It’s time to grab one last slice of 10-layer honey cake from the 20th Century Cafe.
The elegant, Eastern European-inspired café and bakery at 198 Gough Street in the Hayes Valley are closing for good shortly after eight years of business. Owner Michelle Polzine confirmed the news to The Chronicle, which was first reported by Eater SF.
The San Francisco cafe is popular for its intricate cakes – especially the Russian honey cake, known for its remarkable burnt honey taste – as well as other sweets like strudel and blintze. With its floral china, the accordion on the speakers, and cakes that are extraordinarily difficult and time consuming to make, the 20th Century Cafe is unique. Polzine was also one of the first in San Francisco to serve crispy sourdough bagels and inspired the chefs to launch pop-ups that have made the city’s bagel scene so vibrant in recent years. Their success spawned a cookbook, “Baking at 20th Century Cafe,” which received widespread recognition.
It’s unclear when exactly the 20th Century Cafe will close its doors. Polzine said the cafe will remain open for at least June and possibly July for cooking classes, cakes, and some sit-down meals at a fixed price.
Business slowed when the Bay Area food resumed and fewer people were interested in getting cakes and pierogi to go. But Polzine insisted the shutdown isn’t a sad pandemic – the cafe has been difficult to run for a long time.
“I have prioritized this business mostly in my life, including my life,” she said.
Michelle Polzine is the cook and owner of the 20th Century Cafe, which is closing in San Francisco.
Randi Lynn Beach / Special on The Chronicle 2014
The 20th Century Cafe business model was never feasible in San Francisco, she said. Polzine does everything by hand and hardly ever uses a mixer for all doughs and doughs. She buys the best ingredients but can’t ask too much because it’s a casual cafe.
“It’s a thing of love that would have worked really well in San Francisco 20 or 30 years ago, but business is very business now. The most unique is not the most valuable, ”she said. “I would bring writers, musicians and artists here all the time, and then that population decreased over the years.”
Instead of viewing the 20th Century Cafe as a business, she views it as an immersive art project or play – it doesn’t have to go on forever to be great. And there could be a second act: even though she has no plans to open another full-fledged store in San Francisco, she wants to keep pop-ups so fans can still buy their favorite honey cake. She has already secured a possible kitchen space.
“It wasn’t an option to close without having an outlet for the honey cake,” she said.
Janelle Bitker is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker