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The Last Black Chefs of San Francisco

Even as the city's historic black-owned restaurants go the way of its dwindling African American population, a crop of ambitious chefs fight to keep that legacy alive.

A potluck of the chefs’ favorite dishes. 


READ MORE: Ten black-owned Bay Area restaurants to nourish your soul.

On a Sunday evening in September, some of the best and brightest in San Francisco’s black creative community—artists, activists, curators, poets, professors, and chefs—gathered in the atrium of the city’s Jewish Community Center to share a meal of baked grits cakes and blackened chicken.

The crowd had come to eat and trade stories, but there was also a sense that it had coalesced to celebrate the miracle of its very existence. Here they were—real, live black San Franciscans—in a city where the black population has dwindled from a high of 13 percent in 1970 to a point of virtual disappearance. That decades-long decline, spurred on by both crushing economics and systemic societal neglect, was the impetus for the event’s main attraction: Vanishing Point, an exhibition in which local black artists grappled with the effects of wholesale displacement. In the gallery upstairs, the crowd perused elegiac oil paintings of now-shuttered businesses and conceptual explorations of institutional racism.

From left, Fernay McPherson, Bryant Terry, Tanya Holland, David Lawrence, Wanda Blake, and Nigel Jones share a drink at Jones’s new restaurant, Kaya.


When it was time to sit and eat, the chef Fernay McPherson, whom the JCC had hired to cater the event, came out and introduced herself. McPherson was born and raised in the Fillmore and now runs a Mission district catering company called Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, which specializes in soul food dishes like the ones she was serving that night: collard greens braised until tender in the traditional southern way, a farmers’-market-sourced medley of sautéed vegetables, and roast chicken blackened using a spice mix recipe inspired by the Oakland-based food activist and vegan soul food chef Bryant Terry. Served family-style, it was the kind of joyful, abundant meal where the hot sauce gets passed around liberally and crafty eaters try to sneak the last piece of cornbread onto their plate without anyone noticing.

A little while after dinner was served, a poet recited a spoken-word piece inspired by Nina Simone’s “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” An organizer from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project asked guests to consider contributing stories for a zine about the city’s black exodus. A painter recalled how she had moved to New York in the early ’80s, and when she’d come back 10 years later, the first thing she’d thought was, Where did all the black people go? There was a bit of a Tom Sawyer-attending-his-own- funeral vibe to the proceedings. All night long, folks kept commenting about how this was the most black people they had ever seen under one roof in San Francisco. Strangers meeting for the first time swapped anecdotes about how isolated they feel as African Americans living and working in San Francisco—how excited they’d get when they saw just one other black person walking down the street: “Oh, there’s one! Oh, there’s one!”

The numbers back up these grim impressions. In 2010, San Francisco, a city once so steeped in black culture that the Fillmore was hailed as the Harlem of the West, had an African American population that hovered just above 6 percent. At the time, the San Francisco Bay View, the local black newspaper, ran a story citing preliminary census figures that pegged the number at just 3.9 percent—hence the name of the 3.9 Art Collective, the group that put together Vanishing Point. Even if the real figures haven’t yet dipped quite that low, San Francisco now has a smaller proportion of black residents than just about every other comparably sized city in the country. And the decline shows no sign of letting up.

For those old enough to remember the old Harlem of the West days, or to have at least heard the stories, the cultural loss has been just as dire as the demographic one. They grieve over the demise of jazz clubs where legends like Billie Holiday performed, of bustling black bookstores and barbershops, and, perhaps most devastating, of the black-owned eateries that once lined the streets in neighborhoods like the Fillmore: Muslim bakeries, ice cream parlors, butcher shops, fried chicken specialists, and restaurants where a family might go if they felt like getting dressed up for a nice pork chop dinner. The attrition has continued right up to the current day, swallowing contemporary businesses like 1300 on Fillmore and Black Bark BBQ, two of the last blackowned restaurants on Fillmore Street proper, both of which shut their doors within the last six months.

Restaurants, in their ideal form, have never just been places of commerce. The most beloved often double as community hubs—the kinds of places where the sharp minds who attended the 3.9 Art Collective event might have met to plan their next revolutionary project. Or where young people of color might have come for a meal, seen faces that looked like their own, and felt comfortable enough in their own skin to let their guard down, if only for an hour or two. What happens, then, when what’s left of San Francisco’s black community no longer has access to these kinds of gathering places? And what does it ultimately mean for a black chef to run a restaurant in a city where there are fewer and fewer black people?

