With Major League Baseball’s post-season currently in full swing, San Francisco Giants fans have to live by the motto “There’s always next year”. But 2010 was a whole different story. And I had the luck to be an eyewitness at one of the greatest moments in Giants history.
…or, Why I Have Gained 35 Pounds Since Returning to The City. 12 more excuses for weight gain and food-inspired happiness from the City By the Bay.
Pepperoni Pizza at Tommaso’s
1042 Kearny near Broadway, North Beach
Amidst all of the change and turmoil in The City these days, it’s so refreshing when an older eating establishment survives and thrives. That’s what’s happening at the small Italian restaurant on Kearny Street called Tomasso’s. Opened in the 1930’s as Lupo’s, the Crotti Family has owned the place since 1973 (they bought it from cook/owner Tommy Chin, hence the name Tommaso’s- an Italian version of his name!) They still make pizza the way it was made in the 30’s- in a wood-fired brick oven. This place is so special to my family that my Canadian daughter-in-law chose it for her post wedding banquet. They do pizza perfectly, the crust slightly charred from the oven, toppings are so delicious! My wife adores the fresh spinach and garlic. But my favorite is the pepperoni (I know, not a very creative choice. But at Tommaso’s, the slices of pepperoni slightly curl up during the bake, making each bite that includes these little oily spicy delights at treat. There’s reason that I use the stupid-looking photo of me devouring a Tommaso’s slice as the header photo on the AAHour Facebook page. I love Tommaso’s! Thanks Augie and Carmen!
Dungeness Crab Feed at Italian American Social Club (or Charity Functions all over the Bay Area)
25 Russia Avenue at Mission, Excelsior District
New England has it’s clambakes. Minnesotans have their fish fries. Louisiana has their crawfish boils. But when it’s Dungeness crab season in Northern California, it’s Crab Feed Time! High schools and charitable organizations put out the call to all hungry crab lovers to come and feast on all-you-can-eat cracked crab. Oh sure, they all try to get you full on Sourdough bread and salad and pasta. But any crab feeder worth their claw cracker knows you don’t fill up on the prelims when the main course is on it’s way. One of my favorite crab feeds in my old neighborhood, the Excelsior District, at the venerable Italian-American Social Club. Family and old friends plop down at communal tables as the bring out bowl after bowl of marinated cracked crab. Feast ’til you can’t look at another crab leg. IASC you there! (bad pun) Then get primed for the next feed at the church in the next neighborhood.
Sandwiches with Garlic Sauce and Hot Pepper Sauce on a Dutch Crunch Roll from Little Lucca
724 El Camino Real, South San Francisco
Yes, we’ve left San Francisco proper again. But, hey, I need to branch out to the other 6 Bay Area counties occasionally (where I have some favorite bars and restaurants). And a ride down El Camino Real to South City is well worth it when you’re heading for the “Little Sandwich Shack That Could” (my new Children’s book BTW)- I’m talking about Little Lucca. How can you find this tiny deli? Look for the lines that run out the door to the sidewalk. Everyone is waiting to place an order for the best sandwich around. Step aside, Ike’s. Little Lucca has been feeding folk since 1980. every kind of lunchmeat and cheese, ready to be piled on Sourdough hard or soft rolls, or a slightly-sweet, local creation called a Dutch Crunch roll. And the topper? Have them slather on some of their delectable garlic sauce and hot pepper sauce. Huge sandwiches, they don’t skimp on the fillings! You’ll have enough for two lunches (well, I personally don’t usually have leftovers, but you will.) Endure the wait, it’s worth it!
Oysters on the Half Shell at Le Central
453 Bush Street near Grant Avenue, Downtown/Financial District
We all know about San Francisco’s old Italian neighborhood, North Beach. And of course, the historic Chinese neighborhood, Chinatown. And contrary to newbie thinking, The Mission was actually an Irish-German ‘hood, which evolved into our Mexican/Central American community. (Seriously, do some research about your new digs. Jeez.) Anyways, did you know there was actually a French quarter in The City? There sure was, in the area surrounding Notre Dame des Victores Catholic Church, on Bush and Pine Streets, above Kearny, (some are actually calling little Belden Lane the “French Quarter” these days). And that’s where you’ll find my favorite bistro, Le Central. They serve French classics, including a duck confit, sausage, white bean cassoulet that was started when they opened. They proudly update their sign that claims the cassoulet has been cooking for over 14 thousand days. One of my favorite thing at Le Central is the raw oyster plate at Happy Hour. Fresh oysters on the half shell for a low price. And the pomme frites! Mon dieu! Dip them in the garlic aioli mayonnaise. Which is how the French eat fries (as we all learned in “Pulp Fiction”. No Le Big Mac here, though.)
