Illustration by Molly Oleson

I have such conflicted feelings about Manny’s. Can we talk?

Manny’s, at the corner of 16th and Valencia, is not just a good corporate citizen but probably one of the best. It’s not just a cafe, it’s a deliberately designed progressive community meeting place that supports local causes, is politically active, and has a performance space for art events. It offers that space to many groups for free. It has a small bookshop filled with relevant books like “The Children of Harvey Milk” and “Health Justice Now.”

Its food is supplied by a nonprofit that hires the formerly incarcerated. And the Manny of “Manny’s” worked like hell to get this place open and running in the face of an extra helping from the buffet of crazy that everyone who wants to build something in San Francisco is forced to wade through. 

Manny’s is exactly the kind of business we want in San Francisco. Supporting it feels almost like an obligation. And that’s also my problem: I have never, not once, had an experience at Manny’s that hasn’t felt like living through an obligation. 

What’s my problem?

Giovani Adams at Manny’s, April, 2021. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

I was wondering this as I sat outside at one of the many outdoor tables Manny’s has set up, because Manny’s is good that way. The weather was a little wretched, which is certainly not their fault: Just too damn windy. But even if the person I was waiting for was inclined to sit inside (which I doubted), there were no tables available indoors, which is also not fair of me to blame on Manny’s, even if it is a recurring problem: Manny’s is so popular that it’s often hard to get a seat, especially while the event area is shut down. 

But it’s not just that. When I get a seat at Manny’s, I feel like I’ve agreed to sit through the second part of a continuing education credit.

It was the afternoon, and I was drinking coffee, not booze. I’d have a mocha and an apple turnover, and the person I was meeting would order a tahini chocolate cookie, and all of them were really good. No issues there.

My friend wants a second child, and she’s been struggling because it looks like she’s going to need medical help to get there. Just by the numbers, surrogacy seems like a much better option for her than in vitro fertilization. There are other advantages too: having a surrogate means you get to skip the painful parts of pregnancy. But that’s also one of the reasons she doesn’t want to do it. Her first pregnancy was so hard, such a trial, that she craves the potential of a do-over. She wants to reach a sense of peace with her body as it carries her child.

Having a surrogate for her next pregnancy means that the hard, often ugly, road she experienced the first time is it — what giving birth was to her, and will be for all time. Maybe that’s just something she has to come to terms with, but she craves a chance to change that, to have a different experience when she thinks of this experience for the rest of her life.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin hosts a panel discussion at Manny’s on July 28, 2021. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

We don’t always get second chances. For all that I’ve been going out to public places a lot, I have been incredibly nervous of late, even terrified. Sometimes I’m almost paralyzed by the fear that I could infect the people I love with Covid-19. It’s a fear that has grown as many of my much more cautious friends have raised their hands on social media and told everyone “I need to quarantine now.” 

I told this to a friend of mine who I went on a road trip with recently, and she reminded me that she knows this struggle intimately. Long before covid, she infected her mother with a disease she didn’t know she had, and they both had to go to the hospital. She walked out. Her mother didn’t. 

“I went through the whole roller coaster of ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, but I killed my mother,’” she said. “You can’t carry that with you. I’m telling you: there’s no other way out of that. Eventually, you have to put it down. You have to accept that this is what life is. Part of accepting that is knowing just what these risks are and taking that into account, and being careful, and it sucks. But the other part is accepting how tragic life is and still living.”

She makes it sound so easy, when in fact it was one of the hardest, most terrible, experiences of her life. The woman sitting across from me outside Manny’s was on the precipice of such a decision: No matter what she chooses, she’s going to ask herself “what if?” and the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to keep walking into whatever choice she makes, and live it fully.

The Moonlight Special Sour Mash Wheat Lager at Monk’s Kettle, September 2010

“Hey,” she asked me, putting her coffee cup down, “can we go somewhere else?” 

We walked a block and a half down to The Monk’s Kettle, which has plenty of outdoor seating with heaters. They’re so on their game there. She orders a Pomme Springs cider, a cider made from pineapple quince fruit, aged in a brandy barrel barrel, coming in at a very respectable 8.4 percent ABV. It tastes more like a cocktail than any cider I’ve ever had. I forwent my usual Belgian-beer-brewed-by-monks to order a Cellermaker coconut “bulletproof” porter, a beer made with coffee and toasted coconut. It is surprisingly delicious.

“Here’s to experimentation,” I said, and we clinked glasses.

After she left, I lingered at the table for a while and a friend I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic walked by. We embraced, he sat down, and we talked about how he’d quit his job not long before the pandemic and then been unexpectedly out of work for a year and a half. But he just started a new job in December, and while he may just be in the honeymoon phase, it is so far a very good honeymoon. He’s happy at the other end of that difficult transition. 

After he went on with his day, I walked back over to Manny’s. I ordered a chai and found a seat inside. The chai was delicious, and the atmosphere still didn’t work for me. 

Partly, I think, it’s because Manny’s is trying so hard — so self-consciously hard — to be what it actually is. I feel that effort everywhere: Manny’s won’t let you forget that it is, in the words of its website, “a community focused meeting and learning place in the heart of San Francisco.” And … doesn’t that sound more like the mission statement of a WeWork spin-off than it does a place where interesting people like to drop by and hang out? 

But the tone of that mission statement fits. Everytime I come here, it’s obvious that most of the other people at Manny’s are having meetings. They’re not sitting and reading a novel, they’re not talking with someone about art or literature or physics; they’re on their laptops comparing product specs. They’re networking. They’re integrating vertical brands. I’m sure SOME people come to Manny’s to just relax and hang out, but they’re barely noticeable in the crowd of people who are chasing after ROI.

