The Black Cat restaurant and bar had its official opening yesterday, 100 years after the original Black Cat was closed down by the city along with over 200 Tenderloin establishments. In 1917 the city’s elite deemed places “immoral” if they served liquor to unescorted women, and even the Black Cat’s labor ties could not save it. The original Black Cat was among the finest dining venues on the West Coast, and this new version aspires to the same.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, whose longtime favorite restaurant was the Tenderloin’s Original Joe’s, was on hand for the event. Lee was given a key to the Black Cat by owner Fritz Qualttlebaum, and the mayor said he was looking forward to sampling its oyster pot pie.
Lee’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) provided critical financial and logistical support to the Black Cat, which is the first destination restaurant to open in the central Tenderloin since the Sizzler in 1986. While the Tenderloin has successful restaurants and bars on its borders of Larkin, McAllister, Geary and Mason, the Central Tenderloin has proved a bigger challenge.
Why did Black Cat owner Fritz Quattlebaum take on this challenge instead of choosing the easier course of opening yet another quality restaurant in the Mission, Hayes Valley or SOMA? It’s an important story that says a lot about the Tenderloin’s future, and its past.
A Collaborative Effort
The Black Cat began in 2014 as a collaborative effort between the owners of the Hotel Verona and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (which I head) to bring a quality restaurant into what was a long rundown space. After seeing the success of Brenda’s on what was once an unsafe block on lower Polk, and Bourbon & Branch’s remarkable following on a then dicey O’Farrell Street corner, I thought it was worth seeing if we could attract a destination restaurant to Eddy and Leavenworth, across from the future Tenderloin Museum.
Essential to this strategy was the owners’ willingness to put the longterm improvement of the Tenderloin ahead of maximizing short-term profits. Owners Tony Dumbhalia and Mike Amin could have rented to the highest bidder instead of leasing to THC at a lower price in order to entice a top quality restaurant.
THC found prominent NYC restauranteur and San Francisco resident Fritz Quattlebaum through his friendship with one of its attorneys, Steve Collier. Collier mentioned the Tenderloin opportunity to Quattlebaum, who was eager to open a place in his home city. During my very first meeting with Quattlebaum it was clear that an all out selling job was not needed to convince him that a quality restaurant could attract customers into the Tenderloin.
As Quattlebaum was assessing the opportunity, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) encouraged the project by offering financial assistance. This assistance also sent a message to investors that the city believed in the project.
Over two years later, the Black Cat is the result. The original Black Cat was formerly at Eddy and Mason Streets, and was long closed when a later Black Cat bar on Montgomery Street became famous as the subject of a landmark 1951 California Supreme Court ruling expanding the gay rights movement.
In my book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, I show photos of the Black Cat and other top of the line Tenderloin restaurants in the Black Cat’s heyday. The Black Cat joined Blanco’s (the current Great American Music Hall) and The Old Poodle Dog as among the finest restaurants on the entire West Coast.
The Tenderloin Museum has an original menu from the Old Poodle Dog in —the diversity of dishes will astound you. Men came to these restaurants in suits and ties and women wore their finest dresses. The best nights on the town San Francisco had to offer were found in the Tenderloin, which is why it was often regarded as the Paris of the West.
The Return of the Historic Tenderloin
The Black Cat joins the Tenderloin Museum, CounterPulse, the 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center, and Piano Fight in revitalizing long dormant or problematic retail spaces. The Black Cat and Tenderloin Museum emerged following the failure of restaurants and CounterPulse followed the demise of a porn theater. 826 Valencia’s Tenderloin Center was the site of a troubled grocery (not a liquor store as often said).
All of these spaces had either been rundown or “modernized” in the 1950’s to install drop ceilings and to cover up historic brick. Before the Black Cat the ceilings on the space were only 7 1/2 feet and the 826 Valencia space was the same; now both have high ceilings and exposed brick, returning the spaces to their original luster. The CounterPulse space has restored the historic theater look that was removed under prior building modifications.
I’ve long believed that the Tenderloin’s future lies in a revival of its past. The Black Cat is the latest example, and will not be the last.
Due to unforseen state liquor license processing delays, the Black Cat’s opening to serve food is delayed until later this month. We will let you know when its ready for business.
Mayor Lee has provided more economic development assistance to the Tenderloin since 2011 than the neighborhood had gotten in the preceding 50 years. That City Hall support from makes a big difference.
The Black Cat’s opening further signals that after an over 50 year dry spell, the Tenderloin is coming back.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which leases the Black Cat and is the publisher of Beyond Chron).Filed under: Mid-Market / Tenderloin