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Home for the Holidays 


Wednesday, Dec 15 1999
Respite from the dark chill of night has, since prehistoric times, been the driving force behind solstice celebrations from yule logs to menorahs, but as a snow-ignorant California boy I have had to take a lot of this on faith. The traditional Currier & Ives iconography of a snow-blanketed Vermont farmhouse, woodsmoke curling out of its chimney while apple-cheeked moppets gambol on sleds and toboggans, is thoroughly foreign to my own experience; I associate Dec. 25 with sunny, clear, cool weather.

My Christmas memories are also somewhat urban-oriented, probably because as a kid one of my favorite yuletide events was the family's annual trip to Union Square to check out the holiday lights. A dazzling tableau, rich with possibilities: irresistible F.A.O. Schwarz; the wild Gump's window displays; the huge Christmas tree in the City of Paris department store; the claustrophobic splendor of Podesta Baldocchi. Then there was a side trip up Nob Hill past Huntington Park, every tree limned with multicolored lights, past the gilt-edged, glittering Fairmont and on to an unspeakably hearty dinner at Schroeder's with its Konisberger Klöpse and baked chicken and noodles and digestif of schlag-laden huckleberry squares. If we arrived on the correct night the annual Christmas Feast would be under way, complete with a cameo appearance by St. Nick and white-gowned Wagnerian maidens making music on those elongated horns seen in the Ricola commercials. Fröhliche Weihnachten indeed! And then the grand finale: a drive past the Marina District's window decorations, especially the huge golden Buddha bestowing transcendence upon the Yacht Harbor.

We haven't done the lights in quite a few years now; my own urban Christmas has evolved into a hot toddy with a couple of friends in the Big Four bar or maybe the Redwood Room, anywhere I can bundle up in my Fezziwig clothes and hear the pianist work over Vince Guaraldi's variations on "O Tannenbaum." But, this being the end of the century, I thought perhaps a trip home, as it were, was in order.

I boarded the California Street cable car at Van Ness with a half-dozen others ISO (to use Personals-speak) that festive whatchamacallit that is as amorphous and intangible as a wisp of woodsmoke. As we trundled past the darkling of Huntington Park I wondered if the Fairmont still had the big gingerbread house off the lobby; I hoped so. Heading downhill, toward the Embarcadero, the most festive apparition for blocks around was the recently gobbled Bank of America world headquarters: hmm.

I hopped off at Front Street and there, resplendent in the gloom, was Schroeder's. Luckily I was early enough for a drink or two.

Schroeder's is a good place to imbibe. Like the House of Shields and Lefty O'Doul's and a few other saloons around town, there's something solid and friendly and thoroughly comfortable about the place that makes you want to settle in for a while and melt away the daily effluvia. Maybe it's the darkly reassuring woodwork; maybe it's the murals of lederhosened merrymakers and frauleins dipping their tootsies in massive beer steins; maybe it's the culinary heritage that radiates from every brass coat hook (like Jack's and Sam's and Tadich's, Schroeder's dates back to the 19th century; it's been on Front Street since the Taft administration).

Or maybe it's the beer. There are 14 varieties on tap, including 10 Germans (the Franziskaner wheat beer is especially tasty) as well as the Czech lager Lion, Guinness, Sierra Nevada, and Anchor Steam -- an admirable array. They're served up in small ($2.75), large ($4.50), and Bavarian ($8.25) size containers; the latter, a 1-liter behemoth in a stein, has been known to keep me occupied for the best part of an evening. The smooth, dry apple schnapps ($3) -- the good stuff, from the Fatherland -- is pretty wonderful too.

There's something very yuletidy about beer-sodden toasts, the scent of ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, and hearty food consumed in an evergreen-bedecked dining hall. In fact, reindeer, Christmas trees, and Santa himself are redolent of Northern Europe and its ancient traditions. But the joint's changed since German food meant Christmastime in my prepubescent noggin; the hand-lettered blackboard menus, the suave waiters in their tuxedos, and everything I remember from the old menu is MIA. (So, for that matter, is two-thirds of the old familial gang, for various reasons.) Auslanders like Caesar salad ($5) and rainbow trout ($14) have established beachheads on the once thoroughly Teutonic bill of fare. But the vinegary potato salad and the spiky coleslaw (which come with every entree) are as good as ever, the rye bread has real character, and the head cheese ($4.75) makes for a richly gelatinous, smoothly pungent appetizer.

Other starters are less distinguished. The cocktail sausage platter ($6.50) features a nice, crackling-spicy Polish and a startlingly pungent cushion of sauerkraut and red cabbage, but the other sausages are nothing special. The potato pancakes ($4.50) aren't nearly crisp enough.

And the goulash entree ($13), while rich and peppery, is creamily innocuous. Similarly, such main courses as the half roast duck ($16), the sauerbraten ($14.50), and the schnitzel à la Holstein ($18) are blandly prepared. But the peppered loin of venison ($22) is remarkably tender and flavorful, with a nice gamy edge to it.

Desserts are impressive: a light, lovely German chocolate cake ($4) studded with coconut; a sacher torte ($4.50) rich with chocolate, whipped cream, and apricot jam; and, best of all, a buttery linzer torte ($4.50) densely packed with ground almonds and raspberry. Served beneath garlands of greenery and colored lights, the results are festive indeed. (Further accentuating the season will be the Christmas polka dinner party on Dec. 17 with Joe Smiell & His Bavarian Polka Band and the special holiday lunch and dinner menu on Dec. 23 featuring baked goose with dumplings and white cabbage.)

After dinner we strolled to Union Square. I guess everyone was at Costco buying drinking water and flashlight batteries and comparing Y2K survivalist strategies, because they weren't out caroling and shopping and putting another penny in the old man's hat. The City of Par -- er, Neiman Marcus Christmas tree looked very handsome, and in druidical acknowledgment I bought a truffle at the candy counter for a mere four bucks. Out on the street I couldn't remember where F.A.O. Schwarz was, and ended up in a SOMA loft watching dancers and drummers in black leotards; a buffet table to the right featured mineral waters, all different kinds of them. The Buddha, meanwhile, hasn't been seen since the '89 earthquake.

That Thomas Wolfe, he was one smart fellow.

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Matthew Stafford

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