Streetwise: What’s Changed

by Frank Dunnigan

During my recent two -year sabbatical from writing STREETWISE for Western Neighborhoods Project on, many changes were taking place in San Francisco. Thanks to WNP Executive Director Nicole Meldahl, STREETWISE is back and we’re launching a complimentary series of blog posts that will highlight some of the nearly 52,000 historical images available here. As of 2021, STREETWISE is no longer limited to the western neighborhoods!

To start us off, here are some changes from the past two years across many San Francisco neighborhoods.

ALFRED’S STEAKHOUSE—After 92 years in business, San Francisco’s oldest steakhouse closed down permanently in October 2020. This wasn’t a Covid casualty, however. Owner Al Petri temporarily closed the steakhouse in May 2019 for renovations and it never reopened.

AMBASSADOR TOYS—Facing a declining population of local children since the year 2000, the toy store (opened in 1997) closed both its locations permanently—Embarcadero Center and West Portal Avenue—in pre-Covid January 2020.

Don Lee Cadillac dealership building, at O'Farrell and Van Ness, circa 1925.Don Lee Cadillac dealership building, at O’Farrell and Van Ness, circa 1925. (wnp4.1445; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

AMC VAN NESS 14 THEATRE—Originally built as the Don Lee Cadillac dealership at 1000 Van Ness Avenue in 1921, Van Ness Avenue’s Auto Row was fading from the scene as new businesses came to the area prior to the turn of the millennium. The old dealership’s ornate lobby provided an entrance to a new theatre complex in 1998. That multiplex closed in February 2019 and is currently being remodeled to 4D-format—still 14 screens, but with a slightly reduced overall seating capacity in order to accommodate new food service.

ANGKOR BOREI—One of the only Cambodian restaurants in San Francisco had been in business on Mission Street at the border of the Mission/Bernal neighborhoods since the 1980s. Covid restrictions left the business with only take-out and delivery options and the long-time owners decided to close/retire in June 2020.

Avenue Theater on San Bruno Avenue near Burrows, May 1968.Avenue Theater on San Bruno Avenue near Burrows, May 1968. (wnp67.0005; Jack Tillmany Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

AVENUE THEATRE—This landmark of the Portola District’s San Bruno Avenue was built in 1927, closed in 1984, and saw a revitalization in 2017. This is when its Art Deco neon sign was restored and re-lighted nightly as part of a neighborhood upgrade that included moving utility lines underground. In June 2019, Churn Urban Creamery became a new tenant in the space once occupied by Hagi’s Coffee Shop.

BADLANDS NIGHTCLUB—Operating on 18th Street since 1975, the location closed permanently in July 2020, several months into Covid.

BEACH BLANKET BABYLON—The world’s longest running musical revue (1974-2019) closed pre-Covid, and is well-remembered by appreciative audiences. The City preserved its memory when the 600 block of Green Street, between Columbus and Powell, was renamed Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard in 1996.

CABLE CARS—San Francisco’s entire cable car system has been temporarily shut down since March 2020 due to Covid, with no official re-opening date yet announced. There is occasionally a car on display at the Powell and Market cable car turnaround thanks to the Union Square Business Improvement District with support from the SFMTA and the Market Street Railway.

CAESAR’S—The beloved Italian eatery at Bay & Powell Streets, operating from 1956 until 2012 (home to long Friday lunches, after-work gatherings, and memorable retirement dinners), remained a ghostly vacancy for eight years until a crew arrived in mid-2020 to demolish the old structure for construction of a six-story condo building.

Cake Gallery cake for book signing, 2014. (Courtesy of Frank Dunnigan)

CAKE GALLERY—Operating for 38 years South-of-Market, producing high-quality cakes with photo images in frosting (X-rated versions upon request!). The Gallery announced a permanent closure in September 2020, but then updated its website to reflect a new location in the Potrero.

View across Ghirardelli Square at The Mandarin restaurant, May 27, 1973.View across Ghirardelli Square at The Mandarin restaurant, May 27, 1973. (wnp12.00654; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

CHANG, CECILIA—Founder and long-time manager of The Mandarin Restaurant, who introduced authentic Chinese cuisine to San Francisco in the 1960s, died in October 2020 age the age of 100.

