For Health and Pleasure

After a quarter of a century, S.F.'s venerable vegetarian restaurant is still leading by example

I've never had a more sustained period of dreadful eating than I did for two heedless weeks this fall, when I went from the Telluride Film Festival, an intense schedule of dozens of movies crammed into Labor Day weekend, to the Toronto ditto, even more movies to choose from, hundreds spread out over 10 days. Annie cooked us cheeseburgers in a borrowed Telluride kitchen as I watched Bush give his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention (it's amazing we were able to eat), the night before the festival started, and that's just about the last hot thing I remember consuming for the next several days. I was too distracted by the constant availability of carefully selected cinema, either brand-new (Kinsey, The House of Flying Daggers, Palindrome) or brought back from obscurity (a three-film tribute to Czech director Gustav Machaty, Daryl Duke and Rip Torn's '70s Payday), to pause for carefully selected sustenance. I existed, mainly, on floods of coffee. There was a rumor that Telluride had some swell eateries (one, I was told, specialized in wild game, including caribou), but I didn't see the inside of a single restaurant while I was there. I stood in line on Main Street for a pricey hot dog two or three days after the burger, but my eye was on the adjacent queue waiting to get into the Peter Bogdanovich lecture on movie stars he has known. If it moved before I got to the head of the line for the snack that was going to serve as both breakfast and lunch, I would join it. I got my hot dog, but only just.

Things were slightly better, nutritionwise, in Toronto; though the mainstays of my diet were coffee (again) and the superior brand of chocolate-covered peanuts known as Glosettes available in the movie theaters, I'd been to Toronto often enough that I knew where to grab a decent sandwich. And I actually turned my attention away from the seductive silver screen long enough to have three terrific restaurant repasts there, in that wonderful restaurant town: the ritual sautéed fresh lobster and crab dishes that draw me back year after year to the aptly named Excellent Chinese Restaurant (263 Spadina, 416/929-7598), a fancy French prix fixefeast in an odd hybrid of downstairs club and upstairs restaurant (The Fifth, 225 Richmond West, 416/979-3005), and classy seafood at the new Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill (100 Adelaide East, 416/366-7827). All three are highly recommended, should you find yourself in Toronto and in need of a good meal.

But I knew I wasn't doing myself any favors, nutritionally. One thought kept recurring to me during those days of caffeine and chocolate: When I got back to San Francisco, I would eat at Greens.

Greens looks like it's in the hold of an 
enormous, beautifully crafted ship.
Anthony Pidgeon
Greens looks like it's in the hold of an enormous, beautifully crafted ship.

Location Info

Map

Greens Restaurant

Marina, Building A
San Francisco, CA 94123

Category: Restaurant > Vegetarian

Region: Marina/ Cow Hollow

Details

Potato and chili griddlecakes $9

Indian sampler $9.50

Spinach and chard phyllo $19.50

Zuni stew $18

Vegetable brochettes $17.50

Quince tarte Tatin $7

Pear pumpkin upside-down cake $7

771-6222

Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 2:30 p.m., with a reduced menu in the afternoon Tuesday through Friday from 2:30 to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 9 p.m., with a prix fixe dinner on Saturday from 5:30 to 9 p.m.; and for brunch on Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: easy (free adjacent lot)

Muni: 28

Noise level: low to moderate

Fort Mason, Building A, Marina & Buchanan

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Greens is the world-famous vegetarian restaurant established by the Zen Center in Fort Mason a quarter of a century ago. From the beginning it was wildly popular, wildly well-reviewed, wildly influential. Its first cookbook, The Greens Cookbook, published about eight years after the restaurant opened, released vegetarian cooking from the hegemony of the joyless and the tasteless, celebrating freshness, seasonality, and sensuality, and drawing from many international cuisines. (When I left messages on three friends' phones asking if they had a copy I could borrow, it turned out that not only did all of them possess it, but they also had half a dozen other Greens-related volumes -- by founding chef Deborah Madison; Edward Espe Brown, co-writer of the first cookbook and author of the earlier Zen-related title The Tassajara Bread Book; and current Greens chef Annie Somerville, one of the staff members thanked in the very first book.)

I don't remember just when I had my initial meal at Greens; it was sometime in its first decade, and it was a big occasion for me. I recall feeling intimidated by what I'd read about the place, exactly as one does before making a pilgrimage to some four-star temple of cuisine in France. We were there for lunch, and I can still see the dazzling light bouncing off the water of the marina right outside the windows, and remember feeling as if the soaring room, with arching rafters high above, was in the hold of some enormous, beautifully crafted wooden ship. I also remember exquisitely arranged, delicate salads, very Chez Panisse-y (Alice Waters and the rest of her crew are also thanked in the acknowledgements of The Greens Cookbook), and sturdy Southwestern-style stew, and a fragile, shaky corn pudding that became the benchmark for all the corn puddings that followed in my life. (The one flaw for me was in the service, which was a little too Zen, hushed and ritualistic.)

I've returned at intervals over the years, and eating at Greens has always been a joy, both for my palate and, I imagined, for my poor old body, daily challenged by a daunting variety of meat, fat, and spirits. (Fat and spirits, I will point out, have always been treated with respect at Greens, which puts out good butter with its bread and has an interesting, well-selected wine list.)

But life being what it is, it was a couple of months after Telluride and Toronto before I made the trip out to Fort Mason. (How nice for us that the Army settled on some of the choicest land in San Francisco -- Fort Mason, the Presidio -- and then abandoned its posts to the arts.) I was joined for dinner by Bernice, who eats everything, and Chi-hui, a vegetarian; it was the first time we'd had a meal in a place where I knew he could eat anything on the menu, which made me feel very relaxed and happy. The daily printed list was headed "25 Years and Still Green!"

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