I sit there sipping my Red Hook draft, thinking that even though I left the East Coast more than 20 years ago, this is the sort of thing that brings out the sarcastic New Yorker in me. But I swallow hard and inquire whether red meat is also on the verboten list, reminding her ever so gently that, after all, we are sitting in a place that has a sign outside proclaiming "Best burgers in town."
"Only poultry and beer. This place is really smoky."
On the smoke issue, she is right. But what did she expect from a joint that has a Newport cigarette sign on the side of the building?
Frankie's Bohemian Cafe is not your mineral-water-sun-dried-health-club-extension kind of place. People smoke here. They drink beer. They shout "aaaayy" to their friends when they come in, crowding eight chairs around a table for four. They eat huge burgers with french fries and big bowls of pasta. And they're all having a really good time.
So there's nothing subtle about Frankie's. Including the screaming red exterior and inside walls, gold-starred blue ceiling, sports on TV, and Rolling Stones blaring above the cacophony of the twenty-to-thirtysomething crowd.
That straightforward, unpretentious attitude is also reflected on the menu. Nine kinds of burgers, including variations on the basic beef (with cheese; grilled mushrooms; or minced garlic, basil, and feta), chicken, turkey, swordfish, and veggie burgers, plus one with Canadian bacon and cheese. All $6.95 or $7.95 and served with fries.
The house specialty is brambory, a pizza-size pancake made of shredded potato and zucchini, baked and smothered with a variety of toppings, among them Mexican (avocado, sour cream, chopped tomato, and melted cheese); bohemian (grilled tiger shrimp, mushrooms, and mozzarella); and Texas border (grilled beef with melted cheese, sour cream, and jalape–o). Brambory go for $7.95 or $9.95, depending on the toppings.
Also on the menu are a number of soups and salads, four kinds of pasta, a barbecued half chicken ($7.95), a 16-ounce T-bone ($9.95), and shrimp gumbo ($9.95). On the specials list are grilled red snapper and vegetarian pasta (both $7.95), plus all the chicken wings you can eat ($6.95). Something for everyone.
You can choose from 10 draft beers, including Pilsner Urquell, Newcastle, Red Hook, and Pyramid Wheat. A 23-ounce glass (about a pint and a half) sets you back only $3.75, which is undoubtedly what brings in the crowds.
Before we order, the waiter brings a basket of dense, chewy wheat bread ($3.45) and a bowl of olive oil with a mound of minced garlic in the center. Nothing subtle indeed.
We start with the dinner salad ($3.45), a sizable (I'm running out of synonyms for "big" here) bowl of green leaf lettuce, green pepper and onion rings, artichoke hearts, black olive, and chunks of tomato. It could easily feed two. The Italian dressing is too sweet; straight oil and vinegar would have been better.
We move on to the Italian brambory ($7.95), topped with grilled mushrooms and tomato, fresh basil, feta cheese, pesto, and mozzarella. We wonder how to eat this goopy mess. You can't easily pick it up, because the "pancake" breaks. And it's impossible to cut through the melted cheese and big pieces of tomato and mushroom without rearranging the whole thing into a mushy pile. We settle on picking out the veggies with our forks, then folding and rolling and stuffing it in, sort of the stoned college sophomore approach. Actually, once you lose your inhibitions and get into it, the brambory is pretty good in that everything-but-the-kitchen-sink way.
I decide on a cheddar Smile burger, an annoying name for a cheeseburger ($6.95). It comes on a paper plate atop a wicker holder and is, as advertised, a classic: a homemade yeasty bun, a pound and a half of ground beef, cooked rare as requested. The fries, which the menu tells us to "specify extra crispy" are not, but nothing shabby all the same.
Rose makes a mistake with the swordfish steak ($9.95) grilled with garlic and served with risotto and cheese. It's simply an inferior piece of fish that wouldn't taste good no matter how you cooked it. The risotto tastes soggy rather than creamy, making us wonder if the kitchen used the arborio rice essential to a successful risotto.
The place gets louder as the evening wears on, huge beer steins adding up on the tables. People keep piling in, greeting friends, ordering beers. Frankie's is one of the few places I've seen in San Francisco where people actually table-hop. I wonder if we've stumbled into some sort of reunion because they all seem to know one another. No, a woman sitting nearby tells me. It's just a hangout.
On the way out, we meet owner Frankie Pazderka, who tells us he's really from Bohemia (Czech Republic) and he also owns the Divisadero Ale House, the bar two doors down. (And no, there's no relationship to Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe in North Beach.) Who would have guessed that 40 years after the Beats, the bohemian formula is still alive and well in the city?
Frankie's Bohemian Cafe, 1862 Divisadero, S.F., 921-4725. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.