The diner may be America's most iconic American restaurant, but in San Francisco, diners are rare and largely stylized. Mel's Drive-In, Art's Cafe, and Joe's Cable Car definitely have a following, but this city also has another kind of diner: the homestyle Cantonese restaurant. Tuna melts aren't half as easy to find in San Francisco as oxtail hot pot and beef-tomato chow mein, especially if you live in the Avenues or in the northeast part of the city.
This week's full-length restaurant review of Capital Restaurant is a by-product of Rice Plate Journal, the block-by-block survey of Chinatown restaurants I embarked on last month. As I was asking around, looking for spots that typified Chinatown's many modest, family-run restaurants, several of the people I talked to mentioned Capital Restaurant. So I decided to spend a little extra time there.
It's a charming place, which could date back to 1992 or 1957 -- the current owner has no idea how long it's been there -- and everything I ordered off the wall (the menu's not half as interesting) had simple but nicely balanced flavors: Fresh greens sautéed with garlic or preserved tofu. Hot pots flavored discreetly with soy and ginger. Oyster omelets and crispy egg tofu smothered in meat sauce.
Almost everything on my table was probably on the table in dozens of apartments above and around me. Which is pretty much why most Americans go to diners, anyway. Sometimes nothing-special good food is what we crave the most.