by Julie Lindow
Have you ever dreamt of opening a café or bar that would be the medley of everything you love? Have you ever worried that San Francisco is losing its creative venues because high rents demand investors who demand tried-and-true (i.e. boring) business formulas so that they can be assured of a return?
Orson’s Belly is Cigdem (chee-dum) Onat-Salur and Cem (gem) Salur’s inventive response to these questions. First off, you can’t beat the clever name, Orson’s Belly! The name is what caught my eye one morning before coffee as we were driving down Balboa between 18th and 19th streets. At the entrance, we saw a collage growing at the base of the building with Agnes Varda’s head and cut outs of other famous film and fashion figures artfully applied. Cigdem and Cem created the collage as a spontaneous tribute to Agnes Varda, the famous French New Wave filmmaker who passed away this year, but the collage soon grew to include other beloved figures.
We popped in to investigate and found a treasure, not to mention outstanding coffee and a breakfast film projecting on the wall! However, Orson’s Belly is about so much more. It is modeled after Spanish and French style cafes and bistros where one can start the day with neighbors and a coffee and end the day with neighbors and an aperitif.
Since 2013 Cigdem and Cem have been continually designing and building the space with their own hands, making it into a tapas place, wine bar, music venue, mini-cinema, community art space, and café. Cigdem uses her background in fashion and Cem his film education and experience working at his family’s restaurants.
At Orson’s Belly a film is always showing on the west wall above the homemade wallpaper (a collage of shrunken pop-culture posters photographed during their travels). Opposite the film screening are vintage posters of Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati and of course Citizen Kane by Orson Welles, part of Cem’s personal collection.
The large windows create an open feeling and the old film reels, plants, rustic wooden tables, and stacks of books about cinema and aperitifs invoke a homey yet dynamic atmosphere. During the day, folks may come in to work quietly on their laptops a bit, but when five o’clock hits, and on weekends, the internet is cut, and you will see neighbors put their screens away and turn to each other for an aperitif, tapas, conversation, and a bit of candlelight cinema. For example, a screening of the Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy accompanied by a rose spritz and macaroons pairing!
The aperitifs at Orson’s Belly are a highlight and an education. Cigdem and Cem have collected a long line of vermouths, fortified botanical wines, bitters, etc., and they can tell you the story behind each one. “Spritzers work well with briny food, seafoods, and tapas,” Cem explained. Usually they ask customers what flavors they like and then pair an aperitif to their palate. I tried the Padro & Co. Rojo Amarco Vermouth, Barcelona-style, neat over ice with a green olive and a slice of orange. The choreography of flavors swooned me with a dance of bitter, sweet, thyme, citrus, and black tea. Next I tried Ferdinand’s white vermouth. It offered a delightful nose of orange blossoms and peel. Over ice it tasted dry and crisp with touches of citrus and herbs. Another favorite is their Spritz Lang (ha!ha!) that marries prosecco with Cappelletti (similar to Campari). Following the Barcelona tradition, they even serve vermouth on Sundays before church!
Orson’s Belly also specializes in natural wines from small producers mostly from Italy, Austria, Portugal, France, and Slovenia, with a few wines from boutique producers in California and Oregon. Swick’s “Bring It” is a raw wine from Oregon. It is a complex and tart kitchen sink blend of all the producer’s varietals. Donkey and Goat’s Ramato Pinot Gris, from Anderson Valley, California, is made with skin contact fermentation that gives it a deep purple color. The tasting note on their website reads, “A wine that keeps things light and bright with the scent of rain and stewy raspberries. At first sip, you get red plum skins, ripe raspberries, and grapefruit peel. It evolves to show notes of green tea, pink peppercorns, and tongue-prickling tannins. Pair with gamey turkey and a generous helping of cranberry sauce.”
Orson’s Belly’s wine selection is always changing which makes every visit a new adventure for wine lovers. As if that was not enough, they also carry more than 25 beers from small breweries in Estonia, Belgium, as well as Kentucky, USA. The Pohjala Must Kuld stout is a milk chocolate stout, perfect even for dessert. If you prefer lighter beers try the Foreign Objects Solarys IPA, a double-dry hopped mouthful of peach and apricot.
