San Francisco Chronicle
New vision set for LGBTQ hub Cafe Flore
Juan Davila stood on Cafe Flore’s patio Saturday, surveying Market Street, just as he did in 2005 on his first visit to San Francisco’s Castro district — and his first Pride Parade.
It was a great day for him. Since 2019, the popular coffee, brunch and events destination has stood empty, exacerbating worries among San Francisco’s queer community that its spiritual home, the Castro, was suffering a slow decline. Davila and dozens of others found hope Saturday as they gathered in the space that owner Serhat Zorlu plans to reopen in the coming months as a sustainable seafood restaurant called Fisch and Flore.
“We want to keep the history, the people, the sense of community,” Zorlu said. “Everything will be really, really beautiful, and Cafe Flore will be back again.”
Zorlu said he still plans to serve coffee, alongside a casual dining restaurant focused on sustainably sourced seafood, plant-based seafood and vegetarian fare. Despite the menu shift, he plans to keep meals “on the more affordable” side, he said, with small plates and tapas-style options.
The cafe, at the corner of Market and Noe streets, opened in 1973. As the city’s queer community migrated to the Castro from the Tenderloin and Polk Street, Cafe Flore quickly became its gathering spot, said Terrance Alan, a longtime customer who bought the cafe in 2017. Alan first found Flore as a young gay man from the Midwest, a surfer with long hair looking for his “queer family.”
“I happened on Cafe Flore,” he said, “and oh, my God, my family was there.”
Flore was where people met to seek solace as friends fell ill and died from AIDS in the 1980s, where they found support after coming out, where they celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and so much more.
“At a time when it was not acceptable to be out and proud, it was a refuge,” Alan said, his voice catching. “The neighborhood was our refuge — and Cafe Flore was our gathering place.”
Once pharmaceutical companies finally began developing drugs to treat AIDS in the 1990s, the cafe experienced a bit of a rebirth, he said, as a magnet for a reinvigorated community.
Decades after Alan found a home at Flore and later bought the cafe, Owen Stephens, 44, found one as well. He first started patronizing Cafe Flore back in the late ’90s, when he was coming out.
He lived in southern Oregon but would visit the Bay Area on the weekends. He was too young to go clubbing, but he could slip into the cafe for coffee and people-watching and feel part of the community.
“It was a great, safe space,” he said.
When city Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, 49, discovered Flore — on trips home from college — the Castro was a place of energy and full storefronts. Yet it lay shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with many other businesses in the district and elsewhere in San Francisco, leading to worries that the neighborhood would not rebound.
That’s been particularly exemplified by the shuttering of Flore.
“It’s been pretty awful to have that space unoccupied,” Mandelman said.
On Saturday, Alan and a few dozen others — including Mandelman and state Sen. Scott Wiener — gathered at Flore, sipping coffee and munching on cookies, stuffed grape leaves and other appetizers. Some came to get a sneak peek at Zorlu’s plans for the space. The new owner seeks to build an expanded kitchen and exterior bar, raise the outdoor patio to the level of the interior and install an ADA-compliant restroom. Zorlu said he also plans to replace the dilapidated fence around the property.
For Michael Helquist, this was the place he’d visit when he didn’t want to go out drinking, a vibrant venue where customers talked with one another and didn’t spend time glued to their laptops. It was a place where “you didn’t have to tell anyone your story,” he said.
“I didn’t know of any place like this anywhere else in the city, and I didn’t find one,” Helquist said.
The cafe’s former customers are itching to return.
“We want Flore to come back to life,” said Dale Danley, Helquist’s husband.
Saturday’s gathering was just a first look. Zorlu said he has to renovate the space but has already obtained most of the permits he needs and hopes to start construction this month. With luck, the restaurant will be open within six months, he said.
It will be different, serving lunch and dinner, and maybe weekend brunch. But he hopes it will embody the spirit of the past cafe, which nurtured so many. “Everyone is happy Cafe Flore going to come back,” he said. “If I have even a little influence in that, I’m proud.”
On the patio outside, Davila reminisced.
Two years after that Pride Parade where he’d first visited Flore, Davila moved to San Francisco. He volunteered for local nonprofits and often came to Flore for meetings or fundraisers. When he learned Friday that it would soon reopen its doors, he was delighted.
“It’s going to be marvelous,” he said, grinning.