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How a Casino Diner in a Cemetery City Became a Cult Favorite for Chefs and Filipino Families

Cafe Colma, tucked inside Lucky Chances Casino south of San Francisco, has been the underground after-hours spot for the hospitality industry and generations of Filipinos

Dianne de Guzman is a deputy editor at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, upcoming openings, and pop-ups.

If you’re lucky enough, you may one day experience the thrill of visiting Cafe Colma. The first time you’re taken there — and for the most part, one is always “taken” there — is an adventure. You’ll drive through a suburb, past a series of cemeteries, to reach a hilltop casino named Lucky Chances. Once parked, you’ll continue past the elevators and mirror-covered walls until the walkway opens up into a large and energetic cardroom. The unusual scene might distract you from your original purpose, the quest for food, but the faint clinking of dishes and silverware will draw you back in. And there, in the corner of a casino, lies a diner where efficient Filipino aunties serve customers while joking around with one another between tasks.

For 25 years, the 24-hour Cafe Colma has served both the gamblers who fill the casino to play poker or pai gow and visitors who make the pilgrimage specifically for Filipino, Chinese, Italian, and American comfort foods, served to them in overstuffed green booths and cane-backed swiveling chairs.

Cafe Colma’s food has been nourishing hungry customers for over two decades, especially those looking for a satisfying plate after a night of clubbing or wrapping up dinner service. Despite the sprawling menu where spaghetti Bolognese sits next to mapo tofu and bacon and eggs, the restaurant’s Filipino offerings are among the most popular. Many diners come from across the Bay Area to down silogs, the popular Filipino breakfast plates highlighting longanisa, tapa, or tocino with fragrant garlic rice; bowls of the sour tamarind-based pork sparerib soup sinigang; or plates of lumpia Shanghai, priced at 10 for $10. The night typically ends with the shaved ice-filled dessert halo-halo. On weekends before the pandemic, the cafe commanded crowds, and it wasn’t uncommon for groups to suffer a brief wait before they could shake off the night’s activities with a plate of pancit and crispy pata.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, however, the diners filling the rectangular dining room range from older Filipinos meeting over plates of pancit noodles and tortang talong to middle-aged couples eating sisig pork and chicken adobo. Cafe Colma’s food has struck a chord with generations of Filipinos young and old. Many have made it their third place — the location besides work and home where one can find community. The food fosters that camaraderie; it’s reminiscent of a different time and place for those in the Filipino diaspora.

The diner has also become a go-to spot for those in the hospitality industry due in large part to its location just outside of San Francisco proper and 24-hour schedule. But even though a number of chefs and bartenders roll through Cafe Colma, it retains an if-you-know, you-know feel within the restaurant community. “There’s just so much to love about it,” says chef Jason Halverson of Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group in San Francisco. “I can’t tell you the amount of times that some of my chefs and I have literally left the restaurants after a service and we know where we’re going, like, ‘Let’s go.’”

The front entry to Cafe Colma inside Lucky Chances casion.
Follow the sound of clinking dishes and silverware to Cafe Colma inside Lucky Chances casino.
Dianne de Guzman

Colma, located less than 12 miles outside of San Francisco, is a city of cemeteries. It’s known as the City of Souls, as its government website proudly shares, and claims 1,700 residents and 1.5 million “souls.” There are 17 cemeteries within the city’s boundaries, partially the result of San Francisco’s ban on new burials within the city in 1901, which led to a number of cemeteries forming in Colma so the dead could be relocated from San Francisco to its neighbor in the south. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that cemeteries surround Lucky Chances on three sides: Salem Cemetery to the northwest; Cypress Lawn Memorial Park and Serbian Cemetery to the north and northeast; and Home of Peace Cemetery to the south, which is host to the resting places of both Levi Strauss and Wyatt Earp.

