Sail on, Silver Girl

Bayshore Boulevard’s Silver Crest Donut Shop is the strangest place in San Francisco to eat.

Everything at the Silver Crest Donut Shop is out of order: the bathroom, the other bathroom, and the jukebox. Even the mini-jukeboxes on the counter have napkins stuffed in the coin slots. If you need to pee, you have to dash across four lanes of traffic and sneak into McDonald’s. This is true across every visit.

I’ve come to this 24-hour diner on Bayshore Boulevard periodically the entire time I’ve lived in San Francisco, partly because the first place I ever lived here was on Putnam Street above the Alemany Farmers Market and partly because the Silver Crest is still the strangest place to eat I’ve ever found in this city. Over the years, as I’ve been everywhere from one-off pop-ups to Benu, it’s been blinking at the edge of my peripheral vision, like Sutro Tower at night. It’s kind of a barometer for me: As long as it’s there, something intrinsically bizarre and decent about San Francisco endures. If it ever disappears, the city will have officially crossed a threshold of change more disturbing than the others, if only symbolically. 

Half bar, half diner, the Silver Crest is a hideous establishment that appears to take in very little money. Built in 1895 (or so I’m told), the building has been many things, including a pre-freeway gas station. It bills itself as a doughnut shop, but the doughnut selection is pretty paltry. The more pertinent detail is that it never, ever closes. Well — the bar half does, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. daily, but the place itself does not. That practice is a theft-deterrent.

Pops is almost always here. A Greek-American born George Giavris, he’s owned the Silver Crest for half a century now. According to his niece, who works 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shifts and goes home tired, Pops puts in 18-hour days, goes home to sleep for a couple hours, then comes back, and he’ll never slow down or retire even though his back is visibly stooped and he used to be chattier. If you order a Bud (bottles only) he’ll pour you a shot of ouzo without even asking. So might his wife, Nina.

That’s only at the bar, though. If you’re sitting in the diner half, it’s not quite as hospitable. You have to pay for your beers as you order them, even if you get food — for which the receipts will be presented individually, written by hand, and discreetly upside down, and the whole operation is cash-only. If you order a burger, it arrives only one way: well-done. Breakfast, served all day, is the best bet. The potatoes that come with the eggs are tasty, the toast is buttered with care, and the coffee is decent. 

You’ll drink it on a Formica countertop that I stare at every time. It’s a particular blue, not really robin’s egg blue or Twitter blue or UN blue or Star Wars end credits blue, but very much of an era. It’s a Space Age hue, or it was when it was installed. The optimism of the Apollo program got weighed down by the disappointment of the retired Space Shuttle fleet and a million ring-shaped coffee stains. The arched walls are covered in wood panelling, which is something I’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s not exactly craftsmanship, but it makes me happy.

By night, the Silver Crest’s fluorescent lighting is sickly, Lynchian. By day, the effect is wan. A lot of the signs are handwritten and feel like arbitrary rules & regs, like the one saying you must be 21 to play the five identical pinball machines wedged uncomfortably together. None of the signs are misspelled. If there’s no music playing amid all the potted plants and lucite, you feel conspicuous. Around 5 p.m., as the bar gets going, there’s usually music on the portable stereo and maybe a dispute in the parking lot.

I grew up on Long Island, where diners are plentiful, and if they aren’t open 24 hours a day, they might as well hang it up. Families of Greek descent operate most of them. Unless they cultivate a deliberately retro, 1940s appeal, they’re mostly workhorses like the Pinecrest Diner next to A.C.T. San Francisco has fewer and fewer places like this. Sparky’s is long-gone, and the Fog City Diner reopened as the fancier Fog City. Many new restaurants are dinner-only spots that open five nights a week for four hours. Staying open for 168 hours per week must be punishing, especially seven decades into the era of corporate fast food, which Bayshore Boulevard has plenty of.

The Silver Crest is on the west side of Bayshore, but you can’t really call this Bernal Heights. Once upon a time, there were plans for this to become a garment district of the West called Apparel City, but it’s a void bookended by S.F.’s gnarliest interchanges, the Hairball (Cesar Chavez at Highway 101) and the Spaghetti Bowl (101 and Interstate 280). Before post-earthquake fill and other land-reclamation projects extended the shoreline, the mudflats of Islais Creek used to be here, and The Old Clam House (established 1861) is catty-corner across the street. 

As free shots of ouzo are to the Silver Crest, $4.99 Hot Clam shooters are to the Old Clam House. They’re basically tepid Bloody Marys with clam juice, and the sediment is probably quite polarizing. Asked if he’d ever been inside the Silver Crest, an Old Clam House bartender responds by asking if it was still open, even though we could see the cars in its parking lot from there. Nope, it hasn’t closed.

“I heard 15 years ago it was a real dive,” he says, as if the 19th-century Old Clam House’s isolated location on a plank road two miles from downtown weren’t a virtual guarantee that sordid things went on there all the time. 

San Francisco is too small for there to be undiscovered neighborhoods, culinarily speaking or otherwise. (The South and East bays are another story altogether.) But at Silver Crest, you realize the extent to which there are multiple San Franciscos piled atop one another. This is the boundary of a kind of urbanite consciousness, which spurs journalists to say something happened in Bernal Heights but out in the Portola, one neighborhood to the south. While “outer” neighborhood ethnic restaurants run by immigrant families who serve incredible food have begun to get their full and proper respect at last, the Silver Crest operates at a basal stratum. This is food as fuel for a working-class constituency that spends its days on the road or in neighborhoods zoned for light industry. It isn’t built for Yelp. It wears its history more lightly than any 125-year-old structure in this entire city. It hasn’t closed, because it never closes.

Silver Crest Donut Shop, 340 Bayshore Boulevard, 415-826-0753, no website.

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