Mexican-born comedian and poet Baruch Porras-Hernandez vividly remembers frequent late-night visits to Grubstake Diner. When he lived nearby in the early aughts on Sutter and Taylor streets, he’d wander over to find pals and strangers alike neck-deep in bowls of green caldo verde soup. Porras-Hernandez says what struck him most about those visits was the diversity of the people packed inside the restaurant, fingers oily from plates of french fries. “One night I saw my theater friends, drag queens, queers, and even straights,” he says with a laugh.
Grubstake Diner, the quirky cable car-shaped Polk Gulch restaurant sandwiched between two gray high-rise towers, is a living piece of San Francisco’s queer history. Both the American and Pride flags wave atop the roof, and copies of the Bay Times, an LGBTQ paper and calendar, sit in plastic bins on the wall, a tip of the hat to those looking for an inclusive place to grab a meal. Signs taped in the diner’s windows read “Problem? Text the owner,” and “No dress code.”
While the Castro is San Francisco’s most famous gayborhood, Polk Street and Polk Gulch are just as significant to a city known for its queer liberation and activism, and the Grubstake is central to that lore. In June 1970, San Francisco’s first Pride parade marched to Aquatic Park along Polk Street. Joey Plaster, who spent two years collecting oral histories on Polk, says the neighborhood is a historic haven for the trans and gay communities, a place where drag queen council the Imperial Court is the face of philanthropy and bar owners became activists through the Tavern Guild. According to Juanita MORE!, Absolute Empress of the Imperial Court, there have been 79 “queer establishments” on Polk Street since 1950. Cinch Saloon continues to hold it down 50 years later, and the Cloud Seven Bar was just as raunchy and lovely in the early 1960s as it is today. Kimo’s and Motherlode were once popular trans clubs and hangouts. For all of them, Grubstake was the de facto afterparty.
But despite the Lower Polk community being one of the earliest and most important LGBTQ enclaves of San Francisco, Grubstake owner Jimmy Consos says it’s often overlooked when people think about the city’s culturally diverse neighborhoods. Consos didn’t open the Grubstake — he bought the diner in 2015 — but after his first visit in 2010, he knew the restaurant deserved to be protected. He says he wants to use the diner to commemorate and educate the public about the importance of Lower Polk and the LGBTQ community. “Every day our goal is to preserve what makes this place special,” Consos says. “We want to showcase this area to both San Franciscans and visitors and highlight how wonderful and unique this area is. Maybe it’s not safe at your house — Grubstake is a light in the dark.”
Despite changing hands a number of times since its opening, Grubstake has always fit snugly into the landscape and history of Polk Gulch. The train car plopped down in 1927 at 142 Mason Street, though it’s unclear if it ever served as a working car or was just designed to look like one. In 1967 then-owners David Sisler and Arthur Reeb moved the business to its current location at 1525 Pine Street, formerly Dan’s Diner and also a railcar-looking building. In 1989 Fernando and Linda Santos bought the restaurant from the previous owners, who had fled to the Northwest after the Loma Prieta earthquake. The husband-and-wife couple added the now-famous Portuguese dishes to the menu, including caldo verde soup and bife à Portuguesa. Consos and Nick Pigott, of the Lower Nob Hill restaurant Mayes Oyster House, bought it from the Portuguese family in 2015.
Many celebrities from the queer community have long-standing regular orders at Grubstake. Juanita MORE! goes for the Nugget Burger, a bacon cheeseburger topped with a fried egg, and all of her dinner guests order the same item, as is the court’s custom. Donna Sachet, a well-known drag activist, prefers the New York steak with melted garlic butter. Gary Virginia, a local organizer who founded Krewe de Kinque, enjoys the French dip sandwich with hand-cut french fries — opting for extra au jus for dipping. Even Guy Fieri took notice of the business. The overlord of Flavor Town visited in 2007 and gobbled up the Portuguese buffalo wings, rubbed down with paprika and cayenne pepper. Further back, in the 1970s, Harvey Milk hung out in the railcar-turned-restaurant. In 2005, the song “The Golden Age of Hustlers” by Bambi Lake cemented the diner’s place in pop culture history.
In 2016, the diner got tangled up in a bit of local drama when Consos submitted a proposal for an 83-foot-tall building “with a 2,856-square-foot restaurant and 21 dwelling units” at Grubstake’s address. Twisting the usual gentrification narrative, though, Consos’s plan to tear down and rebuild the iconic railcar is supported by local community members including MORE! As a part of the project, Consos proposes rebuilding the Grubstake on the ground floor of the eight-story building – which will require Grubstake’s original building to be demolished, though pieces of the building will be preserved and incorporated into the new construction. The new building is delayed, however, in part due to pushback from residents of neighboring high-rise the Austin, who say the proposed eight-story building would block a significant amount of light.
In September 2021, attorney David Cincotta, who represents the concerned homeowners, told the San Francisco Chronicle worries over the project had nothing to do with the diner — a few Austin condo owners told the paper at the time they’d support a shorter building, something like four stories.
Consos isn’t sure what the new restaurant will look like, but he knows the murals, which were painted in 1975 by artist Jason Phillips, will remain. He doesn’t want to say much more than the plans are “still moving forward.” MORE!, who’s been a Grubstake customer for more than 30 years, is a fan of the reconstruction and encouraged readers in the Bold Italic newsletter to sign petitions to move the project along.
Porras-Hernandez says he doesn’t consider Grubstake a part of his corner of the queer scene these days, in part because he lives near the Castro. But when he used to run around Polk Street, it was a frequent stop. Throughout his 20s, the thespian hit up the original Lush Lounge and Cinch Saloon in the Polk Gulch area, and after all “the gay men finished drinking martinis,” he says, they’d walk to Grubstake for burgers. He says he misses the engaging staff, the easy parking on Van Ness Avenue, and the wide array of people who’d pack into the tiny diner on any given night.
The last seven years of potential development and demonstrations, bullhorns and all, have taken a toll on the Grubstake. Consos isn’t excited to chat about the project like he once was — things feel tense, and it’s all still a bit unknown. But for members of the queer community like MORE! and Porras-Hernandez it’s a fixture of the city’s landscape, an enduring part of San Francisco’s communal tapestry. No matter what happens, the restaurant remains among those businesses serving a legitimately inclusive clientele. “Before the pandemic, it was one of the best places to go once the bars closed,” Porras-Hernandez says. But even despite the changing times, he believes Grubstake will always be a special place for the queer community. “I’m glad that this place still exists.”
Grubstake is open Sunday to Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. and Thursday to Saturday from 6:30 p.m. to 4 a.m.