The Forgotten Queer Legacy of Billy West and Zuni Café

In 2013 Judy Rodgers, the 57-year-old chef of Zuni Café in San Francisco, yielded at last to the rare appendix cancer she’d struggled with for more than a year. The many published tributes to Ms. Rodgers celebrated the urgent beauty in her deceptively simple dishes: the way Zuni’s roast chicken, house-cured anchovies and Caesar salad were woven into memories of perfect meals.

Lost to memory — and missing from most obituaries — was the name of Zuni’s founder, Billy West, the man who had coaxed Ms. Rodgers into the kitchen in 1987 after years of trying. Though the cooking still owes a highly visible debt to Ms. Rodgers, Zuni’s pioneering queer activism is Mr. West’s forgotten legacy.

Mr. West opened Zuni in 1979 just blocks from City Hall, three months after an ex-cop assassinated the gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, in part to shatter a fragile L.G.B.T.Q. coalition’s policy gains. In a decade when queer advocates struggled for inclusion at City Hall, Zuni put queerness on display to San Francisco’s political class, who in the pre-Rodgers years flocked to the restaurant for guacamole, margaritas and swordfish cooked on a Weber grill in the alley out back.

As Mr. West expanded Zuni into adjacent storefronts on Market Street throughout the 1980s, tables in the restaurant’s scattered dining spaces were a mix of politicians in suits, operagoers in tuxedos and gowns, and out gays and lesbians in T-shirts and jeans — all served by waiters with an uninhibited queer presence. Under Mr. West and his business partner, Vince Calcagno, Zuni would drive the movement for queer political and social integration in the context of the mainstream restaurant, at a time when the tragedy of AIDS was intensifying the stigma around being gay.

“Billy was a celebrity in the restaurant world and in the gay world,” said Gilbert Pilgram, Zuni’s current owner, who met Mr. West when Mr. Pilgram was a customer in the early days of the restaurant. “And that contributed a lot to the mystique of Zuni: an openly gay man being the owner of what was really a trendsetting restaurant.”

And yet Mr. West, at age 48, lost his own battle with AIDS quietly, at a bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, after a long struggle mounted in private. In 1994, Mr. West died of respiratory failure, a complication of AIDS.

Unlike Rodgers, Mr. West slipped away unnoticed by the food media. That’s due in part to the restaurant industry’s unwillingness to talk about H.I.V. and AIDS within its ranks in the 1980s and ’90s, the years before effective treatment, when gay men in food, including the chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi and the cookbook author Richard Sax, died largely in silence, with no mention of their struggles with AIDS.

The only public narrative of Mr. West’s life is Ms. Rodgers’s paragraph-long tribute, which ignores both AIDS and even his passing, in “The Zuni Café Cookbook” of 2003. “Billy West opened Zuni Café in 1979,” she begins, “with a huge heart and exactly ten thousand dollars.” But that was already halfway into Mr. West’s story.

William McMaster West was born in Miami Beach in 1948, and grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., a place he wasn’t completely at ease in. “Billy always seemed a little more attuned to a broader, liberal landscape of the world,” said his brother Jim West. “He clearly needed to escape the confines of the South.”

In 1967, Mr. West’s escape route ran through Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., only an afternoon’s train ride to Midtown Manhattan, where he studied Russian literature. He was a dark-eyed young man with hippie-long hair, handsome in a way that came across as soulful.

During a summer in Provincetown, Mass., Mr. West discovered the underground films of John Waters. Afterward, he phoned Mr. Waters in Baltimore to rent a 16-millimeter reel of “Mondo Trasho,” the filmmaker’s profane, tannic 1969 comedy, to show at Bard.

Mr. West partied through Provincetown summers with the louche, fabulous repertory of stars who staggered through Mr. Waters’s films, including Mink Stole and Divine (whom Mr. West called “Divvie”). Howard Gruber, who played President John F. Kennedy next to Divine’s Jackie in Mr. Waters’s gaggy staging of the Dallas shooting for the short “Eat Your Makeup,” became Mr. West’s mentor.

