20th Century Cafe, that grand cafe in Hayes Valley, announced that it will be serving the last of its many-layered desserts on good china and silver. Star pastry chef Michelle Polzine sent an email to customers this week, confirming the cafe will close permanently, winding down over the next two months. It’s devastating news for regulars of the rare cafe.
“I’ve been through a lot, I know we all have, and I dragged my half dead body in here week in and week out and made the best damn food I could for years, pushing myself so hard, every day, but enough is enough,” she wrote. “I haven’t done everything I set out to do, but I have done most of it, and to a very high standard, and now I ask no more of myself.”
20th Century Cafe opened in 2013, on the corner of Gough and Oak, near the Opera House in Hayes Valley. Michelle Polzine was previously the pastry chef at Range, the acclaimed restaurant in the Mission. Her first solo venture was inspired by the grand cafes of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, and a deep dive into old world European desserts. The Russian honey cake has 10 layers and the strudel is a labor of love, painstakingly sheeted by hand, as well as knish, pierogi, blintzes, and sourdough bagels. Polzine named the cafe after her favorite Howard Hawks film from 1934, and she herself cuts a glam figure: The chef loves vintage clothing, and wore long dresses and sharp spectacles behind the counter.
A few days before coronavirus shut down the city in March 2020, Polzine went in for 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 surgery. “It’s pretty surreal to wake up and have this totally different outcome than you had expected,” Polzine told Eater SF at the time. The surgery damaged the nerves in her legs, and she couldn’t walk for several weeks. “There was a period of about two weeks where there was 10 percent of me that honestly believed I was in a coma and was imagining all of this.” Nicole Krasinski of State Bird came and boarded up 20th Century Cafe.
Polzine reopened for takeout on Mother’s Day, and has tried many pandemic “pivots” over the past year (a word she would like to “set on fire and run over with a car, and I don’t even have a driver’s license”). She sized down the honey cakes, packed picnic spreads for the park, jarred pantry staples like jam, and sold natural wine bottles. She got a PPP loan in the first round, and had a successful GoFundMe fundraiser, but continued paying full rent the entire time. She also published her first cookbook in October 2020, a gorgeous and technical pastry tome. But meanwhile, the dining room remained dark. “I never wanted to have a bakery. I wanted to have a restaurant,” says Polzine. “But COVID turned my restaurant into a bakery.”
“But this is not some sort of COVID sob story,” the chef is clear. Polzine says the pandemic was a contributing factor, but really, she’s bone tired of running a small business in San Francisco. Originally, she hoped that employees would step up and want partial ownership, but never found a partner. She sources ingredients from the farmers markets, but can’t charge fine-dining prices. She’s into labor-intensive pastry that demands long hours. And she grew tired of telling people to put away their laptops. She says only a certain crowd really understood the cafe tradition of wanting to connect over coffee and cake to the tune of live accordion.
Polzine never attempted outdoor dining, with cars whizzing 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 with the planning department. During the pandemic, when she was laid out in bed with cancer, she started getting messages from neighbors complaining about homeless people sleeping on the cafe doorstep. She says she spent nine months and $2,000 installing security gates, then started getting messages from a different set of neighbors, accusing her of being anti-homeless. “Do you know how that feels? To make someone move, so that you can open your business?” she says “ …. I’m a terrible capitalist.”
After closing, Polzine plans to take a well-deserved break, and isn’t sure what will come next. She said she might be interested in putting out another book, and didn’t rule out the possibility of partnering with a savory chef, and stepping into an existing restaurant. But she will not be opening another cafe 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 no longer have any interest in owning a business here.”
20th Century Cafe will be winding down over the next couple of months, so there is still time to snag a strudel and pay respects. Polzine will continue doing a limited takeout menu with weekend preorders. She’s also planning a few last sit-down lunches and events. And she says that another team is tentatively taking over the last year of her lease, and she’s offered them the good china and silver — although the deal wasn’t inked just yet.