Saturday, September 25News That Matters

The Forgotten Queer Legacy of Billy West and Zuni Café

“It was very, very simple Southwest food,” Mr. Asher said. “But it was good, unpretentious and well done, and Billy had enough sense to buy good-quality stuff.”

Ms. David adored the company of gay men, and took to Mr. West immediately. “Elizabeth,” Mr. Asher said, “was telling everyone about it, saying, ‘Oh Zuni, it’s really fascinating!’”

Ms. David would return every year from London. In a handwritten draft of restaurant recommendations for an unidentified friend (archived in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard), she called Zuni her favorite in San Francisco. “Quite large and busy,” she noted, “but very friendly. Ask for Billy West. Say I sent you.”

Zuni took off. “The open kitchen at last has stoves, grills, counters, and refrigeration,” Patricia Unterman wrote in 1984, in a friendly review in The San Francisco Chronicle. “There’s enough money in the bank to support a good wine list.”

Along with a culinary destination, Mr. West and Mr. Calcagno had put something else in place: a level of queer visibility that was remarkable, even for San Francisco.

As a customer in the 1980s, Mr. Pilgram, who grew up in Mexico City, was astonished at how openly queer people could mingle so freely with the wealthy and powerful of San Francisco.

“It was very important to me as a 20-something-year-old gay man to go into a restaurant and see that most of the staff was gay,” Mr. Pilgram said. “That was unheard-of in those days. You could go to a restaurant in the Castro, but to go to the favorite restaurant of Elizabeth David and have gay people serve you? That was incredibly empowering.”