Mr. Gruber owned Front Street, a restaurant with culinary aspirations and a diverse cast of customers — a uniquely Provincetown mix of East Coast writerly types and ornate drag queens. Mr. West longed to open a similar place of his own — somewhere.

“Billy wanted to start a really cool restaurant that was for really all kinds of people,” Mr. Waters recalled. “Not just gay people, but the coolest of gay people and straight people hanging out together.”

In 1978, Mr. West settled in San Francisco, where in a dull storefront on a blank stretch of Market Street, he would realize his dream, an almost restaurant.

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    Zuni Café shared a wall with Red Desert, a cactus shop where Mr. West had sometimes picked up shifts. He extended the shop’s Southwestern motif into Zuni: whitewashed walls and clay-tile floors; piles of desert sand and ribbed saguaro skeletons; serape textiles with lush stripes in fruit-peel colors. The appropriated Indigenous name “Zuni” fit Mr. West’s décor, and he liked the sound of the syllables.

    With the gay artist George (Bubba) Geiger, Mr. West made the chairs and tables. The tables had mesquite stumps for legs, attached to slabs of wood covered with rusticated concrete. They wobbled alarmingly. Small mice and cockroaches burrowed into the mesquite.

    With no stove and no exhaust hood, cooking was mostly a guerrilla operation. Every morning, Mr. West bought breads from North Beach bakeries and coffee beans from a neighborhood roaster. He lugged in soup he’d made at home. He learned to scramble eggs with the espresso maker’s steamer wand. He wheeled a Weber grill into the alley for some unsanctioned cooking over live coals.

    “Billy was kind of famous for just doing stuff,” said Mr. Calcagno, Zuni’s first manager and its principal owner after Mr. West died. “He would talk about permits later.”

    One morning in 1981, the revered British food writer Elizabeth David was in San Francisco to visit Gerald Asher, then the wine editor of Gourmet magazine. She was poking around bric-a-brac shops near Zuni when “she could smell this meat grilling,” Mr. Asher recalled. David sauntered over to Mr. West’s smoking kettle grill for a look. She and Mr. Asher returned that evening for dinner.

    “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!’”

    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.”

    Among restaurants, Zuni drove the liberation of queer San Francisco.

    But even as it made gains, queer San Francisco was struggling in the 1980s. Mr. West’s personal struggle with AIDS began in 1982. “He kept saying he felt tired all the time,” Mr. Calcagno said. “And then he got really sick.” Mr. West would rally, then fade again, keeping a mostly stoic silence throughout.

    In 1985, as Zuni’s reputation was spreading nationally, Mr. West took a six-month leave of absence from the restaurant to receive the experimental treatment HPA-23, administered by the virologist Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. “We kept that very hush-hush,” Mr. Calcagno said. The stigma associated with AIDS was intense, especially around restaurants, where irrational fears of contracting the virus casually from cooks or waiters persisted.

    Over the next few years, Mr. West sought additional treatments in Paris. At home, he took AZT. AIDS was devastating Zuni and other San Francisco restaurants — Mr. Calcagno counts 24 Zuni employees who died as a result of the virus.

    “It was all around us,” said Javier Valencia, Mr. West’s boyfriend in the late ’80s. “All of our friends were dying.” On Monday nights, when the restaurant was dark to the public, Zuni hosted private AIDS memorials.

    A close friend, John McCarthy, remembered Mr. West’s describing how exhausting the restaurant had become. “He said, ‘Every night at Zuni is a Broadway opening,’” Mr. McCarthy said. With Ms. Rodgers joining the restaurant as a partner in 1987, Mr. West caught his cue to begin planning his exit, to focus on his fading health in Los Angeles, far from the daily grind on Market Street.

    On a Monday night in July 1994, a few weeks after his death, Mr. West got his own memorial at Zuni, a celebration of what the restaurant had become under his touch. “I think he was very, very proud of Zuni,” his brother Jim said. “Of creating something that was going to endure beyond him.”

    What endured — Mr. West’s legacy — is the queering of the American restaurant: L.G.B.T.Q. people setting the terms for hospitality openly, beyond the gay ghetto.

    “Zuni,” said David Tanis, the cookbook author and New York Times columnist, “always was and has remained the gayest restaurant in San Francisco.”

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