Art’s Cafe Gave Me a Sense of Belonging in San Francisco, Now it’s Gone

The diner merged greasy-spoon staples with Korean dishes and ingredients. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

Early on in the pandemic, my boyfriend and I decided the only things we truly care about in San Francisco are the Alemany Flea Market and Art’s Cafe. As long as they both emerged on the other side of this thing, we decided, San Francisco was still worth it. (Worth the expense, the constant exodus of friends, the steady decimation of the arts scene that supports both our careers.)

To us, the existence of those two institutions guaranteed the soul of the city was intact—hibernating until it was safe to welcome us back.

Now, I’m not so sure the San Francisco that emerges on the other side of this thing will be recognizable, let alone soulful. And the institutions that make a city unique—those that offer a sense of belonging, create pockets of affordability or are simply mom-and-pop joints—may all disappear before we have a chance to say goodbye.

The Alemany Flea Market will return. It’s too scrappy not to. In fact, it tried to open back up a few months into the shutdown, with social distancing and safety precautions. It was a pathetic shadow of its former self: only a few stalls occupied, only a handful of visitors leaning over caution tape to point at vendors’ wares (touching was prohibited). It closed again a few weeks later with the potential of reopening in August.

But then, without warning, Art’s Cafe closed.

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I was ill-prepared for this news, which hit social media courtesy of one of the Inner Sunset diner’s legion die-hard fans. I had never considered the possibility of Art’s not existing. I racked my brain: When had I last eaten there? Did I properly savor those final bites?

It was already hard enough to endure shelter in place without the comfort of Art’s. The narrow diner closed in mid-March; a sign in the window said they’d reopen in early April. But April became May and May became June and suddenly, it was July. No updates.

The counter-only diner almost always had a line out the door. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

Every time I passed the diner in those months, I imagined it bustling instead of empty. In the before-times, counter seats offered a front-row view of the live performance that was Hae Ryong Youn’s cooking. His wife, Sarah, took orders and bossed the customers around. Their nephew prepared ingredients and bussed dishes. Hovering over a wide, sizzling griddle, Hae Ryong (who many called “Art,” presuming he was the diner’s namesake) served up American diner fare alongside Korean dishes, often merging the two into menu items you couldn’t find anywhere else in San Francisco.

Or, in my case, an off-menu item—the bibimbap hash brown sandwich. I did not invent this dish. Rather, I inherited it from other neighborhood friends, some of whom have been eating at Art’s their entire lives.

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It went like this: Over a base of thin and crispy hash browns and a layer of melted cheddar cheese, Hae Ryong would add the veggie elements of bibimbap: mung bean sprouts, shredded carrots, spinach and zucchini. The hash brown “wrapper” was folded over its insides, and topped by two eggs, prepared any way you liked (personally, over medium). Sarah or the couple’s nephew would slide a squeeze bottle of gochujang down the counter and I would dress the whole dish up like a Toaster Strudel, lightly zig-zagging the sweet, savory and spicy sauce across a perfect meal.

If there was a line of people outside the diner waiting for a spot at the counter, Sarah would take orders on the sidewalk to speed up Art’s already streamlined process. The waiting never took too long; once you got the go-ahead to enter the narrow space, hung your coat on a hook and sat down, your dish could arrive a second later.

Because I got the same thing every time I walked the short block to Art’s, Sarah never offered me a menu. The only question was: “Toast or no toast?” (I usually got toast, two slices of wheat bread cut on the diagonal, and even learned to love grape jelly thanks to Art’s.)

Proof of Art's longevity: a still from the 1986 sci-fi 'Howard the Duck,' set in Cleveland, but clearly featuring the diner's Irving Street sign. (Colpa Press)

It gave me so much stupid pleasure to simply be a regular. Art’s engendered this feeling in so many: under the countertop were postcards from dedicated customers, sent to the diner from all over the world. Everyone should know that feeling at some point in their lives—of having your selection preempted, of knowing (even on a transactional level) the people behind the counter, or the bar, or in the back room. I can’t think of much in city life that creates a stronger sense of belonging.

It also breeds fierce loyalty. I brought countless friends and family members to Art’s. Mondays—the only day they were closed—felt less lively. It was my go-to pick-me-up food. After knee surgery, to quell a hangover, or just to start a weekend off on the right foot: Art’s.

Art’s Cafe is closing because Hae Ryong and Sarah are retiring, earlier than planned but is no less deserved. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted, the diner was open six days a week for three decades. They deserve a rest.

I only wish we got to say goodbye. I wish we got to send them off in style, with messages of deep thanks and a neighborhood-wide show of appreciation for keeping us well-fed.

And I worry ever more for all of Art’s brethren—all the neighborhood spots where people sit elbow to elbow, eavesdrop on each other’s conversations and inquire about their neighbors’ delicious-looking off-menu dishes. Things will be so very different when we declare this pandemic “over.” I fear these ways of gathering, of eating in cozy proximity, may become a thing of the past. But more than that, I fear for all the small businesses we have lost and will lose, the places that make San Francisco what it is and invite you to be a part of it.

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A bibimbap hash brown sandwich would really help right now.