A chaotic din of diners reverberated through St. Anthony's temporary dining room in the Tenderloin, as Barbara Coleman dug into her beef stew, reflecting back on her move from New Orleans to San Francisco in 1979.
"Wasn't no family members or nothing to go to," Coleman said. "So the first place they told me to go to was St. Anthony's."
When Coleman first showed up, the dining room was still run by its founder, the late Franciscan friar Alfred Boeddeker. There were few shelters for women at the time, so at night the dining room was set-up with beds.
"I slept in the dining room, yes I did," Coleman said.
Since opening 62 years ago, St. Anthony's has served more than 38 million meals to the city's down-and-out, all from from a converted auto body shop.
A year ago, the original St. Anthony's dining room was torn down to make way for a new dining room. In the meantime, the meals moved to a temporary location across the street on Golden Gate Avenue.
"The new building, for us, will mean a dining room that was made to be a dining room," said St. Anthony's interim executive director Barry Stenger. "Our dining room for 62 years was an old auto body shop that we made work."
The demolition of the original building left a cavernous dirt hole on the corner of Jones and Golden Gate, revealing for the first time in decades the old buildings that once abutted it.
"You can just sort of see what happens when you tear down a building in the tenderloin," said Doug Shoemaker of Mercy Housing. "You just sort of see the bones of the neighborhood all exposed and all its stories."
The next chapter for St. Anthony's was written on Thursday afternoon when the organization broke ground on its new $22-million dollar building, slated to open in 2014. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee turned up for the ceremonial turning of the dirt.
The bottom floor will house a new dining room with space to feed 43 percent more people than the original dining room. Stenger pointed out it will also have windows, in sharp contrast to the original windowless hall, which was accessed by a ramp leftover from its auto shop days.
"People coming into the new dining room," said Stenger, "will see they're the kind of people who deserve to be fed and sit around a table like other people do."
The organization is also partnering with Mercy Housing to build 89 units of low-income senior housing in the floors above the dining room.
With a nearly empty plastic tray now sitting in front of her, Coleman smiled at the thought of a new building on the original site.
"That's going to be wonderful, to go back," she said. "It's memorable to me because that is where I started from."