There used to be certain situations where being fussy about your food put you at a disadvantage. Sporting events. Airports. Movie theaters. Concerts. Places where the cost of food had nothing to do with the quality, places where you resigned yourself to an evening of deep-fried mediocrity.
But following the rise of foodie America, the past decade or so has seen improvements across the board, and it's now possible to stay in a delicious, locally sourced bubble wherever you go. In the Bay Area alone, celeb chef Michael Mina is installing a restaurant at the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara; last fall, AT&T Park announced that a new edible garden will supply produce for the park's concessions. Terminals 2 and 3 at SFO are filled with culinary bright spots, including restaurants from the likes of Tyler Florence to gifts from food incubator La Cocina. Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, a wonderful movie theater/restaurant combo, is supposed to come to the Mission later this year, and City Winery, a wine bar/restaurant/music venue from the founder of the Knitting Factory, is moving into the Napa Opera House this spring.
There is one area, however, where the food remains reliably shitty: the city's comedy clubs.
Specifically at Cobb's Comedy Club, one of San Francisco's two major venues (the other, Punchline, shares the same owners). I went in hoping for food that was bad-good — an excuse to binge on chicken fingers and french fries while watching funny people say funny things. But the food I encountered was bad-bad — so bad, in fact, that most of the food ordered remained on the plate, untouched after a few bites. What surprised me was that I was so surprised by it — evidence of how far the gourmet movement has reached into the corners of America.
Entertainment and dinner are an uneasy combination. Dinner theater, at least the act of listening to or watching something while eating food, has been around in some form for probably all of human history, but its modern incarnation peaked around the mid-20th century. But then, people lost interest, performers went to TV, and venue owners realized that they could make more money on foods like fries and popcorn, which require fairly untrained workers to produce and can be sold for far more profit than your average restaurant dish. For a lot of venues that have survived on the basic concession model in the past, retrofitting a kitchen for restaurant food, hiring a chef, and training a staff to offer good service requires a lot of investment.
So, I wouldn't blame Cobb's for continuing to serve crowd-pleasing, notably non-gourmet cuisine — there's a spectrum for food of all genres, and if the dishes served there had been even passable, this review would have told a different story. The problem was that the Cobb's menu was overlong and striving to be more than it needed to be, thus executing nothing very well. On the pricey dinner menu, marsala chicken sat along a steak sandwich, and any attempts beyond the basics proved to be basically inedible. The "Wing Trio" was a sad assortment of flaccid chicken bits coated in three different sauces (garlic, chipotle, and "Asian"), each worse than the last. A steak sandwich was all gristle; it was advertised on the menu as an open-faced sandwich on sourdough, but the tough meat came enclosed between a barely toasted, insubstantial white bun.
Chicken fingers ("Love Me Chicken Tenders" on the menu) were inoffensive only because they tasted like nothing, save for the slightest aftertaste of rancid frying oil. (It must be noted that the seasoned chicken strips at the Metreon movie theater, which no doubt go from the freezer to the deep-fryer, are markedly better.) The french fries suffered from the same bad-cooking-oil aftertaste. The best thing I tried was a Caesar salad, which was about on par with those make-your-own kits you buy at the grocery store. A quesadilla at the next table looked pretty good and I wished I'd ordered it instead of all the fancy stuff, which got me wondering: If a quesadilla is potentially the height of the kitchen's powers, why bother with anything more ambitious?
It's not like the room demands fine dining. The place has a sort of unfinished, rec room feel when you walk in, and the cocktail menu, the real fuel of the place, is straight out of the '90s — too-sweet drinks made with flavored vodkas with punny names like the Cobbsmopolitan. Cocktail waitresses seemed harried, as though they had too many tables to manage, and we took to ordering drinks whenever we saw ours even if we weren't done with our current one, because we weren't sure when she'd be back.
It seems absurd now, looking back, that I'd expected a good dinner — the action's up on stage, after all, and you don't go to a comedy club for the food — but that's just where we are in 2014 San Francisco. Maybe venues like the Dark Room and the "Cynic Cave" in the basement of Lost Weekend Video have it right by offering a selection of the finest candy bars and chips the corner store offers, neatly sidestepping the nightmare of the kitchen. As it was, I sat in the dark longing for the culinary prowess of Butter, the SoMa bar that traffics in grocery-store jalapeño poppers, mozzarella sticks, and other deep-fried delights. Foodie culture may be one long-running joke, but we've all got to get in on it eventually — or else become the brunt of it.