Eatery Owners Plan New Castro Cantina
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This winter, if you can't afford the time or money to go to Puerto Vallarta, a new cantina on Castro Street will make you feel like you're on the beach in Mexico.
At least that's the hope of Rick Hamer, the proprietor of Finn Town, the "tavern with a twist" at 2251 Market Street, which opened last December.
Hamer, 56, and his business partner, William Vastardis, 62, both gay men who live in the Castro, plan to open Papi Rico at 544 Castro Street sometime in November, they said. The space, previously occupied by Dante's Table, is now being transformed into a "beach-like cantina," Hamer said in an interview at Finn Town this week.
"Papi Rico," said Hamer, is Latin American slang for a good-looking male, "one so handsome that he is good enough to eat in the sense of a rich deliciousness on several levels."
"It is a playful phrase used by both men and women in several countries, including Mexico," he added.
The new space will offer finger-friendly Mexican "street food," said Hamer, "exactly like what you find at stands on the beach and back?streets of Puerto Vallarta." Entrees will include El Pastor meats, fresh fish tacos and ceviche, salads, and house made churros, he said.
Papi Rico will also feature traditional and frozen cocktails, with a focus on tequila and mezcal-based drinks, including margaritas - frozen, carbonated, and on the rocks - as well as Jell-O shots and boozy popsicles. There will also be many Mexican and local beer choices, said Hamer.
With total capacity for about 90 people, there will be seating indoors and out, including the "backyard" and on the street in front.
Hamer and Vastardis have both been down to Puerto Vallarta many times and promise "it will be very much like some of the best bars down there," said Hamer.
Hamer's new Castro Street bar will continue the Finn Town practice of having a wide variety of theme nights and special events, but with a "Mexican twist," he said, including mariachi bands and flamenco dancers.
Hamer was asked about cultural appropriation in restaurants. Earlier this year in Portland, Oregon, a white-owned burrito truck was forced to close over the issue. But Hamer said he is not worried.
"Our kitchen staff will be Hispanic - we embrace every culture - we are proud gay men - we are bringing to the neighborhood what they are excited about," he said.
The past year has been a wild ride for Hamer, a former corporate marketing executive. Unlike 9-to-5 jobs, the proprietor of a new restaurant winds up logging 100-hour weeks, said Hamer.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better," he said.
But Hamer is a man with a mission: to revitalize the Castro and "bring the gay back" to the neighborhood.
Other cities, such as Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and New York, have a much livelier gay bar scene, compared to San Francisco, he said.
"Who says gays don't like nice things?" he asked rhetorically, pointing out that other cities have gained ground on San Francisco. "We used to be the icon of gay culture," he said.
"I feel like we have a window of opportunity to bring back the fun reputation" the city once had as the gay mecca, he added.
But several factors make it difficult to run a profitable restaurant in this city, he said. The large tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Airbnb, "are able to hire food service workers and chefs and offer them a better package with shorter hours" than local restaurants can, he said.
"Of course there is also our cost of living," he added.
And specifically in the Castro, crime and homelessness have brought extra challenges to business owners, he said. Recently, people "are wandering in here during business hours, disrupting business, and making things difficult for staff."
"As a native San Franciscan, I hope that programs in the works for the neighborhood will help the homeless with treatment, shelter, and food," he said.
"I don't like to point fingers, but it feels that many of our local politicians have not stepped up to the plate," he said, to do their part to improve conditions and help small business owners. Until that happens, business owners will continue to face bottom line challenges, he said.
Hamer saw that happen at Finn Town this year. After six months of packed houses every night, the crowds started to thin a bit, and Hamer said that he made some changes, including closing earlier on weeknights. This development paralleled the experiences of restaurants in other parts of the city, where business was down in recent months, according to reports from other owners, Hamer said.
To attract new business and stay current for the neighborhood, Finn Town updates its food and drink menu quarterly, Hamer said.
Finn Town just introduced its new fall dinner and brunch menu including "lighter, healthier" items and additional vegetarian choices; began offering delivery through DoorDash and Eat24; and expanded its nightly happy hour specials.
"So far, so good," he said. The menu "has become more refined" under new executive chef Steve Dustin, who will create the menus for Papi Rico and oversee the kitchen.
Once the Castro Street cantina opens, Hamer hopes his business partner will be able to share the management of the day-to-day operations at Papi Rico.
"Overall, I'm very, very excited and happy" to be able to open an LGBTQ cultured business "in my home town," he said.
"It has been so gratifying to hear people say how much they like Finn Town," Hamer said. "The neighborhood has really embraced us and we are grateful.
"Now I am starting to envision people walking through the door at Papi Rico and from the moment they enter, feeling like they have been transported to a tropical vacation," he continued. "There is nothing like this anywhere in San Francisco. We think it's going to be a huge success and we hope the neighborhood will want to spend time with us."