There’s a somewhat ghostly look to the long, empty structure on the north side of Lake Merced in San Francisco, and that seems appropriate given how it has haunted so many operators.
Yet, it’s also surprising that in a town considered culinary-mad, where restaurants rocket to fame only to shut their doors seemingly overnight, that an establishment that all but screams potential would be empty for so long.
And that would be the Boathouse at San Francisco’s largest man-made lake, a place that’s been shuttered since 2003 and sits among rust and dust and the fading memories of prior generations.
I was reminded of the Boathouse by the recent efforts to save Louis’ restaurant above Seal Rock, a beloved institution that has been run by the Hontalas family for the past 73 years and is now threatened by some new rules of engagement forwarded by the National Park Service. It’s the latest fight waged by loyal patrons of San Francisco’s iconic cafes and dives, not unlike previous skirmishes to save Red’s Java House (a win) and Dago Mary’s (a big loss).
It’s still conceivable that with thousands of people lobbying on behalf of the Hontalases that Louis’ will survive to roll out omelets and sandwiches and pies for a few more decades. But the fates have not been so kind to the Boathouse, which looks very much like the long-abandoned site it is, and, cruelly, about the only part of it in working order are the bathrooms, which serve the many high school crew teams that practice there.
The empty structure stands out as a symbol of all the problems encountered by Lake Merced, which has suffered from declining water levels through the years and become the focus of environmental groups, government officials and private organizations — which is to say that little has been done except talk. Discussions about the fate of the Boathouse have been ongoing since the last concession operator walked away, and attempts to revive the site with a new restaurant and bar have been quieted while the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission prepared a “watershed quality” study.
Word is that the report might be done by next month, and that could mean a brighter future and a newer kitchen for a place that has been a mystery shrouded in fog.
“We’re all over this,” Phil Ginsburg, head of the Recreation and Park Department, told me. “We hope to have something exciting and fun and appropriate for the space. We know there’s a lot of interest in it.”
And that begs the question of how could a 15,000-square-foot site on the water, with great views next to one of the country’s best municipal golf courses, remain vacant for the better part of a decade?
In San Francisco, as we know, anything is possible. You could blame the weather or meddling bureaucracies or a lack of money. Ginsburg said his department, which leases the Boathouse, couldn’t “procedurally” put it up for bid until the SFPUC finished its report.
Still, the Boathouse has stymied the best intentions of many people, including those who operated successful food and entertainment enterprises elsewhere.
“One of the problems is that there’s no real neighborhood around to sustain it,” said Tom Rosman, who, with his partners, ran the Boathouse for a few years in the late 1980s. “It’s great when you have a warm day, but that doesn’t exactly describe Lake Merced in the summer.”
Rosman and his partners are credited with helping to transform the South of Market area when they opened the Oasis nightclub and later the Warehouse (now Slim’s), and they saw the same kind of possibilities at the Boathouse. But it wasn’t long before they realized that there was no critical mass nearby to bring out daily crowds.
“We had some good audiences when we had the Dynatones play and we had comedy nights, but overall it just proved too difficult running seven days a week,” Rosman said. “It’s a great spot, but it’s going to take a lot of effort.”
And money — no good preservation efforts comes without dollar signs.
Unlike Louis’, this may be the one place where government intervention turns out to be a good thing.