The Tenderloin has long been one of the most mysterious and infamous neighborhoods in San Francisco. While it’s undeniably rough, it’s also played host to musicians, artists, sex workers, and refugees over its long history. Detective Sam Spade even called it home.
One of the neighborhood’s oldest establishments, Lafayette Coffee Shop, has gone through many major changes over the years, one being relocated from Hyde Street to Larkin Street in 2016. But for the most part, the little diner has remained true to itself and its regulars, serving the same prime rib, western omelettes, and corned beef sandwiches that they have been since the 1960s.
Lafayette Coffee Shop is reminiscent of the kind of places I’d go with my grandfather as a youngin’, the kind of places that were decorated for the last time in 1975. The interior’s muted beiges, browns, and reds will put you right into an early episode of The Brady Bunch. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was perfectly acceptable to light up a cigarette right at the table. I’ve never seen this place slammed, but there is almost always a smattering of lonesome, newspaper-reading diners and a small group of friends chatting over coffee. The vibe is homey and recognizable, but saying the space is cozy might be overly generous. Just like the neighborhood the restaurant calls home, the atmosphere isn’t ideal but it’s essential to the experience. And then there is the food. Lafayette’s menu has all your breakfast go-to’s and some old fashioned favorites.
Going out for dinner with your elders at a tiny neighborhood haunt and ordering a full dinner for around 15 bucks used to be a thing. With San Francisco’s rising costs in an already volatile industry, it’s rarer and rarer to dine at an “ordinary” joint these days. What’s grown even harder to find is that classic nightly dinner special. I’m talking meat, potatoes, and veggies. I’m looking for spaghetti and meatballs, baked ham, and veal cutlets. These dishes are old school, and while I’m fully aware that none of these classic dishes are still in vogue, I can appreciate a trip back in time before the Culinary Revolution.
At Lafayette you can order a prime rib, a scoop of mashed potatoes, and a pile of corn for $17.25. On Tuesdays you can get roast turkey for around $10 and finish off with canned peaches a la mode. Fish Fridays call for whole steamed trout or filet of baked cod nested on a bed of white rice. Even though these old-timey dishes appeal to a shrinking crowd, Lafayette will also always be reliable for a quick burger or a simple breakfast.
Restaurants like Lafayette Coffee Shop are commonplace in the Midwest, the South, and even in the Northeast. But out here in the Bay Area, this trashy nostalgia can be harder to hunt down. Maybe it’s just me, but there will always be something romantic about a crappy cup of coffee, a rundown diner, and a rainy night in the Tenderloin.
Lafayette Coffee Shop
611 Larkin St.