“Do you like salty animals?” Cem asks a customer. Even the food reflects their artful approach to life. Their kitchen is small and limited which creates a fun challenge for them. Using produce from their local Farmer’s Market, bread from Jane’s Bakery, cheeses and charcuterie from Italy, Spain, California, and seafoods from California and conservas from Europe. They don’t miss a detail.
Cigdem and Cem are inspired by their travels across Europe. Their approach is truly pan-euro with whispers of their Turkish backgrounds such as glass evil-eye charms on the wall. Evil eyes are traditionally used in many parts of the Mediterranean to reflect any malevolent glares back onto those intending harm. Next to the evil eyes is a French street artists’ grinning cartoon cat (looking like a close cousin to Chris Marker’s felines).
The breakfasts are modeled after Cigdem’s mom’s traditional Turkish breakfasts; each item would be placed on a separate plate and everyone would share family style. A typical Orson’s Belly breakfast might consist of European espresso or Turkish coffee, a platter of feta, cucumber, tomato, organic hard-boiled egg, house-marinated olives, fig spread, and pita.
Their evening tapas are Spanish style rather than Mediterranean mezze style. They include well-curated and always-changing charcuterie and cheese boards as well as premium tinned convervas served with crackers and Dijon. (Don’t let the tin fool you, the fish is delicious.) Cigdem and Cem explained that contrasting flavors are best when enjoyed together. “An oily tinned tuna with a bite of our sweet/spicy Basque Piparras peppers makes an explosion of flavor that can only be quenched with a bitter aperitif.”
Cigdem and Cem are constantly recreating Orson’s Belly as they go—it’s exciting to return again and again to see what is new!
Before there was Orson’s Belly, there was a Trans-Atlantic love story of Casablanca proportions. Cigdem and Cem met when they were in high school. Cem grew up in New Jersey but spent every summer visiting his family in Turkey. Cigdem grew up in Turkey and met Cem at on the dance floor of a club. Throughout high school they exchanged letters across the Atlantic, boxes and boxes of letters on paper! When he was old enough, Cem moved to Istanbul to attend university but mostly to be near Cigdem. In 2005 Cigdem traveled with Cem to New Jersey for the holidays with his family. After she met his family, she burned her return air ticket. They married in 2006 and followed some friends out to California for an adventure. Lucky us!
Cem studied film and learned about the restaurant business from his uncle who owned a world-known restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey. The restaurant no longer exists but you can read about in the New York Times, Korfez. Famous figures such as Prince Charles would eat there. Cem’s father carried on the family tradition with a seafood take-away restaurant in New Jersey that his cousin won in a poker game. The same cousin had also lost one million dollars to Frank Sinatra in a New York poker game!
Go to Orson’s Belly to try some truly different aperitifs, wines, or beer with some delicious tapas and stay for the evening candle-light screening. They host about one event a week ranging from the whimsical to the intellectual: seasonal neighborhood fetes such as their screening on Halloween of Vampyr (1932) a Danish classic by Carl Theodore Dreyer with a live soundtrack by LX; a playful David Bowie glam party with disco lights; the screening of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans by FW Murnau with musical accompaniment by Dave Mihaly Trio; or the Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy accompanied by a rose spritz and macaroons pairing!
Costumes are always encouraged. And if you are in a movie mood on a night they aren’t screening films you might combine your visit with a trip to the Balboa Theatre.
1737 Balboa St. (between 18th and 19th Avenues
San Francisco, CA. 94121
(415) 340 3967
To find out about upcoming events connect with Orson’s Belly on Facebook.
Julie Lindow (aka Jules Lind) is a writer and editor. She is currently working on a series of detective novels set in 1940s San Francisco. Living in and creating a continuum from past to present makes for many a foggy evening walking through time, up and down hills, from libraries, to downtown, to the grand Pacific Ocean. As editor of Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres she wishes she were spending more time in San Francisco’s historic movie houses, what is left of them, but there has been a lot of work to do lately. Check out her website.