1100 Valencia Street at 22nd, Mission District
Since I was a kid growing up in The Mission, and we lived at 20th and Lexington, I remember Mom taking us to the Italian Delicatessen with the red, green and white striped awning at 22nd and Valencia to get fresh ravioli. Talk about a place that has withstood the tests of time, Lucca still makes fresh ravs, and tortellini and other pastas. You can watch the daily process through the window on the Valencia sidewalk. Sold in flat boxes, the traditional meat filling brings back memories of bowls of ravioli topped with my Mother’s excellent Bolognese sauce. (Lucca makes sauce as well, and 4 other types of ravioli- cheese, spinach, pumpkin, and a special holiday rav with meat, spinach and turkey). I love the staff there, some of which have been at Lucca for decades. They’re all cool, funny and helpful! Old school, in the best of ways.
Herman’s Delicatessen, on Geary between 5th and 6th Avenues, was the Pride of the Richmond. The owner, Herman Voss, made a German-style potato salad that is revered to this day. Potatoes cut thin, not diced, with a creamy, sweet but not too sweet mayo/white vinegar base, shreds of carrot and that’s about it. Simple, but unique, the Herman’s potato salad (or San Francisco-style, as it is know today) was deemed the world’s best. No celery, no mustard, no pickle relish, no onion. Nothing else, but deliciousness. A company called Luciers made it for a while, as well as Bob Ostrow (“the maestro, the delicatessen man!” as my wife likes to sing their jingle). You can find a pretty tasty knock-off of it at Lucky Stores.
Meatball Sandwich on Focaccia at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
566 Columbus Avenue at Union Street, North Beach
How do you improve on the stupendous delectable focaccia from Liguria Bakery? Well, you don’t. BUT you can use that impeccable pizza bread to make an outstanding sandwich, and that’s what the folks at Marios’ Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe have done! Back in the day, Mario’s was the neighborhood cigar stand, where little old Italian retirees would sit outside and smoke their Toscanello “guinea stinkers” cigars in the afternoon. The original owner’s son has made the old tobacco shop into a cafe, and they make the most delicious oven-baked sandwich, with slices of Liguria pizza focaccia as the bread, stuffed with meatballs, Swiss Cheese and grilled onions. Grab a cold Peroni and mangiare! I will take the old Mounds candy bar motto and attribute it to Mario’s sandwich: Indescribably delicious.
Shrimp Chow Mein and Diana’s Meat Pie at Henry’s Hunan
924 Sansome between Broadway and Vallejo, Lower Telegraph Hill
San Francisco is at no shortage when it comes to choices for Chinese cuisine. From authentic Hong Kong-style fare to Americanized Cantonese-inspired “sweet and sour” offerings, we have it all at within our grasp. Henry Chung and his family have been serving Hunan style dishes for over 40 years. When I was working at CBS Radio on Battery, I would often stop at Henry’s Hunan on Sansom to grab some dinner for the family. Henry’s shrimp chow mein, with soft noodles, large shrimp and fresh vegetables, is as good as it gets. And his wife, Diana, has created one of the oddest, and most delicious, mashups ever- a Asian-influenced meat pie, a flaky deep-fried flour cake filled with savory ground beef. So weird, and so good!
Tortellini Carbonara at Sodini’s Green Valley
510 Green Street near Grant Avenue, North Beach
When we were kids growing up in San Francisco, my parents would occasionally take the family to dinner in North Beach. We went to family style Italian dinner houses like The Montclair, 622 Green, Capp’s Corner, Gold Spike and Sam Remo. As well as Caesar’s nearer to the Wharf. Most are gone, but one remains, thanks to the efforts of the Sodini Brothers, Peter and Mark: Green Valley Restaurant on Green near Grant. This was always a favorite, a place where you sat at communal tables and feasted on plates of hearty, home-cooked Italian classics. My dad likes to say “The service was so good that, sometimes, they pre-buttered your bread.” (No waste of table bread at the old GV!) No pre-buttering these days, Green Valley is loud and fantastic, with local angels like Linda and Rachel waiting your tables. Mark Sodini is the perfect host. And the food is delicious and plentiful. And the Tortellini Carbonara, with it’s rich, mushroom and pancetta cream sauce, is beyond compare. You’ll love Sodini’s, even if you do have to butter your own bread.
