20th Century Cafe, this grand cafe in the Hayes Valley, announced that it will serve the last of its multilayered desserts on fine china and silver. Star pastry chef Michelle Polzine emailed customers this week confirming that the cafe will be permanently closed and will be closed for the next two months. It’s devastating news for regulars at the rare cafe.
“I’ve been through a lot, I know we all did, and I dragged my half-dead body here week after week and made the best damn food I could make in years, and tried so hard every day, but enough is enough, ”she wrote. “I haven’t done everything I set out to do, but I’ve done most of it, and to a very high standard, and now I don’t ask myself any more.”
The 20th Century Cafe opened in 2013 on the corner of Gough and Oak near the Opera House in Hayes Valley. Michelle Polzine was previously a pastry chef at Range, Mission’s renowned restaurant. Her first solo venture was inspired by the great cafes in Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, and delved deep into European old-world desserts. The Russian honey cake is made up of 10 layers and the strudel is a love work that is carefully covered by hand, as well as knish, pierogi, blintze and sourdough bagels. Polzine named the café after her favorite Howard Hawks film from 1934 and she looks glamorous herself: the cook loves vintage clothes and wore long dresses and sharp glasses behind the counter.
A few days before the coronavirus shut town in March 2020, Polzine performed a routine procedure to remove a cyst and woke up with a rare cancer diagnosis for clear cell carcinoma – all of her reproductive organs had been removed during the operation. “It’s pretty surreal to wake up and get this completely different result than you expected,” Polzine told Eater SF at the time. The surgery damaged the nerves in her legs and she was unable to walk for several weeks. “There was a period of about two weeks when 10 percent of me honestly believed I was in a coma and imagined all of this.” State Bird’s Nicole Krasinski came and got into the 20th Century Cafe.
Polzine reopened for take out on Mother’s Day and has tried many pandemic pivots over the past year (a word she’d like to “set on fire and run over with a car, and I don’t even have a driver’s license”). . She shrunk honey cakes, packed picnic spreads for the park, cooked pantry staples like jam, and sold natural wine bottles. She got a PPP loan on the first round and had a successful fundraiser for GoFundMe but was paying full rent the entire time. In October 2020 she also published her first cookbook, a beautiful and technical band of pastries. In the meantime the dining room remained dark. “I never wanted a bakery. I wanted to have a restaurant, ”says Polzine. “But COVID turned my restaurant into a bakery.”
“But this is not a COVID sob story,” the chef is clear. Polzine says the pandemic helped, but she’s really sick of running a small business in San Francisco. Originally, she hoped that the employees would want increased and partial ownership, but never found a partner. It sources ingredients from farmers’ markets, but cannot charge gourmet prices. She likes labor-intensive pastries that take long hours. And she got tired of telling people to put their laptops away. She says that only a certain number have really understood the cafe tradition of wanting to combine with a live accordion over coffee and cake.
Polzine never tried to dine outside, and cars whizzed by on Gough. A few years ago a car crashed into the front window of the cafe and trying to replace it was an expensive debacle for the planning department. During the pandemic, when she was in bed with cancer, she received messages from neighbors complaining about homeless people sleeping on the cafe’s doorstep. She said she spent nine months and $ 2,000 installing security gates and then received messages from another group of neighbors accusing her of being homeless. “Do you know how that feels? To get someone to move so you can start your business? “She says” … I am a terrible capitalist. “
After graduation, Polzine plans a well-deserved break unsure of what’s next. She said she might be interested in bringing out another book and didn’t rule out partnering with a hearty chef and stepping into an existing restaurant. But she won’t open another café on her own. “San Francisco is not hospitable to small business owners,” says Polzine. “I love this city as a citizen. I still want to live here. But I’m no longer interested in owning a company here. ”
The 20th Century Cafe will be closing in the next few months, so there’s still time to grab a strudel and pay your respects. Polzine will continue to offer a limited takeaway menu with pre-orders for the weekend. She’s also planning a few final lunches and events. And she says that another team is provisionally taking over the final year of her lease, and she offered them the fine china and silver – even though the deal wasn’t closed yet.