I may not ever read The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco 1850-1900 from cover to cover (though I have looked at all the pictures). San Francisco Bizarro: A Guide to Notorious Sights, Lusty Pursuits, and Downright Freakiness in the City by the Bay (by former SF Weekly staff writer Jack Boulware) is best dipped into from time to time (an exhaustive reading would prove too exhausting; the subtitle alone is fatiguing). But as a bibliomaniac friend of mine once replied to the impertinent question, "Jeez, have you read all these books?": No, but I know why I bought each one. I believe that a guidebook is worth its cover price if it tells you about even one restaurant (or museum or store or historical site) that you wouldn't otherwise know about. (Sometimes knowing just a couple of swell places to eat can improve the hell out of your perception of a new place.)
My friends (and acquaintances) seem to think that because I write about restaurants I am some kind of super- or even supra-guidebook: If I arrive in their city, whether it's Charleston, S.C., or Portland, Ore., I'm asked "Where do you want to eat?" on arrival (and often, because of my guidebook habit, I have some ideas, though I'd be happier to hear theirs). I get requests for restaurant recommendations from cities I have never been to or even spent much time reading about (the most recent stump-the-scribe was for a good restaurant in Indianapolis in which to have a business dinner).
When my friend Anne arrived in town to attend the San Francisco International Film Festival with her daughter Nora, she asked me to come up with a good, comfortable, not too pricey restaurant for eight or so people; I was to be part of the party, so I had a vested interest in the decision. When I hear "eight people" and "not too pricey," I immediately think Chinese, but no, one of the attendees had allergies to virtually every Chinese ingredient you can think of, beginning with peanut oil and ending with soy sauce, neatly eliminating more arcane Asian possibilities from consideration, too.
I then thought Indian, with some pleasure: I hadn't had an Indian meal for months, not since I'd visited ViKs Chaat Corner in Berkeley. My friend Will suggested two of his favorites, Indian Oven on Fillmore and Naan-N-Curry in the Tenderloin; I'd spied a couple of branches of the latter in my peregrinations around the city and dismissed them as too fast-food ("But you said you wanted cheap," Will pointed out; "I meant 'reasonable for eight people,'" I said defensively). I ran to my trusty Zagat to check out Indian Oven, and was cheered by "fantastic food at a reasonable price" and "brilliantly spiced entrees," but scared off by "well worth the waits," "cramped," "noisy," and "eat-and-run service." We wanted a big table in a quiet room where we could linger.
So I consulted the dozen or so places listed under "Indian" in Zagat's Cuisine Index. More than half of them were eliminated for location (Berkeley, Mountain View, San Rafael, Menlo Park); others for price ("better Indian elsewhere for a fraction of the price" -- now that's a money review!); still others for atmosphere ("no frills," "order at the counter, pick up your dishes when they announce your number").
The process of elimination yielded exactly one likely suspect: Shalimar Garden, the implicitly-more-upscale sibling of the well-reviewed Shalimar ("same recipes and 100 percent improvement in atmosphere," although who can say what a 100 percent improvement in atmosphere over "a truck stop in middle hell" would be?). But Anne asked me on Monday, and dinner was to be on Tuesday; she had to call a number of cell phones and work phones and home phones to assemble the tribe, and a quick perusal of several other guidebooks (five, if you're curious) didn't turn up any viable alternatives. So Shalimar Garden it was to be. (Or Gardens, as Zagat has it. But I now have the evidence before me of the place's very own menu, which has Shalimar Garden printed on it in nice gold script -- twice.)
Tuesday held another treat: a Festival-arranged tour of San Francisco locations used during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. One of the recent additions to my 5-foot shelf of San Francisconiana (or San Franciscaeniana, since there seem to be numberless volumes by Herb Caen) was Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco, by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal. I'd intended to use it for a self-guided tour, but was glad I hadn't gotten around to it yet. It couldn't have compared with being driven around town in a comfy van with a half-dozen other obsessives (Anne and Nora among them) on a glorious, sunny day, enjoying the erudition and passion of the scholarly Miguel Pendás. We were completely enthralled for 2 1/2 hours, as we traveled from the Brocklebank apartment building on Nob Hill to Mission Dolores to Fort Point below the looming Golden Gate Bridge, where I thought the surfers and windsurfers were just as self-destructive as Madeleine Elster was when she flung herself into the bay.
By now thoroughly in love with San Francisco (Nora announced she wanted to move here "and live on Lombard Street," near where Scottie Ferguson did in the movie), we were gratified when the unprepossessing entrance of Shalimar Garden, on a grungy Tenderloin block, led down a steep staircase to a rather glamorous anteroom, with a babbling fountain and a truly beautiful ceiling of incised tin and carved wood. The dining room beyond was not as stunning, but our table for eight was waiting, covered in clean white linen, with pretty bright-patterned plates. I ordered appetizers (it was easy, there were only a few possibilities) while we waited to see who would show up (there had only been one RSVP) and how many (significant others and children were possible no-shows). By the time the freshly fried vegetable pakoras and tiny, crisp chicken samosas were on the table (as well as pitchers of cilantro-yogurt sauce and crackerlike pappadums, here called papad, strewn with chopped onions and dusted with spices), everybody had shown up. (And there was a late addition, our friend Lucy, a film critic from Guadalajara, who requested "samosas and a hot chicken curry" by cell phone in advance of her arrival.) We each chose a dish, to be shared family-style: tandoori meats, curries ("our curries are as evocative of spring and as mild as May," the menu says, but happily some of them proved to be as hot as August), vegetable dishes, rice, plain naan, garlic naan, and onion kulcha. Anne ran upstairs to purchase some beer down the block.
I was afraid we'd ordered too much as the little metal oval dishes began to hit the table: tandoori chicken, lamb chops, and beef; spicy chicken vindaloo, lamb vindaloo, and chicken tikka masala; mild murgh korma shahi (a saffron chicken curry with yogurt) and saag gosht (lamb and spinach curry); mushroom palak (with spinach), palak aloo methi (spinach and new potatoes), bengen bhujia (stewed eggplant). But there wasn't much left over less than an hour later, save a few pieces of naan, and we had to order a fourth serving of Shalimar Garden's lightly saffroned basmati rice to soak up the rich sauces.
Not everything was amazing; I have rarely had tandoori anything that didn't flirt with dryness, but I think tandoori lovers know to expect that by now. My favorite dishes were the creamy curries, the hot vindaloos, and the uniformly interesting vegetable concoctions, especially the oniony, texturally interesting eggplant, neither a chunky stew nor a smooth purée. For dessert we shared plump gulab jaman (caky dairy dumplings) drenched in perfumed syrup, thin rice custard scented with cardamom and cloves, and the best among them, the coconut ice cream.
We didn't want to leave. We made expeditions to inspect the women's bathroom (enormous, with a ceiling draped in beads and a sink made from a colossal curved clamshell), while belly-dancing music drifted in from the Moroccan restaurant upstairs. We stood around our table, chatting, in cocktail-party groups. Shalimar Garden had delivered exactly what we needed that night, and I was sure I would be dining there again. But, I learned, probably not under that name: The restaurant, after applying for a liquor license, has been slowly transitioning to a new identity (with the same menu that we sampled) as Mela Tandoori Kitchen. I'm sure the bengen bhujia will taste as sweet.