“Who are these people?” the veteran city journalist asked as we walked into Anthony's one Monday night. A look at the diners — tucking happily into mountains of pasta, carving steaks that spilled over their plates and declawing lobsters — and I understood the inquiry. Nobody looked like a local. Not only did their fashion statements and, I'm sorry to say, girth place them immediately as tourists, but more specifically, as my friend, a Chicago native, observed, they were visitors from the Midwest.
This sounds elitist, not to mention insulting, I know. But let's face it: How many locals eagerly consort with sightseers at Scoma's? Or Julius' Castle? I know a number of discriminating foodies who turn up their noses at Fog City Diner because it appeared in an American Express ad — practically inviting conventioneers. Declasse to the max.
As the hostess led us to our table at Anthony's, I took in the ersatz pine paneling and autographed pictures of sports legends posed with owner Anthony Rivezzo and thought Chicago was about right: a restaurant owned by a washed-up athlete.
There's also a touch of the Palm (a New York import that went belly up here a couple of years ago) in Anthony's mural of North Beach personalities, several of whom are no longer around — like Enrico Banducci, who's running a hotdog stand in Virginia, or Barnaby Conrad, who now lives in Santa Barbara.
Actually, Rivezzo started out in New York, then ran a couple of restaurants in Southern California. This man understands the business. Anybody who can offer a clambake consisting of a steamed Maine lobster, surrounded by roast potatoes and veggies, and a big bowl full of clams and mussels all for $13.95 and not go out of business is doing something right.
That fresh Maine lobster is the draw at Anthony's. It comes a number of ways: in the aforementioned clambake; with crabmeat ($16.95); with a New York steak ($16.95); and à la carte in sizes up to five pounds ($11.95 per pound). And Rivezzo reportedly goes out to the airport himself to pick up the jet-set crustaceans every day.
So how is it? Listen, with a lobster dinner on the East Coast averaging about $30 a head, I'd be happy with the lobster equivalent of fake crab — and that's coming from someone who went to camp every summer in Maine. But this is the real thing. And it's delicious, if just the tiniest bit overcooked, a fate that far more seriously befell the mushy broccoli and golden peppers. The roast potatoes would have been great had they been anything but stone cold. On the other hand, the steamed clams and mussels in a garlicky natural broth were perfectly cooked, not boiled into Spandex.
My Chicago friend, who informed me after we sat down that she doesn't eat lobster (more for me!), settled on the chicken lasagne ($9.95), a gargantuan portion with big chucks of chicken and a creamy tomato sauce. The abundant cream combined with ricotta made for a sinfully rich dish, one she found overwhelming, but I'd sneak back and dive into it anytime.
A thick Boston clam chowder tasted of fresh clams, but was a bit too potato-y. The mixed green salad was, again, enormous, with a nice variety of greens. The dressing, however, was in a puddle on the bottom and revealed a heavy hand with the vinegar.
Which brings me to service. The word “gruff” comes to mind, as do “no-nonsense” and just plain “unfriendly.” As we were seated, we were told that the restaurant was short one waitress that night, but, hey, why should that become my problem?
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not at all attracted to the “I want to be your best friend and insert my face into your conversation” school of table waiting. But the way dishes and glasses were dumped down and snatched away, and the minimal information we received about the menu and wine list (which, by the way, is wide-ranging, with less-than-customary markups), didn't cut it.
We were presented with a display tray before making our dessert selections, a practice I haven't seen much of since relish trays bit the dust. Needless to say, our waitress didn't linger lovingly over the descriptions, just the facts. Actually, I've always felt if they're going to show it to you, they should offer tastes, so you really know what you're getting.
We passed up a couple of cheesecakes and a tiramisœ, and chose a rocky road chocolate mousse cake, which was lighter than it looked and topped with mini marshmallows. These were old-fashioned desserts, no architectural constructions and not a raspberry drizzle in sight.
And, yes, this is the kind of place where they'll sing “Happy Birthday” should you request. Not only that, but plastic bibs for lobster eaters, Wash 'N' Drys and $3 parking in North Beach. Such details make me feel all warm and nostalgic. And make me sorry I ever said anything mean about our waitress, who on any other night would probably have been absolutely sensational.
Anthony's, 1701 Powell, S.F., 391-4488. Open Sun-Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri-Sat 5-11 pm.