When Father Alfred Boeddeker opened the St. Anthony's Dining Room in the Tenderloin in 1950, he wanted guests receiving assistance to feel dignified. The St. Anthony Foundation's new, larger dining room that's set to open Saturday will convey that same mission.
Saturday will also mark the 64th anniversary of the first meal that was served at St. Anthony's, in the basement of a converted auto body shop at 121 Golden Gate Ave. At that same location, the new dining room, now at street level, will allow in natural light for the first time, and the basement will be used for food preparation and storage.
“Father Alfred shunned anybody who claimed this was a soup kitchen. He said it's a dining room, and so you really feel that when you come into this space now,” said Barry Stenger, the foundation's executive director. “People will be sitting here feeling like perhaps they deserve to be treated like other people who go out to eat.”
The new dining room offers two entrances — one for seniors and disabled citizens, and the other for everyone else. There is a separate area for children and families, and enough seats to accommodate 300 guests at a time, versus 220 in the original dining room and 150 in the temporary dining room that has operated across the street for the past two years during construction.
There will also be a historical wall, with photos of the old dining room and a TV showing footage of Boeddeker from the 1950s and '60s.
“[We are] kind of giving people a sense that it's new, but it's still a part of that same tradition,” Stenger said. “Just as they were treated with dignity and respect in the old dining room, they can expect to be treated that way here.”
About 40 percent of the guests are homeless. Many are seniors, disabled, veterans, mentally ill, addicts or unemployed. But when they all come together for their daily free meal at St. Anthony's — where everybody who lines up is served — labels don't matter.
“Part of the reason we call it a dining room is so people have community around the table,” Stenger said. “So if people stay there longer, that's a good thing for us. That means they're socializing and they're becoming a little more human just by eating at the table.”
Chico Belez — who lives in a single-room occupancy unit on Ellis Street and has been dining at St. Anthony's since the 1980s — chatted with her five tablemates Monday as she prepared to dig into her plate of bolognese pasta, peas and corn, and plums.
“It's good food,” Belez, 62, said of why she comes every day. “Thank God for these places. By the time you pay your rent that [doesn't] leave much left.”
The new space is part of a $22.5 million renovation of the basement, dining room and second floor of the building that will house the foundation's clothing and social work programs. In October, seniors will begin moving into Mercy Housing's 90 below-market-rate apartments above the dining room.