Refugee Camp Restaurant, 1906. Photo credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Christmas in San Francisco, and what's on the menu? Sweetbreads. Squab. Canvasback duck. Cardoons, flageolet beans, porcini mushrooms. A choice of German or California asparagus.
And let us not forget the oysters, lots and lots of oysters, or the sand dabs, frogs' legs, and Sacramento River salmon.
Such would have been your choices on December 25, 1910 at the Palace Hotel on Market Street, just a few years after the City's most devastating earthquake. At the Fairmont Hotel, on an ordinary evening in May 1908, the evening's menu was almost as elegant: East Coast blue point oysters, filet of striped bass, new potatoes, sweetbreads and squab, French peas, salad, ice cream, fancy cakes, and cafe noir.
Anyone thinking that a California cuisine didn't exist until Wolfgang Puck put smoked salmon on a pizza (or Alice dropped goat cheese on a salad) should head over to the San Francisco Main Library and get a mouth-watering education at San Francisco Eats, a delectably entertaining exhibit of historic menus, photographs, and other restaurant ephemera (matchboxes! matchbooks!) on display now through March 20, 2011.
Curated by Sheila Himmel, a longtime restaurant critic with the San Jose Mercury News, in conjunction with Lisa Vestal, the library's head curator, the exhibit pulled most of its items from the library's own San Francisco History and Historical Photograph Collections, with additional materials from restauranteur Pat Kuleto, the Cliff House, and the Alice Statler Library at City College, among others.
Being a former restaurant critic myself, I would have loved to have learned more about how the City's restaurant scene developed over the past century. Alas for restaurant geeks and city-history buffs, the commentary is limited to a paragraph or two on cards below each display case, along with a general introduction on the wall. (However, there is a great quote from Alice B. Toklas about the mad gustatory delights she and Gertrude enjoyed while dining out in the City.)
Still, there are small gems to be had: how lower Polk Street was known as "Polkstrasse" during the early half of the 20th century, thanks to its concentration of German restaurants and beer halls, or how pig's feet and lamb kidneys were common items, and how you could find both, along with Grape Nuts cereal, codfish in cream, and green tea, on the breakfast menu of the Clift Hotel, circa 1915.
Not all the menus are dated, but the bulk of them seem to date from the 1940s through the 60s, leading to much nostalgia on the part of the crowd on the exhibit's opening day. Blum's, the Magic Pan, Alfred's Steakhouse, Ernie's, Le Club, Le Trianon: you could see the years of shined shoes, hats and gloves, lipstick and martinis unspooling in memory.
Menus were big back then, tall and imposing. Open one and it covered your plate. A tassel might be involved, and a foreign language, probably French. A fancy night out meant this thing called Continental Cuisine, mixed up from a little French, a little Italian, maybe a dash of Spanish. Turtle soup, wine sauces, flaming desserts. Even restaurants that weren't exclusively French, like Masa's, often wrote their menus in French, connoting serious gastronomy (and perhaps, justifying their prices with a touch of Parisian glamor).
But what the exhibit shows most definitely is that San Francisco has always been an eating town, with something for everyone. There were chop-suey joints and elegant Chinese banquet halls, grab-and-go taquerias and gringo-ized Mexican places with singing senoritas, posh hotels and tiki lounges (sometimes in the same place), the Old Poodle Dog and the Koffee Kup.
It's interesting, of course, to compare prices, especially among the few contemporary menus; in 1997, an order of shaking beef (bo lu lac) at the Slanted Door cost $10.50; in 2010, it's $32.
Some places remain the same, even after decades of dishing up. Tadich's, Sears, the Cinderella Bakery, Zuni, even the Hayes Street Grill. Other places define a moment, then fade away.
During my decade as a critic, I probably ate in hundreds of restaurants all around the Bay Area. Only a few now-gone places still glow in recollection, the spots that made you feel like you were smack-dab in the exciting middle of things. Do I miss the actual place, or who we all were there, at that vibration in time? Still, it was easy to agree with chef and Bay Cafe host Joey Altman, during in a short panel discussion moderated by Himmel.
Asked about San Francisco restaurant trends then and now, Altman pointed out, a little wistfully, that the City still has nothing to equal Stars in its splashy, 1980s, Jeremiah-Tower heyday, when Altman was a young chef in the kitchen.
"Stars was incredibly relevant for the dining scene then. There's no one 'holding court' anymore like Jeremiah did. My friends and I, we'll still say, 'I wish there was a Stars to go to.' "
The San Francisco Eats exhibit is on display at the San Francisco Main Library in the Jewett Gallery on the Lower Level and in the Skylight Gallery on the Sixth Floor through March 20, 2011.
Trader Vics Restaurant, circa 1950. Photo credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library