These aren’t just hypothetical questions. The restaurants of the old black San Francisco might be fading relics of a gauzily remembered past, but a new generation of black chefs are diligently trying to open restaurants in the city. In their own way, each of these chefs is trying to provide a space that will feel like home for black San Franciscans. Case in point: McPherson, the chef whose grits cakes and blackened chicken were such a hit at the JCC, is working on opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in San Francisco—hopefully in the Fillmore. As bleak as the landscape of black-owned businesses in the city has become, she isn’t ready to let go of the dream. And, thankfully, she isn’t the only one.

By the time
McPherson, who is 40, was a kid growing up in the Fillmore, the 1950s and ’60s heyday of the neighborhood’s black renaissance had already passed. Gone were those post–World War II years when black folks who had migrated from the South to work in the shipyards first started moving into homes left empty by interned Japanese Americans. Starting in the ’60s, a controversial urban redevelopment plan tore down large chunks of the neighborhood and left those lots vacant into the ’80s, displacing many of the businesses that McPherson’s parents and grandparents had frequented.

But McPherson grew up steeped in the stories of that old, thriving, predominantly black Fillmore. Her dad had also been born and raised in the neighborhood. Her mom had moved there from Texas when she was just a little girl. Her great-aunt Minnie, who is 84 and still lives in the Fillmore, and her grandmother Lilly Bell—the namesakes of her business— were both part of that Harlem of the West. You only have to walk a couple of blocks with McPherson to get some sense of what the place used to be like: Here’s the townhouse that she grew up in, where her parents still live. Over there is an empty storefront that used to be a corner store called Virgo’s, where kids who didn’t have any money could still go and get a hot sandwich when they needed it. And over there, where the trendy 4505 Burgers & BBQ now sits, was Brother-in-Laws, one of the last down-home, black-owned barbecue places in the neighborhood before it closed around 2004. (“It was so good,” she says.)

Wanda Blake, a Fillmore native who is working on getting a pop-up restaurant off the ground, paints a similar picture of the neighborhood. And because Blake was born in 1958, she remembers even more of the old staples: the soul food restaurant called Powell’s, which was run by a famous gospel singer; L&M Cafe, which served the best pancakes; and the woman named Sister who used to go around to all the beauty shops and barbershops in the neighborhood selling pies and pound cakes. Now? Large stretches of the old Fillmore and Western Addition look like any other posh neighborhood in San Francisco, and upscale food purveyors—including State Bird Provisions, a Wise Sons bagel shop, and a branch of Bi-Rite Market—have become the norm.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with those places. (McPherson notes that she sometimes likes going to bougie restaurants, too.) But in terms of offering a space where what’s left of San Francisco’s black population can feel at home? Blake puts it bluntly: “I’m sad that there are no black people that own any of the places in this area.” And worse than the lack of black ownership is that there’s not even a discernible black presence here. “Sometimes I feel like, ‘OK, now we’re in a museum,’ because you just see pictures of what the neighborhood used to be,” McPherson says. “That’s why it’s important for me to have a space to represent what used to be here.”

McPherson wants to open her restaurant in the Fillmore even if that makes the process of finding and securing a suitable location that much more challenging. The rents, she says, are about as high as they are in any other part of the city at this point. And while the graduate of the La Cocina kitchen incubator program has impressive accomplishments under her belt—including a San Francisco Chronicle selection as one of 2017’s Rising Star Chefs—she’s mostly known for a low-rent pop-up she used to do at Wing Wings in the Lower Haight. She has yet to convince a major investor that she has what it takes to run a profitable full-size restaurant.

But if McPherson is able to create a space that does justice to her own memories of growing up in the Fillmore, it will be worth all the obstacles she had to overcome. “As a kid, my memory of food is Frankie Beverly and Maze, and Marvin Gaye,” she says. “It was a house full of people who were having good times, listening to music, dancing, talking shit, and eating some real good food. In whatever space I’m in, I want to represent that here.”

“It’s all about economics.” That’s David Lawrence’s catchphrase when he talks about the Herculean task of keeping a restaurant open in San Francisco. He would know: Lawrence and his wife and business partner, Monetta White, are the restaurateurs who closed 1300 on Fillmore and Black Bark BBQ within a span of a couple of months late last year. (They have tentative plans to move the latter to a new location with more foot traffic.)

