San Francisco: a guide of sorts
I went to San Francisco last October. Here’s a blog post I bashed out on the plane home and promptly forgot about, because gin and jetlag. I want to go back. Like, loads. Here’s what I’ll do all over again, with one exception, when I do.
EAT / DRINK Hog and Rocks
The clue is in the title. A cocktail bar and restaurant serving oysters and refined-dirty bar snacks, alongside some slightly more grown up big plates. There’s roasted bone marrow, trotter tots (bacon fried potatoes), ham-devilled eggs and a house Manhattan bastardised with a touch of Fernet. If there’s a more archetypically me place in San Francisco, find it I did not. Were the drinks properly stirred as opposed to given a ubiquitous shake, it’d be pretty perfect.
EAT / DRINK Locanda
While London might chug negronis by the bucket-full, San Fran has Fernet delivered by a giant, branded truck (I saw it). Oh, but they like it bitter here. Sit at the bar, order an amari flight and prepare yourself as twelve little glasses are filled with bitter liquids, ranging from the colour of dark straw to brain-tremblingly congener-rich, peat-like and almost opaque. Also order their amaro-spiked affogato and a few small plates from the Italo-menu, but don’t ask me how much it cost because, well, amari flight.
EAT / DRINK 20 Spot
A sophisticated, cosy little wine bar decked out beautifully in G Plan, serving rich alpine food and impressive wines by the glass. Although there are a few notable Californian names on the constantly evolving list, it leans towards interesting German and Austrian bottles which is right up my strasse. We start with nutty little Yukon gold potatoes smothered in a rich cheese sauce with chunks of smoked bacon, brightly dressed baby gems with dill and a glass of Gruner Veltliner, then greedily, happily plough through rabbit rillettes, potted Dungeoness crab and several more fantastic wines. When the bar manager leans in and offers a (free) serve of something that she thinks will taste great with the crab, I know I’m in a good spot. Massive Sager & Wilde vibes, stateside.
EAT Swan Oyster Depot
The old-timer institution you hope will never change, and, apparently, hasn’t much for over fifty years. Fresh seafood, cold beer, hot chowder and good sourdough, served at a long marble counter strewn with sauces, lemon wedges, crackers and paper napkins. Young-ish guys and their fathers serving alongside one another, some of the older guys sons of the founder; of the five diners to arrive after me, three are greeted by first name and two are wide-eyed first timers. Order crab, shrimp, prawns, clams and lobster by the salad (with leaves), cocktail (with sauce) or neat, various oysters by the half-dozen and chowder by the cup or bowl. I would live in here if I could.
EAT Brenda’s Soul Food Kitchen
Remember your appetite and forget your waistline: hefty Louisiana soul food with a side order of filled beignets. Big.
EAT / PARTY Tacolicious
Operating in a sweet spot between party bar and decent contemporary Mexican restaurant; makes mescal margaritas to make your head spin.
PARTY 500 Club
Not a destination in itself, other than perhaps for the Buick-sized glittering martini glass sitting atop its roof, but a great dive bar if you’re staying nearby. Replete with thrash metal, beers and shots; open until 2am.
PARTY Make Out Room
A vaguely sensuous and quirky bar in the Mission with some of the flare and flamboyance of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club but better drinks and a cleaner floor. We saw an all-female, moustache-wearing, bowler-hatted hipster choir performing acapella versions of ‘Do the Hustle’ and David Bowie. It’s very San Francisco.
PARTY El Rio
Palm trees, huge beer garden and Monday nights are a dollar a PBR. Trashy student drinking, but fun with a crowd.
MISS / DO NOT GO / ALWAYS LISTEN TO POPLE Chez Panisse
There are loads of people who give bang on restaurant recommendations, but among the more reliable is Chris Pople. Next time he tells me to swerve one of the world’s “best” restaurants, I’ll bloody listen. The nutshell is that Chez Panisse is resting on its laurels so hard that it’s pulling off intermediate level yoga; coasting on an international reputation up to which it can no longer be bothered to live.
Save for some bright, briney olives and a knock out salad, the menu was beige beige beeeeige, drab and under-seasoned, an insult to the great produce it purports to champion. Both a high and a low was a massive boulder of bread presented without knife; what are you supposed to do with a whole loaf of really crusty bread in a really fancy restaurant? I looked around to see if it has been a mistake, but no, a room full of rich, ancient, beeeeeige people were ripping into loaves with wrinkled hands, some loudly “HA HA HA!”ing at the feral novelty of it, others wondering why the bread had to be manhandled by each of their tablemates. Entertaining.
First course was a salad (“local chicories with autumn fruits and anise dressing”) which I initially thought was a bit weak for the menu’s $85 price tag, but it was actually the only dish I’d ever, ever order again. Bitter leaves and tiny, sweet figs, in a subtle anise dressing balancing acidity and aroma – lovely. A second course of stuffed squid was so utterly meh I can’t be bothered to go into detail, and the main was, frankly, crap. A miniscule portion of cotton-woolly lamb, watery aubergine mush and a sauce so underachieving it should have been sent back to cookery school (Chez Panisse has its own, incidentally). Sauces in a place like this should be impossible to leave, the kind of sauce as a waitress I swooshed my fingers through when [relatively] untouched plates came back (I was sixteen, paid £2.60 an hour and the place had two Michelin stars – there was no other way I was ever going to eat there). But no, nothing. I just couldn’t taste it with my heart.
The matched wines were only matched to three of the four courses, leaving you to swing for your own dessert plonk; $85 dollars for four courses, another $40 for the matched wines and you don’t even get a sticky. Okay so it’s not Ledbury levels of spendy OH WAIT, THREE COURSES FOR £45, YES IT IS. FFS.
Even with the watery, beige food, the biggest problem was that there didn’t seem to be a problem. The ancient, beige Americans weren’t there for the food, they were there simply to be there, and aside from one excellent waiter who seemed genuinely interested in the what he put in front of me (even if I, increasingly, wasn’t) staff were just going through the motions, a tired, old ballet that didn’t care to break a sweat. When Chris urged, nay, commanded me to cancel my booking, I grandly, hopefully said that I’d rather regret something I have done rather than something I haven’t (FOMO in action right there): Chez Panisse represents $160 of true remorse. Always listen to Pople.
EAT / TREAT Smitten
Ice cream made to order utilising the magic of liquid nitrogen. The portions are enormous; were to stake my reputation on an eating contest of any food it would be ice cream (unless Campari is a food), and even I had to ditch the last of my regular serving. But it is smooth and delicious, so go and order a little one.
COFFEE Four Barrel
A cavernous roastery warehouse of wood and beans. Tables like railways sleepers, exposed rafters, hogs’ heads on the wall and old rock records on the turntable, the roasting action in full view at the back. I had an iced pour-over that was naturally sweet (no sugar), fruity and well suited to being served black – reet nice it were.
COFFEE Java Supreme
You’re not going to travel across town for an unassuming little coffee shop, but you sure hell will end up in here every day if you’re staying nearby (Guerrero St just by 19th, really close to Delores Park in The Mission). On the morning after the amari-flight-night before, my awesome host brought a coffee and an Everything bagel to my rescue, and it was bloody marv – from haggard drunk to human being, wondering when it was polite to have another. Everything bagels are a new one on me *sheltered face* and are The Shit™, covered in fennel, poppy and sesame seeds, as well as dried onions, garlic powder and crystals of salt. Toasted, thick layer of cream cheese and a coffee is just $3. Lifesaver (I’d had five by the time I left SF). And the people are bloody lovely too.
I can’t believe I’ve written the most about a restaurant I hated and a sodding bagel. Go to SF. And take me with you.