Recently I was hiding in the corner of a nondescript burrito joint, alternating between cramming carnitas into my face and wiping my mouth with my sleeve when I was suddenly awash with happiness. My lunch was delicious, inexpensive, and served without a side of pretension. Perhaps most importantly – I hadn’t hung around self-consciously in a sea of jauntily-dressed foodies while waiting for my meal or for a table.
I love to eat, and to eat adventurously, but I get tired of the pomp and culinary circumstance that often seasons the San Francisco dining experience. Fuck. I get tired of the phrase “dining experience.” I can’t tell if it’s because I’m annoyed by complicated menus, or because of the surgical scrutiny to which people subject them. I once overheard five 20-somethings grill a server endlessly about the levels of sulfides in the organic Grenache. They ordered a single glass to split among them, and ended up sending it back because one dude didn’t like the way it brought out the ashiness of the cheese that topped his gluten-free flatbread.
I resisted the urge to stab each of these assholes in the clavicle with my salad fork. Barely.
But the whole situation reminded me just how much I relish an easy meal. Dining off the eaten path at a low-fuss restaurant is, for me, far more satisfying than scrambling for a table at Gastropub Du Jour or scratching my head at the complicated components in trendily deconstructed cuisine. Sure, that stuff’s fun sometimes, but give me one of these “screw the foodies” spots anytime.
Reminiscent of the set of a B-52s video, this cozy and kooky place feels like a beach bum’s backyard clubhouse – complete with a corrugated metal ceiling, chalkboards, and twinkle lights. Wine comes in glass carafes, perfectly al dente pasta comes in saucy, cheese-capped mountains. The hand-drawn menu at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack is simple and satisfying. It changes every season but always includes that good ole go-to trio of crisp Caesar salad, buttery garlic bread, and spaghetti and meatballs with homemade marinara. I’m still dreaming and drooling about a dish from several menus ago – tender ribbons of pasta entwined with Swiss chard and almonds. Swoon.
I must have driven past The Old Clam House about a billion times before finally venturing inside to check out what’s billed as “San Francisco’s oldest restaurant in the same location.” Open in the not-yet gentrified part of Bayview/Hunters Point since 1861 (with the same old-timey façade that still advertises “North Star and Milwaukee Steam Beer”), the Old Clam House immediately smelled like home to this New England girl. Every meal kicks off with bread and a shot of warm clam juice. For drinking? Dipping? Who knows? I dipped. I loved. Then I followed up with a pile of juicy mussels and shrimp that were roasted in an iron skillet, and a fragrant bowl of cioppino. And then I cried, because the meal made me nostalgic for the seafood suppers my mom cooks after family days at the beach. And because I’d had two glasses of wine and a French lemonade cocktail.
Across the street from the Old Clam House, time stands still inside of Silver Crest Donut Shop, Restaurant, and Bar. It’s open 24 hours a day, every day. You will never, ever be served precious nonsense that’s glazed with sustainable bacon-flavored angel tears. And bless them for it. The donuts here are gigantic and sugary and perfect for late nights or early mornings. Countertops are that faded electric mint color that so typifies old-school diners. The jukebox is endearingly shitty. The people who work here are brisk but kind, and the people who hang out here are just regular folks. Silver Crest is the kind of place you would have gone to with your grandfather on a Saturday morning, nibbling wide-eyed on a coconut-strewn pastry while Papa sipped strong coffee and chatted about the ponies.
Ever been so blown away by what you’re eating that you start swearing at it? I’m known to grunt, “Aw, fuck” through a mouthful of something particularly delicious. The brisket and liver sandwich at Paulie’s Pickling is so goddamned fantastic that we’re pretty much in an abusive relationship. I just get so mad at it because the meat is so toothsome and tender and the liver is creamy and it’s all smothered with homemade red cabbage slaw. Homemade pickled jalapeños and cheddar melted onto crusty bread is another favorite of mine. If you don’t accessorize any sandwich with a giant garlic and dill pickle, you’re a giant dummy. Paulie’s shares space in a sort of culinary collective – a single storefront that’s home to several small businesses. Walk inside, walk straight to the back, and get ready to start cursing up a storm.
The mere thought of North Beach after dark can be enough to send me spiraling into toddler mode. No crowds, no! Tourists yuckies! Only the prospect of Belgian beer can seduce me out of a tantrum. Especially Belgian beer that’s served in what feels like a brick-studded grotto. Downstairs at La Trappe you’ll find a beer menu that’s as thick as a large-print novel and frites that are perfectly crisp on the outside, orgasmically velvet on the inside. There are nearly a dozen dipping sauces to choose from, because why not? I always get a giant plate of mussels – sometimes in a spicy tomato sauce, sometimes in a dark ale reduction, sometimes in a simple bath of garlic and white wine. Washed down with a craft brew or five, of course.
I am a major whore for dumplings. Tease me with a savory dollop of filling that’s wrapped in a pretty package and I will do just about anything. I’m sure there’s something Freudian at work there. Anyway, a few years ago I spent the summer in China and ever since then I’ve been obsessed with finding the perfect state-side ratio of meat to veg to aromatic to dough. So far in SF, my favorite finds are the pork dumplings with green chives and the xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings) at Kingdom of Dumpling. This Parkside hole-in–the-wall is just about the size of a grain of rice. I broke my own rule and waited for a table outside, nose pressed against the front window like a creepy Dickensian street urchin. But I felt OK about it because the place was packed with families and people who, like me, favored yoga pants and natural-looking haircuts. The dumplings are cheap and fast and fucking fantastic. Insert swearing here. A side of seaweed salad was more substantial than I expected; gelatinous oblong green cubes that looked like they’d been pushed through one of those old Playdough plastic-shaping machines. I was transported back to Beijing in a single bite.
Avoid the foodie frenzy at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack (18 Virginia Avenue), The Old Clam House (299 Bayshore Boulevard), Silver Crest Donut Shop (340 Bayshore Boulevard), Paulie’s Pickling (331 Cortland Street), La Trappe (800 Greenwich Street), and Kingdom of Dumpling (1713 Taraval Street).