20th Century Cafe: The West Coast’s Slice of Eastern Europe

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Pictured above: 20th Century Cafe’s Eastern European-inspired design; photo by Laurie Frankel

The marble table tops glisten, their cast iron bases grounding them to the linoleum floor. Some guests sit in Austrian bentwood chairs, others a velvety mohair banquette. Slices of honey cake, walnut apple chocolate torte, and strudel—all equally tempting—migrate from pastry case to tables via antique china plates.

Every detail of the guest experience at 20th Century Cafe has been carefully curated to move the people through time and space – from Hayes Valley in 2020 to Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.

In 2011, chef-owner Michelle Polzine stepped onto a plane and began the journey that would transform the course of her life. She traveled with her husband and brother-in-law to Prague. Averse to beer, she spent the first few days stewing in annoyance as they visited Czech beer hall after beer hall.

Then she took the reins and led the small group to Cafe Imperial in Prague, a classy art nouveau establishment. What struck Polzine were the tiles – every inch of the place was covered in the most beautiful tile murals. She sat there, cakes and pastries that she had never heard of being delivered to her, and just knew.

Looking back, starting 20th Century Cafe was an easy decision. “What else would I do with the rest of my life?” she says.

Because 20th Century Cafe is so much about the in-house experience, it’s been a challenge for Polzine to turn her European pastry restaurant time machine into a takeout operation. And beyond Covid, she’s faced a significant personal obstacle.

20th Century Cafe temporarily closed on March 12 for what was supposed to be a routine surgery for Polzine. She had set the reopening date for April 1. However, during surgery the doctors discovered she had a rare form of ovarian cancer, and while she was still under anesthesia they took out the cancer, which also involved removing her reproductive organs.

Polzine woke up to a new reality in more ways than one. Her recovery has hindered her ability to work as hard as she normally can, although “I might be working too hard already… no, I’m definitely working too hard already!” Polzine jokes. She maintains a good spirit and celebrates the small victories, like being able to bike to the farmer’s market again and return with a sack of peach leaves.

Captain: Michelle Polzine, chef-owner, directs the 20th Century Cafe ship

Hard work runs through every bone in Polzine’s body. Twelve hour days were the norm, her single self doing the work of three. “I was kicking ass for twelve hours a day. I’m a tough individual, but I’m trying to not get back to working so hard, so constantly,” she says.

Polzine is exceptionally dedicated, which explains why her two careers have been as a political advocate and as a star pastry chef, first at Range and then with the opening of 20th Century Cafe. She was burnt out after a few years in political work, but according to her, “you can take the girl out of canvassing, but you can’t take the canvasser out of the girl!” She sees her cafe as an avenue by which she can further the causes she cares about, including being environmentally friendly.

In this era of takeout, which inherently includes packaging, it has been challenging to prevail as a sustainable establishment. 20th Century Cafe is currently offering an online pre-order menu, and the delectable pastries, salads, and beverages can be picked up every Saturday morning. One unique way that 20th Century Cafe is pursuing sustainable takeout is by serving orders in jars that can be returned to the cafe, sanitized, and reused. However, the staff has had trouble getting customers to actually return the jars.

Polzine’s commitment to her craft mirrors her commitment to justice. Right now, for every large honey cake bought, 20th Century Cafe is donating $40 to a rotation of Black Lives Matter organizations. For two years following the 2016 presidential election, it donated 50% of its alcohol sales to the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.

“Recently, if I’ve felt helpless about the state of the world, I remember that I actually do have a power. My superpower is the honey cake,” Polzine says with an upbeat candor. Her toughness cannot be overstated as she has been recovering from surgery and simultaneously keeping her restaurant alive.

“I want to emphasize that we are still putting the same amount of love into every bite… and that people should return their jars.”

Superpower: Polzine’s famous honey cake
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