The Once and Future City

We remember the old S.F. via the food that takes us back

Pardon me while I have a Herb Caen moment. As much as I thank God daily for things like camera-equipped cell phones, supermarkets that double as banks, and panko-crusted macaroni with fromage blanc, I still wax nostalgic for San Francisco's simpler days — back when kids walked to school, when we knew all our neighbors by last name (preceded by Mrs., Miss, or Mr.), and when SOMA was South of Market Street.

Sadly, there are few places left that capture S.F. in a positive old-fashioned way. Most are either run-down to the point of decrepit or spruced up to the point of unrecognizable (to wit: Mission Rock). But St. Francis Fountain (2801 24th St., 826-4200) has always felt like a perfect little bubble of yesteryear — a place seemingly untouched by the tides of cultural change and dot-communism.

Opened in 1918, when the Mission District was more Irish than Hispanic, it evolved into a clubhouse of sorts, where local folks gathered to chitchat about the events of the day over a frankfurter plate and a malted. Then three years ago, just as it looked like yet another venerable S.F. institution would go the way of the Alhambra Theatre and the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor, in stepped Peter Hood and Levon Kazarian. Recognizing not only that people here crave nostalgia and rootedness once in a while, but also that they're important, the new owners overhauled the place with a gentle hand, leaving most of the good things intact and retiring some of the outmoded ones.

I confess that I miss the homemade hard candy and the classic '50s lunch plates of cottage cheese and pineapple, and liverwurst with cheese and tomato on crustless white bread (who wouldn't?). But I think even Caen would have been content with the “new” St. Francis — its straight-back wooden banquettes all spit-spot, its host of regulars at the counter, and its wonderfully retro and homey menu updated smartly and without condescension. Many oldie favorites such as ice cream sodas, grilled cheese sandwiches, and waffles are still there, but they now flank a host of more modern offerings: a veggie Reuben, tofu scrambles, breakfast burritos, and the intriguing Guinness Float (Guinness and vanilla ice cream).

True, the guy with the candy stripes and the white chevron hat has been replaced by a gal sporting multiple piercings and tattoos that cover most of her extremities, but sit down at the counter and it's déjà vu all over again — especially if you order the egg salad sandwich.

Say what you want about toast, but slap a scoop of St. Francis' egg salad on a warm, crunchy triangle of sourdough, add tomato, purple onion, lettuce, mayo, and mustard, and you'll be whistling “I Left My Heart” before the day is through. The eggs are roughly chopped, not mashed, and blended with a goodly amount of mayo and mustard, green onion, and just a tad of pickle relish: no dill or tarragon or weird crunchy things. The sandwich comes with a mind-boggling choice of sides, from fries and coleslaw to Caesar salad, veggie chili, and gooey mac and cheese, and you can wash it all down with a traditional iced tea or — if you're feeling crazy — a Dreamsicle (milk, OJ, vanilla syrup, and ice cream).

Finally, don't leave St. Francis without a turn around the candy counter. I was already a mush ball before I saw the Pop Rocks, but once I spied the Now and Later bars, I was ready to go home and cry a tear in my Playland at the Beach root beer mug.

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