"Ame has a new chef," my girlfriend just told me. "You should review it soon."
"Where did you hear that?" I asked.
"Tablehopper," she said.
The routine unfolds at least once a week. A day later, she dropped another morsel from Marcia Gagliardi's weekly e-column in an email with a link to Heart's enticing brunch menu. "Duck scrapple -- sounds good," she wrote. Whenever she has food-related news to share, nine times out of ten, Gagliardi's the source.
I suspect that she is nearly everyone's source, and I wonder why her column has been so successful. She supplies news, reviews, and gossip in one hefty dose every seven days, a slow stream of information by today's media standards; she can't begin to keep up with local food blogs able to post fresh content every few minutes. Likewise, the ubiquity and influence of her weekly missives can't be attributed to content. After all, most food blogs tell you the same stuff much of the time -- who is in, who is out, what is new, and what is hot around the region's food and drink scene. As tidbits of interest get recycled, posted to social networking sites, and otherwise tossed around, slightly varied versions of the same p.r.-planted stories end up peppering the Internet. While she writes entertaining reviews and amuses with her Page 6-like lines on where Hollywood stars and celebrity chefs end up grubbing when they breeze through town, Gagliardi's main strengths are her personality as conveyed through her writing and her organizational prowess. Her columns come to your email inbox, and you read them like you would scan through an email. They're written in an informal, conversational, fun, flirty, personal sort of way. She tells you where she's been -- perhaps a vacation, to Spain or India -- and how she's been -- happy, busy, or sick, maybe -- and lets you know what tasty treats she's uncovered in the past week. She arranges the information she provides clearly and effectively. As you scroll down, each regular section comes tagged with a cute little header. There's a consistent look, appealing feel, and pure readability to it, and that helps define her brand as much as the way she writes.
This week, her brand gets a little bigger and somewhat bolder with the release of her debut book, "The Tablehopper's Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco: Find the Right Spot for Every Occasion." Because there are so many online forums for restaurants and bar recommendations -- like Yelp, Chowhound, and the aforementioned cabal of blogs -- the idea of physically publishing such a book (particularly one so focused in scope) feels like a retro endeavor. Furthermore, as Gagliardi herself lays out in the book, the restaurant business is highly changeable, especially in the midst of a wicked recession. Chefs get new gigs. Places shutter, and others spring up. Pop-up restaurants and mobile food carts are tenuous in the first place. Over the course of a year, the city's food-scape shifts a lot, which is where that weekly e-column comes in handy. The book is a stand-alone summer of 2009 snapshot of one person's favorite places to eat and booze in San Francisco. Will it be useful, even pertinent, in two or three years?
Most popular guidebooks are published by companies with recognizable names internationally trusted for reliability and the rigor with which they dissect a restaurant scene. The brands are expressions of tradition and experience, not personality. Fittingly, their books typically organize the included establishments by neighborhood and cuisine. Gagliardi's tome takes a different path to the glove-box, re-imagining the guidebook form as a funny little pocket concierge that speaks with an enthusiastic, almost antagonistic version of the lively cackle audible in her weekly e-columns. She comes off like a knowing, slightly loud friend reciting a manic monologue. She suggests restaurants based on occasion, not cuisine, effectively organizing her book around why people eat at restaurants -- to celebrate, to romance, to get away, to do business. In town for a convention? Try Waterbar, she advises, noting its "power booths facing the bay" and $20 Bloody Marys. Out on the town with a "Cool (or Bad or Gay) Uncle?" Take him to EPIC Roasthouse for "a variety of options for meaty indulgence, like marrow bones, a porterhouse pork chop, prime rib, and five styles of potatoes," she says, with the authority of someone who has almost certainly done so. She also lists foods folks commonly seek out -- burritos, falafel, dumplings, and chilaquiles -- and includes her favorites. The suggestions appear to spring from the life she has led, and, appropriately, she makes the book personal in every sense, advising readers of eateries catering to customers with special dietary needs, diners with small children, and industry professionals. She tells you where she drank (Dalva) after she lost her last full-time job. She curates business lunches, reconciliatory dinners, quiet nights alone, and tense summits with the in-laws. She wants you to take the information personally, and use it accordingly. In this sense, the book might suit locals more than tourists, new arrivals planning to stay for a while and carve out food-happy routines amongst the city's hills, valleys, parks, and palms. Likewise, framed as such -- a stomach-centric road map for future memories -- it might have a longer life span than your average Zagat.
