A Short-Order Murder

The diner manager told the cook not to prepare the poached eggs a pretty woman had ordered. The next day, the cook shot the manager to death. They had worked together amicably for 20 years. The unanswerable why of it all will haunt family and friends fore

Shortly before 6 a.m. on a warm July morning, an alarm clock went off in the Millbrae home of Peter and Helen Menicou. After two decades of waking automatically at that hour, it's not as if Helen needed the alarm, but she didn't want to cut time close, like yesterday, when the darned thing didn't ring and she slept a few minutes later than usual. In fact, Helen had told Peter the night before to make sure he set the alarm clock, so she could be at work in plenty of time to get a jump on the day. Peter will forever regret having done so.

Helen busied herself dressing for work, a ritual that put her inside the black skirt and crisp white blouse from which she served breakfast and lunch to a busy corner of San Francisco.

Especially since his retirement, Peter made a habit of getting up with his wife to hang around her in the bathroom, pestering Helen for one thing or another; maybe he would ask her to scratch his back, which she pretended to mind. They would chat about nothing in particular while she pinned up her blond hair and applied pink color to her lips. Helen's rosy cheeks needed no cosmetic assistance, and no one knew that better than her husband, who enjoyed this morning routine and, with it, the quiet appreciation that his wife was, quite simply, beautiful.

On dark winter mornings, Peter escorted Helen to the door, turned on the lights, and watched her walk to the car. But this time of year, in midsummer, it was already light outside. Without much of a thought, Peter Menicou kissed his wife goodbye as she breezed toward the door.

Sometime that same morning, Hashem Zayed left the Tenderloin hotel room where he'd lived alone for 14 years. He walked out of the blue door that looks like every other blue door in the long white hallway, as he always did. But today, Hashem was not wearing the checked pants and stark white smock top that announced he was a cook. Today was different. Today, he made his way through the gritty air that always filters the morning sun here -- walking past the sleeping near-dead nestled into doorways, through the pungent smell of urine, and by the clank and crash of bottles chased by store owners opening up shop in the very urban world between the Tenderloin and downtown San Francisco.

And sometime around 6:30 a.m., Hashem Zayed entered the Pinecrest Restaurant, where he'd worked with Helen Menicou for the past 20 years. He was tired, and he was brooding. He'd been up most of the night. He took a seat at the far end of the counter, close to the back of the restaurant, and stared at the pallets of eggs stacked in the kitchen.

Minutes before Helen arrived at the restaurant, Hashem spoke to a waitress there. It's a conversation she's not likely to forget. In fact, the waitress would have to repeat what she heard Hashem say from his perch at the end of the counter over and over again to police officers and detectives and lawyers and, eventually, a judge: "I'm going to shoot her."

By now, Helen was also close to work. She had driven up I-280 and made her way into the city, pulling into the parking garage on the corner of O'Farrell and Mason streets as usual, and climbing its ramp, around and around and around.

Within minutes, she was passing through the lobby of the garage, waving greetings to the familiar faces at the florist and the deli and the other businesses lining her path to the Pinecrest. It was still a regular day.

Bill Foundas laid claim to the corner of Geary and Mason streets and established the Pinecrest Restaurant in 1969, an event memorialized on the dusty-colored awning over the front door along with this bold claim, "We serve the best breakfast in San Francisco."

Back then, the Pinecrest had competition. The Harvest Restaurant was across Geary Street. The Pam Pam, another downtown institution, went in catty-corner from the Pinecrest the year it opened. But the competition was friendly. In fact, the Pinecrest and the Pam Pam used to back each other with supplies in a pinch -- the restaurant equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor.

A quarter of a century later, the Pinecrest is still standing, but the landscape around it is vastly changed. After the coming and going of various businesses, a Jack in the Box inhabits the corner where the Harvest used to be, and Maxwell's restaurant occupies the Pam Pam's old spot. Foundas clings to the straightforward management style that has served him so long.

"Do the best you can and don't worry about what the neighbors are doing," he likes to say. Another favorite is the advertisement on his business card: "For Food You'll Enjoy." Things are like that at the Pinecrest. Simple. Clear.

In fact, it's easy to get the impression that, despite a few remodeling projects, the place has not changed since the day it opened. And that feeling is part of its appeal. To call the Pinecrest a restaurant really doesn't do it justice. This is a diner, a neighborhood joint in the truest sense, a corner of downtown that still serves Sanka and pie in the center of a double-decaf-soy-latte-and-biscotti world.

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