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Twentieth Century Cafe: Old Vienna Comes to San Francisco

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Twentieth Century Cafe: Old Vienna Comes to San Francisco

February 10, 2016

“I want this place to be transportive,” says owner Michelle Polzine of Twentieth Century Cafe, her charming take on the grand cafes of middle Europe. On a birthday trip to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague a few years ago, Polzine, a pastry chef, struck upon the idea of opening her own “grand cafe.” It occurred to her that these European-style cafes were the perfect restaurant for pastry chefs—a place where people could enjoy cakes and desserts but also have a meal or light fare. And she knew it wasn’t just about the food and the pastries; the aesthetics and feel of the place would be equally important. With the aid of local architect Charles Hemminger, plus copious notes from her European travels and some dedicated online sleuthing, Polzine turned a former laundromat on a light-flooded corner in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood into her own little grand cafe, a throwback to a bygone era.

Photography by Laurie Frankel.


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Above: The day after Polzine signed the papers for her new restaurant, she flew back to Budapest and Vienna to take notes on details for the decor. This included measuring the small standard-sized European marble cafe tables, which are significantly smaller than those typically found stateside; when she returned to SF, she had her own tables custom made based on her measurements.

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Above: Polzine says she “nearly went blind” trying to find the right bentwood chair. She finally found a source for these in Austria.

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Above: The Italian espresso machine is made of pounded copper. Finding appropriate vintage lighting that was UL listed was a challenge, but a determined online search led Polzine to Vintage Hardware in Washington State, which creates historically accurate period lighting.  She avoided fixtures that were too polished, coated, or shiny and opted for these Art Deco pendants, which had just the right patina. The gooseneck lamps above the custom shelving were sourced from Hammerworks in Massachusetts.

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Above: The bronze-coated tiles are from Fireclay Tiles in San Jose; Polzine discovered them in “the boneyard of seconds.” What was a glaze mess-up for Fireclay proved perfect for Twentieth Century. The idea for the green linoleum floor was taken from a cafe in Vienna. She had anguished over the color of green, but finally settled on this shade after a friend told her it was the color of her eyes.

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Above: The mirrors, a last-minute find at Lowes, were hung the day before the cafe opened.

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Above: The wall sconces were an eBay find; “I took a chance and got lucky,” Polzine says.


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Above: The marble-topped dresser came from an Art Deco store in the neighborhood.

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Above: An assortment of pastries on display.

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Above: Polzine wanted a rich velvet fabric for the banquette.  She test-drove several samples, dousing them with the likes of oil, wine, and coffee. The most resilient proved to be mohair, also the most expensive, but Polzine sprung for it anyway and has not regretted it.

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Above: Michelle Polzine in her trademark forties clothing. She had initially planned to wear Edwardian clothes, “from the teens” as she puts it, but ended up sticking to her forties wardrobe (she’s also wearing a crocheted apron).

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Above: A copper pan with freshly made bagels. All the plates and silverware are vintage finds, and include Pyrex pieces and Albion china. The Alameda flea market is one of Polzine’s favorite places to source goods.


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Above: Apple strudel in the making. Polzine had spotted the Adler Table at Ohio Design in SF and liked the adjustable height so had this one custom made with a marble top for pastry making.

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Above: The entryway to the cafe features a wooden door with beveled glass sourced on eBay from a Hungarian dealer in the Midwest.

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Above: The Danish Christiania bike, which Polzine had custom painted, is another online score. If all this is not transportive enough, adding to the cafe’s ambience are the playlists created by her husband (a former music director at WXYC), which mix old-time music with jazz and European sounds from all different eras.

For more in the neighborhood, check out Bellocchio—another enterprise where the spouse creates the playlists.

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