Rene Medina, a Filipino immigrant to the United States, established the casino Lucky Chances in 1998 after he, according to his personal website, landed his first job as an office printing clerk in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco. Alongside the casino, Medina eventually established three other businesses under the “Lucky” name: Lucky Tours, a bus company that got its start shuttling Bay Area residents back and forth to Reno; Lucky Money, a money transfer company for families to send money back home to Asia; and Lucky Check Cashing and Payday Loans. When Medina was later charged, then pleaded guilty, to three counts of felony income tax evasion in 2007, he sold the casino to his sons, Rommel and Ruell.

Despite the transfer in ownership, Cafe Colma has largely remained the same. It is one of two restaurants on the premises, the other being Rene’s Fine Dining, which offers a more upscale menu but is undoubtedly lesser known. Cafe Colma is also the more affordable option; plates top out at $33 for the most expensive item, a New York steak and shrimp dinner, and at its lower end, $14 for a plain omelet with hash browns and toast.

Unless you’re a Colma resident, you most likely won’t cross paths with the Lucky Chances — but that hasn’t stopped the restaurant from enduring, likely because the diner is an attraction all its own. Halverson, who hails from Kansas and moved to California for culinary school, first discovered Lucky Chances Casino as a poker player. Looking for a place to play cards, he found the casino, and from there, he fell in love with the cafe and its Filipino food, returning time after time — following service, after poker games, and even after landing at San Francisco International Airport. “The food is, for me, actually well done,” Halverson says. “It’s hot. It’s seasoned. There’s flavor. You want vinegar, here’s the assortment of vinegar. You can make it what you want. It’s a place where you can be comfortable, you can be loud, you can see every demographic there, you don’t ever feel out of place. You want it at anytime, you can have it — and it’s that simple.”

A plate of vegetables and stew.
Cafe Colma serves classic diner fare including pancakes and waffles, plus Filipino dishes such as pancit and chicken adobo.
Dianne de Guzman

Lucky Chances also appeals to post-bar and clubbing crowds. Evan Kidera, co-founder of Bay Area-based Señor Sisig, frequented the cafe when he was a student at Westmoor High School in Daly City, before the diner became the late-night spot for him and his friends later as 21-year-olds. “That’s where probably a lot of folks from my generation know it and have a lot of good memories there,” Kidera says. “Going through it on a late-night hype, hungry, still probably drunk and needing to go sober up.”

Chef Eric Ehler of San Francisco’s Outta Sight Pizza occasionally visited Cafe Colma in its late-night hours and came to love the restaurant and casino for its quirkiness. “It’s about when you and your homies are out getting faded all night and someone asks if you want to play cards and eat lumpia, then you show up to a nondescript area and enter a palace where the cards are as crispy as the lumpia, and the players just as salty,” he says. “Then you eat an eggplant fried in egg and you realize you are in a room of every Asian ethnicity, old and young, drunk, and having the time of your life.”

Even those who first experienced Lucky Chances in their late-night youth continue to frequent the cafe. Kidera still visits Cafe Colma despite living in the East Bay now with his wife. “As we got a little older into the next part of our lives, being in our 30s and whatnot,” he says, “it became the spot that I would go to when we are craving Filipino food.”

Chef Francis Ang of modern Filipino restaurant Abacá also frequents the restaurant, both with his family during daylight hours and after service when most other restaurants around the Bay Area have closed. For him, Lucky Chances offers a familiar, familial vibe. The older Filipino servers recognize him, ask about his 4-year-old, and call his wife “ganda,” or beautiful, in Tagalog. At Abacá, Ang sometimes hosts out-of-town Filipino chefs for special events, and for a meal after service, he often takes them to Cafe Colma. “They’re all jealous,” Ang says. “They’re like, ‘Man, you guys are so lucky that you have this.’”

It’s this mix of reasons that has kept Cafe Colma going and keeps diners across the Bay Area coming back for more. “No matter what generation you are, growing up, going after the clubs, you go there,” he says. “Then you take your family there during the day, and it seems like a generational cycle that just happens throughout the years. I think that’s the biggest thing: it connects generations.”