In assessing this book, you have to talk about Gagliardi's distinctive voice, and style. While those are elements infrequently crucial to the function of conventional guidebooks, here they strike me as inseparable from the content. Gagliardi isn't just peddling her recommendations; she's selling herself, a larger-than-life swashbuckling socialite persona a reader is supposed to find charming, funny, intriguing, and insightful. She dares her audience to flip through the pages for amusement, not just for the practical purpose of finding a good place to eat.
If you take the bait, you might find that persona hard to swallow in hearty helpings. She affects different tones for different topics, channeling a high-fiving keg-tapping dude-yelping frat guy in "For the Fellas" and then a shoe-crazed Sex in the City-aping dame in "For the Ladies." In the world she presents -- surely, hopefully, somewhat facetiously -- dudes like tearing up red meat and chasing cougars ("rawr"), and women enjoy tittering about shoes they saw on sale at Bloomies. In her preamble to the sub-section "Ladies Who Lunch," Gagliardi gets painfully fabulous: "'Ooooh, love the bag.' 'Your hair looks great.' 'He did not say that! What a pig.' 'Another bottle, please.' All that and more. Girl, let's taaaaaalk!" She goes on to recommend Cafe Claude for hot "French-accented garcons," apparently "one of the most important components of a ladies' lunch." Her constant semi-creative enlistment of foreign lingo in entries for Spanish, Mexican, and Italian restaurants is another tedious shtick. She's "an amiga" of the al pastor pork at Taqueria Cancun. Valencia St. cocktails-and-'za spot Beretta has taken off like a "casa on fire." Velvet Cantina's bartenders are "caliente." She's a freewheeling Berlitz gone haywire. She also routinely swings for the fences with punch-lines flimsier than half-frozen phyllo. Of Terzo, Gagliardi writes: "[J]ust in case you're a bad girl, the crispy onions are delicious. . .the look is postmodern, rustic hip, just like your sexy boots." She ruminates on "the newest Hayes Valley (excuse me, 'Zen Valley') location" of Samovar Tea Lounge. I read that and wonder if I should OMG or just LOL. Assuming Gagliardi is a hip, hip lady (like Martha Washington) merely having a good time, the fat layer of formaggio must be an act, a role she is playing, a joke consistently and thoroughly embodied in the interest of toying with guidebook decorum.
Instead of getting a lift from such antics, this book truly succeeds in a strictly practical sense. As someone who loves to eat and earns a little scratch writing about food, I think I know a thing or two about the city's dining scene. Gagliardi knows a lot about the subject, certainly more than I do, and in poring over the pages, my excitement peaks, not when I absorb left-field suggestions I don't anticipate, but when I realize that Gagliardi and I agree about a lot of stuff. We like the same chilaquiles -- vastly different yet equally satisfying variations on the theme at Los Jarritos and Pastores. We both like our burritos toasted on the outside like they're done at Taqueria Castillito near the Safeway on Market and Church. She flips for the spread of dips and pita at Old Jerusalem, and so do I. She recommends La Ciccia's incomparable fregola pasta, and so do I. She likes to get drunk at the Lone Palm, and so do I. These morsels -- our independent shared experiences -- must reveal more about her character than the bad jokes and witticisms flatter than tap water. Regardless of how much fun she had writing it, her book -- clearly designed to be fun -- isn't something I want to curl up with. With tips like these, it doesn't have to be.