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END OF AN ERA: The culinary delights of Herb's Fine Foods, a 64-year-old icon on 24th Street, are now part of Noe Valley history. Herb's regulars were stunned to wake up on Tuesday, Sept. 18, and find the diner closed, with no warning. The following morning, workmen loaded up trucks with the restaurant's fixtures, kitchen supplies, and greasy spoons. Over the next few days, many people were seen standing near the entrance under the draped scaffolding (the building is being painted), peering into the windows past the red-and-white-checked curtains and paying their final respects.
One of Herb's regulars, Paul Kantus, a Noe Valley resident since 1926, was especially sad about the cafe's demise. "I've been eating an early [6:30 a.m.] breakfast there for the past 20 years. It had a great ambience for me, and all of us had our same seats and good conversations all these years," Kantus says. "I'm sorry to see Herb's go, especially their affordable prices for us seniors in the neighborhood. I will miss my poached eggs on toast or English muffin, and the bottomless cup of coffee."
So why did Herb's close?
"I had no choice but to close," says owner Rita Kawas. "The landlord wanted me to enter into a new lease and have me pay much more rent than the business could afford to pay, so I had to move out.... They own the building."
Kawas understands the locals' frustration, but says it couldn't be helped. "That's business," she shrugs. "I feel sorry for all our regular customers, so many over the years."
Some say Herb's passing--considering the current Darwinian economic climate, as well as evolving food tastes--was inevitable. In fact, the cafe had an amazingly long run. It opened in 1943 and became Herb's Fine Foods in 1953. In 1974, Herb Gaines sold the restaurant to Sam Kawas, who met Rita, his wife to be, at the lunch counter in the mid-1970s when she became a waitress. Sam and Rita got married in the early '80s, and they ran Herb's together until Sam passed away two years ago.
"It used to be a creamery and soda fountain in the 1930s, because I can remember being a student at Lick Junior High in 1939, and we used to all go there for milkshakes after school," reminisces Kantus, who is our neighborhood's top archivist. "I'll miss it."
When I was starving for items for this column back in 1981, Sam agreed to share the suggestion box at Herb's. One of my favorite suggestions was: "More jus on the roast beef au jus."
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IT'S BEEN A BLUE MOON since the "Blue Church" at Church and 28th streets was reportedly going to be demolished to create a four-story condominium project. It appears that it could be another blue moon before demolition will actually occur.
The September meeting of the Upper Noe Neighbors hosted a spokesperson for the developer, James Branch (1596 Church Street Condominiums, LLC), who bought the church property two years ago. He has been trying to evict the church--officially known as the Church at San Francisco Where Jesus Christ Is Lord, Inc.--and its pastor, Joesiah Bell, since the end of February.
Residents living near the church attended the Neighbors meeting to get an update on the eviction and to report that they had been filing complaints with the city saying the building is serving as a homeless shelter.
The developer's spokesperson, Valerie Camarda, told the crowd that legal action was still pending to evict the church and pastor, and estimated it could take another 45 days before there would be a court hearing.
Pastor Joesiah Bell refused to comment on any of the legal wrangling, and instead referred the Noe Valley Bureau of Investigation (yours truly) to the attorney who is representing the Church at San Francisco, Craig Martin.
According to Martin, there has been previous litigation between the two parties, including an eviction proceeding against the church that was dismissed in May. Another eviction proceeding went to trial at the beginning of July, and the church again prevailed. "They [Branch et al] have also filed a petition to compel arbitration," says Martin, "so this could be going on for a while." Martin notes the key issue in all of this is payment of "the $100,000 relocation fee that was promised but not paid."
The developer's lawyer, Drexel Bradshaw, claims the eviction proceedings are justified because the premises are not being used for church purposes and "half a dozen homeless people are living there." Bradshaw also contends that the "relocation fee has been paid in full" and there is no reason why the church should not give up possession.
Each side is confident in their position, which is the essential ingredient for a lengthy litigation.
However, stay tuned for updates on when the wrecking ball will swing. As we have learned from Herb's, nothing lasts forever.
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SOFAS AND TABLES AND CHAIRS, OH MY: A few blocks up the street, another location is causing a buzz--the former Mikeytom Market at the corner of Church and Day.
As everyone can see from the sign on the freshly painted brown building, the storefront, vacant for over four years, will be opening soon as a contemporary furniture store named Artesanías.
Co-owner Craig Kohler is "excited to open in this neighborhood," and says he and his partners are also expanding their showroom on Greenwich Street in Cow Hollow. When they opened that business, their specialty was hand-crafted furniture imported from Latin America, but for Noe Valley they're also adding some new furniture lines, one-of-a-kind decor like sculptures and oil paintings, and a bigger selection of sofas, chairs, and beds. "We will have a full line of home furnishings and make customer service our number-one priority, which is so important when you are doing business in the neighborhoods," Kohler says.
He's right about that one.
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THE WRECKING BALL is waiting to visit the Real Food Company on 24th Street, vacant since October 2003. However, that ball may not arrive for at least another year. The demolition permit application was made in April, and the process can take around 18 months. The plan is to have a first-floor retail store and residential units above.
