From Smog to Fog

Our new critic returns to the city that nourished her

I went to cooking school in Paris. I earned my daily bread by writing about restaurants in Los Angeles, and New York, and then Los Angeles again. But I left my stomach in San Francisco.

There must have been a certain amount of eating in the nine months or so between my birth in Boston and my arrival in San Francisco, but I recall nothing to write home about. Through family friends, we lucked into an apartment on Jackson Street that still induces shivers of real estate lust when I drive by it. (Many years after my family moved to the East Bay — my parents, both born in New York, were determined to raise their children “in the country,” or what passed for country to urbanites — I confessed to my mother that I had a fake childhood memory which might have come from seeing I Remember Mama or some other San Francisco-set movie. “I remember standing in the window of our apartment and waving to the cable car conductor, who would beat out 'shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits' on his bell in response to me. But there aren't any cable cars on Jackson Street.” “There were,” Mom said, “when you were a baby.”)

Though my mother was cooking us terrific meals in her narrow galley of a kitchen across the bay, my hunger was directed across the bridge, to San Francisco. My parents ate out in posh restaurants in what we always called “the City,” and, the next morning, my father would describe to me every course they'd had in near-erotic detail as he shaved. I heard about La Bourgogne, Fleur de Lys, Ernie's, and the Blue Fox; sometimes, after a meal in North Beach, they'd bring back a little cardboard box full of pastries.

My first vivid memory of a restaurant meal is a lunch I had when I was 6 or 7 with my father at the Ritz Old Poodle Dog on Post Street. I doubt that he told me about its previous locations, on Bush Street or on Clay and Dupont (now known as Grant Avenue), but I do remember him saying that it was San Francisco's oldest French restaurant, and that it was founded in 1849, to serve the miners of the Gold Rush, who paid for their meals with gold dust and quickly corrupted its French name, Poulet d'Or, to Poodle Dog. The combination of the plush surroundings and my outfit from I. Magnin made me feel like Eloise, one of my two favorite literary characters. (The other was Madeline; it was years before I learned that her creator, Ludwig Bemelmans, was a veteran of many fancy hotel restaurants and had written food books that I'd be as fond of as an adult as I was then of his little Parisian schoolgirl.) But my desire to try something new plus a glance at the menu's prices led me to order scallops, which were a great disappointment. (And I think I was instinctively right: In my memory, those salty, fishy, firm little buttons — which became saltier from the furtive tears I dropped on them — were not only overcooked, but, in their perfect circular uniformity, quite possibly not scallops at all, but punched out from a huge wing of skate or ray.) My father noticed my distress and offered to call over the waiter so I could order something else. Mortified, I demurred. He gave me one of his little rib lamb chops; it was delicious, and remains to this day one of my favorite cuts of meat.

My grandma Sarah, who lived in the Sunset, cooked rich Jewish specialties: stewed mushrooms on toast with lots of onions, breast of lamb, roast duck. She'd partially poach a chicken to make chicken soup, then stud the drained meat with lots of garlic and bake it in the oven. On a complicated, ritualized schedule known only to them, she and her sister Frieda would prepare vast quantities of meat blintzes (still the best I've ever had) or plum jam. (My other grandma, Celia, would visit us from Brooklyn in the summer and overfeed me on chicken livers and onions and her own version of strawberry shortcake.) My cousins' grandma Ida took me to my first cafeteria, near Union Square, after seeing Bambi, the occasion of more salty tears; she insisted I eat a salad as well as the hamburger I wanted, and consequently I was too full to eat the éclair that was waiting mutely on my tray throughout our lunch. (Later, when I read Vladimir Nabokov's description of an éclair that was left on a plate “lonely, despised, unwanted,” I remembered the one that got away.)

San Francisco meant the scent of roasting Folgers coffee greeting us as we drove across the bridge; walk-away shrimp and crab cocktails; sourdough bread; the all-dessert birthday lunches my mother would treat me to at Blum's; Jack Shelton's food columns in San Francisco and Herb Caen mentioning restaurants new and old (it amazed me when I heard that he was never presented with a check); vast banquets in Chinatown; multicourse Basque feasts at Des Alpes and the Hotel de France; the monumental eagle-topped copper-and-brass espresso machine in my aunt and uncle's house in Parnassus Heights that scared me with its hissing steam; pelmeny and piroshki on Clement Street; trying Peruvian food in the Mission after seeing The Sorrow and the Pity. One godmother lived on Russian Hill, wore fur coats and Joy perfume, and took me to sedate restaurants where she was known; the other lived in Sausalito, and we'd visit her hard-drinking writer boyfriend in Bolinas, whose specialty was a superb steak tartare.

My first highly anticipated meal at a four-star restaurant was at Ondine, almost as celebrated for its view of the City (it was on the water in Sausalito) as for its classic, Escoffier-inspired haute cuisine. But it quickly turned into a disaster when our host plucked the menus out of our hands before we'd even had a chance to peruse them and insisted that the maître d'hôtel choose our meals, a ploy that did not turn out particularly well (and, hmmm, may have had something to do with why I now write about restaurants). My high school boyfriend scored a coup by surprising me with dinner at Ernie's before the Senior Ball, making revisiting it in Vertigo even more poignant. During my years at UC Berkeley, I was more likely to frequent Kip's or Top Dog or some fragrant ethnic dive than to travel across the Bay Bridge. I did, however, make this observation the first time I ate at Chez Panisse: “This is the kind of place you should dine at regularly, as part of your education.” (Little did I know ….)

Somehow, after those couple of diplomas earned at Le Cordon Bleu, I found myself living in Los Angeles, happily reviewing restaurants. (My relatives, snugly ensconced all over the Bay Area, would inquire, from time to time, how I could stand the smog. I refrained from mentioning the brown smudge frequently visible over the City when I took Grizzly Peak Boulevard to visit my family. They'd also ask whether I drove on the freeways. “Not every day,” I'd reply, evenly.) A number of years ago, when I was asked by the Village Voice to leave L.A., where I was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Reader and California magazine, and move to New York to write about restaurants for it, I hesitated for a variety of reasons, ranging from the rational (moving is hard, New York is expensive, I was supremely comfortable in L.A.) to the irrational (moving is hard, New York is expensive, I was supremely comfortable in L.A.). Then my friend Richard Meltzer put it in perspective: “You mean,” he said, “they're going to pay for your food?” So I let them, for several tasty years.

But eventually I returned to L.A., where, admittedly, one of the attractions was its proximity to my family in the Bay Area, and the restaurants we'd explore together — Zuni, Masa's, Oliveto, Boulevard, Rubicon, Citron, the French Laundry, Rivoli, Jo Jo's, Jardinière — some of which I'd write about for New Times Los Angeles. When the opportunity arose to leave L.A., I hesitated again (moving is hard, San Francisco is expensive …), until a friend reminded me that I'd often return from a Bay Area trip and sigh, “They eat better up there.” And then another reminded me that I'd tell her about an elaborate meal and she'd ask, “Is there anything like that in L.A.?” and I'd say, “Not really.” And then I realized that I might get to try every dish listed in the “150 best dishes in the Bay Area” article I'd saved from a magazine.

And here I am. I'm getting San Francisco for Christmas.

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