Worlds Collide

The Park Chalet is like a filmmaker's fantasy of S.F. come to life

Growing up in San Francisco, I often found myself conflicted, and not just because I was forced to choose between a Gene Kelly musical at the Castro or a Disney classic at the old Parkside theater (though that was certainly a weighty conundrum for a movie-happy 12-year-old). No, my turmoil was born out of a larger concern: how to reconcile the outside world's perception of the city -- that golden-colored, sand-washed, cable car-wobbling, flower child-twirling, Rice-A-Roni dream of a place -- and the grayish, fog-shrouded, Muni bus-lurching, Rice Dream-drinking San Francisco that I encountered every day.

In my world, for instance, it was possible to grow up not 15 minutes from the Haight-Ashbury and never meet an actual hippie. And to attend An American in Paris at the Castro in the '70s, wearing pigtails and clutching my allowance, and not feel the least bit out of place.

But the fact that my version of S.F. didn't jell with the global one was only part of the problem. In truth, I secretly, desperately wanted that San Francisco to be my San Francisco. I wanted to live on a sun-dappled houseboat like Chevy Chase in Foul Play, I wanted to hang out at the beatnik cafe and recite hilariously bad poetry like Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer, and I wanted to sit on a picnic blanket, watch movies, and dance under the stars in Golden Gate Park like they did in The Wedding Planner.

This last one in particular seemed like a filmmaker's fantasy. Most of my memories of Golden Gate Park involve down parkas, wind-swept playgrounds, and concerts enjoyed in the standing position while hopping from foot to foot or crouching over the heat of a barbecue grill.

And then on a cold, clear day not long ago, I stepped into the Park Chalet (1000 Great Highway, 386-8439, www.parkchalet.com) and my worldviews collided. The Beach Chalet's new downstairs sister, this restaurant/brewpub has captured a Golden Gate Park that previously existed only in my imagination. Adirondack chairs stretch out on an emerald expanse of lawn, little children run around in pink-striped dresses and chili-pepper knit caps while parents sip cool ales and look on approvingly, their faces rosy from the warmth of heat lamps placed strategically under the awnings. In the atrium dining room, a crackling fire reflects through floor-to-ceiling windows, gazing out to the pretty garden path that wends its way into an Alice in Wonderland forest. All that's missing is a straw-hat band in seersucker suits.

"Golden Gate Park deserved and needed a restaurant like Central Park has, and not just an annex -- a place that celebrates being in the park," says owner Lara Truppelli.

Wrapped up in this perfect vision, I almost hesitated to order anything that might detract from it (besides beer, that is), but I was persuaded by a neighboring table to try the Reuben sandwich.

It arrived steaming, Acme rye bread griddled to a crackly crunch, oozing Gruyère and bits of tangy sauerkraut. Inside, the corned beef -- tender, lean, and not overly salty -- was stacked in a hefty (but not New York-deli ridiculous) pile atop the restaurant's own "secret sauce" -- a blend of mayonnaise, roasted garlic, ketchup, pickled relish, and chopped capers that's like the best Russian dressing you've never had. The dish was served with the Park Chalet's signature root chips (fried sweet potato, taro root, and yams) and a nice slice of dill pickle -- which, along with a house-made ale, created a flawlessly balanced and deeply satisfying meal.

At this point, it seemed, there was nothing left to do but ask my dining partner for a dance.

 
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