“What can I do for you, my friend?” Nader Hasan, one of the bartenders at Revolution Cafe, remembers asking a homeless man as he walked through the door. It was a question he used for many who came in wanting a cigarette, a coffee, a glass of wine, or a few dollars to sweep the patio.
He wanted to play the piano.
No harm in that. “Sure, go ahead,” Hasan remembers saying.
So the man sat down and, for three hours, his fingers moved through the compositions of Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and other jazz masters, dazzling anyone lucky enough to be at Revolution Cafe that afternoon.
“This guy was just a total master … he was a person who had been really trained in that music at a high, high level,” said Hasan.
In the end, Hasan gave him a cup of coffee, and he went on his way.
For 15 years, the small and slightly worn-down Revolution Cafe known affectionately as “The Rev” or “Revolution” was a place where maestros — from the homeless to the well-to-do — went to find community, share a pitcher of sangria, meet their life-long loves and, most important, listen to and to play great music.
But in March, it closed for good — and not because of an owner unwilling to pay an increased rent.
“I wanted to re-sign the new lease and keep Revolution alive. It’s part of my life, and part of what I do. I like being in touch with the music people in San Francisco, it’s a feel-good place,” said Andre Larzul, the 57-year-old owner of the now-shuttered cafe who is a third-generation restaurant owner from Brittany, France.
Revolution Cafe’s closure was deeply disappointing for musicians, artists, and neighborhood residents who frequented the cafe, many of them treating it as a community center or extended living room.
Revolution Cafe was an institution in the Mission, a gathering place that had the capacity to “accommodate all those differences,” in the music and people who found themselves there, said Hasan.
The cafe’s wood-framed window doors, which the owner imported from France, opened onto 22nd Street and gave an unimpeded view inside. This meant people walking by could peer in and listen to the music, and people standing outside smoking a cigarette or chatting up a new acquaintance could gather around the corner on Bartlett Street and still hear the music into the night.
And music there was. In fact, there was live music every single night. And most days, there was music in the afternoon, too.
A 20-piece orchestra once crammed itself in as an audience of 60 or 70 people filled the sidewalk and spilled onto 22nd Street. It was a place where Kobe Bryant once stood in the back listening to live music. The six-foot-six-inch shooting guard listened to music as he drank a beer, leaving only after one of the bartenders walked up to him and starting talking to him.
But the lively atmosphere and loud music, which is seldom found in a neighborhood cafe, ended up contributing to the cafe’s downfall.
The pandemic and years of noise complaints led to the cafe’s shuttering
When Covid hit, Revolution Cafe reopened for a short while — but Larzul’s employees had a hard time containing the crowds, and the City Attorney sent Larzul a letter, shutting the doors of the cafe, according to Larzul. The physicality of the cafe, said Larzul, made it “challenging to discipline people standing close together.”
As the months passed, Larzul fell behind on rent, but he figured that once things reopened, he’d renew his lease and things would go back to normal.
But Kaushik “Ken” Mulji Dattani, a landlord long associated with evictions, wanted Revolution Cafe to make upgrades and install sound-proofing. Over the years, Revolution Cafe was in a constant battle over controlling noise. Larzul said he was willing to make upgrades to the space, which was never in pristine condition, but the landlord refused to let Larzul re-sign the lease.
Dattani never responded to Mission Local’s calls.
So Larzul was asked to move his things out of the cafe, for him signaling the end.
Yet around a month later, after having difficulty finding another renter, Dattani reached out to see if Larzul wanted to bring Revolution Cafe back, according to Larzul. But conditions remained. He wanted Larzul to take responsibility for any noise complaints. And Larzul thought the lease was too restrictive, as it wouldn’t allow for The Rev to function freely.
“I can’t move forward with all of those restrictions on the lease, and I don’t think that he’s willing to go back to the way it was,” Larzul said.
“That was the charm of the space. It wasn’t a nightclub, it was just a cafe in a commercial corridor with music,” said Larzul.
And thus, the gates remain closed. A sign that read “AVAILABLE,” which was posted outside the cafe in early March, 2021, has since been removed.
A cafe unlike any other
The Rev was “one of those places that makes San Francisco a desirable place to live. It’s grassroots underground, the things like [the Rev] that give the underbelly of the city its character, it’s juice,” said Sean Tergis, a musician who was born and raised in San Francisco, and curated a weekly jam of Balkan Music on Sunday nights.
Sure, there were other music venues to listen to live music, such as Red Poppy Art House or Amnesia (which also closed last year), but there was nowhere else in the Mission that consistently had two bands a day playing music for free, seven days a week.
