Two beloved SF brunch spots that date back to the 1990s have taken their leave in the last week, and this one will hurt for longtime residents of a neighborhood that was once briefly called Multimedia Gulch.
Back before anyone was even calling it the Dot Com Boom, tech offices and restaurants that served their young workers were springing up in the 90s in the Mission/Potrero border region that got nicknamed Multimedia Gulch. Most of those former restaurants are long gone, with the Slow Club (now The Morris) one of the last to say goodbye back in 2015. But Universal Cafe on 19th Street has held on, serving the neighborhood and anyone lucky enough to discover it. That is, until last weekend.
As Tablehopper reports, owners Leslie Carr-Avalos, Armando Avalos, and Wendy St. John have been running the show since buying the place in 2004 from original owners Bob Vorhees and Gail Deferrari — Carr-Avalos was a sous chef under former chef Jessica McClasky in the early years. And while they survived the pandemic doing takeout and prix fixes for the neighborhood, they're calling it quits.
The main reason, as Carr-Avalos tells the Chronicle, was that the lease on the space was up, and they were unable to negotiate a new lease they could afford after pandemic-related losses.
"It’s not financially worth it. You have to make a hard choice, and we did," Carr-Avalos says.
Universal Cafe opened in 1994, first as just a cool coffeeshop and casual restaurant, but McClasky was credited with elevating the place and gaining the notice of former Chronicle critic Michael Bauer. Another chef who took over after McClasky, Jennifer Biesty — now the chef-owner of Shakewell in Oakland — went on to have some TV fame on Top Chef and Chopped.
While Universal Cafe was a beloved touchstone for many in the neighborhood, it was perhaps most well known as a brunch destination, with its pumpkin French toast, soft-scrambled eggs, and house-made sourdough English muffins being staples.
Carr-Avalos tells Tablehopper she was surprised at some of the emotion she saw in regulars when they announced the closure — which happened after brunch service on Sunday.
"I didn’t expect that," she says, after one customer burst into tears. "But we’re like an old friend, we always showed up. You don’t survive for 28 years without caring for people."
The closure of Universal Cafe follows on news of the permanent closure of another, longtime, uber popular breakfast and brunch place, Dottie's True Blue Cafe. Dottie's announced its closure last weekend after 30 years in business.