Cappuccino at Caffe Trieste (with a Macaroon)
601 Vallejo Street at Grant Avenue, North Beach
It would be hard to argue that Caffe Trieste is the most representative, iconic establishment in North Beach. (OK, maybe Vesuvio on Columbus, but who wants to argue?) Anyways, this Italian coffee house has been a hip hangout way before the current wave of Hipsters invaded our city. Opened in 1956 by Giovanni Giotta, coffee lovers can thank him- he brought Espresso and Cappuccino from his home in Trieste to the West Coast. Each cup is still made the way it was made back then. Caffe Trieste was a hit with the Beat Movement writers like Jack kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Francis Ford Coppola wrote most of the screenplay for “The Godfather” here. Stop in, order the perfect Cappuccino, accompanied by one of the delicious pastries available (the macaroon- damn!) Sit back, enjoy the Jazz and Opera music coming from the jukebox, and soak in some of The City’s living history.
Irish Coffee at The Gold Dust Lounge
165 Jefferson Street near Taylor, Fishermans Wharf
Legend has it that the Irish Coffee was brought from a Shannon Airport bar to America by a newspaper columnist back in the 50’s. Some argue that the claims are malarkey, saying the drink has been poured in San Francisco since the Gold Rush days. No matter what the true story is, the Irish Coffee is here to stay, a staple in pubs and taverns around The City. And my personal favorite version of this delicious drink can be found at the Gold Dust Lounge. The Bovis Family moved to the current Fisherman’s Wharf location after being unfairly evicted from their Union Square location of over a half century. They have recreated the same beloved vibe that that reigned over Powell Street imbibers since 1966. The great prices came with them over the hill, and you can’t find a more reasonably-priced cocktail in town. Open at 9am, you can get the perfect Irish Coffee made with Jamison’s Irish Whiskey for only 5 dollars! Unbeatable. And absolutely delicious!
If you’re reading from somewhere outside of the San Francisco Bay Area you may be asking yourself “A what’s what?” An It’s-It, a triple threat dessert with delicious ice-cream pressed between two oatmeal cookies and covered in chocolate. It was invented by George Whitney, the man who brought us the long-gone Ocean Beach amusement park Playland at the Beach. They had a stand that frowned the Great Highway, right next to the equally as iconic Hot House Tamale Stand. Thankfully, since Playland closed in 1972, the It’s-It is still around. Why do I love them? They had me at ice cream, cookies and chocolate.
San Francisco is considered one of the greatest restaurant towns in the World. It seems that a new trendy restaurant pops up on almost a daily basis. Thankfully, some of our classic dining establishments like House of Prime Rib, Swan’s Oyster Depot, Tadich Grill and a handful of others survive and thrive. And others get rescued by “angel investors”- like Joe’s of Westlake (fingers crossed), Tosca Cafe, The Big 4, The Old Clam House and Schroeder’s. But I sadly salute the passing of some of my all-time personal favorites.
(formerly 1600 Powell at Green St., North Beach)
This Family-Style Italian dinner house was a go-to for good food at a good price, and always great company. So many memories at Capp’s with family and friends. Dinner always served with a tureen of really tasty Minestrone (“Pass that bowl down here, please!”), followed by a tasty kidney-bean laden house-dressed salad. The long time owners, the Ginellas, were recently booted, another victim of San Francisco’s latest landord eviction frenzy (shameful). Capp’s Corner is also notable (to me) for being the place I first met the late great Seamus Coyle, in his capacity as the greeter. No one could greet you like that grizzled Irishman! I miss Capp’s….and Seamus.
(formerly 2299 Powell St at Bay St., near Fisherman’s Wharf)
Over the years, Caesar’s was the destination for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries…Hell, ANY festive gathering. As teens, we would head to Caesar’s and settle in for a 7-course “pigout” (always trying, but never getting used to the pickled pig’s feet appetizer. No problem, because there were 6 other plates with antipasti, cold cuts, marinated ceci and kidney beans). So loud and raucous that you had to shout your order at the waiter. The best Cioppino in town. Excellent bar! A great, friendly, attentive staff, with owner Matteo actually cooking in the kitchen. And you were always greeted by the smiling face of the late, much-missed co-owner Luigi Romani. R.I.P.
Empress of China
(formerly 838 Grant Avenue, Chinatown)
The classiest destination in Chinatown, the Empress had one of the most spectacular views of The City from both the dining room and the bar. You didn’t go to Empress of China for authentic Regional cuisine. The menu was very “Americanized”. But it was a blast from the past, a step back into San Francisco, circa 1960. Check out the celeb photos on the wall. (“Hey, that’s Jack Soo from “Barney Miller”!) Order a perfect Mai Tai and imagine you’re in a scene from a Bond movie. Another classic bites the dust for more office space. Thanks, Progress…
A very old school North Beach feel in the heart of the busy Inner Sunset, the Villa Romana dining room was decorated with grapevines and Chianti bottles hanging from the barrel-like ceiling. IMHO, there was one reason to make the trip to this Irving Street staple: Pizza. If you missed Villa Romana, you missed one of the best pizzas in town. Period.
