swedish fragrance emporium has taken over the former Space NK location at Pine and Fillmore. And Compton’s Coffee House now occupies the former Samovar Tea shop. Many restaurants have added seating outside.

As for activity at the old Clay Theatre? Absolutely nothing. 

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.

Read more »

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