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San Francisco - LA Dishes Back Part 2

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If you have not yet read part one of LA Dishes Back, you may want to check it out. We now continue our San Francisco adventures where we left off.

Three days into the conference, everyone was exchanging horror stories about shoddy restaurant service. A few people had actually left restaurants crying after being berated by harried servers. Most of these experiences were in hotel cafes and chain restaurants within blocks of Union Square. Union Square did not seem very fond of tourists. One San Francisco local told me, "San Franciscans hate people from LA. And it only annoys them more that people from LA love San Francisco." It made me think of cats that are only attracted to people with allergies.

The unpleasant experiences reported in the Union Square area were the polar opposite of the kind of service we received in other neighborhoods, where people were attentive and welcoming.

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Another exception would be the Union Square grand dames, the restaurants that had been around for 50 years or more and had become institutions. Every last one of them offered impeccable service, and to my knowledge, did not make anybody cry.

Restaurant reviews after the jump


Sears Fine Foods


Monday we settled in for our only real breakfast, and we could not have chosen better than Sear's Fine Foods. The line stretches down the block, but moves fairly quickly. It is short enough so that you don't feel put out, but long enough that you feel confident that the food must be good. Kitschy D-list photos on the walls and a clutch of antique typewriters scattered around give you something to ponder while you wait.

Just three years after its rescue from near-extinction by Lori's Diner, Sears continues to serve its famous 18 silver dollar Swedish pancakes. They are so cute and adorable. I can see why children freak out over them. Rolled up with a little butter and lingonberry sauce, I was kind of freaking out myself. Their bacon and sausage are of the highest quality, service is first-rate and attention is paid to every detail. I only had to think, "I'm running low on coffee" before the psychic waiter would come running over with a refill. Spying on nearby tables, I could see that their red flannel hash is pretty popular as well. Stuffed after such a hearty breakfast, this was the one time we took the streetcar (5 bucks each! Ouch!). Clanking and rolling along with bellies full of pancakes and bacon made us feel like we were real tourists.

Vino Venue


In the afternoon, I met my brother at Vino Venue, a wine bar across the street from MOAD. At Vino Venue, you fill a card with a dollar amount, like you would at a casino or video arcade. Each kiosk has different types of wine with descriptions and a price, from around 2.50 to 4.50. You put the card in, select a wine, and have a do-it-yourself wine tasting. I discovered I like "buttery" chardonnays, like the Wise West Australian Single Vineyard 2005 Chardonnay. But I spent most of my time drinking the wines with strange descriptions - gravelly earth? I want to know what gravelly earth tastes like!

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AG Ferrari Foods


To soak up the wine, I picked up a sandwich at AG Ferrari Foods, an Italian gourmet shop and deli next-door. The deli case overflowed with appealing bites, but I was saving my appetite for John's. So I just snacked on half of a turkey sandwich in the park. The bread and garnishes were perfection, but it was a little skimpy on the meat.

John's Grill


I was grateful that I had stopped in and made a reservation for Johns Grill earlier that morning. Group after group ahead of us were asked to wait, and it was a relief to be escorted immediately to our table. John's Grill is famous for being the setting for the book, The Maltese Falcon, and the Dashell Hammet club still meets there. Someone had told me the interior was creepy. I thought it was rather cozy, but when I had to climb the dark stairwell to the restrooms, I had to admit, ok, it was a little creepy upstairs.

I ordered the house drink, named the Bloody Bridgid, after Hammet's fictional murderess. The drink was so strong, I think she may have done him in with alcohol poisoning. The Dungeness crab cocktail was clean and fresh, topped with a shocking horseradish cocktail sauce. Not a single bit of shell. Icy cold. Sheer perfection. My filet mignon was unprecedented in its tenderness. Sometimes I think a good meal is like sex. It is hard to compare it to experiences from your past, because the most recent one always seems better. But try as I might, I can't remember ever having a steak so tender. Normally with filet mignon there is one delicate tendon running through the middle, but it was such an excellent cut every bite melted in my mouth. It was a perfect meal.

We were not ready to let go, so we had to order a dessert. The chocolate cake with mousse was ok, but really just gilding the lily. I was surprised at how inexpensive our meal was, but it would be a great deal at any price. This is a place to take your parents, your boss, or the girl you want to marry. John's is pure class.



The Educated Palate


Amongst all the restaurant talk at the conference, I did pick up one invaluable tip (Thanks Francine!). Across the street from the conference, the city college's cooking school ran a restaurant called the Educated Palate. I was told they had an incredible lamb sandwich. It was good timing, since the restaurant was preparing to close for a 2-week semester break (They will re-open August 23rd).

We managed to make their last lunch service. Everyone ordered sandwiches, but I thought I would be risky and went for a Moroccan chicken dish. It turned out to be a large filo-encased mixture of ground chicken and spices with a tomato concasse. It was kind of intense, and probably would have been better in a smaller, appetizer portion. But the flavors were well-balanced and the filo was perfect. I split my chicken dish with a friend in exchange for half of her lamb sandwich. Lamb is often too gamey for me. The only lamb I have ever really enjoyed was in Guy Savoy's Bouquenistas in Paris. This lamb was as good as, or may have even surpassed Guy Savoy's. That is pretty fantastic for a cooking school; I dare the CIA to take them on. Fresh mozzarella took this sandwich over the top. I can't recommend the Educated Palate highly enough. When we asked for separate checks, they even split the bottled Pelligrino three ways, and the dessert four ways on our bills. I have never had a restaurant do that before.

The friendly instructor, Barbara Haimes, not only allowed me to photograph her restaurant, but proudly gathered her class together for a photograph. She had a mixture of competence and kindness that can turn all business when needed, qualities I recognized from some of my favorite instructors. She immediately asked me about Mozza, so I knew she was up-to-date, and when I mentioned Bauer's article, she was extremely diplomatic.

