The Late Edition, Part II
A few weeks ago in Part I of The Late Edition , I set out to find adventure in San Francisco's wee hours. For the most part I was looking for illicit, after-hours drinking establishments. I would have also settled for an opium den. Having no luck in either of those departments, I contented myself with hookah bars, peep shows, and discotheques. Anything was game as long as it didn't revolve around food.
At the time, my thinking was that late night dining was a cop out. Countless small towns and truck stops have at least one all-night diner where getting a cheeseburger or scrambled eggs at 3 a.m. is par for the course. What would make getting a cheeseburger at 3 a.m. any better in San Francisco? I felt let down, disappointed that eating was my only option for entertainment once the clock swept past last call.
Somewhat resigned to this truth, I decided to at least give the city's after-hours restaurants a try. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" has never been a philosophy that I subscribed to, but it seemed the best course of action in this case. Little did I know that late night dining in San Francisco is the adventure.
My first stop was the infamous Sam Wo Restaurant. Tucked into a cluttered stretch of Washington Street, Sam Wo's wouldn't normally rate a second glance. However, at 2:30 in the morning this part of Chinatown looks like a scene from the darkened set of Blade Runner , and Sam Wo’s kitchen is lit up like a hospital emergency room. After two hours of drinking straight bourbon, I walked in and was a little confused to see only a kitchen. Fortunately, there was a man with purplish skin standing by the door pointing toward a rickety staircase in the back.
I came out on a narrow landing. There were about six tables crammed into the small room, several of which were crowded with people slurping noodles and drinking beer out of brown paper bags. Under the pressure of the waitress’s intense scrutiny it was all I could do to order a few staples: won ton soup, pork chow mein, and broccoli with beef. I asked about beer and by way of explaining the restaurant’s BYOB policy, she simply growled, "No beer."
The food arrived via dumbwaiter from the first floor. It was mediocre, but very cheap. Three dishes plus tea and rice came to less than $20, with tip. Not bad for a mostly satisfying pre-dawn excursion.
At this point I would like to go on record to say that I don't really like North Beach. It mostly serves as an irresistible beacon for tourists and tactless douchebags from the suburbs. As such, I usually give the intersection of Broadway and Columbus a wide berth – especially on a Saturday night. But I knew I wanted to eat at Yuet Lee, so I first planted myself at the Buddha Bar, fed a few bucks into the jukebox, and sat back to watch a game of liar's dice being played with relish at the end of the bar.
In pleasant contrast to my previous broad generalizations about North Beach, Buddha is a quiet bar that caters to well-behaved drinkers who seem to live in the area. I was actually enjoying myself and before I knew it several hours had gone by. I slid off the bar stool and made my way up to Yuet Lee.
Among a collage of other handwritten signs is a list of the Top 10 Famous Dishes at Yuet Lee. Number 2 on the list is whole crab with ginger and green onion (#1 is something involving boiled chicken parts). Crab like that sounds delicious on its own merits, but I was starving and those words sounded like poetry to me. I ordered the crab, along with beer and some noodles, then sat back to watch the chaos of a crowded North Beach restaurant on a Saturday night.
Immediately after the waiter took my order, I saw him weaving back across the restaurant with what looked like a bed pan. He climbed up to the crab tank by the front door and pulled a ferocious looking creature out of the brackish water. My dinner.
The crab reappeared shortly thereafter, cooked, cleaned, and covered in some sort of delicious gravy. Huge chunks of ginger swam through the sauce, combined with lots of green onion and garlic. Along with the noodles, it was the best meal I had over the course of this adventure – if not one of the best meals I've ever had, period.
If you are half-drunk, hungry, and looking for something more interesting than drive-thru, your best bet is Grubstake. Built into an old railcar and dropped into the heart of Polk Gulch, Grubstake serves Portuguese-infused diner cuisine in an atmosphere that can only be described as retro-motel-wine-country-inspired-male-street-hustler-campy. The food is excellent, the service is gruff yet friendly, and the clientele is super fucking weird – especially if you stop in between the hours of 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.
