The Garage

Revisiting the restaurant I opened when I was 24

Photo by Judy Parker

The garage had been built in 1920 to house Wells Fargo stagecoaches. The upstairs was a brothel meant to service the laborers below. Then, thanks to Henry Ford, the building went through decades of various boom and bust cycles — with a handful of car repair shops filling in the gaps. It had 18-foot ceilings. It smelled like engine oil. I signed the lease.

The first time I really looked at that decaying, shabby garage on the corner of 24th and Valencia, I knew I had found the spot. 24th Street was my favorite in San Francisco. It smashed together old and new, and was littered with the scattered detritus of multiple immigrant groups and economic fluctuations.

It was tech incubators, tortillerias, art galleries, drug corners, bookstores, and dive bars full of people drinking Coors Light at 6am. It smelled like masa, single-origin coffee, bacon donuts, Jesus candles, sawdust, and dog (you hoped) shit.

That odd ecosystem was exactly what I wanted for Heart.

A “real” wine bar where engineers who waited for the Orwellian black buses across the street could pay $20 for a glass of Luigi Ferrando Carema alongside writers from McSweeney’s pounding Linden Street Black Lagers next to post-shift restaurant workers splitting bottles of Thierry Puzelat’s TelQuel rosé in-between cigarette breaks. That corner and that garage were Heart. I named it after the blood-pumping central organ in your chest.

It was meant to signify passion and vitality — but also the center. The heart of the community. The logo was straight out of Gray’s Anatomy. Before we opened, one local resident warned me that none of her friends would ever come to my bar because our anatomical sign was too lifelike.

It was early 2009.

The Dow Jones was down more than 50% from two years prior. San Francisco was permeated by this eerie uncertainty, like those moments of roux-thick silence on an airplane after a jolt of severe turbulence, when all you can hear is people breathing and the time-tested fuselage creaking. Needless to say, the southern reaches of Valencia Street were not yet populated by Scandinavian design stores, Chinese real estate funds, and little dogs.

I fought my ass off for that corner of 24th Street. San Francisco is the prime example of local government run amok. Getting building permits requires paying an “expediter” $300 an hour to grease the creaky wheels of City Hall. A liquor license, in the Mission District no less, is many more hours of that — plus lawyers’ fees.

But the expediter earned his money, I suppose. Eventually, after months of waiting for word about our liquor license, I got a call from an assistant to a prominent San Francisco politico. He asked me to come by City Hall that week. When I got there, the politico said that he had heard about my trouble obtaining a liquor license. He also said the garage looked great; Heart could really help the neighborhood; heck, it might even be good for a fundraiser. Then he called the head of the liquor license committee while I was in the room and put him on speakerphone. I had my application approved shortly thereafter.

The garage was mine.

During the last month of construction, I would have paid for literally any expense. The expediter was a rounding error. I was hemorrhaging money like a Tarantino extra. Someone could have told me that I needed an elephant to guard the door and I would have written the check. Anything to get the place open. I paid many thousands of dollars for a last-minute mop sink, which required retiling the kitchen floor, rerouting the plumping in the process.

That was just the beginning, though.

The thing about running a restaurant is that once you’re full, that’s just about as much “scale” as you’re ever going to achieve. And we were full on day one. In fact, for our soft opening, I had the brilliant idea of sending out a bunch of fancy-looking invites to people in the neighborhood telling them there would be a little party with free wine and food. We ended up with 500 people stopping by and decimated our opening wine list.

Photos by Judy Parker

That’s not to say we were always full. I’ll never forget the 2010 MLB playoffs. The Giants made a World Series run and it sucked the life out of the San Francisco restaurant economy. Every time a game was on, we were the slowest we had ever been. Some of the most established restaurants in the city were installing monstrous TVs in their dining rooms. The Giants won the World Series that year and the agony was endless. But although I will forever harbor an innate resentment of the Giants and Tim Lincecum, this phenomenon wasn’t limited to baseball. Outside Lands; Bay to Breakers; even Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. SF is a small city masquerading as a metropolis and that shiny veneer gets stripped away during mass cultural gatherings.

The silence of a slow night in a restaurant is deafening. You hear every glass clink, fork clang, and range burner pop. The servers are at their worst. They gather around the POS terminals, sneaking wine and eating gifts from the kitchen. You find some drinking fifths of Jim Beam in the back storage closet. Every single time, you wonder if the magic is gone forever.