In its time, 1300 on Fillmore was a model for black entrepreneurship in the city. Lawrence, who grew up in London and is of Jamaican descent, says he first learned about the Fillmore in 1988, when he moved to the Bay Area. He was living in San Mateo and couldn’t find anyplace where a black man could get a haircut—so friends told him about the Fillmore. Years later, after he married White, who had grown up in the neighborhood, a real estate developer approached the couple about opening a soul-food-inspired restaurant there. They wound up winning the bid, backed by a team of investors who were almost exclusively African American. And during most of the 10 years that the restaurant was open, Lawrence says, 1300 was the preeminent spot where black people in the Bay Area would go for special occasions. Lawrence and White invited neighborhood kids to the restaurant during the summer to teach them the business—and many of them wound up taking jobs at 1300 once they were old enough. “Opening your restaurant is a very proud moment. Opening your restaurant in a black neighborhood as a black chef makes you even more proud,” Lawrence says. “It’s a badge of honor that you carry.”

In his view, all this talk about gentrification and displacement in San Francisco is too little, too late. “We’re crying about the horse that has already bolted the stable,” he says, “instead of doing something about it when it was happening. It’s economics.” There is the economics of why many black homeowners in San Francisco decided to cash out in the ’80s and ’90s and move to places like Antioch and Stockton, where they could afford to buy single-family homes. There’s the economics of what happened to 1300 on Fillmore when Yoshi’s, the jazz club next door, closed: Lawrence lost 45 percent of his business overnight—a catastrophe from which the restaurant never recovered. And for chefs in today’s San Francisco, there’s the even harsher economics of someone trying to open a restaurant geared primarily toward black diners. There just aren’t enough of them, Lawrence says.

There’s also the reality faced by every black restaurateur, the basic fact that you’re going to face racism—and sexism, too, if you’re a female chef like Tanya Holland, owner of the wildly popular West Oakland breakfast-and-lunch spot Brown Sugar Kitchen. This is true even if it isn’t blatant discrimination that rears its head but something more subtle and insidious. “For African Americans, the hardest thing is when you are accomplished and people still have low expectations,” Holland says. “They think that your standards are lower.”

Holland says she’s had developers laugh at her when she wanted to hire a designer and take charge of the look of her restaurant. The implication was that, since she was serving soul food, she ought to be satisfied with “some shitty environment.” “I didn’t grow up in the hood,” the chef, who was raised in Rochester, New York, says. “And I have excellent taste, and I would love to execute that.” Holland says she wound up running her restaurant on a West Oakland street corner in large part because she couldn’t find an investor willing to fund something more expensive. She’d look around at the landscape of Bay Area restaurants, though, and it seemed like every other week, some white male chef whose entire résumé consisted of working at a single pizza place was getting ready to open a 4,000-square-foot eatery. Now, finally, Holland appears to have turned the corner: She has a larger location of Brown Sugar Kitchen opening in Uptown Oakland in the late spring or early summer, as well as a kiosk in the San Francisco Ferry Building—the foothold in the city that she’s sought for years.

Still, Holland’s struggles are notable in light of the fact that she is one of the most famous chefs in Oakland. She’s on TV all the time, including on the current season of Top Chef. Her cornmeal waffles are spoken of with reverence. Her food, as she’s careful to point out, isn’t “black food” so much as it is soulful American food that she’s proved has universal appeal. And until recently, no one was willing to bankroll her more ambitious projects. Imagine how much harder it is for a highly talented but lesser-known black chef.

Maybe the better
question to ask, though, is what role a successful black-owned restaurant might play in a place like San Francisco—a city in danger of losing the last of its black population, and where life for black residents can be a lonely affair. The chefs interviewed for this story all affirmed that the phenomenon of going long stretches of time in the city without seeing a single other black person isn’t some exaggeration.

Lawrence says that if he walks even a little bit too far up Fillmore Street toward Pacific Heights, he gets stared at—“I’m a six-foot-four black guy, you know?” Nigel Jones, the Jamaican-born chef and co-owner of Oakland’s Kingston 11 and Kaya, his new Mid-Market collaboration with Daniel Patterson, puts it this way: “You’re in Noe Valley, and you see a black person, you say, ‘Hello! Hey, what’s up, man?’”

