Some San Francisco Foodie Truism Nostalgia

I’ve edited this list from an excellent article by Western Neighborhood Project’s Frank Dunnigan (to eliminate non-food truisms). The whole list is interesting, especially if you live west of Twin Peaks. Most of these were still truisms, whether true or not, when I arrived in SF in 1962.

The bread is never fresh on Wednesdays.

Beach Chalet was nothing more than a smoke-filled VFW hall with a bar.

Herman’s on Geary was the best place to go for potato salad.

Baronial Bakery on Taraval Street had the best doughnuts in the Sunset.

Sugar Bowl Bakery on Balboa Street had the best doughnuts in the Richmond.

Adeline on West Portal Avenue had the best Danish pastries in West Portal.

Wirth Brothers on Geary had the best Danish pastries in the Richmond.

Fantasia on California Street had the best cakes in the Richmond.

Golden Brown Bakery on Irving had the best cakes in the Sunset.

QFI at Stonestown had the best meat and produce.

In the 1970s, 22nd & Taraval Market was a full grocery store with an excellent meat department.

In the 1980s, 22nd & Taraval had become an excellent produce-only market.

In the 1990s, 22nd & Taraval had become a Walgreens, with neither meat nor produce.

The best neighborhood Mexican restaurant in the 1950s and 1960s was the Hot House at Playland.

The best take-out Mexican food came from Johnson’s Tamale Grotto on Vicente Street.

The best sit-down Chinese food is still Yet Wah on Clement Street.

The best Chinese restaurant in the Sunset that offered delivery was Tien-Fu on Noriega Street.

The best kosher deli was Gilbert’s on Noriega.

The best Sunset District pizza is still Pirro’s on Taraval.

The best neighborhood Italian food was always West Portal Joe’s or the Gold Mirror on Taraval.

The best hot meatball sandwich was at Herb’s Delicatessen on Taraval (every Thursday).

The best Sunday brunch was at the Cliff House, followed by a walk through Sutro’s.

The best rocky road Easter eggs came from Shaw’s on West Portal or Ocean Avenue.

The best hand-boxed chocolates were from See’s—Downtown, Clement, Irving, West Portal & Stonestown.

The best neighborhood ice cream sundaes were at Blum’s (also Coffee Crunch Cake) in Stonestown.

The grocery coupons and the food section are always printed in the Wednesday newspapers.

Most neighborhood bakeries featured hot cross buns for Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Star Bakery on Church Street was the best place to buy Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day.

Ukraine Bakery on McAllister Street was the best place to buy challah.

Larraburu in the Richmond District made the best French bread.

Liguria Bakery at Stockton and Filbert is still the only place in San Francisco to buy real focaccia.

Williams-Sonoma was a single, tiny downtown store on Sutter Street that sold imported kitchenware.

El Sombrero at 22nd & Geary was the best “dress-up” Mexican restaurant in the 1960s & 1970s.

Le Cyrano on Geary near 6th Avenue was the best French restaurant in the 1970s.

The Red Chimney was a popular local restaurant adjacent to the Emporium in Stonestown.

The Red Roof, with branches on California Street and on Ocean Avenue, was a completely different business, owned by attorney-politician Harold Dobbs who also founded the iconic Mel’s Drive-In.

Zim’s (their motto: “Zim’s—Where Else?”) had the best BROILED hamburgers and thick milkshakes from about 1950-1995 (more than a dozen SF locations during the peak years).

Maison Gourmet inside the QFI Market at Stonestown sold “Pizza Pups”—a slice of cheese pizza wrapped around an all-beef hot dog—for 29 cents back in the early 1960s.

Irish families always celebrate Easter with ham.

Italian families always celebrate Easter with lamb.

Greek families always celebrate Orthodox Easter with goat.

Borden’s delivered most of the milk in the Sunset District in the 1950s.

Sun Valley Dairy on Irving Street was the best place to buy strawberry milk in glass bottles.

2 Likes

I didn’t arrive in the BA till 1982, but I get a lot of them. Thanks!