Hiring people to work in a restaurant is hard.

At first, I hired the most interesting people I could find, the people that I wanted to be my friends. The ones who could sell anything to anyone. There was the preternaturally curious and perceptive part-time flight attendant whose boyfriend would wait for her every night with his leftover Google dinners. The 50’s throwback who was straight out of a Billy Wilder film and made every guest reflexively grin. The former abruptly left to join a travel startup; the latter to study Chinese medicine.

Eventually, I let my general manager, Rob-Dawg, do all of the hiring. He was a Bay Area lifer who had come up barbacking to buy the rare releases at Amoeba Records. Rob-Dawg was legit. We ended up with chain-smoking, hard-drinking restaurant pros. They were trustworthy, showed up, flipped tables, sold wine, and made money.

Then there are the characters that don’t work for you but somehow become fixtures in your life.

There’s the rockstar Italian wine importer who somehow always dropped (and broke) multiple glasses, then pulled up in his Maserati in the wee hours of the morning to make sure you’re cool because you spent $30k a year on his wine. The shaggy-haired nonconformists who passed their days sweatily dragging suitcases around town in beat-up Subarus, peddling oak and fruit bombs to finance Burning Man. And the pretentious-yet-charming Frenchman who got soaked at your bar and then started his weekly lecture to the crowd about how it’s important to let the proletariat drink Yellow Tail so they don’t actually touch the good stuff.

24th Street became a fixture in my life, too.

I’d walk it many times every day. The walk to Heart, around 10am, involved stopping at Philz for the iced coffee that would hopefully carry me through the first few hours of doing inventory and stacking new wines. Then there would be lunch, almost always a prawn burrito from Papalote, with extra salsa and chips. The early afternoons were for bank runs to the community bank next to the 24th Street BART stop. I originally started banking there because I thought they might give me a more forgiving working capital loan. As an overconfident 24-year-old with no restaurant experience opening up a wine bar, I assumed my options were relatively limited. The bank never gave me that loan. But they always treated me like a VIP while depositing my cash drops.

The most memorable walks were the ones home, usually around 2am.

They began with another burrito, nothing like the first — an artery-narrowing chorizo super burrito from El Farolito. The place was a madhouse at that hour. Random people would sit down with you, eat your chips, try to sell you heroin. It was worth it for that burrito.

Afterwards, I’d make my way through the wobbly tech kids, drug deals, makeout sessions, drunken fights, occasional shootings, and dark, quiet streets of the inner Mission as I headed home to Bernal Heights. There I’d climb into bed, trying not to wake my law student girlfriend who had been asleep for hours at that point, and pass out. I don’t remember having a single dream for years.

Outside of those walks, Heart was my cell. I’d be chasing after servers to make sure they knew the Belluard Les Alpes Gringet that tasted like maitake mushrooms was 86’d. Sprinting to the back to find the supposed last phantom bottle of the 2002 Huet Petillant Reserve. Hurrying to the kitchen to check on the cheese plate and blade steaks for table six before they lost their minds. There was no walking in my garage.

Photo by Judy Parker

I went back to the garage the other week while on vacation in San Francisco with my wife and 18-month-old son. It’s now a beautiful, high-end pasta bar. My wood ceiling has been stripped and whitened. There’s a lot more marble, and a gleaming new kitchen. But it’s the same concrete floor, the same stools, the same bar.

It looks like the kind of place that I would love to eat. I’m sure it’s delicious. It’s clearly the work of seasoned hands.

Walking into the space, I didn’t really remember ever being there. It felt like an uncomfortable dream that you know is about to end. It made me anxious. I knew that I built what I was seeing, but it had been reincarnated into something so similar yet so different that I questioned my memory.

Despite the semi-annual New York Times pieces (and all the other press), 24th Street isn’t so different. It still has that energy. And in the time that has passed, it has businesses that have persisted while a similar space in New York would have seen five new tenants. San Francisco has undoubtedly changed. But the pace of change is slow enough that I still couldn’t tell if what I was experiencing when I walked those same streets was reality or a lucid dream.

I thought about walking into the garage and saying, “Hey, I started this place, this once was mine.” Instead, I stood awkwardly in the entrance and quietly snapped a few photographs with my phone. I mumbled something about coming back later for dinner. But I couldn’t do that. The garage in my memory is all that I have left, and I prefer to keep it that way.