Cafe Bastille opened in the fall of 1990 as one of the first French restaurants of its kind to make a splash in San Francisco. When its owner, Olivier Azancot, first arrived in the city, he liked it so much that he decided to stay. He had come from France after finishing culinary school, with the intention of settling down in Australia. But San Francisco called his name. He liked the people here: how they were kind, open, and non-judgmental. He enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the city. It seems, from the way Olivier described it, he found a home away from home.
Cafe Bastille brought out a new side of French cuisine to San Francisco, who ordinarily saw French food as high end fare. Cafe Bastille is a bistro, and while boasting a timeless style of its own, veers away from the frills of its fine dining associations. The cafe has a special niche of its own: accessible French dining. The menu has many traditional dishes, all the while remaining casual. It has a nice outdoor dining terrace that takes up nearly the whole sidewalk. The Parisian bistro scene had arrived in San Francisco and people enjoyed this unique dining experience
Olivier said that, “Business came fast after we opened.” He went on to describe that the ever evolving lifestyles of those living in San Francisco made him change up Cafe Bastille. Weekday breakfast became obsolete and was supplanted by weekend brunches. Lunch hour grew as people from the nearby Financial District flooded in during their afternoon breaks. Eventually after hours drinks and dinner gained its own popularity too.
In 2011, Olivier’s father shipped his vast collection of vintage enamel signs to Café Bastille, which as far as we know, now boasts the largest number of vintage French enamel signs. They range from 100 to 150 years old. Looking at pictures of the restaurant’s interior, the signs bring about an Old World feeling and add to the authentic bistro vibe.
Oliver’s the type of food lover who doesn’t have certain dishes that stand the test of varying moods and seasons. His love of cooking blossomed at the age of 12 years old, when he went to a winter camp in Italy. The camp was for skiing, but Olivier spent all of the two weeks cooking in the kitchen. From then on, he knew it was his calling.
Cafe Bastille has been struggling during the pandemic. Since so much of their business relied on the Financial District, their takeout and delivery now “barely exists” as Olivier puts it. Olivier had to lay off the majority of his staff and keeps three people in the kitchen employed. Some of the staff had been with him for 20 years and more. The point of doing takeout and delivery is to support the three employees: the business the restaurant receives goes directly to them.
When I asked Olivier about his feelings towards the pandemic, he was honest with me: “If you ask me, do I feel confident that everything will work out? I don’t. If you ask me, do I think I’ll be opening up in the next few months? No.” He said how the restaurant industry is a tough business to begin with, and that the aftermath of the pandemic will make it that much harder.
I was most touched by what Olivier said at the end of our interview. His response took me aback because it felt like the signing off of an honest love letter to the city of San Francisco. I asked him what he’d like to tell the San Francisco community and he replied quietly, “It was a pleasure to be here.” I’d personally like to see Olivier getting the chance to serve the community through and beyond the pandemic.