Later that evening I stopped in at Parc 55's Siam Thai to grab take-out for the hotel room. It was not very memorable, and I didn't even photograph it. But my room-mates had brought me back a piece of chocolate cake that was outstanding. As vegans love doing, they waited until after I had eaten it to announce to me that it was a product of sneaky vegan sleight-of-hand. Judging from the cake alone, I'm sorry I missed joining them for dinner at Herbivore.


B Restaurant and Bar


Wednesday marked the end of the conference, and my husband picked me up to visit MOAD (Museum of African Diaspora) and YBCA (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts). On my previous walks through the park, I could see Samovar above the waterfall and it had piqued my interest. I meant to go there, but we accidentally stumbled upon B Restaurant and Bar. What serendipity! The room was uncrowded and open, almost like a continuation of the park. High windows made it feel airy and light. It was elegent, yet comfortable. Thus far, I had experienced competent service, friendly service, and unfriendly service, but B Restaurant and Bar was the first time that I fell in love with my waiter. I stood up to wash my hands at the exact moment he arrived with our drinks, and instead of bumping into me, he smoothly slid an arm around me to help me up, and we ended up standing together arm in arm as if we were dates at a party. Grant Goodrich (He even has a good, strong, name) was so comfortable with us, chatting about the menu, and generally treating us as if we were guests in his home. He was without question my favorite waiter.

Luckily, chef Aaron Webb was equally skilled in the kitchen (Although he did not come out to hug me). I was in the mood for hamburger and he delivered. The grilled Angus was cooked to my liking, and the tomato was actually red - a gorgeous ruby red. I realized I have never been served a perfectly ripe tomato on a hamburger before. What? Was I raised in a cave? Perhaps it was not quite as dramatic as the moment in the Wizard of Oz where everything turns technicolor, but this organic, sustainable, locally grown thing has really got something to it. The catfish brandade was kind of deconstructed, with the seared catfish steak served over what I assume to be potatoes brandade, whipped with the garlic and cream. We weren't exactly sure what it was, but it was rich and delicious and our only complaint was that we wanted a bigger portion. The dessert, a layered chocolate cake with a Black Forest spin arrived with a small carafe of icing, but I found myself wishing for something lighter, like whipped cream.

I kept their menu as a memento, and just reading it makes me want to rush back : Baked crab ratatouille, Saffron risotto with seared dayboat scallops, grilled torpedo onions and riccolla. Riccolla! OK, you got me. It is not in any of my culinary dictionaries. Internet searches keep bringing up The Divine Comedy. What the hell is riccolla? And Tofu Bucco? Like Osso Bucco? Really? How in the hell do you pull that off? Bring it on! Pour me a lime rickey and let's go to town.

Tadich Grill


The Tadich Grill is the oldest restaurant in San Francisco. Sure, it's changed names and moved around a few times (who hasn't?). It's been in the same family since 1913. The tag "The Original Cold Day Restaurant" is not because of the hot coffee and hearty soups, but from the ballsy slogan of a failed politician back in 1882. This place has serious history. And a serious following. A long bar runs the length of one side of the restaurant, and everyone obediently lines up against the wall for the anticipated 45-minute wait for a table. I run upstairs to wash up, then take a leisurely stroll around the restaurant, and who should I run into but Marian and Vivian, "The Twins."


The next thing you know, I'm sitting at their table and they are regaling me with stories about their lives in the midwest, warning me against marriage and giving me lots of vague advice with finger-waggling emphasis, like, "Only you can sink your own ship." When our table is finally ready, my husband is not in the least bit surprised to find me sitting with someone else, not after he sees the twins.

Once we had our table, service was swift and super-efficient. Our waiter, who had a heavy accent of indeterminate origin, managed to keep things humming without rushing us at all. I was jealous of the diners who had the luck and large enough groups to sit in the old-fashioned cubicle-like wooden booths. I usually only see those in Chinatown. I started with a crab cocktail, as clean and refreshing as any other. The cocktail sauce was mild, with no discernible trace of horseradish. By the time I finished the crab cocktail, my soup had been sitting at my elbow for about five minutes. The waiter offered to bring me a fresh bowl. When I finally figured out what he was saying, I was so impressed with him that I touched his arm tenderly, which probably freaked him out a little. The clam chowder was exactly what I was looking for - the quintissential flavors of San Francisco.

Although I knew it was madness, I couldn't stop myself and ordered the cioppino. Soup with soup. The waiter raised an eyebrow, but put the order in. I always remember my brother Greg's story about the Italian fishermen sharing a communal pot and telling each other "chip-in" "chip-in-oh" The Italian accent was so bad, it took me a long time to finally believe there was any truth to that legend. My cioppino arrived with a big hunk of garlic bread for dipping. The fish was rich with the taste of the sea, and the shrimp and scallops were delicate. On my third course, not including the sourdough bread, there was no way I could finish it. But I did manage to pick out the best chunks.

When we arrived back at my brother's for the night, he asked how dinner was. "Did you have clam chowder?"


"Was your waiter from somewhere mysterious, like Croatia?"


"And you met The Twins?"

(To be continued...)

Sear's Fine Food 439 Powell Street SF 94102 (415) 986-0700

Educated Palate 88 4th Street SF 94103 (415) 267-6512

Vino Venue 686 Mission Street SF 94105 (415) 341-1930

John's Grill 63 Ellis St. SF 94102 (415) 986-0069

B Restaurant and Bar 720 Howard St SF 94107 (415) 495-9800

Tadich Grill 240 California Street SF (415) 391-1849