Art’s Cafe, the Korean-American diner, is closing after more than three decades of flipping hash-brown sandwiches on Irving Street. Mom-and-pop owners Sarah and Hae Ryong Youn have decided to retire, the SF Chronicle reported first. The news broke in an Instagram post from longtime customer Ari Simon, who kicked off an outpouring of nostalgia from other ‘90s kids who grew up at that counter. “I’m happy the owners get to retire but I’m sad this part of my childhood is gone,” Simon wrote in the post. “ ... a piece of my city is leaving that I feel is truly irreplaceable.”
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I got word today that one of my favorite places in the world shut its doors for good. My dad has been taking me and my brother to Arts Cafe for breakfast since we were little. The folks in there literally saw us grow up. I got fond memories of watching Youn cook breakfast for 10 different ppl at once with surgical precision. His wife (who id jokingly refer to as my auntie) would give everyone I was with a menu but whenever I’d reach for one she’d hit me over the head with it lol. She knew what I wanted. You don’t need a menu if you been ordering the same thing for 20 years. I always hoped that on some city shit I would be able to take my kids to Arts and share with them that same experience my dad shared with me. That said, I’ve sat shoulder to shoulder in that hallway with all the ppl in the world I love most for close to 20 years. Parents, family members, bestfriends, love interests , coworkers. For most of them, their first time was with me. I’m happy the owners get to retire but I’m sad this part of my childhood is gone and a piece of my city is leaving that I feel is truly irreplaceable. Sean King summed up the greatness of Art’s perfectly. “Art’s Cafe was the definition of humility in a city that has done nothing but embrace pretense for the last 20 years. Cutting morning classes at Lowell to sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers while being chided by the matriarch of Art’s IS nostalgia.” It really can’t be said any better than that. I never got to be one of the postcards in the counter, but not every bucket list item gets checked off. Irving Street will NEVER be the same. Samurai + Swiss w/ rice and a strawberry lemonade. Forever.
The Youns immigrated in the ‘80s and bought the diner in ’89, and it’s been a neighborhood hangout ever since. Located on Irving at 9th, the heart of the Inner Sunset, the diner was sandwiched between shops. One counter with a dozen odd seats, it was decorated scrapbook style with postcards from regulars. Customers would squeeze in on a stool, where Sarah would take orders, while Hae Ryong worked the flattop six days a week, in and out of years.
The menu starred American diner fare folded with Korean ingredients, from no-frills eggs and pancakes to burgers and bibimbap. The hash-brown sandwiches were the crowd favorite, satisfying small children and soothing hangovers with shredded potatoes and cheese, griddled to form a shell, then stuffed with spinach, sausage, or teriyaki beef, with two eggs on the side.
The closing of Art’s Cafe signals a well-deserved break for Mr. and Mrs. Youn and a sad moment for fans of this neighborhood diner. But it also taps into a deeper fear that older family-owned restaurants are getting pushed out during the pandemic. It’s Tops coffee shop took down the iconic sign on Market Street, and later confirmed that it’s permanently closed after 85 years. Out by the beach, Louis’ diner closed after 83 years of tuna melts and crinkle fries with a view of the Pacific.
When it comes to the brunch scene in San Francisco, no one seems terrifically concerned that avocado toast or oat milk lattes will continue to survive. But it’s a true heartache when old-school diners are pushed out, becoming postcards from the past.