As a result, this week I wanted to go someplace where nobody knew my name. I've had my eye on this one joint for ages, the Silver Crest over on Bayshore Boulevard near the Cow Palace. The place's sign promises "Donuts," and then beneath that, "Restaurant and Bar." See, I like variety as much as the next guy. Jokes aside, though, I assure you that this instantly became one of my all-time favorite San Francisco dives. Hear me now: Everyone who reads this must visit the Silver Crest before he dies. Or rather, before the owners die; they're nearing their 70s.
The Crest sits on a big plot of what is probably prime S.F. real estate, with a large parking lot taking up three-quarters of the space. The building is half diner, half dive bar. The diner faces the street, and peering in the windows you can see booths, an old-fashioned lunch counter, an entire row of pinball machines, li'l jukeboxes at each table, and a donut case crowned with a rack of cigarettes. One wall is filled with a hand-painted menu featuring everything from corned beef to fried egg sandwiches. The place is open 24 hours a day and serves breakfast all the time.
For my purposes, however, I went into the bar side. The entrance has swinging saloon doors and the unmistakable scent of B.O. A big plastic vat is filled with greasy sand and cigarette butts just outside the door.
I stepped gingerly inside, letting my eyes adjust to the dark lighting. This was a nothin'-fancy space, with wood paneling, a pool table, and a TV with rabbit ears locked in an eternal battle to achieve horizontal and vertical hold.
"Ho!" said a friendly voice.
"Hi!" I said, pulling up a stool. There was a lone customer at one end of the bar, a man of Chinese descent who looked like he had been there a while. Behind the bar stood a husband and wife, the owners.
"What can we do for you?" asked the gentleman with an accent that I couldn't quite place. He had slicked-back white hair, big expressive features, and a seemingly permanent smile for young women such as myself. His wife stood a bit behind him with her arms crossed and a bemused look on her face.
"Um, what do you have on tap?" I asked.
"No tap," said the wife, again with the accent. "We have Coors and Budweiser. That's all."
"But first!" shrieked the man, pointing his finger in the air, "Give my girl a shot of ouzo!" His wife rolled her eyes.
"You're Greek?!" I exclaimed. "I love Greeks!" And indeed I do. There are many of them in Illinois, where I grew up, but very few out here. I have missed them. The man, who introduced himself as Georges, kept talking a mile a minute. "Of course I am Greek! Greeks are the greatest. The first people were Greeks!"
I wasn't sure if he meant the first people in San Francisco or the first people ever. Turns out it was the latter. "Mankind started in Greece," he continued, to which I proffered that perhaps we actually began in Africa. "No," he asserted. "It got cold, so people over time began to, you know, migrate down to Africa." It was his assertion that Caucasians were the first race, though it isn't that he's a white supremacist. No, he is actually a Greek supremacist. His wife put the shot of ouzo and a beer in front of me.
"If you were first," said the drunken patron of Chinese descent, "then why were my people wearing silk while your people were wearing bear skins?"
I sensed this might open a whole new can of worms, so I switched the focus of the conversation to whether or not there were any good Greek restaurants out here.
"Oh, there used to be," said Georges wistfully, with what I now recognized to be a Greek accent. An Asian woman who worked over on the diner side peered around the corner as if to say, "Don't go there, girlfriend!"
"Oh yes, there were many at one time," he continued. (He and his wife moved out here from Greece in the mid-'60s, opening the Silver Crest in 1970.) "But kids today, they aren't interested," he said, shaking his head. "No, all they want is this," he said, pretending to snort up a line, "or this," he said, using his index finger against his forearm, pretending to shoot up, adding a phhooot sound effect with his mouth.
"Ahh, yes," I agreed. The drug culture did more than destroy dreams, it nixed our access to baklava and flaming cheese. Those hippie bastards.
"You are my honorary daughter!" let out Georges, seemingly out of nowhere.
"Opa!" I yelped back, downing my shot.
"You don't have a brain in your head," said the crusty Chinese guy, possibly to me but probably to the Greek.
After a couple more beers and a tuna sandwich, I realized I'd accomplished my mission: I needed to spend time with wacky strangers, and I had done just that. I decided that this is the place where I would like to have my wedding reception, should the occasion arise. A big, fat Greek affair with broken plates, donuts, and ouzo.
I bade my farewells and headed to the parking lot, the scent of B.O. getting stronger with each step. I realized the origins of the smell: charbroiled hamburger smoke mixed with eucalyptus. A big ol' tree was in the parking lot, and the oils from its leaves, when mixed with burger grease, smelled just like a big Greek armpit. "Ahhh," I said, taking in a big ol' whiff. "Opa!"