There’s a reason they call it the Elite

Photograph by Zabrina Tipton

By Chris Barnett

In my 35 years of libational research, I’ve found few saloons where women consistently outnumber guys at the bar. One is the Elite Cafe, the eating and drinking den at 2049 Fillmore, busy since the day it debuted in 1981.

The spot opened in 1928 as the Lincoln Grill. In 1932, with Prohibition drying up thirst parlors, it became a chop suey house called the Asia Cafe — and supposedly a front for a bookie joint in the basement.

As the story goes, the phone company couldn’t understand why there were 50 trunk lines into a cafe that didn’t even do takeout. Some say the Asia Cafe ran a full gambling operation in the cellar, but I can’t prove that.

It became the Elite in ’81, launched by the notorious serial bar and restaurant owner Sam DuVall, who these days owns Izzy’s in the Marina and Larkspur, with a Cajun theme that remains today. In the Elite’s most recent incarnation under owner Peter Snyderman, the food has become more authentic.

Much of the interior and exterior has hardly been touched. The wooden booths remain, with the scars to prove they’re vintage. From the high ceilings hang wooden fans lazily whirling above sculpted Deco lights. It looks very New Orleans.

In a relatively recent facelift, owner Synderman had the good sense to use restraint. The oyster bar and the sofa that replaced it for a few months are both now gone, giving way to tall bar tables and stools by the front windows. And there is outside seating on Fillmore, warmed by electrical heaters under an unfortunate new bonnet not quite in keeping with the magnificent Art Deco facade.

And then there’s the bar, which now opens at 4 p.m. No two-for-one happy hours, which would only bring the tattooed 20-somethings looking to get polluted on the cheap. The Elite is more upmarket.

From 4 to 6, a half dozen oysters on the half shell and a flute of Veuve Clicquot is a package deal for $24. To build up its first hour business, three of Dona Luisa’s stuffed deviled eggs and the Elite’s fresh-out-of-the-oven biscuits are gratis appetizers. After 5, they go on your tab.

Full disclosure: I use the Elite bar with its brass footrail as my second office and conference room. I like the upholstered bar chairs at the east end of the L-shaped plank and the circa-1920 swivel chairs bolted down at the other end — once only for diners but now available to drinkers, too. Even thought the decibel level can drive you daft, the atmosphere is cheery and I can concentrate there.

The Elite’s magnet for me and many other customers are its bartenders. They’re mostly in their 20s and 30s, but are pro mixologists with cocktail and conversational savvy. Look for Jake, Fabian, Derrick, Thara and Heather — all are exceptionally personable and welcoming, with no arrogance or attitude. It’s one of the best lineups of barkeeps I’ve seen in the city.

Like most friendly saloons with food, the Elite lets you eat at the bar. Linen is unfurled, silver is set, pretty good French bread arrives and there’s a choice of bites from a short bar menu — or you can order from the full dinner menu. Some dishes and drinks are on the pricey side, but Snyderman and his staff don’t skimp on portions, so you get value for your money.

At least 20 wines are served by the glass, which makes the Elite a standout saloon in my book. Too many bars pour only four to six wines by the glass. There’s a list of 10 specialty cocktails, including the Sazerac, said to be America’s first cocktail, born in New Orleans.

Sudslovers are not shortchanged at the Elite. Eight taps stand at attention behind the bar. Try Abida, a New Orleans amber ale, at $5 a pint. Barman Jake says the Elite is possibly the only San Francisco bar with the New Orleans brew on draught.

Another big plus for the Elite is the bouillabaisse of people who come in to elbow-bend and unwind. As I’m writing this, a woman named Jennifer sits down next to me for a glass of merlot. Why the Elite? “It’s across the street from the laundromat,” she says. “My washer broke down and I’m flying out to Nicaragua at 1 a.m.”

On the two barstools by the window are Tony and Annie Lovell, out celebrating her birthday. They love New Orleans and have visited 16 times. Says Tony, an Australian, “I remember when this was the Asia Cafe.”

So tell me, was there a bookie operation or a gambling den downstairs
in those days?

“You’re kidding. If there was, I never saw it.”

Chris Barnett writes about the world’s great saloons. He lives and works in the neighborhood.


One Response

  1. Chris Barnett’s interesting article about the Elite Cafe said it originally opened in 1928 as the Lincoln Grill, but in 1932, with Prohibition, it became the Asia Cafe.

    That was the name when I moved to San Francisco in 1956. At first I lived at Baker Acres, a wonderful co-ed residence club located at the corner of Jackson and Baker Streets. In those days there were many such residence clubs that supplied housing and meals for the thousands of young adults who moved to the city in the years following World War II.

    Very few of the residence clubs served meals on Sunday evenings, and that is what drew me to the Asia Cafe at 2049 Fillmore Street, just a short walk from Baker Acres.

    The sign that hangs outside the Elite now is exactly the same sign that was there in the ’50s, except the wording was “The Asia Cafe.” The wooden booths inside were the same, but the prices were definitely different. I remember getting a four-course meal — soup, salad and a meat dish with potato and vegetable, finished off with coffee and a dish of ice cream — all for a total cost of 85 cents.

    Sometimes the menu would include a special steak dinner. One Sunday evening, feeling flush, I ordered the steak dinner. Total cost: $1.15. It’s not just the name that has changed over the past 50 years!

    But even in the 1950s, the prices at the Asia Cafe made it one of the best bargains in San Francisco.

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