Bill Stone says that even from his first days in the restaurant industry, he was drawn to the atmosphere.
“There was always something going on, a lot of people around all the time, it was very vibrant and exciting,” he recalls.
This draw to the industry led him to join a few of his friends in the eighties and start up the Ace Cafe in SoMa, modeled after the famed rock and roll cafe of the same name in London.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Stone says reminiscently. “We opened it up on a shoestring budget. We were just young and idealistic.”
Stone describes Ace as having been “upscale, but not too upscale.” The space was featured in architectural digest for its postmodern interior design, and had a creative menu laid out by a protegé of famous California chef Jeremiah Tower. It was a “hip” space for artists, punks and young people to congregate and have coffee and listen to rockabilly bands.
He recalls that the Ace Café, while not being too upscale, still wasn’t as matched to his personality as his later venture would be.
“I cut my teeth on that restaurant. Ace was more a collaborative effort, and in that sense I learned a lot about what fit me and what I would be miserable with,” he says. “My youth was so much more about hangouts, it was a lot more bohemian about art and politics and music.”
It was a year after selling Ace Cafe that Stone found a space in which he could better reflect himself.
Pouring Ideals into Atlas
In 1996, a friend of Stone had bought a building in the Mission district, nestled between industrial warehouses and a residential area. Stone’s partners let him put his personality into the building, and the community seemed to respond to it well. “At that time, there wasn’t a lot of food or coffee in the area,” Stone says, “so from when we first opened it was popular almost right off the bat. We became kind of a community center in some sense where people could come and have coffee and food and listen to jazz a few nights a week.”
He says that compared to Ace Cafe, Atlas is more “cozy, casual, and not open too late.”
“It’s not fancy but it’s comfortable. It’s a lot more down to earth.”
Much like the Ace Cafe, Atlas is somewhat limited in their resources when it comes to their food.
“I still to this day do not have a full kitchen with flame cooking or a fire system or deep fryer,” Stone explains. “I’m still in that limited kitchen with a small oven and a counter and a toaster, and everything has to be made within certain parameters. It’s sort of limiting but i learned how to do that at Ace Cafe, and I just carried that over.”
Despite these parameters, Atlas offers delicious cafe fare that includes vegan and vegetarian options. From “no cheese” pizzas and “beetloaf” sandwiches to tuna salads and their signature steamed eggs, the treats at Atlas are as genuinely unassuming as they are scrumptious.
After two and a half decades, it’s easy to imagine that the community in the Mission has changed notably. Back at Atlas’ opening in 1996, the community was a hodgepodge of small businesses, families, artists and students. Now, Stone recognizes that folks from the tech industry more regularly frequent the cafe.
“The Mission is hot with tech startups and bigger companies tucked into the warehouses, it’s really changed the demographic of the neighborhood over the years. It’s very little like it used to be,” Stone observes. “Nowadays, you could come by the cafe and see people on laptops having meetings and hear all kinds of tech jargon.”
While the character of the community might have changed over the last two decades, the core identity of Atlas has remained consistent. Apart from some improvements to the furniture and kitchen equipment, Stone says that Atlas is relatively the same as it was in the nineties.
“I did have to upgrade my wifi capacity,” he laughs.
COVID-19 hits the Café
While the shelter in place orders have consequently reduced Atlas Cafe’s business to a third of what it used to be, they’ve been able to stay afloat for the time being. Stone says that financial assistance from the government has helped him continue to serve takeout during the pandemic. He’s also been matching donations on a GoFundMe for his staff, and with PPP assistance from the Small Business Administration, has been able to support them further.
“I think the extra money from the government is probably the only reason we’re still open to serve right now,” Stone speculates.
As the state moves into phase two of reopening, restrictions on restaurants are updated each week. The latest guidelines laid out by California prioritize outdoor seating and physical distancing.
“We have a lot of patio and sidewalk space,” Stone says, “so if San Francisco lets us open that up, we can get at least sixty percent of our tables back.”
But that’s a question of when, as Stone observes that San Francisco is one of the more cautious counties when it comes to lifting restrictions. He expects that he won’t be able to resume hosting tables until June.
“We’re not really sure what the future will bring at this point,” Stone says resignedly. “I’m hoping to use the money from the government to propel forward and keep the expenses down. Just having the doors open makes people happy. We’re still here after all these years.” In the meantime, Atlas Cafe is open for takeout and delivery, and takes orders online to continue to serve the Mission.