It didn't take long for my friend Rachel to form an opinion about Emmy's Spaghetti Shack. “This is the coolest restaurant I've been to all year,” she declared approximately 30 seconds after we stepped through the door. For Rachel, the deal was clinched when the hostess noted how well her boots went with her jeans. No one complimented my ensemble (alas), so I figured I'd hold off before making a pronouncement.
Still, I have to admit that Emmy's does make a cool first impression. It's got that home-grown feel, from the Mota S.F. (“Quality Cannabis Clothing”) sticker on the bench out front to the aprons strung like laundry across the interior of the restaurant to the sign in the bathroom asking customers not to throw paper towels in the “toi-toi.” The menus are handwritten, the lighting is dim, and, on the night we visited, at least one person at every table was wearing a funky hat. Chunky black booths appear to have been rescued from a defunct coffee shop, offering views of paintings Edvard Munch might have produced had he used Mission District bohemians as models. As an added bonus, we arrived on one of the DJ nights (Friday and Saturday). A woman stood over a pair of turntables near the bar, pumping house and disco tunes through a sound system so fierce it was a bit like dining at 26 Mix.
That settled it. Though I've been to some pretty cool restaurants this year — chic restaurants, groovy little sushi houses, the entirely cool late-night scene at Chinatown's Yuet Lee — I can't think of any more chill than Emmy's. Hell, the place is cooler than most bars.
Of course, the thing about coolness is that, as tasty as it is, you can't eat it. Fortunately, Emmy's represents in the food department as well. It's best to avoid some of the riskier dishes, but those are outnumbered by fare that's well executed and often surprisingly sophisticated (at least for a “Spaghetti Shack”), spanning an admirable range. You can go somewhat upscale, pairing the most expensive dish ($16 for the oxtail stew special) with the priciest wine ($38) from the eight-bottle list. Or, you can slum it by ordering a $5 plate of spaghetti and a $5 40-ounce Mickey's malt liquor. Either way, the ambience is included.
The place was full when we arrived, so we spent a few minutes at the bar admiring an old-fashioned, glass-doored refrigerator stocked with Bud, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and tall bottles of Chimay. Emmy's also offers a limited, but well chosen, selection of hard stuff — Maker's Mark, Ketel One and Gray Goose vodkas, and, God bless them, Fernet Branca. Once we were seated, the music proved a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we had to lean forward to hear one another, but on the other, we found ourselves shaking it in our seats on numerous occasions. Service was a casual, tag-team affair. We had a waitress and a waiter, both of whom were bursting with recommendations and delivering food with blinding speed.
Perhaps the best way to describe chef Sara Kirnon's style of cooking is to call it San Francisco comfort food with the occasional cosmic twist. The short menu includes many familiar friends — marinated olives, a Caesar salad, and a salad of arugula, pear tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, and Gorgonzola — along with more intriguing creations, such as an oak leaf lettuce salad with Comice pears, poached cranberries, and green peppercorn dressing. Feeling adventurous, we ordered the last dish — and regretted it. The ingredients didn't blend well, and the dressing had been applied in random dabs so that some bites contained too much pepper, while others were dry and flavorless.
An order of risotto — listed as an appetizer but large enough to be a light entree –was far more rewarding: plump, toothsome grains of rice mixed with chunks of fiery andouille sausage, both braced with the firm, sharp bite of shaved pecorino. Our waitress was entirely stoked when we ordered our third starter, and we felt the same way when she delivered it. An oozy goat cheese tart came topped with sweet, crunchy caramelized onions, then finished with a delicate accent of balsamic vinegar — one of the finer treatments I've seen for an ingredient (goat cheese) that's become ubiquitous in this town.
Unlike goat cheese, sardines are still up-and-coming. Their fishy taste can be difficult to meld with other ingredients, as evidenced by the pasta special. Thick tubes of rigatoni tossed with diced sardines, fennel, tomato sauce, and raisins produced a whimsical, almost bizarre combination of flavors (sweet and pungent, with a hint of licorice) that would have been punishing if we'd finished the entire portion. Thankfully, we also ordered spaghetti, which includes an option for a trio of hulking, onion-and-herb-flecked meatballs. Emmy's cooked the pasta perfectly al dente, and it arrived bathed in a zesty tomato sauce, yielding a plate as familiar and satisfying as coffee on a cold Sunday morning.
At $11.50, the Hobo's Bag was the most expensive dish on the menu (not including specials). Though I wasn't sure if it was supposed to arrive at room temperature, it was still the best of the more creative choices. A sack-shaped bundle of phyllo enclosed a silky fillet of salmon, accompanied by a pool of intense, savory leek-vermouth cream sauce studded with salty salmon roe.
Our final entree was so spectacular that I'd walk a mile — through the rain, with no umbrella, wearing flip-flops and a Britney Spears T-shirt — to have it again. A roast chicken leg and thigh joined by a pair of simple sides (crunchy carrots, slender French beans) brought me over the edge with its moist, velvety, unforgettable apple-raisin stuffing.
The waiter brought the dessert menu (a piece of notebook paper attached to a clipboard), then threw every fiber of his being into convincing us that we absolutely, positively had to order the super chocolate almond cake. We took his advice and received what was, to say the least, an awesome slab of pastry. Picture a wedge of chocolate and nutty praline, some 4 inches high, so dense it remained standing until the last few bites. Our second choice, Spaghetti Shack Twinkis (technically, we only received one Twinki) was, by far, the best Twinki — or, for that matter, Twinkie — we'd ever had, a beautifully textured vanilla sponge cake filled with sweet, whisper-light pastry cream.
Then came the check, which, despite tax and all those other complicating factors, had been rounded down to an even dollar figure. Think what you want about DJs and funky hats, but in my book, any place that lets the small change slide is just plain cool.