Anticipating the Grand Re-Opening of San Francisco’s
Clement Restaurant – closed due to fire since 2015
The Richmond district of San Francisco has dozens of dim sum spots, but Clement Restaurant has always held a special place in both my heart and my stomach. Like Proust’s madeleine, a bite from their Baked BBQ Pork Bun takes me back to the days of my childhood.
Ever since I can remember (and long before), a walk down Clement street has been dominated by Asian grocers and houseware supply stores, dim sum restaurants, and doubled parked delivery trucks unloading boxes of live, smelly crabs and other assorted seafood down wet floors into back kitchens and loud, fish markets.
“Around the turn of the 20th Century, new cable and electric streetcar lines formed to deliver passengers to the Golden Gate Park, to the beach, and Adolph Sutro’s new Cliff House, Sutro Heights, and Sutro Baths.”
Read more: A Short History of the Richmond District
The first sprinklings of bougeious yuppie-dom, like the sweet ‘n cutsie coffee and ice cream shop, the Toy Boat Café, didn’t come on the scene until the 1980s. That’s when I moved away to college, then to chase a career, marry and raise a son.
On the Clement street of today, cases filled with used books still spill into the street in front of the venerable Green Apple Books, and families still gather around the classic checkered tablecloths of Giorgios’ Pizza, but King Norman’s Kingdom of Toys is long gone, and Haig’s Delicacies closed in 2013 to focus on the wholesale part of their business.
Yes, I have always come back every few months to visit my family, and stopping by Clement Restaurant is an engraved tradition that I passed into the next generation. I thought I was appreciative, but realized I had taken it all for granted when I returned in 2015 to find the place all boarded up.
A 2015 kitchen fire shut down operations at the address… but since the owner of Clement Restaurant also owns the two eateries on either side, the buns kept rising!
Assorted pastries were shouldered by the kitchen at Clement BBQ, the restaurant next door to the east, and the steamed offerings continued at Xiao Long Bao, located just next door to the west.
It was a great relief to continue to enjoy the unique and sumptuous blend of sweet/savory BBQ pork in Char Siu sauce recipe made only at Clement Restaurant.
The Long Road Back (a timeline in pictures)
Michael Flores, energetic and knowledgeable Superintendent for Bali Construction, welcomes the challenge of every new job, but admits progress has been stalled many times in the past four years. Insurance issues, PG&E issues. They had to reconfigure the sequencing of the entire power system, so it is properly shared between three establishments. Peering through the taped up windows revealed little. At first there was no progress. Just the locked door and the lingering scent of smoke.
The place was cleared and gutted on the inside and then spent some time as a storage unit. Stacks of supplies would appear. A ladder leaning against a wall. Boxes and boxes of To-Go containers, tumbled over each other. The front windows wore dirty, peeling stickers and long expired ads for city events.
Stepping inside in July 2019, the long narrow place is bright white, except on the right wall, where the original brick has been exposed..
CHANGING BACK IS STILL A CHANGE
I have a tendency to be nervous about change. And I haven now grown accustomed to going to Clement BBQ next door.
While waiting in line, I may take in the state of a whole roast pig, dressed for consumption or hanging from a hook suspended over a worn, round butcher’s block.
I may watch as steam table orders are filled. Scoops of chow mein slopped into takeout containers.
I can lean against the sacks of bleach piled high against the mirrored wall.
And I always look next door for a peek at the progress…
Superintendant Flores points out that I am not the only one who has stopped by the open door of the re-construction of Clement Restaurant to share my longstanding personal fondness for the place and the taste that takes me back.
I tell him that I am excited for the reopening, and grateful to the owner for maintaining the baked delights for his customers. He knows the value is beyond taste — it’s time travel.
When he hints that the owner maybe “expanding the menu,” a shiver runs through me and I quickly exclaim, “Don’t change the recipe!”