Just across the street on Valencia is Muddy Waters, where I can walk in, order a drink, sit at a table, and have a moment that exists for its own sake. Going to Manny’s makes me feel like I need to swipe my fob.

I’m in Manny’s right now, typing this review, plunging my knife into a business that is trying —with a genuine sincerity that is rare and precious — to be a place this city needs. And probably succeeding. Damn it, I resent myself for being honest about this.

Manny himself walks by me. Waves to the room. “Goodbye everybody!” he says. 

The room barely notices. “Goodbye, Manny!” the woman behind the counter says.

Hey, man, thanks for doing this in spite of me. I’m really sorry. It’s obvious a lot of people like what you’ve made. I’m grateful for what you’re doing. I’m just not your customer. Maybe someday.

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13 Comments

  1. I drop by Manny’s to “just hang out” and read a book or write all the time! In fact I think it is perhaps the most conducive place for just hanging out anywhere in the neighborhood, unless you want to go to a park. Sure there are plenty of people networking but the back space is one of the most comfortable atmospheres (with the couches, plants, etc) I’ve found!

    1. What must Manny do to get an iota of love from San Francisco?!? Why keep kicking at an establishment that has faced WAY more than its share of crap from the community? I’ve been to town hall discussions, storytelling events, and fundraisers for local spots at Manny’s – things that this community loves, and for which venues have been shutting down in droves. It may not have that “lived in” feeling yet… because it hasn’t had the chance to be lived in. I hope it gets that chance.

      I’m bummed out by this article. I want to see San Franciscans creating places that encourage us to gather and share ideas and take action. I don’t mean to say that any establishment with good intentions deserves to free from criticism, but cynicism and hate crimes are a disproportionately huge portion of what has been given to this spot over the last few years. And it’s that fact that makes me sadder about neighborhood changes than any decorating scheme ever could.

      It’s testament to how much Manny Yekutiel loves San Francisco that he hasn’t walked away at this point. Many have for way less.

      1. Mission Local has gone to bat for Manny in a big way. Eskenazi put a lot of thought into a pushback piece. The author of this article has also stuck up for Manny.

        I think it’s important here not to conflate Manny with Manny’s. The cafe name can make that hard to do.

  2. Ben,

    I only go in evenings for top speakers and only when Manny is doing the interviewing.

    I got to ask the Fire Chief why she doesn’t live in the Fire Chief’s house.

    Watched the amazingly talented Planning Director let slip that his department is looking seriously at a thousand foot market rate apartment/home space.

    Asked David Chiu how his larcenous, ‘Grass Roots Enterprise’ was doing and Herrera how much over five million did he pay to that good lady he fired for whistle-blowing.

    Over 20 of the Democrats presidential candidates spoke there.

    To get the tension out I join Manny’s Sunday trash pick-up crew.

    Frankly Ben, I think you’re too shallow and self-indulgent for a place like Manny’s.

    No offense meant, of course.

    Go Niners!

    h.

  3. Lol my feelings exactly.

    “they’re on their laptops comparing product specs”

    Don’t need any more of this in my life

    1. I sadly agree. I want to love Manny’s. I find it too loud to think or converse well, & find many of the people cold, creating a sterile vibe. Maybe it just reflects “New SF” tech bro culture, with all of the nearby new condos. I watched John Hickenlooper walk by once. That’s nowhere near enough to keep me.

      This, 100%: “they’re on their laptops comparing product specs. They’re networking. They’re integrating vertical brands. I’m sure SOME people come to Manny’s to just relax and hang out, but they’re barely noticeable in the crowd of people who are chasing after ROI.”

  4. I like Manny’s, but I’m not commenting because of that. I’m seriously wondering why this article is even here. You think Manny is doing good work and is an asset to the community, and while you think the place is fine, you prefer to go elsewhere. Got it.

    But why are your mild personal preferences framed in what reads like a take down?

  5. Man, your friend who lost her mother is wise and right. Survivor’s guilt means you pore over every detail. It’s a maze with no exit.

  6. The author of the article needs to relax and stop searching so hard to find what’s wrong. There are so many things right. The cup is half empty so let’s focus on that?

    Manny’s is a great community spot fir groups or individuals to meet up and has social relevance that bleeds socially conscious events that sometimes educates or a local, simple showcase of comedians or thought provoking seminar.

    I think the author is trying to hard to find something wrong like someone who doesn’t like R&B music who goes to see Ledisi or Janelle Monet.

  7. I so appreciate Manny’s (like Mr H Brown wrote)for making it easy to come hear politicians, poets, nutcases, all of it.
    Plus SUPER appreciate the booths for writing postcards and letters during the campaigns for president and for Georgia, and all the other campaigns. Its safe, its calm, its comfortable, its visible.
    I do not go to Manny’s to eat or drink but I get great sustenance from his programs and I respect the hell out of the place. What you wrote sounds whiny. What was the point exactly?

  8. I signed up to be a Manny’s sponsor and wish I could get to the events more often (Covid!)–it’s easy to bike to and I hear speakers I would ordinarily not make an effort to see, not just politicians asking for $$ but local activists, journalists, etc. I’m a legal aid attorney, and I often meet colleagues there because it’s very convenient and the bright space is welcoming. So if you see people meeting or talking, don’t assume we’re all working on that next killer $$$$ project.

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