CLAY THEATRE—Upper Fillmore Street’s 110-year-old Clay Theatre was closed permanently by owner Balgobind Jaiswal, pre-Covid, in January 2020, after longtime operator Landmark Theatres pulled out. This might not be the end, though. In March 2020, Supervisor Catherine Stefani introduced legislation that would require conditional use permits to be approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to change the operation of a single-screen theater. Plus, The Neighborhood Theater Foundation might be interested in purchasing it.

View over future Flower Market site toward Coca Cola sign, circa 1955.View over future Flower Market site toward Coca Cola sign, circa 1955. (wnp32.2038; Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)

COCA-COLA SIGN—The 112-foot-tall double-sided lighted sign atop a South-of-Market building was a familiar sight for Bay Bridge drivers since 1937—the year after the bridge opened. The twinkling lights went out and the sign was removed in October 2020 due to increased rental costs. Along with the old Union 76 clock tower (constructed in the early 1950s/demolished in 2005) the Coke sign greeted decades of City-bound drivers with a clear reminder that they were “home”.

CPMC-VAN NESS—San Francisco’s newest hospital, part of California-Pacific Medical Center, opened in 2020 on the site of the long-closed Jack Tar/Cathedral Hill Hotel (opened in 1960) that was demolished in 2013-14.

DOWNTOWN FLOWER STANDS—An endangered species for years, Covid and the resulting reduction in downtown pedestrian traffic has placed tremendous pressure on the few remaining outlets.

ELITE CAFÉ—After 38 years in business on upper Fillmore Street in a location that housed a restaurant for nearly 100 years, Elite Café closed its doors in pre-Covid April 2019.

FORT MASON FLIX—San Francisco’s first drive-in movie theater located completely within the city limits in 65+ years—since the closure of Alemany Boulevard’s short-lived Terrace Drive-in (1951-54)—opened in September 2020.

Gump's Department Store on Post near Stockton, July 1958.Gump’s Department Store on Post near Stockton, July 1958. (wnp25.1415; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

GUMP’S—One of San Francisco’s oldest downtown businesses opened as an art/frame shop in 1861. Expanding into china, crystal, silver, home furnishings, and fine jewelry, the store was a long-time fixture on Post Street. It closed in December 2018, though it re-emerged in 2019-20 on a smaller scale as an online/catalog operation.

HARRINGTON’S BAR & GRILL—Operating on Front Street in the Financial District since 1935, the classic watering hole announced a temporary closure on St. Patrick’s Day 2020—normally a time of high festivities when lines of waiting customers used to wrap around the block. In September 2020, third-generation owner Michael Harrington sadly announced that the closure was permanent.

Interior of It’s Tops Coffee Shop on Market Street, 2019. (Paul Martin, photographer / Courtesy of Frank Dunnigan)

IT’S TOPS COFFEE SHOP—The 85-year old diner was one of a dwindling few spots along Market Street to offer hot breakfasts and lunches in a sit-down atmosphere with comfortable booths and counter service. Temporarily shuttered in the early days of Covid, the owners removed the vintage outdoor neon sign and interior memorabilia in June 2020, announcing that the closure was permanent.

LUCCA RAVIOLI—Located at 22nd & Valencia Streets in the Mission, the shop had been stocking Italian groceries and much-loved ravioli with sauce since 1925. This was NOT a story of greedy landlords nor was it pandemic-related, but simply that the owner who had been running things for 50+ years chose to retire in April 2019. (Note: Lucca Delicatessen on Chestnut Street in the Marina is a separate entity that remains in business.)

LYON, PHYLLIS—The LGBT pioneer/activist died in April 2020 at the age of 95. She and long-time partner Del Martin were among the first same-sex couples to be issued a marriage license by the City and County of San Francisco in 2004.

MISSION DOLORES—The “new” Church at 16th & Dolores Streets turned 100 years old at Christmas 2018. An upcoming column will trace the long history of the buildings and adjacent cemetery at the site.

