Northern California is famous for its food, but the tech industry is better known for Soylent than haute cuisine. Could a new startup-run restaurant in San Francisco’s buzzing venture capital hive be anything but soulless? I had to try it.
In 2017, Brex, a white-hot financial tech startup offering “the smartest corporate credit card,” bought the South Park Cafe, a historic French bistro that had served the city for 20 years. Under the wing of two Stanford dropouts barely older than the cafe itself, the restaurant reopened its doors last month.
South Park, home to the South Park Cafe, is an emblem of recent San Francisco history. The neighborhood played host to notable companies of the Dot Com Boom, fell into disrepair in the crash, and has once again regained favor as a hub of tech companies and investment firms in this second, bigger boom.
The park itself is ringed with the offices of venture capital firms that have migrated north from their traditional home on Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto, leaving behind the likes of Google and Apple for Uber and Airbnb.
Along with the rest of the city, South Park real estate prices climbed as more venture capitalists came. In 2011, a 1,200 square-foot loft rented for $2,000 per month. Less than five years later, that rent had more than doubled.
STARTUP DU JOUR
I arrived at the Brextaurant (it’s not called this; it should be) on a Tuesday afternoon in high Silicon Valley style—ferried there by an Uber, wearing two layers of North Face, and having just hung up on a tech company PR rep who had requested I not write about his startup’s sexual harassment settlement.
Leafy pothos plants swayed over the cafe’s liquor shelf of brown and laquered-black wood, and the rest of the Brextaurant was styled in similar, predictable millennial mid-century. There were two types of chairs warring to set the tonet: tropical-bungalow-brown ones at the bar and meeting-room-black ones at the tables. The black-and-white tiles resembled glitch art linoleum. A diner’s black felt letter board displayed the coffee offerings. Dozens of lights adorned the walls, the ceiling, the columns, but somehow the place was still dim.
A startup’s restaurant attracts the clientele you think it would, making a convincing backdrop for HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” A former product designer for Uber to my left Googled a venture capital firm on his hunter green iPhone 11 Pro, a device that had been available for just 11 days. On the sidewalk, two men considered an introduction to the CEO of Turo, a peer-to-peer car rental startup. Two women walking by discussed asserting themselves when advising company boards. Across the park, a Tesla owner, AirPods still in, talked of his car’s battery life and the drive to Tahoe with a parking attendant. Every third person seemed to be wearing an Apple Watch.
From the start, the meal seemed to betray the Brextaurant’s status as a simulacrum. The trout was the color of salmon. The sunchokes lurking below the fish looked and tasted like cauliflower. Someone was doing their best to deceive me that this fish was that one, that this vegetable was another, and that this was a real restaurant. Whatever the fish was, though, its crisp skin was the highlight of the meal.
The couscous, peppered needlessly with upscale potato chips, had the flavor of a salt flat. Hello, Death Valley.
The cappuccino was delicious—fitting given that caffeine is tech’s favorite course. The meal cost $30, excluding tip, a suspiciously low bill for one of the most wealth-steeped neighborhoods in America. The Brex logo, the same reflective bronze as the restaurant’s wainscotting, gilded the leather folder that held the check.
The food at the Brextaurant tasted like the cuisine in an upmarket cafeteria—fancy but unremarkable. Lots of tech company cafeterias serve such fare. If I asked someone what they ate in Airnnb’s offices the same week, they might describe the same meal. Brex’s headquarters are a short two blocks away.
The restaurant retained some aspects of its former self, but the branding crept in. I spotted, perhaps unsurprisingly, several people in black Brex t-shirts ordering coffee alongside other men in thin t-shirts. San Francisco’s downtown, with its packs of 20-and-30-somethings wearing matching t-shirts and backpacks, at times resembles an intramural dodgeball league.
Brex has remodeled the cafe’s second floor into “the Oval Room,” a clubhouse for its cardholders, which opened at the same time as the restaurant. I wasn’t allowed to see it, since I’m not a one-man startup and don’t have a Brex card, but per pictures of the club’s opening, it looks as if the Brex CEOs handed an employee a company card and said something like “Get the dark-colored shit from West Elm. Go bananas.” They added an industrial metal wall for effect.
I might have been barred from the cafe’s elite lounge, but no trip into tech-land is done without a properly galling contrast of poverty and extreme wealth slapping you in the face.
As I left the cafe, a telling scene had assembled: tech investors were putting on a concert in the park to celebrate giving low-income neighbors money for wifi. In between acts, an architect accepted an honor for raising millions to restore South Park, though she had herself been accused of evicting artists from a building she owned.
The men at the show, as in the Brextaurant, were underdressed, but slyly so. They wore soft cotton copies of acceptable business attire: slacks that on closer inspection revealed themselves to be upscale sweatpants, pajama-textured shirts masquerading as Oxfords, and Allbirds, the business sneaker slippers of the technorati, adorned every foot.
Even while raising money for affordable housing, San Franciscans find time to gripe about the homeless. After the concert, Rick Holman, the husband of the architect who had raised money to restore the park itself, fretted to his city councilman about “the people in the alleys” and how “they’re not bad people, but they set up tents.”
But Holman wasn’t happy with his housed neighbors either. He blamed “the yuppies” for dog poop on the streets. The poop was, indeed, a problem. Earlier in the afternoon, this reporter had stepped in some beside a rack of Lyft bikes.
Poop notwithstanding, it was a beautiful afternoon. The sun gleamed on the leaves, but it never warmed the park. As I sat outside the cafe contemplating the city, my fingers grew too cold to type and my stomach rumbled with hunger.