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20th Century Cafe's Michelle Polzine: Vintage Maven Since 14

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Photos by Jarda Brych

Michelle Polzine opened 20th Century Cafe just about two months ago in Hayes Valley, but the eatery wouldn't have looked out of place in its 1911 building back when the structure was first erected. Thanks to Polzine's dedication to all things vintage and her amazing eye for beautiful pieces, walking into the cafe is a journey back in time.

And if you happen to catch Polzine off duty she'll also look as if she's time-traveled from decades past. The veteran pastry chef began collecting vintage clothing as a teenager, and has collected an impressive wardrobe dating all the way back to the teens. Polzine sat down with us on her cafe's gorgeous, custom-made, mohair banquette to chat about how she went from political activist handing out condoms door to door to vintage clothing maven to owner of the new cafe in town that everyone's talking about.

How did you develop such a strong sense of style?
"I've been collecting vintage clothing since I was 14. I used to go to yard sales with my mom when I was really little, that was one of the fun things we would do together. I started getting into old movies in junior high school. My first really strong memory of seeing an old moving was The Silk Stockings, which was a remake of Ninotchka with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. My parents were out of town and I saw it at my aunties house— she had Showtime. Then I started getting more into old movies and old clothing. And it just got worse and worse the older I got!

I traveled to Budapest and Vienna and Prague and there's so much beautiful architecture there. I really wanted to create something—it was difficult to find things of the Art Nouveau period, but I tried to do as much of that as I could. This building is actually a Rube Goldberg building, the cartoonist. I think he actually built it as a tax shelter. It's a 1911 building so I tried to represent that period as much as possible but it ends up being a lot of deco stuff because I love deco.

This floor I totally copied from a restaurant in Vienna. It's linoleum, like the true linoleum. I found the tile (on the front of the counter) at Fireclay Tile in San Jose. It took a really long time to do this buildout but (it allowed me to) do things like find these chairs. A lot of it is a mixture of originals and trying to reproduce something. Because I wanted to build a time machine. I wanted people to have a place where the food and atmosphere would transport them not just to another place but an actual time. For me too, because that's what I want to look at, and I knew I'd be here all the time, so I wanted it to be really pretty for me."

Tell us about the quest for the chairs.
"The chairs I really wanted were the Adolf Loos chairs. They're all Bentwood chairs, mostly they're designed by Thonet, but Luce designed one chair that I really, really, really wanted. They're actually the ones that are in Cafe Sabarsky in New York. But there's only one company in the world, it's in Vienna, that still makes these chairs, and they're like $600 a piece. I just couldn't. So my next choice was the number 14 chair, which was not as hard to find but still not that easy to find. The number 18 chair is super ubiquitous, and the candy cane one, it's almost like a heart, the hairpin one, those are really easy to find. These are a little harder but if you just look at them side by side you'll notice the difference. I'm kind of a nerd about stuff like that."

Nerdiness can be a great thing.
"Well I feel lucky that all of this worked together because, you know, you're picking things from little swatches. And I definitely had help from friends. My friend Lisa Harbottle who has a good background in fashion. She has her own lingerie company, and she helped me pick this color (of the banquette) and she made me afraid of matching it with the green. I'm better with shapes than colors, so I really needed her help."

Where did you find the banquette?
"This I had made. I found the fabric at discount fabrics; it's mohair. I was very lucky. Hopefully it will last a long time."

Don't you freak out that people will spill on it?
"The funny thing is, yes mohair is really expensive, but we compared it with some velvets and they stood up to no tests, and the mohair really stood up to a lot of tests. It has all those natural oils in it, so it repelled a lot of things. I had a bunch of fabric samples and we basically dumped coffee, wine and rapeseed oil on them. And then we did the crazy rub test. We tried to imitate asses scooting back and forth. This was all at my house at a party."

That sounds like a fun party.
"Yeah we got drunk and were like, let's dump things on the samples! And of course the most expensive one fared the best."

Where do you shop for clothes in the Bay Area?
"Relic Vintage! It's my friend's store. It's so good. He's amazing you have to go there. He opened it a little over a year ago. He managed La Rosa for like 13 years, that's where I met him, from shopping there. He's super dedicated. He has a really good sense of what will work in a modern context."

Do you wear strictly vintage?
"I wear Dickies and a t-shirt in the mornings when I do my prep. But my clothes outside of work area all vintage."

Do you have a hard time finding sizes? Because you're tall.
"Yes. But I've been collecting for so long that I have a lot. Actually lately I've been on the "opening a restaurant diet" and lost a lot of weight. So a bunch of clothes I bought 10 years ago when I gained some weight don't fit anymore. And stuff that hadn't fit me in 10 years I had gotten rid of! It was really hard to pick outfits for this shoot because most of my stuff doesn't fit me anymore."

When you collect vintage do you look for a specific period?
"The '30s is my favorite period, and it's also the hardest to find because it was the Depression so people wore their clothes out. But it's the most flattering for my body type. I love '20s stuff but it doesn't look that great on me and it's hard to find in tall sizes. I used to collect mostly '40s stuff, then I went through a '50s phase."

How long have you been a chef?
"I got my first pastry chef job 14 years ago, and I've been in the food business for 21 years. Before that I was a political activist. I did women's health care in the city, there was a free clinic that I canvassed for door to door. I passed out condoms door to door and tried to get money. Good times! Before that I was in Portland and worked for an environmental organization. I got so burned out."

Time for the lightning round! '60, '70s or '80s?
"'30s!"

Jay Z or Kanye?
"I've never heard either of their music."

Beatles or Rollinng Stones?
"Small Faces"

Beach or Mountains?
"Beach!"

8am or 8pm?
"PM! Even though I have to get up at 5am."