But as the weeks wore on, my plan changed. I knew what I wanted to have -- no, needed to have -- as my first restaurant meal when I got home: a thick charcoal-grilled steak and a baked potato.
Not that I couldn't have found something approximating that on my travels. The numerous McDonald's dotting the landscape (some with signs in Cyrillic, but most just reading "McDonald's") have been joined by T.G.I. Friday's, and there's a Hard Rock Cafe on Old Arbat Street in Moscow, steps away from the Literary Cafe frequented by Mayakovski and Yesenin in the 1920s. Hell, sitting on the Parisian-feeling terrace of a small but cosmopolitan Georgian restaurant in Kiev, I read the following entry: "American Steak." And now, a week later and 6,000 miles away, I think it might have been interesting to find out what their idea of an American steak was, but I ordered chicken livers and onions and chicken on the bone sautéed with an amazing quantity of minced garlic, and was certain I had stumbled upon one of the best restaurants in Kiev.
Back in San Francisco, I wanted an old-fashioned steak dinner, so I chose Alfred's Steak House, in business since 1928. I enlisted my parents as companions: They were willing, even though my mother is convinced that my father is evolving into a vegetarian (this is because, when she asks him what he feels like for dinner, he'll sometimes answer, "A vegetable stir-fry," thinking he's requesting a nice simple dish, not realizing how much more work slicing and dicing a number of vegetables is, as compared to throwing a chop in a pan or sticking a chicken in the oven). As we drove across the bay, my father was unsure if he'd ever been to Alfred's before. "Is it on Broadway, near Van Ness?" he asked, and I said no, it's on a little alley off Kearny: "It's been there forever," I said, blithely. "When we moved to San Francisco, it had been here forever," Dad said, dryly.
"Forever," at the Merchant Street address, turned out to be eight years, when Alfred's had moved from the Broadway location that Dad remembered, however vaguely (it was perched on top of the Broadway Tunnel). Doris Muscatine, in her 1963 A Cook's Tour of San Francisco, says that for years the steakhouse was known as the 886, its address on Broadway. The Alfred of the title was Alfred Bacchini, a veteran of many other San Francisco restaurants. Alfred's birthplace in Cattolica, Italy, explained the presence on the menu of homemade ravioli, as well as the prosciutto mentioned in my 1958 copy of Duncan Hine's Adventures in Good Eating, and the antipasto (or relishes) of olives, peperoni (sic), salami, Italian ham, and stuffed celery cited in the 1937 Eating Around San Francisco, in which the restaurant is still known as 886 Broadway, and its décor is "modernistic": "soft and clean-appearing color scheme of cream and blue ... curtains at the booths are of natural colored burlap ... Venetian blinds add to the up-to-date air."
Venetian blinds and natural-colored burlap might have been up to date in 1937, but today everything old is new again, and Alfred's has gone the well-worn route that often is said to look like a gentleman's club: mirrors, dark wood paneling, plush carpets, red leather upholstery. We're led to a deep, comfy booth toward the back of the main room; my father's eyebrows are raised, almost immediately, by the cutting voices of the fivesome sitting at a round table close to us. "Don't worry, Dad," I say, "it looks like they're on dessert," an observation validated by one woman's loud appraisal of her cappuccino mud pie, which she thinks is delicious. She's so happy she ordered it. I am somewhat less so.
A girlfriend of mine had mentioned how shocked she was that Alfred's offers meat graded Choice rather than Prime, which one usually expects at a classy steakhouse. The restaurant rather cutely tries to confuse the issue, a little, in its description of its meat right at the top of the menu: "Alfred's exclusively uses aged (4 to 6 weeks) primal cuts of specially selected, certified BLACK ANGUS cattle, USDA Choice Grade or higher." Just what is a "primal cut," anyway?