Northpoint Theater at Powell and Bay, May 1968.Northpoint Theater at Powell and Bay, May 1968. (wnp5.50392; Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)

NORTHPOINT THEATRE—San Francisco’s last-built single-screen movie house opened in 1967 at Bay & Powell Streets, and closed in 1997. The building remained vacant for 20+ years before re-emerging as a store/office location for Goodwill Industries in 2019.

PACIFIC TELEPHONE & TELEGRAPH—An early downtown high-rise built nearly 100 years ago, the iconic building at 140 New Montgomery served as corporate headquarters for 75+ years, though various mergers led to an 8-year vacancy in this millennium. Plans for conversion to upscale condominiums did not materialize, and the structure has now been restored/upgraded for office use by multiple tenants.

PRESIDIO THEATRE—Located within the Presidio since 1938 (same name but different from the Chestnut Street movie house), the venue was renovated into a performing arts center by the National Park Service in October 2019.

ROTUNDA RESTAURANT—Operating beneath the historic stained-glass City of Paris dome at Neiman-Marcus since the early 1980s, the restaurant closed temporarily at the start of the pandemic. There was an attempt to reopen by the holiday season, but new restrictions on indoor dining emerged. The future remains uncertain because of the retailer’s corporate bankruptcy.

SAM JORDAN’S BAR—One of San Francisco’s oldest African-American-owned businesses—a fixture on the 4000 block of Third Street in the Bayview since 1959—closed permanently in November 2020. Founder Sam Jordan settled in San Francisco in 1947 following Navy service in World War II. His name will continue as a neighborhood presence because the City renamed a one-block section of adjacent Galvez Avenue in his honor in 2019.

Costumed women at California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, April 18, 1939.Costumed women at California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, April 18, 1939. (wnp28.0262; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

SAN FRANCISCO ART INSTITUTE—Founded in 1871, the school announced in April 2020 that it was no longer accepting applications from prospective first-year students—leading to speculation about a possible closure. The 800 Chestnut Street campus, with its Mission-tile roof and iconic tower, built in 1926, remains closed, though the Fall 2020 semester began with online learning. In an effort to clear its debt, SFAI was looking to possibly sell the famous Diego Rivera mural, ‘The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” at the Chestnut campus, allegedly to George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. Recent efforts to landmark it might prevent the sale.

ST. FRANCIS FOUNTAIN—San Francisco’s oldest ice cream parlor has celebrated over 100 years as part of the 24th Street commercial corridor in the Mission. In 2020, the owner cited many difficulties in running a small business in San Francisco, alluding to the possibility of a future closure. It’s worth noting that the fountain opened in 1918, a year marked by world war and the Spanish Flu. Hopefully its status as a legacy business will help it withstand another pandemic in 2020, even though it’s limited it to take-out orders only.

SIR FRANCIS DRAKE HOTEL—In 1976, teenager Tom Sweeney put on a red Beefeater uniform and began working as a doorman at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Smiling and personable, he was a familiar figure to locals and tourists for the next 43½ years until his retirement in January 2020 at the age of 62. Another big change at the hotel? Harry Denton’s classic Starlight Room received a drastic makeover at the end of 2019. Now it’s known as Lizzie’s Starlight nightclub and has a Queen Elizabeth I theme.

TARANTINO’S—The Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant, operating since 1947, closed permanently, pre-Covid, in early February 2020.

Temple Sherith Israel at California and Webster, 1906.Temple Sherith Israel at California and Webster, 1906. (wnp37.01230; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

TEMPLE SHERITH ISRAEL—Temple Sherith Israel at California and Webster Streets was completed in 1905. In January 2019, the congregation celebrated repayment of the final $1 million on its recent $16 million, 7-year retrofit.

THE STUD—Long-time South-of-Market leather bar that opened in 1966 and welcomed people of all backgrounds—Dianne Feinstein even campaigned there in the 1980s—closed permanently in June 2020.

VAN NESS BUS RAPID TRANSIT—The project, involving dedicated lanes for MUNI buses/boarding platforms down the middle of Van Ness Avenue from Market Street to Lombard Street, plus utilities upgrades that removed historic street lamps installed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, was approved by the Board of Supervisors in September 2013. The massive undertaking is ongoing, with final completion anticipated in 2021-22.