Noe Valley Voice November 2009

And Now for the Rumors Behind the News: Food Glorious Food

By Mazook

MAZOOK'S REGULAR MEETING with agents from the Noe Valley Bureau of Investigation proved quite interesting last month.

Since the meeting was at high noon, the Mazookmobile went to Whole Foods to get all the ingredients for lunch. (It was my turn.) My menu consisted of my fantastic egg salad sandwiches served on spongy white bread with some potato chips and cola. I was able to get ALL the ingredients (eggs, celery, red onion, mayo, sweet relish, lettuce, mustard, and strips of cheddar cheese optional, and organic white bread).

I made the salad and served it at the end of the meeting. After the meal, the attendees wanted to know why I'd changed my egg salad recipe and they advised me next time to bring the "old" egg salad, the one that came on Wonder Bread, okay? But we will return to that story after I share with you the rest of the agenda at that very important meeting.

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CODE CUTS: At the top of the list of agenda items was legislation introduced before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last month by our own District 8 supervisor, Bevan Dufty.

According to the agents, Dufty wants to make changes to the section of the city planning code that regulates the 24th Street Noe Valley Neighborhood Commercial District (NVNCD), our main shopping strip. The section (728) puts limits on bars, restaurants, coffee stores, takeout food places, and financial institutions "situated along 24th Street between Chattanooga and Diamond."

In 1987, when the current controls were established, the reasons were stated thusly: "In order to maintain the variety and mix of retail sales and services along the commercial strip and to control the problems of traffic, congestion, noise, and late-night activity, certain potentially troublesome commercial uses are regulated."

Dufty's proposed legislation, my sources told me, "would remove the additional conditional use criteria for full-service restaurants and permit small self-service restaurants and self-service specialty food establishments with a conditional use." In other words, the amendment would lift the existing moratorium on the above-mentioned businesses.

As many longtime residents know, Section 728 was enacted largely through the efforts of the Friends of Noe Valley and the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The concept back then was to keep the commercial uses on the ground floors of 24th and Castro streets, in order to protect the number of residential units on the floors above. The consensus also was that the 24th Street commercial corridor should be a diverse mix of businesses providing a "basic neighborhood service," which the code states "shall be considered to include, but not necessarily be limited to, the following: hardware stores, shoe repair facilities, bookstores, and grocery stores that sell a wide variety of staple goods and collect less than 50% of gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages."

In later decades, many local residents decided they wanted more restaurants in Downtown Noe Valley. Neighborhood groups including Friends of Noe Valley, the Noe Valley Association, and the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association sponsored changes in the ordinance four years ago to allow three "new" full-service restaurant permits to be issued by the Planning Department.

One permit went to what is now Contigo restaurant on Castro Street. A second went to a soup cafe that wanted to open on the ground floor of B.J. Droubi's former real estate office (on 24th next to Barney's). The third permit went to the folks who own Regent Thai at Church and 29th streets, who have plans to open a new "Asian fusion" restaurant on the corner of Church and 25th streets.

Currently there are no new restaurant permits available. So the only time a new restaurant can open is when another one closes. That would change under the Dufty amendment.

According to Supervisor Dufty and his staff in the "Legislative Digest" part of the amendment: "The restrictions on restaurants and specialty food establishments were put in place more than 20 years ago, before the City enacted the controls on formula retail establishments that are now in the Planning Code. Due to the current economic downturn, there are currently significant vacancies of storefronts on 24th Street. Since formula retail controls are now in place to protect the neighborhood, the residents would like to open up the street to new food options and allow new small self-service restaurants and...specialty food establishments with a conditional use."

When questioned by the NVBI, Dufty said there is "a long way to go before this proposal becomes law, including a review by the Planning Commission. I am planning to have a town hall meeting to have a public discussion" of the proposal. Dufty said he will be arranging a date with the Friends of Noe Valley for sometime in early February.

Friends of Noe Valley President Richard May will be glad to work with Dufty to determine the date and venue. "I don't know if we will want to have [the meeting] in the community room of Saint Philip's or reserve the auditorium at James Lick," May said. In other words, he thinks there may be big crowds.

As for his group's reaction, May said, "Friends of Noe Valley supported the addition of three new restaurant permits" authorized in 2005, "but we have not yet taken a stance on whether to support or oppose this legislation.

"What if each of our 550 members decided that they wanted to come to the town hall meeting and get involved in the discussion?" asked May.

He is sending out a call to members who would like to help organize this event. Send May an e-mail through the FNV website,

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WITH YOUR PERMISSION: Item No. 2 on the NVBI agenda was a report on the status of the three restaurant permits.

The first new restaurant permit went to Contigo, which took almost three years to build out, pass inspection, and finally open earlier this year. It has proved, so far, to be a very popular dinner destination, not only for Noe neighbors but also among Bay Areans. Reviews have been good, and lines stretch out the door on the weekends.

The second permit went for a tiny limited-menu restaurant that was set to open last February in B.J. Droubi's old office at 4128 24th Street. You might recall (see Rumors, November 2008) that Rachel Settels, who with her husband Norman Fargo owns the building, was going to team up with Maureen Earl to open Noe Soup in the 350-square-foot space.

Well, Noe Soup will never open, and the space will most likely stay vacant. Settels says she and Earl no longer have plans to open a restaurant at the site (or anywhere else).

