Urban Explorer

A request for an inexpensive and interesting restaurant for a party of eight sends our critic to the books

I couldn't imagine living in a city, any city, without a full complement of guidebooks. And not just restaurant guidebooks (though the absolute bare minimum requirement would be a Zagatguide in any of the 70 or so cities the company covers, useful as an aide-memoire or convenient phone book, even if you don't agree with the ratings). I'm a sucker for architectural handbooks, historical tomes, collections of local journalism, personal memoirs, ephemera: I lugged boxes of San Francisco books along when I moved up north, and a scary number of new (The Cafes of San Francisco: A Guide to the Sights, Sounds, and Tastes of America's Original Cafe Society), newish (Secret San Francisco: The Unique Guidebook to San Francisco's Hidden Sites, Sounds, and Tastes), and old (copies of the 1939 and 1940 editions of the Official Guide Book to the Golden Gate International Exposition) volumes have joined them since.

I may not ever read The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco 1850-1900 from cover to cover (though I have looked at all the pictures). San Francisco Bizarro: A Guide to Notorious Sights, Lusty Pursuits, and Downright Freakiness in the City by the Bay (by former SF Weekly staff writer Jack Boulware) is best dipped into from time to time (an exhaustive reading would prove too exhausting; the subtitle alone is fatiguing). But as a bibliomaniac friend of mine once replied to the impertinent question, "Jeez, have you read all these books?": No, but I know why I bought each one. I believe that a guidebook is worth its cover price if it tells you about even one restaurant (or museum or store or historical site) that you wouldn't otherwise know about. (Sometimes knowing just a couple of swell places to eat can improve the hell out of your perception of a new place.)

My friends (and acquaintances) seem to think that because I write about restaurants I am some kind of super- or even supra-guidebook: If I arrive in their city, whether it's Charleston, S.C., or Portland, Ore., I'm asked "Where do you want to eat?" on arrival (and often, because of my guidebook habit, I have some ideas, though I'd be happier to hear theirs). I get requests for restaurant recommendations from cities I have never been to or even spent much time reading about (the most recent stump-the-scribe was for a good restaurant in Indianapolis in which to have a business dinner).

Garden of Delight: A grungy 
Tenderloin block gives 
way to a glamorous anteroom at 
Shalimar Garden -- 
soon to be called Mela Tandoori 
Anthony Pidgeon
Garden of Delight: A grungy Tenderloin block gives way to a glamorous anteroom at Shalimar Garden -- soon to be called Mela Tandoori Kitchen.
Garden of Delight: A grungy 
Tenderloin block gives 
way to a glamorous anteroom at 
Shalimar Garden -- 
soon to be called Mela Tandoori 
Anthony Pidgeon
Garden of Delight: A grungy Tenderloin block gives way to a glamorous anteroom at Shalimar Garden -- soon to be called Mela Tandoori Kitchen.

Location Info


Mela Tandoori Kitchen

417 O'Farrell
San Francisco, CA 94102

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin


Vegetable pakoras $2.95

Chicken samosas $4.95

Murgh korma shahi $7.95

Lamb vindaloo $7.95

Tandoori lamb chops $10.95

Bengen bhujia $5.95

Coconut ice cream $2


Open Monday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday from 1 to 11 p.m.; and Sunday from 1 to 9:30 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Not wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 27, 38

Noise level: low

417 O'Farrell (at Taylor)

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When my friend Anne arrived in town to attend the San Francisco International Film Festival with her daughter Nora, she asked me to come up with a good, comfortable, not too pricey restaurant for eight or so people; I was to be part of the party, so I had a vested interest in the decision. When I hear "eight people" and "not too pricey," I immediately think Chinese, but no, one of the attendees had allergies to virtually every Chinese ingredient you can think of, beginning with peanut oil and ending with soy sauce, neatly eliminating more arcane Asian possibilities from consideration, too.

I then thought Indian, with some pleasure: I hadn't had an Indian meal for months, not since I'd visited ViKs Chaat Corner in Berkeley. My friend Will suggested two of his favorites, Indian Oven on Fillmore and Naan-N-Curry in the Tenderloin; I'd spied a couple of branches of the latter in my peregrinations around the city and dismissed them as too fast-food ("But you said you wanted cheap," Will pointed out; "I meant 'reasonable for eight people,'" I said defensively). I ran to my trusty Zagat to check out Indian Oven, and was cheered by "fantastic food at a reasonable price" and "brilliantly spiced entrees," but scared off by "well worth the waits," "cramped," "noisy," and "eat-and-run service." We wanted a big table in a quiet room where we could linger.

So I consulted the dozen or so places listed under "Indian" in Zagat's Cuisine Index. More than half of them were eliminated for location (Berkeley, Mountain View, San Rafael, Menlo Park); others for price ("better Indian elsewhere for a fraction of the price" -- now that's a money review!); still others for atmosphere ("no frills," "order at the counter, pick up your dishes when they announce your number").

The process of elimination yielded exactly one likely suspect: Shalimar Garden, the implicitly-more-upscale sibling of the well-reviewed Shalimar ("same recipes and 100 percent improvement in atmosphere," although who can say what a 100 percent improvement in atmosphere over "a truck stop in middle hell" would be?). But Anne asked me on Monday, and dinner was to be on Tuesday; she had to call a number of cell phones and work phones and home phones to assemble the tribe, and a quick perusal of several other guidebooks (five, if you're curious) didn't turn up any viable alternatives. So Shalimar Garden it was to be. (Or Gardens, as Zagat has it. But I now have the evidence before me of the place's very own menu, which has Shalimar Garden printed on it in nice gold script -- twice.)

Tuesday held another treat: a Festival-arranged tour of San Francisco locations used during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. One of the recent additions to my 5-foot shelf of San Francisconiana (or San Franciscaeniana, since there seem to be numberless volumes by Herb Caen) was Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco, by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal. I'd intended to use it for a self-guided tour, but was glad I hadn't gotten around to it yet. It couldn't have compared with being driven around town in a comfy van with a half-dozen other obsessives (Anne and Nora among them) on a glorious, sunny day, enjoying the erudition and passion of the scholarly Miguel Pendás. We were completely enthralled for 2 1/2 hours, as we traveled from the Brocklebank apartment building on Nob Hill to Mission Dolores to Fort Point below the looming Golden Gate Bridge, where I thought the surfers and windsurfers were just as self-destructive as Madeleine Elster was when she flung herself into the bay.

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