When I first moved to San Francisco, my then-boyfriend and I lived in the southeast corner of Bernal Heights, just above the Alemany farmer's market. We'd drive down Bayshore Boulevard, surely a candidate for S.F.'s ugliest street, passing auto repair shops, discount cabinetry places, the Old Clam House—and the Silver Crest Donut Shop. It looked like a set for a David Lynch film, bathed in lurid neon under a sign that says "We Never Close." I was transfixed.
No, the Silver Crest never closes. It seems not to have closed since the 1970s, even though it's a mom-and-pop operation with a full liquor license. It's difficult to imagine such a place having a daily morning rush, or anyone who keeps a normal schedule ever eating there. The last time I went was in 2011, after goading a friend to sober up with a burger and fries. He was so freaked out by the lighting alone that he didn't order anything, but we accepted shots of free ouzo from the woman behind the counter.
This week, I'd been going to Noir City screenings at the Castro Theatre, so after-hours, Nighthawks-style places were on my brain. I talked another friend into a 3 a.m. donut run, an hour when the bar area was closed, but Silver Crest's parking lot was still jumping. Still lots of patrons at that hour, but no ouzo.
There was generic EDM playing when we walked in, without which the atmosphere would have been acutely uncomfortable, as a drunk woman in a curly blond wig was raising her voice to her stool-mate. Whether it was out of anger or excitement, I could not tell. The music came from the radio, even though the mini-jukeboxes at each booth have classics like "What's Love Got to Do With It" and something labeled only as "Greek Record."
As for the donuts, there were four kinds, and neither the chocolate nor the coconut was particularly fresh. Moreover, they sit in a case covered by a vinyl indoor plant, making them difficult to see. A doll in a yellow Spanish dress stood behind them like a sentinel or talisman, looking like it could have come alive and bit my finger off if I chose the wrong donut.
The proprietors divide the tasks by gender: he's in the kitchen, she handles the front. I remember the woman who'd offered me ouzo being buxom and Greek, but this time we were served by an Asian woman in her late fifties, wearing a lavender turtleneck with a neckerchief tied around it. She didn't say hello or greet us, but refilled our water without us asking and presented separate checks on separate platters, each handwritten in the amount of $1.90. Curiously, the Silver Crest is not cheap. Although cigarettes are advertised as costing "$7.50 and up," a tomato and lettuce sandwich is $5.95, one dollar more than the cold meatloaf sandwich, and two more than liverwurst ($3.75). The deviled-egg sandwich costs $6.75, and the fried chicken special is $16.95. There are no menus, though. Everything's written on the wall, in a serial killer's hand, along with at least three signs saying "Cash Only."
The paint job is sort of midway point between turquoise and robin's-egg blue, ceiling included, so that the naked fluorescent tubes cast an even colder light than they otherwise would. The Space Age countertop, also blue but flecked with gold-like crumbs from the last patron's donuts, probably dates to 1962. The booths and stools are wine-colored, and the walls have faux-wood paneling. There are two 2015 wall calendars with the same donut motif, and a cluster of five identical Triple Play pinball machines emblazoned with female baseball players, as in A League of Their Own. The sign says you must be 21 to play, and a mirror angled just so gives the kitchen a view of who's playing, not that anyone was.
It probably sounds like hell on earth to most people, a haunt for petty larcenists and amnesiacs, but the Silver Crest represents a noirish demimonde that's almost entirely disappeared from San Francisco. The donuts are mediocre, but I recommend them to people anyway, because one day, they too will be gone. And if you're on the fence, just know that their health score is a perfect 100.