"When we learned that a complicated vent system would be required and that Whole Foods would be opening a takeout food counter, we decided to stop the project," said Settels.

Opening day seems equally distant for the third restaurant to win a permit: the "Asian fusion" eatery that was going to open at Church and 25th streets. The owners say their restaurant is stalled "because of the downturn in the economy."

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EATERIES OPEN AND CLOSED: Item 3 on the agenda focused on the available spaces in downtown Noe Valley for new restaurants that might want to cater to us liberal loonies in the neighborhood.

Of course, the big news on the food front was the abrupt closure of Bistro 24 last month, after a mere three months of existence on 24th above Castro.

"It didn't work out," says restaurateur Stefano Coppola. "It's just that simple." Before Bistro 24, he'd operated City Grill for six months. Coppola (who owns Lupa's next door) had bought the restaurant from Kookez, which also had a struggle.

Coppola now confirms that the restaurant will remain closed and is currently for sale. The listing price is $198K, and Coppola says he also is negotiating with a potential partner who may join him and reopen the restaurant with a different menu.

As for the space down the street vacated recently by Mi Lindo Yucatan Restaurant (at 4042 24th Street), it is currently very much under construction. The downstairs restaurant space is being extended out in the back yard, doubling the space, and improvements are being made to the residential units on the second and third floors.

The architect of this project, Ahmad Mohazab, says the property owner "is expanding the commercial restaurant space to 2,500 square feet."

Mohazab was a longtime Noe Valleyan (he recently moved to the East Bay) and through his company located on 19th Street, Tecta Associates, did the plans for several other local restaurants, like Pasta Pomodoro and Fresca.

Mohazab could not verify what specific plans, if any, the building owner had or who would take over the space. A spokesperson for the building owner would only confirm that the restaurant space would be leased next year.

Also, the NVBI says rumors are rampant on Main Street that another restaurant may be for sale, "for less than $80,000," but those rumors have not been confirmed by the restaurant's owner.

Lastly, DNV's newest eating establishment, La Boulange, should open this month (likely to rave reviews) on the corner of 24th and Sanchez. Curiously, you can also get La Boulange's bread products at Whole Foods.

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IN MORE STORED-UP NEWS: The vacant store up on Diamond near 24th Street most recently occupied by Just Awesome Games is currently available for rent. The building owners, Carol and Bill Yenne, are asking $2,950 per month (on Craigslist) for the 1,000-square-foot space.

"We are interested in tenants to use it for office or retail purposes," says Carol, "and before the game store, we had a financial title company with offices, and before that Edward Jones had the space.

"We have found that about half of those who inquire about renting want to open a food-related business like a juice bar or gourmet donuts, and the other half are looking for professional office space," Carol says.

Just Awesome has moved up to West Portal and is now located at 320 West Portal Avenue (at 14th Avenue). The new store opened on Oct. 23.

"We were able to partner with a Noe Valley family who invested in the business, and we tried to find a bigger space in Noe Valley," said Awesome's Erik Mantsch, "but the rents were just too high."

He said Riki's old space at 4037 24th and GNC's at 3934 24th Street were asking about $5,000 per month, and that the Streetlight Records (3979) and Phoenix Books (24th and Vicksburg) buildings were both for sale.

A quick check with the Phoenix building owner, Sue Bowie, confirmed that her building was on the market for $2.25 million.

As for the Streetlight building, the owner says he's asking $2.2 million, and that several potential buyers have told him they are interested in opening a food service business.

There are also rumors that the building in which Mylene's Hair Salon resides may soon be sold. Mylene refused to comment on the building's current status, but did not deny that she is looking to relocate her salon in Downtown Noe Valley, where it has been a fixture for the past 38 years.

The same building harbors Nina's psychic services. Nina must have a sense as to whether she's going to have to move, but she isn't talking either.

And then there is the large vacant storefront closed down by Real Food Company six years ago. How much longer will that space be a black hole on our commercial strip? Well...

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REAL FRESH NEWS: When Dufty was asked if he'd heard anything about Real Food's space, he replied with a question: "Do you want to bet a Noe Valley brunch that you will see some work starting at that space by the end of this year?"

Oh, sure. Actual work, Bevan? No way.

I talked it over with agents of the NVBI, who advised me to get some long odds. Notwithstanding the admonition, that's a bet, Bevan. If I lose, Dufty knows what he's getting for brunch: egg salad sandwiches on classic white bread with chips and a beverage of his choice.

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AS FOR MY FAMOUS EGG SALAD, it appears I will not be able to get all my ingredients from Whole Foods. I will have to walk down to Shufat's Market for the missing item. Yes, it's the Best Foods brand of mayonnaise. The healthy choice at Whole Foods just doesn't cut it.

When I registered a complaint about the glaring omission to Whole Foods, I was politely informed that the policy would continue.

Says store management team member Melanie Holt, "none of our stores carry this product because it contains Calcium Disodium EDTA." When I look at my Best label, it is indeed in the contents and "used to protect quality." I would say it is doing a good job of that, so it's off to Shufat's I go.

However, Holt says the store has taken many customer suggestions to heart and now carries a long list of requested products. For example, you can find small whole wheat pitas, Beckman's nine-grain sourdough bread, more kinds of tortillas, non-organic sugar, Bob's Red Mill flaxseed, Akmak crackers, Whole Soy & Co. vanilla yogurt, hominy, organic vanilla extract, and mache rosettes.

That's 30.