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Food & Drink

Best Historic Tour of S.F. Restaurants 

By Anna Roth

Not long after moving to the city, I happened upon a copy of A Cook's Tour of San Francisco, a delightful 51-year-old guidebook to S.F. restaurants penned by late local food writer Doris Muscatine. The book shows you around the city's elegant French and Continental dining rooms, meanders through the restaurants of North Beach, Chinatown, and Fisherman's Wharf, and provides a snapshot not only of the San Francisco culinary world in the early '60s, but also of the city's food history up to that point.

Most of the restaurants are long gone, of course — their proprietors, menus, and decor live on only through these descriptions, and it's impossible to read about them without getting nostalgic for a world I never knew. I'd love to try the fried chicken at The Barbary, where Cotogna is today, in which the bird was cooked under a brick to become "unexcelled in the crispness of its skin and the contrasting succulence of its meat." And Veneto in North Beach sounds like a good time: It featured a "real gondola afloat in a real canal" that went between rooms, a dining room with an "enormous collection of dolls," and another one with a "replica of an Italian grotto with an abundant crop of stalactites."

Even stranger to read about are the handful of restaurants that are miraculously still around. Some, like Tadich Grill and the Garden Court at the Palace Hotel, don't sound like they've aged a day. But it's fun to imagine the San Francisco in which the Buena Vista Cafe was not just a tourist destination but "a pleasantly ramshackle place, very crowded on week-end [sic] evenings, at Sunday brunches, and any night after the theatre," and populated with "people from the neighborhood, businessmen from all over, socialites, and the sports car set."

Though most of the city's restaurant names and concepts have changed dozens of times since A Cook's Tour was published, the deeper underpinnings of the San Francisco restaurant scene are surprisingly recognizable a half century later. S.F. diners loved salads, oysters, Dungeness crab, steam beer, theme bars (especially those dressed up like old-timey saloons), and complaining that their city was changing beyond recognition. Muscatine's book is an unqualified celebration of the thriving restaurant scene of her day, but her sense that things are changing for the worse occasionally creeps in.

"As a group, San Francisco restaurants are showing the despoilment of Interior Decoration and the ravages of Expense Account thinking," she writes in her section on old-school San Francisco restaurants. "Redwood and Roman brick have become as much of a cliché as the baked potato with sour cream and chives."

Swap in Edison bulbs and subway tiles, and seared pork belly with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts, and that sentence could run in any publication today. And it would illustrate the same sentiment: that the city is homogenizing, that it's becoming a less interesting version of its former self. Muscatine published A Cook's Tour in 1963, a year sandwiched between two great forces of cultural change — after the Beats but before the Hippies — and she didn't know at the time that some of the city's most strange, interesting, and revolutionary days were yet to come. The constant in San Francisco isn't just change — it's the way we react to it.

(Sorry, no information is currently available for other years in this same award category.)


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