San Francisco’s Castro Serves It Up!

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Tuesday October 4, 2011
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The Castro's dining scene has long been known more for its puns, think Sausage Factory or Orphan Andy's, than for serving gourmet fare. But that has slowly changed in recent years.

Joining well regarded neighborhood stalwarts such as Anchor Oyster Bar on Castro and Chow on Church have been two restaurants that quickly gained loyal followings: Market Street's Woodhouse Fish Co., with its Tuesday $1 oyster nights, and Frances on 17th Street, where it can take up to three months to secure a table.

Newer entrants such as Starbelly and Criolla Kitchen, both at the intersection of 16th and Market streets, have also won praise from local diners and critics. The Michelin Guide named Starbelly one of its "Bib Gourmand" eateries this year, meaning its food inspectors found it a great place to dine for under $40.

The opening this summer of Criolla Kitchen, whose southern-style fried chicken and waffles has been a crowd favorite, prompted San Francisco Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman to declare that the Castro's culinary scene had reached a boiling point.

"Friends who live in the Castro are counting their blessings these days. In a neighborhood that once settled for quantity over quality, a new generation of restaurants is turning out San Francisco-worthy food," Unterman wrote this month.

Michael Bauer, a gay man who is the San Francisco Chronicle's executive food and wine editor and restaurant critic, agrees that the gayborhood's palate is growing more sophisticated.

"I do think the Castro food scene is starting to look up, but it has a ways to go before it becomes a true foodie destination," Bauer told the Bay Area Reporter. "For all the density of the area and the demographics, the food scene should be stronger. However, there are some bright spots such as Frances and Starbelly; Woodhouse is also a great neighborhood restaurant and Anchor Oyster Bar, a mainstay, has always been a beacon. Criolla is also another interesting new addition."

More new eateries continue to sprout. Last month Trevor Logan, a gay Castro resident, opened Chile Pies (Sweet and Savory) on Church Street in the old No Name Sushi space. The owner of the 7-year-old, New Mexico-inspired Green Chile Kitchen in NoPa, or North of the Panhandle, Logan branched out two years ago to sell pot pies filled with meats and veggies as well as fruit pies.

The Castro store is his second outpost to sell the pies, which caught the attention of the New York Times' food section and the Cooking Channel last year and will be featured in an upcoming Food Network program later this fall.

"We had no idea pies would be the next big thing," said Logan, who teamed up with creative director Wesley Monahan to cook up the recipes.

The handmade, organic pot pies have been selling out daily, said Logan, 42, whose team bakes up to 100 to sell between the two shops. He said they have been overwhelmed by the Castro's warm embrace.

"It really started with a bang. All the neighbors have been so nice," he said.

Having lived in the Castro in his 20s, Logan recently moved back into a place on Twin Peaks. He said he also has been struck by the Castro's eatery evolution.

"I do feel like there is a little more variety and options," said Logan, who is planning a grand opening for his Church Street location the weekend of October 15. "Like the rest of the city, our palate is becoming more educated and it is infectious, the excitement about food. I think that is reflected more and more in the Castro."

Matt Schuster, 35, and Francisco Cifuentes, 42, the gay couple who opened Canela Bistro Bar - it means cinnamon in Spanish - last week on Market Street near Noe, are hoping their Spanish-influenced restaurant will catch on with diners and critics.

"Friends who live in the Castro are counting their blessings these days. In a neighborhood that once settled for quantity over quality, a new generation of restaurants is turning out San Francisco-worthy food."

"We want to accommodate people who want to come have a drink with friends and capture folks who want a nice sit-down meal itself," said Schuster. "There are plenty of places to go for a drink in the Castro. But to go sit down for a meal, I don't think we are as diverse as some of the other neighborhoods in San Francisco."

Cifuentes grew up in Spain and Schuster, a chef, not only fell in love with him seven years ago but also with his family's cooking. The couple lives in Duboce Triangle and spent years developing their restaurant concept, finding the right location, and then lining up private investors when they could not get banks to loan them the capital needed to open.

"I fell in love with the country, his family, and the family recipes," said Schuster, noting they are importing olive oils, spices, cured meats and cheeses from Spain but also locally sourcing many ingredients.

More on the way

Additional Castro dining spots are on the way. Soup Freaks is remodeling the corner space at 18th and Castro in hopes of opening this fall, while up the street restaurateur Sam Sirhed, who sits on the board of Under One Roof, has announced plans to open Fork Cafe in the old Fuzio location.

While the recent shuttering of Home restaurant came as a surprise to many, the prime corner location at Market, Church, and 14th streets isn't expected to sit vacant for long. It likely will be taken over and open again for business before the old Patio Cafe on Castro Street, dormant now for more than a decade, sees a proprietor. Building owner Les Natali continues to mull over what to do with the large restaurant space.

"Restaurants want to come into our neighborhood," said Steve Adams, president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro.

Longtime Orphan Andy's owner Dennis Ziebell, whose 24-hour diner is adjacent to Jane Warner Plaza on 17th Street, said "the more, the merrier" when it comes to dining options in the Castro.

"High-end destination restaurants like Frances, I think it's wonderful for the neighborhood," said Ziebell, who took over his diner in 1971 and added his partner, Bill Pung, as a co-owner four years ago. "I love to see new restaurants open up. It provides jobs and supports economic vitality for the neighborhood."

He is less welcoming of having food trucks move in and has been raising questions about the permit process governing how the mobile eateries can operate at the plaza. Castro officials have pushed to see that trucks offering tacos, hot dogs, and muffins without proper permits are not allowed to set up shop on the Castro's streets.

"We are not against food trucks. Our position is the city needs to go back and look at the ordinance about allowing food trucks on private property right in the middle of Castro and Market," said Ziebell. "We love food trucks. We just think, like everything else in this world, there is a place for everything."

Why the Castro has lagged behind other neighborhoods, such as Hayes Valley and the Valencia Corridor, when it comes to buzz worthy restaurants has puzzled both Bauer and Unterman.

"The fact you have a density of gay people in the area, which many don't have kids and would have more disposable income, I am just surprised there aren't more," said Bauer. "I think the area is about to explode. It is kind of reached that critical mass, but I don't think it is there yet."

In addition to a scarcity of spaces and high rents, Unterman suggested that the demand for better restaurants just hadn't been there until recently.

"Now something is there," she said.