Taking It Outside
My mom calls to tell me about one of her favorite subjects: where and what she’s going to eat. She’s heading to an outdoor restaurant on the grass in Honolulu, so I know, without asking her, that the weather is perfect. It’s almost too fitting to be getting this call, since I’m in the midst of writing about alfresco dining in San Francisco. I guess it’s not much of a secret of where I inherited this obsession.
I have old school friends visiting, I explain to my mom, and I’m currently in the process of picking out some spots where I’m going to take them to eat. Román and Alex are two college chums – don’t think beer bongs and frat parties, we were liberal arts co-op buddies. The three of us have spent hours eating together, using hand symbols to discuss food policy, and cooking with, or for, one another.
Our college co-op was called Keep, and it was housed in a white and brown Ohio home with a great big, old brick porch, where we dined outside the few times we could at the beginning and end of the school year. Waiting for seasons was so very different than growing up in Hawai’i, where I could eat outside whenever, that I grew a new appreciation.
In the process of picking our alfresco restaurants, I decide on two criteria: Less than $15 per meal (we might be out of college, but we’re all still pretty broke) and sui generis spots, which include a waterfront view, a sculpture garden, and an urban playground.
The thing is, this is San Francisco – a place that is cold during summer and that rarely ever gets all that warm. Alfresco in San Francisco means layers. My mom playfully teases me for taking on this challenge, but I was ready, despite rain, shine or wind, to prove that this city has got all the dinette-meets-nature I want.
It’s a foreboding, overcast day when I peer out my windows, but I’m determined to take my visitors on my outdoors-dining quest. As we walk along the crest of Embarcadero toward Pier 30 where Red's Java House awaits us, the weather turns out not to be that chilly, but is almost balmy.
The shack-shaped building stands alone in the midst of a parking-lot sea of cars. The dive is filled with gray-haired, bearded, tubby, grubby men sitting on red-cushioned barstools at tall tables. You know they eat here every day. The greasy double cheeseburgers and fish and chips that they are gorging on give us a visual clue for what we have in store. The walls are lined with B&W posters featuring iconic scenes from old Hollywood hits, like Casablanca, or from San Fran’s history, like the ever-loved Willie Mays at bat.
When we approach the counter, which stands in front of the kitchen and grill, we see a sign asking, “Who played the original TV Superman?”
We guess: “Dean Cain.”
“Isn’t it something-else Reeves?”
Later, I look up the answer: George Reeves. If we had answered correctly, we would’ve gotten a free soda or fries. Between the three of us we order two veggie burgers, two orders of French fries, a burger, and coleslaw, which came out to less than $15 total, so the loss of a freebie was no biggie. We are handed a number and then meander through the restaurant to the back patio.
Outside we see seagulls and smell the salty sea mixed with scents of the past – steel mills, shipyards, and fisheries. Looking across the San Francisco Bay transports you farther than Red's Java House, making this a last-meal-before-execution destination. On the patio, there are several tables, plastic chairs, and umbrellas for shade. Our table neighbor has a beautiful, satiny black lab that we befriend, pet, and play with, until our numbers are called to grab our grinds.This is a no-frills joint, which literally translates to no lettuce and no tomatoes. We reap onions, mustard, ketchup, and patty on a toasted baguette with scrumptious fries that we dip in ketchup, as we try to guess what we are looking at across the water.
The air is misting while I wait in Golden Gate Park, in a circular garden that lies between the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum, for Román and Alex to meet me. Today, we are going to check out the De Young Café. Okay, I know it might sound weird to think of a museum café as a destination spot, but we have valid reasons: My visitors want to go to the Academy of Sciences, which is across the way from the de Young; I want to show them the de Young’s observation deck, which has a 360-degree view of San Francisco; and I know that the café has an alfresco area. Plus, my roomie just got a job there and verified that the food is good.
Due to the mist, I am a little worried that it is going to feel like eating in a shower, but we are committed. Entering the museum, we walk through to the cafe (you don’t have to pay for admission to the museum if you are only eating), and are ushered by a hostess with menus and a big smile to an enclosed patio. It is outdoors, but sealed off from the mist with plastic zip-up walls and roof. My roommate says it makes him feel like Pauly Shore in Bio-Dome.
We find a table looking out at the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden filled with large glazed ceramic upside-down apples and bronze deformed conversing figures. I decide to keep the sandwich theme going – or “Les Sandwiches,” as they are called at the café, since the museum's special exhibit is on Impressionism, and all the food is vaguely French. I order the summer vegetable and Comte cheese half-sandwich with French onion soup ($12.50). The soup was hot and not too heavy, sprinkled with Gruyere cheese, which hit the spot on this foggy day. My college buddies order full sandwiches, the Chicken Au Poivre ($11.50) and Aup’tit Cochon Santé ($11.50), which came with sides of orzo and Dijon potato salad respectively. Stamps of approval came from all around – yummy, savory, zesty.
Although most people – and let me tell you, everyone was there: Swedish families, Chinese couples, New Englanders, plus a few San Franciscans like me taking their visitors out – were here for the museum first, but we agreed it could easily be the other away around. Plus there was still more to see for free. After eating we ambled through the sculpture garden and then proceeded up to the observation deck where we once again played a game of guess what we we’re looking at.
The day of our Mojo Bicycle Café trip it is really raining. This is not mist, this is not gray, this is fogged-in bullshit. But we are eating outside, we decide, nonetheless.
All the sandwiches are in the six to eight dollar range. They serve the biggest salad I’ve ever seen, but I was on this sandwich kick so I got the Pesto, which is filled with mozz, tomato, and of course, pesto made out of basil from their neighbors at Plant It Earth – on either sourdough or sweet roll. I can’t choose, so I defer to the biker boy behind the counter, who decrees that pesto is better with sourdough.
Mojo has an outside sidewalk dining area along Divisadero Street, but I’m here for the “urban garden” in the back, behind the bike shop. This oasis is filled with succulents that spring from a giant-size cup-and-saucer, about-to-bloom birds-of-paradise, spiraling brick walkways, and ashtrays ready to be used. There’s a large picnic table off to the side plus three smaller tables, but none of them are in use today because it really is just too cold and wet. We chicken out after a few bites and take cover inside.
The Pesto is messy (I use at least eight napkins), but it hit the spot, balanced well with a straightforward side salad (the other choice was chips). Alex and Román get Le Marocain, packed tight with turkey slices, cukes, roasted peppers, lettuce, cheese, and a harissa aioli, and the Croque-Mojo with ham, béchamel, and Gruyere on a toasted baguette.
The adjacent bike shop reminds me of Keep’s bike co-op, which is beneath the dining hall, and which is always filled with tandem bikes, unicycles, or something under construction. But Mojo isn’t only for bike brats; there is a pair near us having a business meeting on social media, two girlfriends and their toddler, and some other recent college grads.
A barista sporting flannel and plugs in his ears blasts local psych-rockers Sleepy Sun as we’re being told by another Mojo staffer about how the parks commission helped them get the expanded sidewalk for public seating out in front (otherwise there’d be two parking spots there) and that they are working on getting a license so people can drink in the parklet (they already have one for the back.) Schmoozing and enjoying the space, we order the white-wine sangria, which is sweet and lovely, filled with fruit. It will make that walk home in the cold all the more warm.
Before a Giant’s game head down to Red's Java House and grab a beer and a bite to eat while you watch the seagulls soar over the shoreline. Head to the de Young Café before a visit to the museum (or just for the food) and eat meals themed for its current exhibit. After you explore Mojo’s urban garden, get your bike fixed or buy that helmet you've always wanted. Enjoy the outdoors!