As you walk through the crowded city, past hordes of tourists patiently lined up to board tiny trolleys, drive down a twisty street, or board a boat to visit a rocky, now-deserted island, it might occur to you that it'd be nice to leave your own foggy hometown and be a visitor to some unfamiliar place. As the French say, it's necessary sometimes to change your air. But if the time isn't right, or funds are low, you can change the air around you right here in the city, or very close to it. Turn off your smartphone for a few hours, explore an unfamiliar neighborhood, enjoy a leisurely meal, look at the city from a new angle. Take a trip to here. But remember to bring cash.
It's almost impossible to tell from the unremarkable angled-glass façade of the Village Grill on West Portal's homey shopping street that an astonishing, comforting space lies behind it. You can catch a glimpse of what looks like a typical diner, with an open grill kitchen, an edge of a counter with high stools, and a table with three chairs. But as soon as you enter, a huge, impossibly high-ceilinged room opens up. There are seven red-upholstered booths running down one wall, with another three tucked in back. There are only four small nonbooth tables, in fact, so the odds of snagging a cozy booth, even if you are alone, are gratifyingly stacked in your favor.
As you settle in, a sense of calm descends, induced by the charming setting. The columned walls are painted a cheerful yellow, and lined with dozens of carefully hung decorative plates and immaculately displayed bric-a-brac. High above you looms a dark-green ceiling. The floor is a dark-red-and-gray checkerboard. The general impression is of a 1930s diner updated in the '50s; the truth is that the Village Grill has been dishing out home cooking for breakfast and lunch in this location for 19 years, and was redecorated a couple of years ago.
The menu is full of familiar dishes (two eggs any style, French toast, burger, BLT, meatloaf, fish and chips, chili), with some interesting surprises tucked in (Belgian waffles, French toast stuffed with ham and cheese, homemade quiche). Almost everything is under $10 (the six-ounce New York steak sandwich tops the list at $11.30). Daily specials might include a housemade crab cake sandwich; the soup of the day might be tomato Florentine, or creamy potato with bacon.
One of the best platters to distract you from the morning papers is the traditional Irish breakfast: a big oval dish heaped with two eggs; two rashers of Irish bacon (oval themselves, like thinly sliced Canadian bacon); two plump little pork sausages; two discs of "pudding," a milder, coarse-textured Irish sausage; a lake of baked beans; a vast quantity of well-seasoned homestyle potatoes, blended with grilled peppers and onions; and a perky garnish of bright-green parsley and bright-orange, well, orange. On the side comes a plate bearing two thick slices of warm Irish soda bread, dotted with dried fruit, and a cup of soft butter. At $10.75, this is almost enough for two (anticipating this, an extra plate will cost you a buck). Your coffee cup will be refilled long before you think to ask, and you can linger, relaxed and happy, over the excellent fare.
Outside lie several blocks of a delightful neighborhood to explore, including an antiques collective, a vintage clothing store, an old-fashioned toy store, and an independent bookstore that offers both knitting and yoga lessons. Maybe you can while away the afternoon taking in a movie matinee at the CineArts right up the street. If you're still feeling peckish, there's an excellent neighborhood bakery (try the amaretti cookies or the bread pudding), and a 75-year-old candy and ice cream store on the same block as the Grill.
Another slightly eccentric, no-reservations, cash-only spot for a mini-vacation rests just across the bay in Sausalito, a village with very few decent places to eat. But one that's worth making a pilgrimage to is the bluntly named Fish, located right on the water somewhat outside the touristy part of town in a semi-industrial complex overlooking docked boats. You line up, lots of cash in hand, in what's usually a long, daunting-looking line that actually moves fairly swiftly as you peruse the overhead board or a laminated menu filled proudly with the local, organic, and sustainable-declared ingredients. After ordering, you're given a tray with your drinks and one of those little numbered plastic placards that let the table runners know what you've ordered. You pick up silverware and napkins, cafeteria-style, and exit the place to choose a picnic table overlooking the water. There are a few indoor tables, but that misses the point. If the weather is too cool to enjoy the outdoors, stay home.
Unless, that is, you find yourself with a serious craving for one of Fish's specialties, like the local oyster po' boy ($16), which would be understandable: crisp, cornmeal-crusted Martin Miyagi oysters with ham, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and remoulade, all piled in an Acme roll and served with a haystack of shoestring fries. Crab or shrimp Louies (each $24) are astonishingly large: drifts of pink bay shrimp or Dungeness crab cover mountains of shredded iceberg lettuce drenched in a sweet housemade Louie dressing, easily enough for two. Steamed mussels and clams come piled high in an earthenware dish, in a winey broth full of aromatics.
Daily specials might include a whole grilled sea bass, served with roasted potatoes and sautéed greens ($27, and again, enough for two, especially if you also split a starter or a side dish). We've had creamier versions of New England clam chowder than the heavily potatoed version served here; next time we'd try the Portuguese red chowder, with fresh linguiça sausage, smoked paprika, cilantro, and watercress in addition to the clams (both $4 a cup, $7 a bowl). Regulars swear by the fish (fried in Anchor Steam batter) and chips, the pasta con vongole (clams in white wine sauce), and the fish taco plate. Specials might include an earthy, bright-green fava bean soup, or an unusual and delicious hamachi crudo with fresh green peas and wasabi-horseradish cream.
Non-fish-eaters will have to be contented with a big juicy grilled burger or a fancy PB&J with natural peanut butter and organic jelly on pain de mie, which is the fancy French way to say white bread. The brief wine and beer list is well chosen. Relax and linger over excellent coffee and a simple dessert: a rootbeer float, house-baked cookies, carrot cake, or espresso poured over vanilla ice cream.
Fish is ideal for a long, lazy, indulgent sunny lunch, or an early dinner: it closes at 8:30, but it gets very chilly by the water after dusk. It isn't very far from the city at all, but you feel like you could be in another country. Which is, after all, the point.