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, after all, and I am excited in anticipation of my main course: the 20-ounce porterhouse ("The Prince") grilled over mesquite charcoal. (It's the smallest of three porterhouses on the menu; "The King" is 32 ounces, "The Kingdom" is 60 ounces -- and a discreet "1 hour" after its name on the menu lets you know how long it'll take to cook, though the number it could feed would be more useful.)
Merely as a delaying tactic, I've ordered a Caesar salad (when friends asked if I was hungry for salads after my Eastern European sojourn, I was surprised: There were plenty of chopped salads featuring radishes and onions, and platters of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, everywhere), my father the mixed greens (with Maytag blue cheese for an additional $2.50), and my mom the oysters Rockefeller ($2 each, minimum order four). I love a good Caesar salad, and this one, quite huge, does include chunks of romaine, garlic, croutons, even flecks of anchovies, but somehow it doesn't sing. My dad's salad is much better: an equally huge portion of salad greens, helped out a lot by the tangy cheese. The first oyster topped with chopped spinach that my mom tastes leaves her looking distressed. I stick my fork in to find a mushy, slightly off oyster, which is unpleasant enough; so it's only later, when my critical faculties kick in, that I wonder why there was no flavor of Pernod in the spinach.
The waiter swiftly takes away the suspect oysters, and Mom peruses the 14 or so starters, skipping the pickled pig's feet (a menu fixture since 1928) and fettuccine alfredo in favor of escargots, which arrive in their pretty brown shells, spitting hot in a lake of almost clear garlic butter flecked with a little chopped parsley: They're properly plump and tender. We drag chunks of the excellent sourdough through the sauce.
I'm anxious for the main event, huge hunks of rare meat, and when the big oval plates arrive, the steaks are truly beautiful. My father has ordered "Alfred's steak," a 22-ounce New York cut on the bone, charred rare, with french fries and fresh vegetables, tonight a medley of broccoli, zucchini, and carrots, cooked in olive oil with a little garlic. (You get your choice of two sides from a list of six with your entree, unlike many steakhouses, which charge you extra for vegetables. Alfred's is rather reasonable, for a steakhouse.) My massive porterhouse, also black and blue, covers most of the plate (they must have a bigger one for the almost unimaginable 32-ounce porterhouse), and comes with a huge baked potato, sour cream and chopped chives on the side, and creamed spinach.
The first bite of the steaks for Dad and me is pure atavistic, carnivorous bliss -- these are truly great steaks, Choice grade or no -- but when my mom cuts into her 8-ounce petite filet mignon, she's sad: She ordered it medium rare, and it's bright red and rarer than either of our rare steaks. Back it goes to the kitchen. "You're driving me to drink," she tells our friendly waiter, and orders a margarita.
In the meantime, I'm as happy as I wanted to be with this iconic meal. Everything is just as it should be. I mix good butter into the potato, I enjoy the chewy texture and the smoke and the mineral tang of the beef, I fork up satisfying clumps of the creamy chopped spinach.
The filet mignon, once brought to medium rare, disappoints me: I find the texture a little mealy, the flavor a little dull. But we've gotten a sauceboat of buttery béarnaise, bright with tarragon and vinegar, which improves the meat. My mother loves the big homemade ravioli, stuffed with beef, spinach, and Romano cheese, which she's chosen as a side dish.
Even toting home half my meal, I have no room left for dessert. My father savors a cappuccino, and I taste the fried crème (they called it Italian fried cream back in the day, I have no idea why they've fancied up the spelling), which comes in three square unprepossessing breaded chunks and is bathed at table by the server in a cascade of pretty blue flames of apricot-flavored brandy. "I wonder if it's as good as the fried cream was at Ernie's," my father muses, and we agree that it isn't -- not as creamy, not as delicate -- but still quite a pleasant (not to mention flashy) sweet.
As we drive home, my father is very content: "A good salad, a terrific steak, good french fries, an excellent cappuccino -- I had a wonderful meal." So did I. This, I think, is just the first of many steaks I'll enjoy at Alfred's.