Cold brew coffee from Park Cafe; Proprietors Dana Oppenheim (left) and Rachel Herbert (right) with their son.
Cold brew coffee from Park Cafe; Proprietors Dana Oppenheim (left) and Rachel Herbert (right) with their son.

These cafés have always sent people packing (to the park)

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

When Rachel Herbert opened her first café across from San Francisco’s Dolores Park in 1997, she could have never predicted that nearly 30 years later it would be the perfect set-up for Covid times, with outdoor dining the new normal.

Even from the start, though, being situated near a popular park worked as a business model. “We were lucky with a fantastic location right off the bat,” she said.

“When we opened, there was nothing else there,” she said. “No Bi-Rite, no Tartine, no Delfina. I lived a few blocks away, and there was no meeting place here.”

Now Herbert and her wife, Dana Oppenheim, own four cafés: Dolores Park, Duboce Park and Precita Park in S.F., and Paradise Park in Oakland. Also, an outpost of Dolores Park Café just opened in Terminal 1 of SFO.

The menu isn’t discernibly Jewish — not counting the bagels and a lox scramble with cream cheese, capers and onions — and has items with influences from a variety of cuisines, but they joke that the portions are generous “because we’re Jewish.”

The cafés are known for their high-end ingredients: They roast their own coffee, most ingredients are organic, deli meats are nitrate-free, and they rely on a small group of local vendors. And when the pandemic eases, they will again become gathering spots, where customers can drink wine and beer, see the work of local artists and sometimes hear live music.

Dolores Park in San Francisco (Photo/Wikimedia)
Dolores Park in San Francisco (Photo/Wikimedia)

Many of the neighbors around the original location, on the corner of 18th and Dolores streets, barely knew one another until they began chatting at the tables or waiting for orders, Herbert said, and creating that sense of neighborhood has become a source of great satisfaction.

Herbert’s father was an urban planner in the developing world, so she grew up in India, Pakistan and El Salvador. He was from New Zealand, and her mom was an American Jew. “We were very identified as Jewish,” she said. However, given the countries where they lived, she didn’t grow up in a Jewish community. “I wish I had had that to rebel against,” she joked.

What she did learn about community through her international upbringing was how food brings people together. “I was exposed to the connection that happens over food, no matter what your culture is,” she said.

Oppenheim was raised in a Conservative Jewish family in Atlanta, where her mother grew some of the vegetables that she cooked in every meal, and she and her siblings picked pecans from their tree for pie.

She remembered her grandmother’s visits from New York as a big event, how she would wake up in the wee hours to make the family blintzes from scratch. “Nothing has ever come close,” Oppenheim said. “There’s a secret ingredient and way to make them.”

“I slowly joined Rachel in running the cafés,” said Oppenheim, who had been operating a sports massage business. “We were a great partnership almost off the bat because we do different things. It’s not always easy, but we’ve figured it out, how we can operate and complement each other.”

Bagel sandwich with tater tots from Park Cafe
Bagel sandwich with tater tots from Park Cafe

While Herbert is quick to mention that at least five marriages have come out of meetings at the café, she neglects to note that her own is among them. But the fact is that she and Oppenheim first noticed each other at Dolores Park Café, and that’s where their courtship got started. The couple, both in their 50s, have homes in S.F. and in Oakland, and a 6-year-old son.

Owning a group of cafés wasn’t in their life plan, but being totally “location driven” meant that when a perfect spot near a park became available, they found themselves opening another: Duboce in 2006, Precita in 2011 and Paradise in 2017.

Today with parks being one of the few places to gather in groups during Covid, people come to the cafés for provisions. Customers, recognizing how local cafés add to the quality of life in a neighborhood, have shown their appreciation by buying gift cards, or sometimes even donating money. “It wasn’t uncommon for someone to pay $20 for a latte,” said Oppenheim, “because they wanted to see us stay open.”

It’s also helped that the cafés have been making to-go food for customers to take to the park long before Covid.

While the pandemic obviously has affected the café’s role in the neighborhood, the couple are confident people will congregate in cafés again once it’s safe to do so.

“We’ve been lucky to find locations that didn’t have that kind of meeting place for people, and it’s been super rewarding to create that place,” said Herbert. “And that’s been the driving force moving forward.”

Dolores Park Café, 501 Dolores St., Duboce Park Café, 2 Sanchez St., and Precita Park Café, 500 Precita Ave., all in S.F.; Terminal 1 at SFO; and Paradise Park Café, 6334 San Pablo Ave., Oakland.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."