Lafayette Coffee Shop
If you wake up one morning and find that you've slipped through the cracks of society, you may find yourself reflecting over it at the Lafayette Coffee Shop.
Situated deep in the TL, it is not a place one usually seeks out, despite its relative proximity to the Hastings College of Law, the (soon to be old) Federal Building, and City Hall. The neighborhood is a partial mix of newly arrived immigrants from Pakistan, the Middle East, Vietnam, and to a smaller extent, Latin America. Alongside them are impoverished American-born residents, the majority of whom are black (though there is a good share of whites), who drift in and out of homelessness and prison.
While there are plenty of dive bars and (mostly ethnic) restaurants, the biggest employers in the neighborhood are non-profits and, yes, Poverty Pimps, who provide everything from 3 hots and a cot to clean needles and condoms. Junkies, winos, crazy people, thieves, drug dealers, crack whores, hustlers, and tranny prostitutes – there's plenty of grant writers for everyone.
The street scene is as such where shouting is constantly heard. No one is overlooked and most looks are hard or suspicious, especially if you are male. It’s probably not too wise to get into the staring game here (you know the one I’m talking about), lest you inadvertently pick a fight with someone just paroled from Corcoran.
If you feel the need to find a crooked cop, look no further than the TL. In fact, you may want to try Original Joe’s first (just a hunch).
Legend has it that the neighborhood got its name from crooked beat cops whose shakedown of the common criminals and other purveyors of vice made working in the TL easy street, thus they could afford better cuts of meat. There's no reason to believe anything has changed.
With all of the madness of street life, there is an oasis of calm in the Tenderloin and that oasis is called the Lafayette Coffee Shop. Unfortunately I can't tell you a thing about the history of the place or anything about the current owners, other than the fact that the waitress runs the show here and knows everyone by name.
Like many other coffee shops and cafeterias serving American food, most of whom have changed little since they were new, this coffee shop/greasy spoon is run by people of Asian descent, in this case (I presume from listening to the waitress's conversation with the cook) Vietnamese.
I had read before that the waitress knows everyone by name. What wasn't mentioned was that she also knows what each person is going to have. In fact, as soon as I sat down, her first words to me were "is this your first time here? I've never seen you in here before."
Considering San Francisco is a city of 740,000 residents (plus 169,000 daytime commuters, plus thousands more tourists), that's a pretty impressive memory.
The restaurant is no frills – and then some. Décor consists of one small, thrift store painting of a fishing village on a dirty beige wall and dozens of bright, bright flowers – all fake of course. Rarely do I get creeped out by fake flowers, but these looked like they were rescued from a Colma cemetary.
The seating cracks me up. Imagine red naugahyde covered booths, without the stuffing in the seat. It's like sitting on a wooden plank.
The lighting fixtures are second-hand Burger King, circa 1975. Other than the metal-trimmed, plain white, formica-covered tables and the wide, metal, venetian blinds, that's it for style.
There's not even a sign on the restroom – probably for good reason (throws the junkies off the scent).
What the Lafayette Coffee Shop lacks in style (inside of course; the outside signage is awesome), it sure makes up for in substance. As I said before, this place is an oasis of calm. Despite the noise and cacophony going on outside, it was so quiet on my visit you could hear my camera open from across the room. For the most part, it was dead silent in the place.
Most of the patrons were reading. All of them were old men, sitting by themselves, not speaking to anyone and minding their own business. Each man who came into the place or left was greeted by name.
"Oh, hi Bill! Will it be the same today?"
"Ok, thank you very much Mike! See you same time tomorrow, ok?!"
"Ok, Jerry, just like you wanted. Two orders of potatoes, no gravy."
All of this was said with the utmost sincerity and kindness. One might assume the waitress was an angel who had somehow got lost before she made her way to that late-night diner in the sky. One, especially a blonde crack ho who didn't cough up the money for her cheeseburger, would be wrong.
This one blonde crack ho, and later her crack Joe (or John), who forgot they spent their last fiver on a rock down on McCallister, mistakenly tried to bargain with someone who wasn't having any of it. And thus, tonight's dinner theater.
Whoever said dinner theater was dead never sat down in the Lafayette Coffee Shop.
And that brings us to the food.
While there was so much typical diner food to choose from, and even daily specials, I went with what seemed like a safe choice. Somehow, veal cutlets in this setting just seemed wrong.
I went with the ($6.95) Cross Rib dinner and a glass of water.
The dinner came with salad, soup (with crackers), bread and butter, which was brought to my table almost immediately.
The bread, and I say this in all honesty, was actually better than I've had in mid-range Italian restaurants (for one thing, it wasn't stale, and probably not recycled). The butter, contrary to being rock hard, which is one of my BIGGEST restaurant pet peeves, was room temperature and easily spreadable.
The salad. Well, the "salad".
What can you really say about a saucer of iceberg lettuce with one slice of a half-ripe tomato covered in industrial-grade 1000 Island dressing, other than it totally works for this place. The soup tasted as if it was poured from a can and embellished a little with the addition of carrots, celery, onions, and barley thrown in.
Despite being a foodie's nightmare, the combination of the bread, the soup, and the salad set the course for a healthy-ish, rib-sticking, good greasy-spoon, meal.
Soon, my dinner arrived and it didn't look half bad. Considering the neighborhood and the place, I would say it was rather decent.
The cross rib was plentiful and cooked medium done, with just a little bit of pink still visible. Unfortunately it was a little too fatty, but otherwise it had a good beefy flavor, made even more so by the small pool of jus it was resting in.
The potatoes were pretty good as well, covered in gravy and just the right consistency – with no weird chunks or artificial flavors (hell, maybe they did come from a box, but I couldn't taste it). And next to them was a pretty basic "vegetable medley", likely pre-cut and frozen. I had to add salt to the steamed veggies since they were unflavored, but fortunately not overcooked.
And let's not forget about dessert! Think clumpy, lukewarm, sweet rice pudding with a faint touch of cinnamon. I would tell you how horrible it was, but then I would have to explain why I ate every bit of it.
It wasn't, or it isn't, lost on me how much of a service the Lafayette Coffee Shop provides to the single men and old timers in the neighborhood. For under $8, one can have a full dinner, with good service, in a quite place, a haven from the chaos of the Tenderloin, that (to tell you the truth) isn't any worse or better than Tommy's Joynt.
I hear they even serve coffee as well!
As dives go, it's a classic. However, the real jewel here isn't the food, it's all of the good stuff that comes with the food – recognition, friendly service with a smile, peace and quiet, affordability, and just a little bit of theater thrown in for good measure.
PS For a very nice photo of the LCS at night, click here. Also check out Mark's website - a magnificient look at the TL from the perspective of its hotels.