Danielle Reese, the chef-owner of Queen’s Louisiana Po-Boy Cafe, which has locations in Portola and on the Embarcadero, says that when she travels to cities like Atlanta, she almost goes into culture shock. Just to walk into a restaurant where the servers and everyone eating are all black, she has to take a minute to adjust: “Wait a second, we’re not in San Francisco anymore.”

And Bryant Terry, the chef in residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora—a position that doesn’t come with a physical kitchen, but instead mostly entails curating events and collaborating with local schools—says most of the black people he sees around the city are homeless. That, he says, is why it’s important that an institution like MoAD, where most of the staff is African American, exists: “It’s important to see yourself—to know that you have a voice and a presence.”

Ultimately, every one of these chefs is a modern-day success story in his or her own way. Holland has her Ferry Building outpost, which, even with a limited menu, will introduce her food to a far wider audience of eaters. Same with Reese’s new location of Queen’s at Pier 33½, which will expose the waterfront tourist crowd to her po’ boys and gumbo. As for McPherson, she’s still looking for that perfect spot in the Fillmore. But in the meantime, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement is slated to take over one of the kiosks in the Emeryville Public Market food court in March—her business’s first brick-and-mortar location. Even Lawrence, who recently suffered the indignity of having to close two restaurants, is cautiously optimistic. He hasn’t given up on the idea of reopening 1300 on Fillmore’s original location, and the new outpost he launched last year in the international terminal of the San Francisco airport has been a surprise hit. Turns out foreign-bound fliers really crave shrimp and grits.

The main thing, Lawrence says, is that black restaurateurs in San Francisco need to be willing to evolve. That means, in part, that they need allies—people who might not be part of the black community but recognize the importance of diverse spaces in the city and are willing to put their money where their principles are. Which suggests a corollary point: Chefs need to embrace all kinds of customers. Because the black population in San Francisco really is too small to support a cluster of restaurants all on its own, chefs need to create dishes that will appeal to a wide audience. “Your number-one goal as a black chef, or a black owner of a restaurant, is to be successful,” Lawrence says. “There’s no point in being all down for the people and all that and not being able to pay your bills.”

Jones found an ally in Patterson, the Michelin-decorated chef with whom he shares a fifty-fifty partnership in Kaya, the new Afro-Caribbean spot that the duo opened in the location previously occupied by Alta, one of Patterson’s restaurants. And Jones is adamant about the role that black-owned businesses like his can play in San Francisco. Restaurants, he believes, are a kind of engine that can help stem the tide of displacement and gentrification. They can help ensure that the touchstones of black culture are paid more than just lip service, and that black residents feel a sense of agency in a city where it often seems like their stories are being erased.

Look at Kingston 11, his Jamaican restaurant in Oakland, Jones says: Its staff and customer base are among the most diverse that you’ll find at any eatery in the Bay Area. That’s partly because of his hiring practices—he’s willing to bring on the formerly incarcerated, and he goes out of his way to place people of color in prominent front-of-house positions. But he says he tries to make sure that white customers feel welcome, too, since he’s convinced that they also benefit from having this thriving diversity in their community. Meanwhile, black and brown people feel comfortable eating at Kingston 11 because they see themselves represented. It’s a positive feedback loop that lifts up everyone who sits down to eat.

Jones says he opened Kaya in part because he believes people in San Francisco are hungry for that kind of environment. And so he’s counting on their support. “You can’t say you value something and don’t support it,” he says. “If nobody shows up, especially people of color, we can’t complain when businesses are gone.”

It isn’t a perfect formula—or an easy one, anyway. Kaya is located across the street from the Twitter Building, after all. During a visit to the restaurant the first week it was open, the oxtails were just as tender as they are at Kingston 11 (albeit with higher, San Francisco prices). The reggae beats the DJ was spinning were just as infectious. And the staff was just as multiethnic—or nearly so, anyway. The only difference was that diners still looked to be about 80 percent white. You don’t always get to pick your audience. But it was a comfortable space. And there were a handful of black folks enjoying some plantains and Scotch bonnet pepper sauce. These things take time.

Lawrence, for his part, muses that the beauty of America is that this kind of change is possible. “There’s always possibilities,” he says. “There’s always hope. It just takes people to make it happen.”


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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