The legend of Sam Wo lives on in the memories of anyone who had the pleasure of climbing the rickety stairs to the second or third floor dining areas, sitting at the funky, beat up, hodge podge of communal tables. If you were lucky, you were verbally abused by the legendary Edsel Ford Fung. Kitchen on the first floor? No problem. Dumb waiter that bowl of noodles up to the appropriate floor. Open until 3 am, Sam Wo had a BYOB policy (despite the hand-written sign that stated “No Booze”) that let us bring in whatever beer we could buy at the liquor store down the block (that had, let’s say, a very liberal policy on checking I.D.) The food? Whatever. The experience? Priceless.
The granddaddy of all Italian sit-at-the-counter Italian grills, Vanessi’s was another multi-course dining experience (do you notice a trend in my favorites?) There was nothing like sitting at the counter across from the exhibition grill, and feeling the heat blaze up every time the chef flopped a steak or chop on the wood-fueled fire. Savory sensory overload! Vanessa’s had a great red sauce, slathered on spaghetti and ravioli, offered as your main course or a side. In the late’s 80’s, they moved from Broadway to Nob Hill, and closed soon after. Thankfully, Original Joe’s (North Beach and Downtown San Jose), Marin Joe’s, and a handful of others keep up the tradition.
Guess what? Another Italian Family-Style Dinner House. (Hey, I like Italian food, served in mass quantities. Sue me.) The things that stood out about Gold Spike were: 1. That uneven floor in the front dining area near the bar. 2. The dollar bills and business cards plastered all over the ceiling and walls. 3. The butteriest, garlicky garlic bread ever. Delicious! 4. HUGE portions. Pro-Eater Joey Chestnut would have difficulty not doggie bagging some of his meal. I went there for lunch with a group from work who complained that Gold Spike had “hair on it” (i.e. it was old).You think? It was over SEVENTY YEARS OLD at the time! They didn’t get it. You want pristine? I have the address of Olive Garden for you. As for me, (to paraphrase OG’s motto) a trip to Gold Spike was truly “when you’re there, you were family.”
Johnson’s Tamale Grotto
(formerly Vicente at 24th Avenue, Sunset District)
Tamales were a big deal in The City, WAY before the Tamale Lady and her garbage bag full of delicious masa treats made the bar scene in the Mission. I mean, “Tuesday was Red’s Tamale Day”, fercryinoutloud! The Hot House at Playland was the favorite of many Locals (including my wife’s family). But we were a Johnson’s Tamale Grotto family. They had the original 20th and Mission location and one in Westlake. But from the Sunset District location, we had Johnson’s deliver their deliciously sauced beans and rice (in the round ice-cream containers), enchiladas and cup tamales (made in coffee cups, if I remember correctly?), all wrapped in newspaper and tied with butcher string, to our front door. The sauce? Who knows what they put in it, but it was pure Mexican gravy magic.
(formerly 1349 Montgomery St. near the Filbert steps, Telegraph Hill)
The Shadows on Telegraph Hill was, to me, a “classy date night” destination. I couldn’t afford Ernie’s or Julius Castle (down the block), so when I did save a few bucks, I’d put on my Harris Tweed sports coat and a clip-on tie, and escort my girl (Lincoln High girl, Shirley) to The Shadows for some German-Swiss-Continental-American cuisine…and love. The dining room looked like my idea of what a Swiss chalet would look like (the closest I had ever been to Switzerland being the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland). The glorious panoramic view of the Bay from the bar was impressive. Their lentil soup (with refills!) was delicious. And I scored huge brownie points, even though the tie came off mid-meal.
(575 Commercial St near Montgomery, Financial District)
Paoli’s has a spot near and dear to my heart for one specific reason- their Happy Hour buffet. I make the case that it was the most impressive array of freebie comestibles (with purchase of a cocktail of course) offered at any dining room bar anywhere, ever! It seemed like almost every item offered on the Dinner menu appeared on the massive buffet table near the bar (not true, but a great selection, nonetheless). Another great date night restaurant, dark and moody, Paoli’s offered up a delicious mixed bag of Continental-American-Broiler dishes. But you had to have one at the bar and wander over to see what was happening at Happy Hour first. You might not make it to dinner.
What are your favorite, long-gone restaurants? I’ll have my second list of 10 posted soon…