San Francisco’s Red Door Cafe Is a Wonderful Oasis of Strange
On weekend mornings, I often stumble across Bush Street and politely excuse my way to the front of the line of people waiting to get a table at the tiny Red Door Cafe. I peer over the cherry colored, half-open Dutch door like I usually do, waiting for Ahmed, the owner, to notice me and let me in. He always keeps the lower half locked to keep out the Marina Girl riffraff. No one just wanders into the Red Door Cafe—one is first scanned and scrutinized by Ahmed’s keen eye. It isn’t a particular look he’s after, but rather an attitude.
Before he’ll let you in, you must first read the menu posted at the window and then decide if you’re comfortable ordering dishes like “No One Sucks It Like A Straight Married Man from Texas” (smoked salmon scrambled eggs with onion, tomato, and cheese) or “Told Ya Not To Cum in My Hair You Pathetic Moron” (Burmese lamb with mint and avocado). If you’re cool with the menu, you’re more than likely welcomed inside. Just don’t wear sunglasses upon entering—Ahmed needs to see your eyes. He can tell by a glance if you’ve got a bad attitude or are going to bolt. In all my years as a habitué of the Red Door Cafe, I have never known him to be wrong. Not once.
On one particular morning, he unlocked the door to let me in with his free hand; his left arm was loaded up with vintage baby dolls. We kissed cheeks and quickly moved past each other. I scooted to the back of the restaurant to chat with his assistant Regan while he strolled outside to distribute his payload among the people waiting in line. When one woman balked at the idea of holding one, Ahmed explained, “Honey, if you can’t take care of a fucking doll for 10 minutes, why should I think you’re going to take care of me?”
She and her friend chose to breakfast elsewhere.
After doling out his plastic children, he went back inside to do what he does best: feeding and entertaining his guests. I complimented his outfit: Rollergirl-esque short shorts offset by knee-length tube socks below, and bunny-shaped pasties above. He smiled and thanked me as he glided from the red velvet, border-town-brothel-colored dining room to the sage subway-tiled kitchen where I watched him put the finishing touches on a few dishes. He tucked slices of honeydew melon under a breakfast wrap, impaled a sandwich with an erector set of skewered berries and cocktail umbrellas, and violently spanked a small canister of cinnamon over French toast. I was so busy watching and chatting with him that I had failed to notice what was happening in the dining room behind me.
As he delivered the dishes to his hungry guests, chatting away, cracking jokes, and ruffling hair, I realized that all of the men in the room were eating their breakfast in their underwear. Straight men laughing away with their fully-attired girlfriends and wives. I turned to Regan and said, “This is the nicest birthday present I could have hoped for. And I don’t even want to know how he managed to get them to do it.” She laughed, rolled her eyes upward and simply added, “Oh, Ahmed.”
The back of the little menus on each table used to feature pictures of smiling naked men with their legs spread wide, displaying rather proudly and graphically what could be considered their most intimate opening. They might have been off-putting or giggle-inducing to some, but I always considered these menus a sort of visual clue to Ahmed’s personal vision of hospitality. He may be careful about who he lets into his tiny establishment, but the reason behind it may be that he feels he’s letting people inside of him.
And once you’re in, you’re really in. If you’re open enough, you’re really glad to be there. When he’s not racing around serving food, Ahmed is holding court, sharing stories of his wild adventures, or initiating frank and surprisingly honest conversations about race and sex, involving everyone in the room. Quite often, it feels like group therapy, served with a delicious side of hash browns.
When I told Regan I didn’t want to know how he got all those men to strip down, it may have been because I already knew the answer: an odd sense of mutual trust. He only lets in people he feels will take care of him and he promises to take care of them in return. Or as my friend Brooke once said of him, “It’s as though he’s turned the whole concept of restaurant hospitality on its head.”
With his over-the-top costumes and décor, and drag-bedecked food, Ahmed has managed to create a wonderful oasis of strange in my neighborhood. When I hear the music playing from his outdoor speakers, I make my way over. Usually just for a quick coffee and a chat, but when I sit down to order a plate of French Toast Josephine, girdled with bananas and oozing with syrupy sex like a bready version of Miss Baker herself, I am truly filled with the gratitude of knowing that places like this exist.
Then I reach past the dildo on my table to get the sugar for my coffee and think how glad I am to have moved to San Francisco.
Michael Procopio is the author of the two-time James Beard Award-losing blog Food for the Thoughtless. He is fond of gin, medieval European history, and anything related to Edward Gorey.