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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Books We Love: At My Table, from James Beard Award-Winning Colman Andrews

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 4:00 PM

click to enlarge 550_myusualtable.jpg

James Beard Award-winning writer and editor Colman Andrews is known to many for his role as a co-founder for Saveur magazine as well as for his deep expertise on Spanish and Irish cuisine. The East Coast author has written about food, music, art and culture for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, New West, Gourmet, Creem, The Hollywood Reporter. Post-Saveur, he signed on as editorial director to The Daily Meal, an online food and drink site. Now Andrews has penned a new book called My Usual Table (Harper Collins, $25.99) on the notable restaurants that have defined dining history and his life.

The book is a fun read and covers hot spots such as El Bulli, Trader Vic's and Chasen's that are now shuttered but not forgotten. Andrews will be in the Bay Area next month & dished with us on where he'd like to eat and whether or not he'd catch up with his longtime pal Alice Waters.

Where do you plan on eating in the Bay Area? Will you see Alice Waters, or other food celeb folks? What are your favorites?

Andrews: I'm not sure where I'll be eating all my meals yet, but will be having dinner one night with some wine business friends at Duende in Oakland, and I'm sure I'll sneak some Mission District Mexican in there somewhere. Alice, regrettably, will be out of the country when I'm there. I'm not sure who else I'll be seeing, but I always end up running into food-business friends. My two Bay Area favorites are Zuni Café and Swan Oyster Bar.

Your book My Usual Table serves up a life time of evocative memories attached to your love affairs with restaurants and the food, wine and people within. How is this book different from your other food and cookery books?

Andrews:  I've incorporated a few autobiographical elements into some of my other books, but this is the first time I've attempted to write at length specifically about my experiences in restaurants (and my experiences in general). In a way, this was much easier than writing cookbooks, as I didn't have to seek out or create then write and test scores and scores of recipes. In another way, it was much harder, because, well, writing about oneself in a manner that won't induce cringes or yawns from the reader (a task I hope I've achieved) is damn hard work.


click to enlarge Colman Andrews
  • Colman Andrews

You fall hard for places like Trader Vic's, El Coyote and Chasen's. Tell us what one of those meals was like--and how did you keep track of all the details and menus?

Andrews: At Trader Vic's, I always ordered the same few appetizers, to be shared -- slices of barbecued pork loin, to be dredged in sesame seeds; barbecued spareribs in the Hawaiian style (sweet); crab Rangoon (crabmeat and cream cheese fried in wonton skins). Then usually some meat from the Chinese ovens, like the triple-thick lamb chop, which was just what it sounded like, or the spice-coated Indonesian lamb roast, with some cottage fries and stir-fried asparagus or snow peas on the side. It was all delicious, and made even more so by the wonderful aromas in the air -- woodsmoke from the ovens, the fragrance of gardenias, the smell of rum drinks, the perfume of the warm towels they'd bring to sticky-fingered diners. As I note in my introduction, I've taken notes for much of my life, on everything, food and wine and otherwise. I also took home a lot of menus and have several huge boxes filled with them.


What was the biggest surprise about writing this book?

Andrews: How much I remembered. I mean, yes, I took notes, but all kinds of un-noted memories came flooding back to me as I wrote. A less pleasant surprise was that I learned, in doing some peripheral research for the book, that several old friends of mine, whom I'd lost touch with, had left the planet.


How has the restaurant landscape changed? And stayed the same?

Andrews: The most dramatic change has been that restaurants used to belong to restaurateurs, not chefs. That is, chefs 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, with not very many exceptions, were mostly anonymous, and generally thought of as the hired labor. Even at a restaurant you went to regularly, you probably wouldn't have known the chef's name -- and he (and it was always a "he" back then) certainly wouldn't have come out into the dining room to chat with guests.

The one advantage of that system was consistency: The fine points of the cuisine might have been a little better or a little worse depending on who the chef was, but the menu and the overall tone of the place, which reflected the tastes and talents of the restaurateur, would remain constant even if the chefs changed. Today, chefs rarely settle in for years, and every time a replacement comes in, the menu tends to change dramatically. Maybe that's a good thing -- as it's certainly a good thing that chefs have come to be given the respect they (often) deserve -- but it makes dining out a much chancier proposition than it used to be.

The other big changes have been the development of a "new American cuisine" -- a whole body of dishes that isn't really French or Italian or Asian or Mexican or anything else but that incorporates techniques and ingredients and inspirations from all these and more -- and simply the fact that we now have access to a far wider range of cuisines from other countries than our parents did. In broad terms, I don't think much about the restaurant scene has stayed the same at all.

Book Events: 

Thursday, April 10

6 p.m.

Talk, Q&A & Signing

Book Passage

1 Ferry Building

San Francisco


Friday, April 11

7 p.m.

Colman Andrews in Conversation with Hugh Groman

Piedmont Center for the Arts with A Great Good Place for Books

801 Magnolia Ave.



Saturday, April 12

1 p.m.

Talk, Q&A and Signing


2419 Larkspur Landing Circle

Larkspur, CA

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Mary Ladd


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