And then, every once in a while, something happens to restore your faith in this cruel, fickle foodie town. So it was that I was thumbing through the phone book looking for western attire (do you really want to know?) and stumbled on a listing for the Waters Upton Tea Room, which was the name of a fantabulous tearoom that occupied the spot across from Kaiser Hospital throughout the '80s. My mind raced across the years to lazy afternoons spent sipping Yorkshire Gold and nibbling on sherry trifle and the famous "motorloaf," and to the bitter tears I shed when it covered its windows and a Walgreens sprouted up on that corner. Could it possibly be the same place? If it was a misprint, I wasn't sure I could bear the disappointment. But then, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so with trepidation I set out to investigate.
Wonder of wonder. Joy of joys. Turns out it was a misprint, but only in name. The Meakin family Hugh, his wife Melba, and son Philip indeed reopened its tearoom (in 1995, no less) in a smaller, far less conspicuous locale in the Outer Richmond (bring your binoculars to find the sign). Its name is Tal-Y-Tara (Gallic for "By the Kings"; 6439 California, 751-9275), and it doubles as an English equestrian/ polo shoppe, replete with crops and mallets and an array of those smart little riding hats. Wade through the saddles to the back, however, and you'll be greeted by the sight of small benches and flowery love seats, tea canisters and china cups, a sunny patio with umbrella-ed tables, the smell of warm scones, and yes, indeedy that famous motorloaf.
Tucking myself into a sunlit spot in the back yard with a steeping pot of tea, I slowly savored the sight of this tidy bread loaf, served exactly as I remember it: a hollowed-out rectangle stuffed neatly with a variety of traditional English tea sandwiches cream cheese and cucumber, watercress and turkey or ham, egg salad and capers, and cheese and chutney all made on the same bread and all delicious in their own right.
The motorloaf recipe is a turn-of-the-century relic, salvaged from Melba's great-aunt, that hearkens to the early days of the automobile. Made with wheat flour, molasses, walnuts, and buttermilk, it is a solid, flat-bottomed bread designed for travel a sort of edible carrying case that ladies of the day could pack for an afternoon of motoring.
"Melba's Great-Aunt Laura collected ladies' magazines and periodicals," explains Hugh. "She used to cut out recipes and file them away, and in an old issue of McCall's, under the heading, 'The Tea Room I Did Not Have,' we found the motorloaf."
The family adopted the recipe as its own, and along with English trifle, it became the Waters Upton signature dish. Moist, ever-so-slightly sweet, and packed with the nostalgia of a bygone San Francisco, the motorloaf and my rediscovery of Tal-Y-Tara might just carry me through several more years of restaurant heartbreak.