It's midday Friday, and Berry Salinas stands between an old used-car lot and a brake shop, inside the former Greyhound station that will soon house her new restaurant. "I think they're gonna be seriously disappointed if they try to turn this into a bunch of kitschy shops," she says, looking out onto Santa Rosa Avenue.
In May, Salinas will open Butcher & Cook, a self-described "chicken shack." Butcher & Cook hits a number of current food trends: a comfort-food menu, a use of locally sourced ingredients and, after 10 weeks sharing space inside of Omelette Express, the transition from a pop-up restaurant to a permanent home.
But Butcher & Cook is also inadvertently a part of a larger trend: food's ability to transform neighborhoods.
This is the South A neighborhood near Juilliard Park, an area that, according to annual trend stories in local media, has been in a perpetual state of "revitalization" for the last 10 years. Most of that focus has been on the arts, and on the small neighborhood's galleries, theater companies and artist studios.
Yet while "This Is the Arts District" was the area's rallying cry five years ago, it's food that has finally begun to bring more people to the under-utilized neighborhood.
Late last year, the much-buzzed about Spinster Sisters opened to great fanfare. Soon after, Worth Our Weight's Evelyn Cheatham bought the Cookhouse, a landmark greasy-spoon, and is in the process of reopening it as a restaurant. This year, Criminal Baking Co. opened to a healthy buzz, and across the busy street, Dierk's Parkside Cafe, one of the city's most popular breakfast spots, always has crowds of people waiting outside for a table. (Dierk's has been so successful, in fact, that owner Mark Dierkhising is opening a second location on Fourth Street across from Superburger in the coming months.)
Next to the foodie-approved Taqueria Las Palmas, Salinas will open a place with the kind of word-of-mouth that all but guarantees the restaurant's success. A resulting infusion of new interest in the neighborhood as a food destination is inevitable; proponents of South A have witnessed that same effect magnified with what's happened to Valencia Street in San Francisco's Mission district, and taken note.
A new buzzword has even cropped up for the area: the "Gourmet Ghetto."
Salinas is a little more realistic. "I don't really like that term very much," she says. The 35-year-old Sebastopol farmer also wants to shield Santa Rosa Avenue from inorganic "rebirth." She'll serve down-home food: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, collard greens and rotating specials of pork belly and fish 'n' chips. Most plates will be around $10.
"There's a lot of food in Sonoma County," she says inside the small, 12-by-12-foot dining room, "but there's not a lot of this kind of shack-eating element that you see in metropolitan areas—like in San Francisco, there are these hole-in-the-wall eating establishments. I always prefer that surprise element, of feeling like you're discovering something, and I feel like that's missing here."
Soon, Judy Kennedy walks by. "I'm so glad you're moving in here!" she says to Salinas. Kennedy, a longtime neighborhood advocate well-known at city meetings, has for years been trying to ensure the region's walkability and desirability, and new restaurants, she says, can assist in the "positive experience" that helps push out unwanted nighttime activity.
"There's one thing that we're really working on right now, and that's the prostitution problem," Kennedy says. "The pimps and their prostitutes stay at the Economy Inn, and the girls, they're not bringing their clients to the hotels. They're walking the streets and then going in the neighborhoods, in the car, and doing it. We find condoms in front of our house all the time."
Down the street, on the curb across from the Spinster Sisters' lunchtime rush, Jeremiah Flynn and Maria Villano sit in the sun outside Jeremiah's Photo Corner, one of a handful of retail shops in the neighborhood. Flynn says there's been no "big boom" in business, but agrees that Spinster Sisters has brought in a whole new crop of visitors. "I have people coming in saying, 'I had no idea this neighborhood was here.' I hear that every day," he says.
"We'll see how it pans out," Flynn adds stoically. "It's like this 'rebirth,' again."
Raissa de la Rosa, who, with Santa Rosa's Department of Economic Development and Housing, has worked with a number of businesses in the area, agrees. "People get food," she says. "They don't always get art."
A former resident of Oakland's Temescal district, de la Rosa knows firsthand how restaurants can drive a neighborhood's renewal, and thinks it can happen with South A Street and Santa Rosa Avenue as well. "There's more of an impetus for people coming out of the businesses downtown, and, on a beautiful day, walk to those restaurants," she says. "It's going to take time, but I think restaurants can do that way more then, say, a gallery would."
De la Rosa pauses and makes an important point: "I also don't think the restaurants would be interested in the area," she says, "if the galleries weren't there."
One thing is sure: the neighborhood has a vibe. That suits Salinas perfectly. Before her shared-space run at Omelette Express, she hosted one-off underground dinners and other hush-hush events. Her other business, Meat Revolution, makes sausage, bacon and charcuterie; she delivers to restaurants all over the Bay Area and has a meat CSA.
As for the so-called undesirable element? "I'm not opposed to something being done, but I hope it's more in that creative vein, where it's quirky and offbeat," she says, "and not trying to make it downtown Healdsburg."