A third space to call their own

culture@sfbg.com

EAT HANG LOVE Every neighborhood has its ups and downs, but when it comes to Sixth and Market streets, many shop owners and residents will tell you all about the downs — street crime, homelessness, and substance abuse, to name a few. But despite warnings of stormy weather, one café and community art space has dropped anchor to serve this neighborhood. With affordable food, superior coffee, and accessible seating areas for creativity and connection, Rancho Parnassus provides a living room for neighborhood characters stuffed into cramped apartments and dirty streetscapes. But it hasn’t been easy — the good guys behind the endeavor worry that it may come down to sink or swim.

Weary of the nautical analogies yet? It’s hard not to make them after setting foot in the cafe, whose interior resembles the inside of a ship at sea. With big wooden furniture sets, photographs from group art shows hanging from ropes — not to mention the sailing equipment, bright blue walls, wooden barrels, plastic fish, and ship wheel décor — even the tiny kitchen is modeled after the galley of a ship.

Owner Andy Harris says the nautical motif is no coincidence. From behind the kitchen counter on a slow weekday morning he tells us that “the idea is that when you come in here, you’re going somewhere. You are on a ship, you’re on a journey. I don’t like static spaces — I’m trying to give people that come in here a feeling of motion.”

A lot of the lingo that Harris uses when he talks about the ideology behind Rancho Parnassus comes from the new urbanism movement. “It’s about revitalizing America’s cities rather than encouraging people to flee to the suburbs. The café and corner store are really important — they’re examples of third space, a space that is neither home nor work. That’s what this community was missing: a casual, affordably priced all-day, all-ages hangout.”

Harris refers to Rancho Parnassus mostly as a “creative hub,” and emphasizes that the food and coffee come second. But it’s hard to ignore the high quality and low prices of the coffee and food. Harris makes every cup of joe fresh using an aeropress, which is similar to a French press but with an even smaller microfilter, resulting in a brew that’s strong and tasty.

And when it comes to the menu, Harris depends on Tony Thomas, his chef and right-hand man. Thomas, a musician and performer who says he grew up cooking in his family’s now-defunct SF restaurant, was a regular at Rancho Parnassus before he got his current gig. He says he came in to play the piano one day when he spied Harris, frazzled to get through a morning rush. “He was sweatin’,” Thomas recalls. Eager to help, the cook jumped behind the counter and started frying eggs and toasting bread. He never looked back.

As Thomas tells us his story, a regular comes in to order a brioche bun stuffed with sausage, gorgonzola, spinach, and bacon, which shows up on Rancho’s menu as “The Bird in the Hand.” In keeping with the rest of the sustenance on offer, the sandwich is affordably priced — $2.50.

Although Harris and Thomas say that food costs are low, Sixth Street isn’t a big money-making location. They worry that this free art and performance space — the dining room is regularly rented out to creative types from around the city — and café might not be open much longer. It’s a frustrating reality for Harris, who knows he will “never get rich off of this space” and is more interested in his cafe’s social mission.

A typical Rancho afternoon is enough proof that the cafe means a lot to its regulars. Most days you’ll find the street artist who goes by the name of Big Face using the space as his personal studio, constructing collages at the café tables or on an easel. Around him other patrons work on their laptops or use the café’s public Apple computer, talking, eating, or just sitting quietly. “I don’t make a big fuss about anyone buying anything,” Harris says. “I want people to hang out, and we are certainly never going to push anyone out as long as they are polite and not disturbing the creative environment.”

The community members familiar with Rancho Parnassus vouch that the space makes them feel welcome. “I kind of wandered in by accident,” says Adrien, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood who lives two blocks away. Adrien comes in every day for breakfast and to do work in the morning. “There’s really no other place around here like this. There is a more relaxed vibe here between the décor, the music, and the people who work here. Other places are similar but they get too crowded and it’s more ‘get in, get out.’ “

Harris says it will be up to the community and the economy to keep Rancho Parnassus open. Although the café has a community agenda, it’s still a business, which means it won’t be receiving grants or funding from outside organizations. “There’s no grant for ‘really wonderful café — let’s get them to stay open,’ ” Harris says. When he talks about the struggle to stay afloat, you can tell he thinks the stakes are high. “It’s such a great thing for this neighborhood. So many depend on us to be here.” 

RANCHO PARNASSUS Mon.–Sat. 6 a.m.–7 p.m. 505 Minna, SF (415) 503-0700 www.ranchoparnassus.com