Saving the historic Grubstake Diner

Supporters are pushing for renovations to the historic Grubstake Diner. Tied to a housing development project, Consos does not picture the diner staying afloat without these changes. PHOTO BY BAILEY STEADMAN / SAN FRANCISCO FOGHORN 

With its tall, modern office buildings, Van Ness Avenue can feel like a concrete jungle. However, the scene begins to change on Pine Street when one sees the small, red train car that is  Grubstake Diner. Featuring pride flags rising above the original lunch wagon arch, the diner promises a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community.

Grubstake Diner has a rich LGBTQ+ history of inclusivity and acceptance and is co-owned by Jimmy Consos and Nick Pigott who is utilizing the State Density Bonus Program (SDBP) to continue fostering a sense of camaraderie within the community. In accordance with the SDBP, a California government incentive to develop housing in urban neighborhoods, Consos wishes to use the planning flexibility and available funding to construct 21 units of middle-income housing above the diner and preserve the treasured LGBTQ+ meeting place. 

As the project is tied to major renovations, without the addition of the housing, the diner will be forced to shut down. 

A rally was held Sept. 27 in support of the housing development project. The event welcomed a crowd of supporters, including many dedicated individuals wearing old school diner waitstaff uniforms, complete with soda jerker hats and rainbow colored signs with words of affirmation and love for the diner. Established community speakers and drag queens such as Juanita More and Donna Sachet spoke on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community and offered their unwavering support to the development project. 

“We want to rebuild a space that people can afford to live in,” said More, a customer of more than 30 years. She continued by saying the diner “was the place to be. It’s where everyone came, it’s where I came!”  

Before the well-known Castro neighborhood established itself as the city’s gay epicenter, Polk Gulch was the first neighborhood where gay-owned businesses, such as restaurants and clothing stores, opened and catered directly to the LGBTQ+ community. Once a thriving ecosystem, the area lost its standing as the city’s gay capital with the destruction of locally owned LGBTQ+ bars and restaurants for the skyscraper development. 

Established in 1967, but reaching its height of popularity in the ‘70s, Grubstake Diner offers good burgers and drinks and even better company. Before COVID-19, the diner was a hub for late night gatherings of diverse LGBTQ+ members. Jonathan Griffin, a customer of 16 years, spoke about his attachment to the diner. “We’d come here. [Meet] people you knew and people you wanted to know.”

Consos wants to keep the integrity and history of the building intact while upgrading the diner’s foundation and safety measures to coordinate with the housing units. Renovation plans include the maintenance of original light fixtures and mural artwork while staying true to the establishment’s lunch wagon design. 

After six years of planning with esteemed members of the LGBTQ+ community, historic preservationists, and the Lower Polk community, the project was approved July 22 by the San Francisco Planning Commission. 

However, this feat was quickly shut down by the diner’s neighboring building owners of the recently developed Austin Condominiums. They based their appeal on the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND), which allows for project revision prior to the start of construction. They opposed the project’s viability on the grounds of inadequate parking for present and future residents, the availability of previously established housing in the Polk area, and their concern for the lack of light and air to the condominiums’ private terraces. 

The project and its opponents have drawn attention from multiple local news platforms including SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle in the Bay Area due to the immense support coming from customers and community members alike, as well as the controversy over the affordability of the proposed housing. Housing costs have skyrocketed due to San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley and strict zoning regulations; the city’s residents suffer without affordable housing. 

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