August 21, 2002

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Café klatch

IF YOU ARE the publisher of a book about San Francisco's cafés, you are probably wise to not subtitle it "the complete guide" or otherwise lay claim to a completeness that isn't possible in this life. For if "café" means "a place that serves coffee," then our city is rich beyond counting in cafés. Several years ago, during one of Noe Valley's periodic flare-ups about food establishments, it was noted in a neighborhood newspaper that no fewer than 14 establishments served coffee along a three-block stretch of 24th Street from Church to Castro.

So TCB Café Publishing, the force behind The Cafes of San Francisco ($15.95), is wise at least to that extent. The authorless book is more circumspectly described by its subtitle as "a guide" to San Francisco's café culture. The task of cultural inflation is left in the capable hands of his honor the mayor, who informs us, in an introductory blurb, that "San Francisco has always attracted the brightest and most creative minds" through its "propensity for creativity and diversity" – a nice bit of civic boosterism that surely gave him (or his factotum) more pleasure to write than would have, say, an explanation of all those For Rent signs one sees continuing to bloom around town.

To page through Cafes is to see the city as the exotically exciting place that's always attracted tourists, though there seem to be far fewer tourists here these days, for reasons that aren't hard to guess. Summer in the city used to be a time when you could walk around downtown and hear practically any language but English. This summer the downtown sound is mostly that of people muttering to themselves, and local newscasts are barren of the stock story about European visitors in shorts freezing to death in the fog. The book's handsomely produced color photos, in that sense, are nicely escapist, glimpses of happier days than these.

The inevitable neighborhood bias is clear: the book describes 14 cafés in North Beach alone and only three in the whole of the Mission, the Castro, and Noe Valley. At first blush this seems like a serious discrepancy, as if the blurb-writing staff either was afraid to leave the northeast quadrant of town or had no idea where to go if they'd dared, but it does, in an odd way, reinforce the book's nostalgic, romantic vision of the city. In The Cafes of San Francisco, dot-com never really happened, the Mission never really swelled and burst, queer people are still migrating here, and North Beach is still abuzz with cultural ferment. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra so deathlessly put it.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com