There was a Zim’s in the Sentinel Buiding (a.k.a. Columbus Tower) where Zoetrope Cafe is today. After Zim’s folded, it was named “Jim’s” for a while and when Francis Ford Coppola bought the building he renamed it “Wim’s” for Wim Wenders, for whom he was producing the film "Hammet.’

1 Like

I wish I could’ve enjoyed Sunday brunch at the old mid-century roadhouse styled Cliff House, before they ruined it in 2003. I missed it by about a decade, I guess…

1 Like

To clarify the first point (no fresh bread on Wednesday), let me plagiarize an old post of my own on Chowhound:

One overlooked factor is the union-busting effort of Bakers of Paris, which opened the way for new bakers that didn’t particularly specialize in sourdough and provided new competition for the traditional bakeries.

Prior to the early 80s, you could not get fresh sourdough bread on Sundays or Wednesdays (and as a rule of thumb many people avoided dining out of those days, so important was the sourdough bread). The reason for this dearth was the Bakery Wagon Drivers and Salesmen’s Union Local 484’s prohibition of delivery on those days, and the bakers went along with it and did not bake on Wednesdays and Sundays.

The union initially intimidated Bakers of Paris from delivering on those days, but some large wholesale accounts were so impressed that they sent their own drivers to the bakery on Sundays and Wednesdays and the era of your daily bread began. The union eventually lifted the delivery prohibition, but by then competition and changing tastes (B of P’s other breads became popular) weakened the grasp of the traditional bakeries.

The fascinating story (including roles played by then Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Boxer) is summarized in this 1984 report.

https://goo.gl/Wg81zL

2 Likes

Thanks - this was fun. We moved to Sausalito in 1963, so I recognized some of these.

That was a fun look back. Have to disagree slightly on a couple of things, though. Came to SF in 1969 and by 1972 settled in the Richmond district where we lived for 17 yrs before leaving for the EBay.

Best Chinese food: never has been, and never will be, Yet Wah. In the '70’s and '80’s families still went to Chinatown, and there were very definitely different menus for Cantonese-speaking groups vs English-only customers. Even today, the Chinese restaurants in the Sunset are better than Yet Wah.

Caucasians and celebrities went to Cecilia Chiang’s Mandarin restaurant. Chinese families went to Golden Pavilion, whose service was the usual Chinatown hurry-up-and-eat and napkins were paper, but the chefs were every bit as good. My mother, who took lessons from Ms. Chiang, would take me to banquets at GP instead, saying there was no point in spending money on fancy service when it didn’t make the food any better. GP’s chef made a Sichuan lamb that has remained in my memory as the most perfect Sichuan dish I’ve ever eaten, bar none. Nothing I’ve had in the intervening years even comes close to that exquisite balance of all seven flavors.

Le Cyrano was an excellent bistro, but it was never the pinnacle of great French cooking. That title belongs only to La Bourgogne, so magnificent a restaurant with its classic French haut cuisine that Alice Waters listed it as her favorite restaurant ever.

A few not mentioned:
Eppler’s made better pastries than Wim’s. Their European-style date bars were classic. I used to stop at their Geary St. store on the way home almost every day.

David’s Delicatessen was the best-known Jewish deli in SF, on Geary St. (Geary doesn’t become a Blvd. until it passes Van Ness, technically) next door to Eppler’s. Big display case of glossy but mediocre pastries in the window, every day. But NOT for bagels - if you wanted bagels, House of Bagels out in the Richmond had the only decent bagels at the time, opening in 1962.

Rathskeller’s on Polk was where one went for gemutlich: hearty German food and beer.

The Blue Fox on Merchant St. held sway for French dining if you wanted to stay downtown. As they liked to say, they served radicchio salad 35 yrs before it became trendy.

Bardelli’s was tired old-style food by 1980, but people went just to see the magnificent stained glass entry panel that stood just back from the doorway. Created by SF’s greatest local stained glass company, United Glass Company, the panel was illuminated at night and lit up by daylight during lunch hours. It remains one of the most beautiful Tiffany imitations done by UGC. UGC also created the stained glass panels in the Sheraton Palace Garden Court, Maxfield’s Bar @the Sheraton Hotel, the Emporium stained glass dome that hangs in Westfield Centre, and the magnificent “Sailing Ship” dome from the old City of Paris, which hangs now in Neiman Marcus/Union Square.