On this particular visit I sat across from what could only have been some sort of sex-for-hire deal, although thankfully the particulars of this interaction eluded me. A young Asian kid, no more than 18 or 19 years old, sat inhaling a huge stack of pancakes and drinking soda out of a curly straw. Across from him sat a stereotypically dirty old man, who was literally licking his lips and doing the creepy dirty old man laugh (a sort of staccato "heh heh heh mmmm yes").
Every once in a while he would lean over and pile more butter onto the kid's pancakes and then blow him a kiss. I tried to look away, but that forced me to look at a very poorly realized cross-dresser named Danielle. I know her name because she was talking to a midget and kept loudly referring to herself in the third person.
Having crossed everything else off my list, I set my sights on a place that lives in the folklore of late night restaurants. According to legend, the Silver Crest Donut Shop has never closed. Not once in the 40+ years since it has been open. It is run by an elderly couple who supposedly have a bed in the back where they sleep in shifts while the other one makes donuts and serves diner cuisine to the customers.
Whether or not this is true is irrelevant, because the Silver Crest certainly looks like it has never closed. Walking through the front doors, especially at 3 a.m., feels like stepping across the threshold of a time machine. Nothing has changed since at least the early ’60s – not the paint, not the menu on the wall, not the vintage pinball machines, and most likely not the giant donuts sitting in the glass coffin by the cash register.
The Silver Crest sits on the edge of one of San Francisco's rougher neighborhoods, so I cajoled two friends into joining me there in the middle of the night. We ordered burgers and fries and ate the first part of our meal in silence as we took in the strange atmosphere. We flipped through the tabletop jukebox, reading the sun-faded names of rock ’n’ roll oldies from four decades ago. We quietly stared at the unusually large donuts and the antique arcade games. We exchanged subtle looks with each other that said, "Does this feel as weird to you as it does to me?"
But then the distant rumble of a heavy bass line came to us out of the night. It got louder and louder until a long black Mercedes pulled up alongside the diner windows. The back door opened and four nearly naked young women piled out in a tangle of silver lamé and fishnet stockings. They were followed by a large man dressed in a canary yellow zoot suit with matching fedora. In other words, a very dapper pimp and his four hoes.
They came into the diner and instantly transformed the place into their personal hangout. The pimp kept up a running chatter that enveloped anybody within earshot. "What's happening y'all? What's up? Y'all bitches sit down and order some food. I'm gonna order eggs and toast. What's that on the menu? Snails!?!? Y'all got snails!?!? Sheeeet, I'll eat some snails. Do snails go good with eggs and sausage? Bitch, you talk too damn much. Go sit at the other end of the counter. I'm gonna eat my snails in peace."
The waitress informed him that a snail was actually a cinnamon roll. He ordered one anyway and then added coffee and several glasses of milk. We smiled at the girls, let him know that we appreciated his pimpin', and then slowly backed out of the restaurant.
My trip to the Silver Crest Donut Shop made it official: Late night dining in this city is an adventure. True, San Francisco may not boast a bunch of after-hours clubs. But you have to love a city that offers to cook you a whole crab in the middle of the night. And really, where else can you expect to find a friendly pimp eating sausage and donuts at 3 a.m. in a diner that hasn't closed since the Kennedy administration?
Perhaps I should rethink my whole late night agenda. In fact, from now on when I catch myself at closing time asking about the next party, I will instead ask, "What's for dinner?"
Be sure to check out some of these late night spots, but do so with a backup plan. Many late night restaurants have different hours on weeknights. Grubstake is open until 4 a.m. For better or worse, North Beach also has a few options that are open until at least 3 a.m. If Yuet Lee is closed, you can always check out Sam Wo's. And if Sam Wo's is closed, you can always – ALWAYS – go to the Silver Crest Donut Shop.