WILLIAM M. (BILLY) WEST, was the founder and owner of the rustic but sophisticated San Francisco restaurant called the Zuni Cafe. West began the restaurant 15 years before in a dilapidated storefront with only a kettle grill in the alley at the back. He was among the first to tout healthful food with fresh ingredients presented in a straightforward manner. He prepared dishes from the books of Elizabeth David, who later honored him by becoming a frequent customer. West hired the young chef Judy Rodgers in 1987, promising to build her a wood-burning brick oven.
Mr. West opened Zuni in 1979 just blocks from City Hall, three months after an ex-cop assassinated supervisor Harvey Milk. 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.
The little cafe up a flight of rickety stairs became a gathering place for curious chefs and food aficionados. It was often compared to France’s brasseries, which serve a range of food, from snacks to full meals, at practically any hour.
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.”