In the early 1980’s Joyce Goldstein opened her wonderful Square One. It was the first true Mediterranean restaurant in SF, based on the recipes of the great food writer Elizabeth David. I had never had an artisanal pizza before (I’m from Chicago) and it was a revelation. I used to walk all the way over to Jackson Square on my lunch hour just to buy one of those individual pizzas.

If I think of more, I’ll add them later. Enjoy!

4 Likes

Oh my, how could I forget - HIPPO BURGER!
Courtesy of a Facebook page set up in remembrance:

There was even a cookbook. Nobody seems to have ever photographed the giant smiling Happy Hippo that was painted on the side of the building next door, however. You could see it when driving south on Van Ness - a giant ad that needed no words. Everybody knew this iconic image.

The Shadows restaurant was fading, like Bardelli’s, by the late '70’s/early '80’s. Sited at the top of Montgomery St. on Telegraph Hill, next to the Filbert Steps, it had a terrific view towards the Bay Bridge to recommend it, but very little else. The cuisine was German, but it was a more formal upscale place than the Rathskeller.

Ernie’s and Vanessi’s, of course, were great restaurants in their day. Sadly, I never got to go to either so can’t speak to their many merits.

China Moon, opened in the '80’s by food writer Barbara Tropp, had many fans. I never went, my mother found her cooking on the greasy side and disdained it. But Ms. Tropp did much to popularize Chinese cooking, especially for those who had no “in” to eat at those Chinatown restaurants where regulars got favored food over tourists.

Vesuvio’s, hangout for the beatniks, known for its bar. Food was unimportant in those days, to the serious_ drinkers!

For lovers of Middle Eastern food, there was only one place to go in the entire Bay Area: Haig & Haig Grocers, in the Richmond district/SF. They had everything, most of which none of us knew what to do with. But it was fascinating to just go in and look.

Freed Teller & Freed Coffee, on Polk St./SF. Predates Peet’s. Where I first learned what good coffee really was, after a childhood of Maxwell House in a metal percolator. My purchases could still be rung up on their classic old brass cash register. The register didn’t have enough numbers to ring up a pound of coffee that cost more than $9.99, and everybody would joke with the staff about when that day would finally come, and the register would have to be retired!

In the mid-'80’s the St. Francis Hotel reopened its Compass Rose bar after it had been boarded up for decades. In perfect condition were the original, magnificent double-height ceiling and walls, completely paneled in old-growth dark-stained wood. A new club-style decor was installed, all quiet carpeting, luxuriously comfortable club chairs circling around tables where you chose your preferred Russian caviar, toppings, and real buckwheat blini from a cart that circled the room. Only champagne and cocktails were served. It was SF’s first champagne and caviar bar, and far ahead of its time. It would probably be a runaway hit now; in those days I don’t ever remember seeing more five or six tables occupied, mostly all two-tops like ours.

My aunt came to visit us and we stopped in at the Compass Rose for a pre-dinner glass of champagne and some caviar (both her favorites). We ended up canceling our dinner reservation at The Caravansary (another lost gem of great, moderately priced Middle Eastern food), and stayed at the Rose until we closed it down. An entire evening of Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc washing down Russian Sevruga - woohoo!

Incidentally, I have never and WILL NEVER forgive Michael Mina for whitewashing all the wood in the Compass Rose when he took the space over. It was a sin then and a worse sin now. Go into Maxfield’s at the Sheraton and look at that paneling - it was even more beautiful in the Compass Rose, with its Corinthian half-pillars carved from the same wood. It would cost a staggering amount to replicate such old-growth paneling today.

And so ends my Part 2!

4 Likes

Mention of The Shadows reminded me of Julius’ Castle. I remember taking an elevator from street level to get up to the restaurant, or was that The Shadows?

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold