Origin stories for restaurant dishes have the same mythic proportions as those of political victories and love affairs; over time, they begin to seem like something predestined rather than a lucky series of coincidences. Any restaurant that creates an enduring dish is also sentenced to be its caretaker, preserving a moment in time for anyone who makes the journey to the source.
Like any city with enough history behind it, San Francisco has its share of recipes that were invented here — and restaurants whose business capitalizes on being the progenitor of them. I visited four to see how well they wore the mantle of history.
Green goddess dressing was invented in the Garden Court of the Palace Hotel (2 New Montgomery, 512-1111, SFPalace.com) in 1923 in honor of actor George Arliss, who stayed there during the run of the popular play The Green Goddess. The Palace was modeled after the grand hotels of Europe and was once one of the most glamorous hotels in the country. After it was badly damaged by fire following the 1906 quake, the hotel was rebuilt to its former opulence, including the exquisite, glass-ceilinged Garden Court restaurant.
A century later it's still a stunner of a room, with gently diffused light, Italian marble columns, and crystal chandeliers from Vienna. But the hotel is now owned by Starwood, and somewhere along the way the property lost its magic. The Garden Court offers the type of formal, starched-white-tablecloth fine dining that's fallen out of style lately in favor of stripped-down wood and exposed bulbs, and though it's not quite dowdy, it does feel like a dinosaur.
But the famous Garden Court Salad with green goddess dressing still makes for a very nice lunch, as it should for $29. This isn't as astronomical a sum as it first seems when you see that the salad is topped with a fist-sized lump of crab meat encircled by a paper-thin slice of cucumber. The dressing was more delicate than I expected, a creamy blend of tarragon, anchovies, and vinegar that brought to mind Caesar without the assertiveness, and it played off the mild flavors of the crab, avocado, and butter lettuce. The dining room was half-empty at lunchtime, and most people there seemed to be present for the same reason I was: to gawk, as if the restaurant were one of those sumptuous re-created rooms inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Liveliness isn't lacking at the Tadich Grill (240 California, 391-1849, TadichGrill.com), a few blocks away in the Financial District. The dim dining room's long bar, lunch counter, and tables separated by wooden partitions seem to be filled with as many locals as tourists. Though its vintage tile floor, dark wooden wainscoting, and solicitous waiters are decidedly old-fashioned, the restaurant still feels like a vital part of the dining life of the city.
The Tadich wasn't the originator of cioppino — credit for the hearty tomato and seafood stew belongs to Italian fishermen on the local docks — but the restaurant has been serving food in San Francisco since before California became a state (it claims to be the oldest in town), and it seems like as good an authority on the dish as anyone. Its cioppino ($30.75) comes in a tureen overflowing with crab meat, mussels, clams, fish, and large and small shrimp, all in a robust, oregano-heavy tomato broth that knocks the chill out of a cold San Francisco summer day. Thick-sliced garlic bread floats on top, soaking up the lusty soup as you work your way through the shellfish. It's a splendid meal, especially when prefaced by one of the bar's excellent gin martinis, and a restaurant that shows San Francisco in a very flattering light.
I can't say the same for the theme-park-like Boudin Bakery (160 Jefferson, 928-1849, BoudinBakery.com), which caters to hordes of tourists thanks to its location in the dark heart of Fishermen's Wharf. A 2005 remodel made the bakery into a sprawling 25,000- square-foot compound with two restaurants (a bistro/oyster bar upstairs, and a chaotic café downstairs), a store, a museum, and a massive demonstration kitchen. The spectacle starts on the sidewalk outside the industrial bakery, where bakers behind a plate-glass window talk to tourists via a hands-free microphone, and hawk menu specials along with explanations of their current activities.
Boudin's is of course the San Francisco sourdough, and is about as dense and tangy as you could want. Like all breads made before commercial yeast was available, Boudin's is made from a mixture of flour and water that wild yeast feeds on to survive; sourdough particularly relies on this "starter" for its tang, which it won't get from commercial yeast alone. Boudin's starter has been taking in local yeast since 1849; legend has it that Louise Boudin saved her starter in a wooden bucket from the 1906 quake. This and many more facts about the bakery can be found in the upstairs museum for a $3 admission. As the talkative curator reminded me, the Boudins emigrated to S.F. from France in 1849 not to pan gold, but to sell bread to hungry miners. The frank commercialism of their new facility is a logical extension of that original dream.
I was relieved to escape the tourist crush for the Buena Vista Cafe (2765 Hyde, 474-5044, TheBuenaVista.com) and calm my jangled nerves with an Irish coffee. Despite its location around the corner from Ghirardelli Square, the Buena Vista has managed to retain dignity and character — it feels like a neighborhood dive that happens to sell up to 2,000 Irish coffees a day. There's a long wooden bar with cushy stools, tables that have good views of the bay on clear days, and yellowing newspaper clippings in glass cases telling the story of the bar's most famous drink.
The Buena Vista didn't invent Irish coffee, but it did make it popular in the States. As the story goes, in 1952, San Francisco Chronicle travel writer Stanton Delaplane returned raving about a concoction he'd sampled in the Shannon airport, and the bar's then-owner Jack Koeppler challenged him to re-create it. When I took my first sip, I realized that I'd never had a proper Irish coffee before — this wasn't cloyingly sweet or too strong, but beautifully balanced. A half-inch of cold, decadent, lightly whipped cream hits the taste buds first, followed by the warm, rich coffee and a slight kickback from the whiskey (the bar switched from a private blend to Tullamore Dew in 2006, which caused a minor local scandal, but I think it works).
The drink was delicious, fortifying, and only $8; the café could probably get away with charging double that, but then only tourists would go there, and something essential would be lost. I sat at the quiet bar and thought about how fame changes a place, and how making history often means getting trapped by it. You can either buy your own hype and erect a museum to yourself ... or you can do what you do best and pour the next drink.