I was reminded of this recently when I helped entertain old friends from England who hadn't visited the Bay Area for many years. Our first restaurant meal was at a wonderful Hong Kong-style Cantonese spot called DAIMO, in the Pacific East Mall in Richmond (3288A Pierce, 510/527-3888), whose huge menu covers so many bases (fresh seafood, noodle dishes, barbecued meats) that I never envisioned any problems. But two of our three English guests began by asking for pineapple juice -- apparently a menu staple among Chinese restaurants in Britain -- and, when that proved unavailable, orange juice. "No juice," our server said. Their faces fell, even if only a little, and I felt like I'd failed them, even if only a little.
There were eight of us, and we ordered a lot. Food came flying out from the kitchen in no particular order, and I watched as dish after dish was rejected by two out of the three visitors. They didn't like most shellfish, so there went the sautéed crab with ginger and garlic and a special of steamed lobster on sticky rice full of chunks of smoky ham and earthy mushrooms (a lucky pick, which was the best choice of the evening). They ate the beef out of the beef with gai lan, and left the vegetables. I thought Peking duck would be surefire -- with its crunchy lacquered skin, puffy little buns, seductive slivered scallions, and plum sauce -- but duck, it turned out, was too exotic for them.
This is what they ate; this is what they liked: Shanghai steamed soup dumplings, soup with barbecued pork (though they looked askance at the long springy yellow noodles; they expected pale fat chow fun noodles), barbecued spareribs (though I could sense that they were slightly puzzled by the lack of a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce), and an off-menu dish of stir-fried chicken with cashews that I asked the kitchen to concoct when I was really afraid that my friends wouldn't get enough to eat. (And these dishes, I note, were all delicious. I liked them, too.)
They went off on the train to Yosemite, and I went back to seeking out Albanian hot pots dusted with fennel pollen and crowned with foam. But I looked at the menus I was handed, for a few days, through my friends' eyes, wondering just what they'd find to enjoy on them. Until the day that Joyce and I had lunch at Sydney's Home, and I read a menu on which not only did I want to eat everything, but I also thought that my friends would, too.
It helped that I recognized the food philosophy of John Hurley, who'd recently sold his restaurant Home, over on Market Street, before opening this place: respectful renditions of American home cooking made with honest ingredients, and, in a nod to the eatery's own home in the Jewish Community Center, tweaked to include Jewish dishes such as latkes, chicken soup, and brisket. (I thought that adding a possessive "Sydney" to "Home" was a kind of tiny Jewish joke, but no, it turns out that Sydney is the name of Hurley's daughter.) It was hard for me to choose what I wanted to eat: cabernet-braised beef brisket with Yukon Gold potato and vegetable hash, short ribs with sage and porcini papardelle, or lemon garlic roasted chicken with gingered shiitake Blue Lake beans (as at his other restaurants, Hurley thinks the sides are as important as the meat they accompany). Joyce had no such problem: She went straight for Monday's special, fish and chips. (If it had been Tuesday, liver and onions, or Wednesday, fried chicken, my choice would have been easier, too.) A glance at the well-filled plate of my closest neighbor made up my mind -- meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
We started with the latkes -- thin ones, not as crisp or as oniony as I'd like -- which came with sour cream and, once we asked, a little bowl of oddly smooth apple sauce, more like an apple purée. (It seems that at night the latkes come plated on top of the apple sauce and sour cream, which sounds like a bad, soggy idea to me, but that was our server's explanation for why he'd forgotten the lunchtime garnish.) But we could find no flaw with our entrees: The fish was especially good, perfectly fried, flaky and moist under its crackling light batter, a textbook version in generous portion, with a lovely tartar sauce full of fresh dill. The individual meatloaf was punchily seasoned, as was the pearly gravy that covered the mashed potatoes. The fresh steamed broccoli we ordered as a side was fine, though I missed the wonderful version napped in cheddar sauce that I'd enjoyed at Home. This was food that was easy to eat. As was our shared dessert -- two fat ice cream sandwiches, oozing chocolate chip ice cream between homemade cookies. Yum.
When I returned for dinner, with Tommy, it was a Tuesday, and I was hungry for that liver and onions. But we had to wait a few minutes for our table, in the lively first-level bar room (most of the spacious, modern restaurant is up a few stairs, in a long, thin, L-shaped room that wraps around a partially open kitchen). I chose a Cosmopolitan, not so much out of desire, but because Sydney's offers nightly drink specials as well as food ones, and it was only $3.95, and turned out to be well made (even a little loud). We watched that night's just-completed vice presidential debate being spun on the large-screen TV over the bar.
Comfort food was required. I thought $5.95 was a bit much for a bowl of chicken noodle soup until I tasted it: a rich broth, sheened with fat, full of noodles, carrots, and lots of big pieces of fresh chicken. It would have been almost enough for a meal, especially if paired with a salad (maybe the big wedge of iceberg lettuce drenched in blue cheese dressing that I saw on two nearby tables). We also shared an oval ramekin of creamy macaroni and cheese, improved by its crunchy bread-crumb topping.
I liked the overall warmth of the room, with its red banquettes and witty teacup chandeliers. I liked the many family groupings (Sydney's likes them, too, and has a children's menu); the prosperous, slightly clubby Pacific Heights feeling (I noted three pink sweaters, and two of them were cashmere); the reasonable prices (the most expensive entree is $14.95). I liked Tommy's chewy, flavorful flatiron steak, with an arugula and tomato salad dotted with blue cheese.
What I didn't like was my liver, cooked into tough and leathery oblivion, even though I'd asked for it medium rare ("It usually comes out medium," warned our waitress, and I reiterated, "Medium rare," though I should have listened better to what she was saying). This wasn't even medium well; it was just sadly overcooked. The nice hostess came over to apologize, with some kind of nonsensical excuse (about a hot grill) that was just wrong: Part of the charm of liver is its soft, custardy texture, which is possible to maintain even when quickly seared. But by then Tommy -- who'd at first said, "That's one I won't taste," when I ordered the dish (echoes of my English friends) -- had tried it and liked it, so the rest of it went home with him. (I did admire the generous serving of slivered and whole onions.)
A pillowy, not-too-sweet apple crisp and a lovely banana cream pie (with the cream on the side and the bananas in a rich custard) sent us out in a good frame of mind to see Shaun of the Dead. In all, it was a delightful evening.
So, when I wanted a place for a farewell dinner for the Brits, I thought my choice was in the bag. I was happy, not to mention hungry: I could start with the homemade tomato soup served with grilled cheese sandwiches, and it was a Wednesday, fried chicken night, which I hoped would be as knowingly fried as Monday's fish and chips. Rosemary lamb medallions with tomato relish and almond couscous! Reuben sandwich! Spinach pizza! This was a menu they would love. But when I called and suggested dinner out, I was invited to dinner in -- a not-un-Sydney's-like spread of brisket, pastrami, and corned beef, purchased at my favorite deli, Saul's. I would have to wait for another Wednesday for my fried chicken. But there was one final request: Could I make them a list of half a dozen or so restaurants in their next stop, New York City? Not too fancy. Not too pricey.
I found myself wishing there was a branch of Sydney's Home there.