However, responding to pressure from the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association to clean up the façade of the building so it's not such an eyesore, the building owner, Nutraceutical Corporation, has applied a fresh coat of mustard-yellow paint to the front of the building and promised to fix the broken windows.
Of course, if Whole Foods takes over Bell Market across the street--a move that is thought to be a strong possibility (see last month's Voice)--then Real Food may never move back into the space. That presents an interesting scenario. Maybe Nutraceutical can sell its property to Whole Foods, which can then demolish the building and construct an extra parking lot for its customers, with an elevated crosswalk linking the two buildings. Yeah, right.
Up the street at the store recently vacated by Rite Aid, it looks as if Wells Fargo Bank will be moving into half of the space and renting out the other half, according to an update from the August meeting of the Noe Valley Merchants. They would not say who is going to take over the other half, but the rumor on the street is that it will become an office of the California State Automobile Association (AAA), which is closing down its main Van Ness Avenue headquarters and setting up satellites.
Michael Glazer has closed his Downtown Noe Valley Allstate Insurance office at 1326 Castro (below the Noe Valley Law Office), and now is located in Downtown San Mateo at 1300 Dore Avenue, near where he lives.
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MURAL AL FRESCO: The parking lot owned by the Noe Valley Ministry (at 24th and Vicksburg) and home to the Saturday Farmers' Market will soon be adorned by murals by famed muralist Mona Caron. The art will cover the walls of the two buildings on either side of the lot, Pete's Cleaners on the east and Haystack Pizza on the west.
Caron started painting in mid-August and hopes to have both murals finished by next May. The mural on Pete's will have two scenes of Noe Valley from the past--one of the semi-rural Rancho San Miguel in the late 1800s and another of the 1930s cablecar line at 24th and Castro. A third scene on the same mural will depict "a utopian future vision" of Noe Valley, she says, with bike paths, trees, solar-powered buildings, and birds flying overhead. Haystack's wall will have a present-day panorama of 24th Street from Grand View to the Mission.
Look for both walls to bear Caron's botanical stamp: huge plants and flowers. "There will be vegetables, or rather flowers and leaves of vegetables, such as artichokes," she says, "and also a floating ribbon weaving in and out of the plants, and on the ribbon will be detailed scenes of images of Noe Valley at different times."
Caron says she and her assistant, Lisa Ruth Elliot, and a crew of volunteers from the community will be painting on a daily basis until spring. The mural project has a grant from the city as well as approval from the Arts Commission, plus lots of input from local residents and businesses.
Speaking of muralists, kudos to Noe Valley filmmaker Laurie Coyle, who co-directed (with Rick Tejada-Flores) the documentary Orozco: Man of Fire. The one-hour film about Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) premiered nationally on PBS's American Masters series Sept. 19.
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DIAMOND ANNIVERSARY: Twin Peaks Realty and its Noe Valley owner Harry Aleo in September celebrated 60 years of doing business in Downtown Noe Valley. Aleo opened his real estate business in 1947 in the spot where Haystack Pizza is now, and moved to his present location up 24th Street near Castro in 1958. He has been a mover and a shaker in Noe Valley for all these years, once serving the Noe Valley Merchants Association as its president.
These days, he has hit the national spotlight for his fast horses. First, it was Lost in the Fog. Now it is sprinter Smokey Stover, who will be running in the Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey, on the last weekend in October.
To commemorate his 60th, Aleo put a fresh sign in his famous store window: "Hey, Loonies. Sept. 7 is the 60th anniversary of Twin Peaks Properties, the oldest original-owner business in Looney Valley. When we opened, cable cars ran over Castro Street. The Fox and Noe Theaters were in their prime. The Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were only nine years old [actually 10 and 11, respectively], Harry Truman was president. No Starbucks, no cell phones, no laptops, no lattes. No left-wing liberal loonies. It was a great city! Congratulations are in order. Don't all rush in at once."
Congrats, Harry. Here's hoping for 60 more.
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CONGRATULATIONS also go out to the hundreds of you who participated in the "Loren Schaller Blood Drive for Three Heroes," organized by Fair Oaks Street residents Kathleen Albert and Madeline Pfeiffer. The blood drive was held on Sept. 15 at St. Philip's Church, which donated space for the event.
As reported last month, Noe Valley teen Loren Schaller was attacked by a mentally disturbed man with a knife while she was standing in line at Creighton's Bakery up by Tower Market last May. Three Good Samaritans came to her aid, one of whom was a doctor who probably saved her life.
Says Pfeiffer, "The blood drive was a spectacular event, and really showed us all what a great community spirit exists in our neighborhood. Hundreds of people turned out to donate blood, and I am told that the 120 pints we collected was a large number when it comes to these kinds of events."
Loren's parents, Linda and Tim Schaller told the Voice in September they were accompanying 15-year-old Loren to St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri for nerve-transfer surgery on her right arm. They expected to return on Oct. 3 if all went well.
"Loren is one of the Hoffman Avenue Halloween haunted house creators," notes her mom. "Unfortunately, we won't have a haunted house this year."
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THAT'S ALL, you all, and the best of luck to you, Loren. We are rooting for your complete recovery. Ciao for now.