I've always been charmed by the idea that a person can be born into the wrong era. It's a romantic concept, really, that a certain personality and a specific time period might be tied together cosmically, like soulmates. Some souls do seem a bit displaced, forever longing for a time when life was much simpler; when clothing was made lovingly by hand rather than in mass quantities at a factory, and folks spent time talking face-to-face instead of typing on a screen. Michelle Polzine, a pastry goddess and vintage aficionado, appears to be one such displaced soul. Stepping into her restaurant, 20th Century Café, is like following her back in time - if you can ignore the iPad at the ordering station, of course.
Every tiny detail in the café has been carefully curated in order to create the perfect vintage aesthetic: art deco lamps hang from above, small marble tables are lined up against a velvet banquette, elaborate bronzed tiles cover the front of a long bar, and most of the staff is decked out in 1940's-style vintage dresses and aprons. Inspired by the darling little cafés she experienced in Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, this light-drenched space offers locals a beautiful spot to relax and enjoy an afternoon, with a side of exquisite handmade pastries, of course.
And about those pastries... Polzine knows her stuff. Armed with years of experience as a pastry chef, Polzine creates sweet and savory delights that are so good, they provide regular homesickness relief for Eastern European expats. The counter is stacked high with knishes, bagels, babkas, and strudels, and each is more beautiful than the next. These baked goods make up the core of the menu at 20th Century Café, which is rounded out by lunch items like soups, sandwiches, and salads.
On our recent weekend trip to San Francisco, our dear friends took us to 20th Century Café for a late brunch. They'd been singing is praises for months - telling tales of the handmade bagels, bright pink borscht, and the unbelievably delicious (and beautiful) Russian Honey Cake. These are the sort of friends who know their food, so when they fall in love with a place, you know you're in for a treat - so our hopes were pretty high for our brunch. And let me tell you, we were not disappointed. Not even a little.
I couldn't help but choose one of the beautiful nigella seed bagels, served open-faced with smoked salmon, cream cheese, pickled shallots, and dill. The bagel itself was perfection, light and soft inside with a hint of onion flavor and a satisfying crunch from the nigella seeds on the outside. The salmon was smoky and flavorful, and the pickled shallots offered a bit of tanginess. My friend chose the bagel with sliced beets, which essentially swaps out beets for the salmon, and was equally delicious in its own way. She picked the nigella seed bagel, too (since that was the right choice), but if you're not into that sort of thing, there were two other bagel flavors to choose from, as well.
Also at our table were some more lunch-like dishes: a wild boar sausage dish with sauerkraut, apple butter, roasted fingerling potatoes; a beautiful bowl of vibrant borscht topped with heaps of fresh herbs; and a simple but well-executed salad for some ruffage (I do love my ruffage). Everything was delicious: the sausage was moist and flavorful, and paired perfectly with the bright flavors from the apple butter and sauerkraut, while the borscht was light and fresh-tasting - perfect for a light lunch.
And then on to the main event: dessert (side note: if you're not having dessert at brunch, you really need to re-think some things). We ordered coffee and dessert separately - be warned that if you order everything all at once, your borscht will come at the same time as your cake, which would really just be distracting, because who wants to eat beets when there's a big slice of cake staring them in the face?
Our cappuccinos were very good, and boasted some seriously lovely latte art, made even more lovely by the vintage china they were served in. Between us, we shared two slices of cake: Dobos Torte and the legendary Russian Honey Cake. The Dobos Torte was very good, with its extremely rich chocolate frosting and a surprisingly salty cookie was placed artfully on top. We all enjoyed it, though it unfortunately suffered from second-fiddle syndrome - because the Russian Honey Cake was, well, exceptional.
Honestly speaking, 20th Century Café's Russian Honey Cake is quite possibly the best cake I've ever tasted (if not, it's a close second). In the weeks that have passed since I ate this cake, it has popped into my mind over and over again - those impossibly thin yet perfectly baked layers of sponge paired with the most luscious honey cream create an almost hypnotizing effect. It is intensely satisfying, and tastes as if smooth butter was whipped up with creamy honey to create an airy, soft cloud of slightly salty, not-too-sweet deliciousness. I will probably never visit San Francisco again without getting a slice of this cake - it's that good.
If you were for some reason unable to sense the copious amount of love that has been poured into 20th Century Café during your meal (but you will, don't worry), it'll be clear with a quick chat with Michelle on your way out. She and her staff genuinely love this place, and the work that goes into it. They wear beautiful vintage dresses because they want to, not just for show. They painstakingly execute traditional baking methods because they enjoy it, and because it makes the food taste better. Each tiny detail has been carefully considered, and it all adds up to a truly delightful experience.
20th Century Café
198 Gough Street
San Francisco, CA 94102