"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.