"So, where are you folks from?" the Hawaiian-shirted skipper asks when he unlocks the gate to the dock on Pier 39 that leads to your dinner destination. You fight your resentment at being mistaken for a tourist as you board a small ferry already occupied by several out-of-towners. After all, why else would you descend into the beating heart of Fisherman's Wharf for dinner on a Thursday night? Soon the ferry backs away from the dock and begins its five-minute jaunt across the marina to the kitschy floating restaurant Forbes Island.
When you step off the ferry, you realize that "island" is a bit of a misnomer — the structure that houses the restaurant and its grounds is more a large boat, lashed to nearby Pier 41 like a barnacle. But semantics don't really matter. Short as it was, the ferry ride has done its work. You feel separated from the city, even if it's by just a few feet. To get back to your regular life now you'd have to swim.
Forbes Island was built by the ferry's offbeat skipper, Forbes Thor Kiddoo. It started life in the early '80s as a Marin houseboat, then became a floating hotel, and, finally, a restaurant. Kiddoo gives you and your fellow passengers a brief tour of the main attractions (a Tiki bar waterfall, a 40-foot lighthouse, a sadly decrepit goldfish pond, a ship's wheel from a boat that went around Cape Horn 17 times), then heads back to the ferry after dropping you off in the hull's main dining room.
You can ask to be seated now and start eating. But it's better to get a drink at the small bar — something simple, a gin and tonic or a glass of wine; this is not the place to get ambitious — and take it to deck chairs under swaying palm trees, or even up the winding staircase to the top of the lighthouse. Watch dusk come over the city: the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Building, the soft white buildings of North Beach and Russian Hill. Admire this beautiful corner of the world you're lucky enough to live in. Post an Instagram. Stay until the wind picks up or you can no longer stand the barks and huffs of the sea lions across the marina.
Then head back down the steep, wood-walled staircase, under the waterfall that cascaded into a hot tub in the days when the Island was featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Those days are well behind it now. The main dining room, taking up most of the boat's belly, isn't as tacky as you expected, but that's not saying much. Tudor-style walls that aren't covered with oil paintings of seascapes are adorned with crossed swords and dusty, old-fashioned pistols. A few walls are mirrored, creating a disorienting funhouse effect. The few portholes are murky, and it's impossible to tell how far underwater you are, if at all. The boat rocks gently on the waves of the bay, so gently at first that you wonder if you're imagining it.
Despite the restaurant's obvious nautical theme, there are only two seafood entrees on the menu: an organic Canadian salmon fillet for $38, and a fish of the day, which turns out to be a lackluster $39 plate of petrale sole. You skip the tuna poke and seafood chowder appetizers in favor of an overdressed Caesar salad, and regret it. In general, the restaurant doesn't seem to have changed its playbook since it opened in 1999. Dishes are garnished with two chives, crossed just so, or sauce curlicues from squeeze bottles. There is a chocolate martini on the dessert menu, and ordering one is as bad an idea as it was a decade ago. The usual Bay Area culinary mandates — local, seasonal, organic, sustainable — don't seem to have made the journey from shore. Your braised short rib entree comes with a mound of roasted butternut squash. Squash in July? you sneer, and are a little amazed by your own snobbery.
After your meal — and a necessary detour to gawk at the gloriously extravagant former stateroom attached to the women's bathroom — you head back up to the surface. The rocking of the boat and the claustrophobia of the dining room have not entirely agreed with you, and it's nice to be out in the evening air. You go back up the lighthouse and watch the Bay Lights dance on the bridge and the lonely beacon blink from Alcatraz. It is an excellent place for canoodling.
On the ferry ride back you get to talking with your fellow passengers, visitors from the Midwest who say they thoroughly enjoyed their experience on the Island. One ordered the lamb lollipops with edamame succotash. He is considered the adventurer in his group. Earlier, during dinner, you had lamented the better experience obtainable elsewhere for the money you spent tonight — the meal you could have had at a place like Bar Tartine, Cotogna, Namu Gaji, State Bird Provisions! — but now you realize that many who come to San Francisco aren't looking for that kind of culinary challenge. Not everyone wants their dinner to be a dare; some just want a journey, however short.
The ferry docks and you head toward the Embarcadero and a taxi as the rest of the passengers amble down the pier to take one more look at the sea lions. You try to picture the city they're seeing, the mental images they'll take back with them to the Midwest or Northern Europe or wherever they call home. It makes you sad that this mediocre dinner could be one of their main food memories, but then, Forbes Island is more about experiencing S.F. eccentricity than farm-to-table cuisine — even if it's the sanitized face of local weirdness that the city puts on for outsiders. The "real" San Francisco, or at least the one that seems most real to you, is probably not what most visitors to the city are looking for anyway.