Going to Revolution Cafe did not mean booking tickets in advance and shelling out $30 for a ticket. It meant showing up alone on a whim to have your spirits lifted by sounds coming from a Greek instrument you had never seen before. Or running into a cousin you hadn’t seen in years while waiting in line for the bathroom.
Revolution Cafe’s juice was high-quality music played by skilled musicians. For many years in the Mission, it was one of the hubs for Jazz music, Afro Cuban music, Balkan music, and sometimes funk and disco. For years, many of the Bay Area’s top professional musicians performed weekly at Revolution Cafe because they loved being there, though the money was never good.
The music was always free, and the cafe could only comfortably seat maybe 30 people, so people would end up joining a stranger at a small table or on a bench, or giving up their chair to an elderly person. Aside from a small tip jar that was often passed around by friends of the musicians in the audience, no one made a living playing gigs at Revolution Cafe. Instead, it was the place musicians came to jam for an audience after they got out of their paying gigs at Yoshi’s Jazz Club, other paid classical music concerts, or their day-job.
On Mondays it was packed with people listening to top-notch classical music being played by musicians in jeans and t-shirts.
“I wanted to play classical music in a place where it wasn’t for just old, rich, white people,” said Charith Premawardhana, a viola player and the founder of the group Classical Revolution. Premawardhana organized the Monday night concerts for more than 12 years and counts some 700 or 800 times he played at the cafe.
Through the years, the heavy hitters would stop by: Boots Riley, Tommy Guerrero, Donald Bailey (who played drums in John Coltrane’s band). Michael Franti would “just chill and be tall as fuck,” says Joe Lewis, a professional musician and the cafe’s music programmer for five years.
The unique energy of the cafe also drew visitors from all over the world. “People told me I cannot come to San Francisco without visiting the Revolution Cafe,” Hasan said customers often told him.
Standing outside, it was common to hear French, Arabic, Spanish, Brazillian or Portuguese — or maybe all at the same time. Musicians and workers alike have tales of people meeting and marrying, having children together, and forming professional bands together.
“That room has its own voodoo,” said Lewis.
Jazz bassist Marcus Shelby, who has recorded with Tom Waits, played there. In fact, owner Larzul said it was Shelby who accompanied him many years earlier when they went to a music store to buy the upright piano that lived inside the restaurant, the same one played by the homeless musician who entertained the neighborhood for three hours.
Angie Hanna, was 25 when she started bartending at Revolution. It had already been open several years, a successor in 2006 to Momi Toby’s Revolution Café + Art Bar that moved in 1993 to Hayes Valley and recently closed. Before it was Momi Toby’s, it was a floral shop that, long-time residents say, everyone knew was a drug front.
To Hanna, it was more than a job; it was also an extended community.
When she had to haul a 140-pound full keg out of the fridge, customers stepped in to give her a hand. At closing, customers would pick up a broom and sweep up cigarette butts. Others would carry tables inside. And someone would always walk her to her car, making sure she made it home safely.
And, although the refrigerator was often on the fritz, meaning that beers were not always chilled, the cafe still regularly ran out of glasses. “It could be so packed that I couldn’t make my way to the front door to collect glasses,” and so “the regulars” would help collect them when the bar was running low, Hanna said.
The Revolution Cafe community also had its own way of doing things, ones that did not involve the police. Instead, staff and customers responded to conflicts organically through conflict resolution.
When a regular customer was having a mental breakdown and came to Revolution Cafe in distress, workers and customers at The Rev successfully worked together to get them in touch with their family and a counselor.
And when people began to take advantage of the openness of the space and started selling drugs inside, no one called the police. Instead, workers at the cafe talked to the dealers and asked them to conduct their business elsewhere. “It worked,” said Lewis.
Although Larzul is looking for other spaces around the Mission and the Haight for Revolution Cafe, it always comes down to concerns over noise control.
Supervisor Hilary Ronen said she is sad to see the place go. She last spoke to Larzul in July, when he was seeking help dealing with noise and health complaints during the pandemic.
“I wish he would have gotten in touch again,” Ronen said, adding that her team will reach out Larzul to see if they can offer any support.
For his part, Larzul is busy working at Alamo Square Seafood Grill, his main restaurant. He is also part owner of Brenda’s Meat & Three on Divisadero. As to resurrecting Revolution Cafe, he’s uncertain about that. But he did say that he was looking for other spaces, though likely none will replace what the cafe once was.
“It was one of a kind, and I don’t see it being duplicated,” he said.