rachel

The Adele of Audiobooks

There are a lot of voices in our heads these days, some more welcome than others. “I’m kind of on a Julia Whelan bender,” a reader tweeted recently. Most people have never heard Whelan’s name, but her friendly-firm timbre is familiar to anyone who listens to books or magazine articles.

The other morning, Whelan had a meeting at Bad-Ass Breakfast Burritos, in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. She had been up at six to Zoom with a Canadian book club for the blind. “I was doing my makeup and shit,” she said. “And then I got on the call and was, like, ‘Oh. Wait.’ ”

She had only fourteen pages to record that day, new material for the tenth-anniversary edition of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” She ordered carefully anyway, requesting the spicy mayo on the side. “I’m Irish,” she explained. “My lips go numb.” Cheese is also a no-no in her line of work. “Makes you phlegmy.” But her biggest job hazard is her stomach. “It’s just really fucking loud.”

Whelan, who has stick-straight brown hair and pale skin, wore a loose black jumpsuit. She generally spends workdays at home, in the Coachella Valley, sitting alone in a dark padded booth, staring at a screen, talking to herself. “I know,” she said. “Very pandemic.” That day, she fled the jackhammering of workers installing a pool in her back yard for the offices of Penguin Random House Audio, where she could work alongside a longtime producer of hers, Kelly Gildea.

The two met in 2012, when Whelan, then twenty-seven, was making her living tutoring celebrities’ kids. (Prior to that, she’d narrated two Y.A. novels.) One day, she got an e-mail from Gildea, asking if she’d like to narrate a new book. “It’s a bit R-rated,” Gildea warned. The fee was a couple of thousand dollars. The book, “Gone Girl,” has sold more than ten million copies in all formats.

The book launched Whelan’s career. “People remember when you play a psychopath,” she said. “Gone Girl” was also a watershed moment in the audiobook world. The pandemic was another. “Everyone worried, ‘Will people stop listening to audiobooks now that they don’t have a commute?’ ” Whelan continued. “It turned out to be the opposite: they listened more.”

She didn’t set out to become an audio narrator. “No one does,” she said. As a child, Whelan, who grew up in Oregon, acted in a few Lifetime movies. At fifteen, she landed a role on ABC’s “Once and Again,” after Scarlett Johansson turned it down. “It was network TV in the nineties,” she said. “You were either the hot cheerleader or the troubled girl.” (Troubled girl.)

After studying English at Middlebury, she returned to Hollywood to start auditioning again. A producer told her, “College isn’t sexy. Rehab would’ve been.” She said, “I wasn’t Natalie Portman.”

Instead, she has quietly become a star of the unrecognizable kind. Whelan has recorded more than five hundred audiobooks, and has received AudioFile’s Golden Voice, an honor for lifetime achievement. (“I think they’ve gone through all the older people,” she said.) At the 2019 Audies—the Oscars with less cleavage, more eyeglasses, zero assault—she won best female narrator, for Tara Westover’s “Educated.” “It’s a brilliant book, but there are so many I’ve sweated more!” she said. “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.” (“Try aging a voice over three hundred years.”) “The Four Winds.” (“Accents all over the place!”) The most stressful title in her recording queue, she said, is her own. “Thank You for Listening,” her second novel, a rom-com about two audio narrators, is out next week. “I’m pitching it as ‘In a World’ meets ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ ” she said.

She also regularly records long nonfiction pieces for the Audm app (which produces audio versions of The New Yorker’s stories). The Trump years were draining, as was the pandemic. “I actually had covid while recording that viral New York Times piece about covid by Jessica Lustig,” she said.

Pronunciation research is arduous: “A piece about the cuisine of the Faroe Islands will come through, and I’m, like, ‘Fucking pass!’ ” (She did that one nonetheless.)

After breakfast, on the way to the studio, she vented about the pay scale. Narrators straddle the publishing and entertainment fields, yet often reap the financial upside of neither. She is paid per finished hour of recording, and although Whelan is at the top of her field, her hourly rate is only twice what it was a decade ago. “It’s an egregious miscarriage! This industry hasn’t caught up with how popular audiobooks are,” she said. “I still get residuals from acting shit I did when I was ten”—most recently, a couple of hundred dollars for “Fifteen and Pregnant,” in which she played Kirsten Dunst’s chaste younger sister.

At the studio, she greeted Gildea with a hug. Photographs lined the walls: Michelle Obama (“American Grown”). George W. Bush (“41”). Lena Dunham (“Not That Kind of Girl”). “They’re famous,” Whelan said. “They don’t put real narrators up.” ♦

Published in the print edition of the August 1, 2022, issue, with the headline “The Adele of Audibles.”

What Went Wrong with the iPhone Purity Pledge?

Brooke Shannon, a mother of three in Austin, Tex., was traumatized by what she witnessed one day in 2017 while driving by her local middle school. She saw dozens of tweens standing around with their heads down, phones up, glazed eyes staring into their devices: alone together. “I went home and emailed 20 moms,” Shannon said, posing a heretical question: What if we kept phones away from kids until eighth grade? What if we all simply…waited? 

She called her idea “Wait Until 8th.” It was hatched out of desperation a decade after the birth of the iPhone. A few months later, the world’s then-richest man Bill Gates admitted that he and then-wife Melinda had kept smartphones from their kids until they were 14. Then The Atlantic published “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?”—a generation the article’s author dubbed “iGen.” 

What had started as a simple idea within one Texas community “spread like wildfire,” recalled Shannon—and became a movement. Run entirely by volunteers, Wait Until 8th garnered media attention from outlets including NPR and the Today show. At its peak it collected tens of thousands of online signatures from parents in all 50 states, who promised to hold off on giving iPhones to their children—to “let kids be kids a little longer,” or at least until their frontal lobes further developed. 

Dana Tuttle, a physician and mother in Marin County, Calif., remembered hearing about Wait Until 8th and weighing whether to commit her child, then eight, to the pledge. “It was such a depressing, inevitable feeling as a parent,” said Tuttle, who often found herself eating breakfast, looking out the window, “and watching all these 10-, 11-, 12- year-olds walking to school with their big backpacks, their arms extended, staring into their phones.” 

“I didn’t know when exactly was the right time [to introduce phones],” said Tuttle. “I just knew waiting sounded good.” So she banded together with Dabney Ingram, a local mom with a doctorate in education research, and in 2018 they launched ScreenSense—“to help families and their communities teach healthy tech use to children.” 

Suddenly, whatever sort of phone-rollout strategy parents adopted, there were options. The efforts signalled a growing awareness that maybe this smartphone thing wasn’t such a smart idea after all. It was a coast-to-coast wakeup call, led in large part by moms—mothers against smartphones, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving of the 21st century.

The tech hubs of San Francisco and Austin didn’t suddenly turn into Amish country, but parents like Shannon and Tuttle started noticing a subtle change. Suddenly, not every fifth grader in Marin was getting a phone for graduation. Communities were having conversations. Schools were hosting speakers. Families were at least establishing rules, if not always following them. “We were making progress,” said Tuttle. “I felt heartened. There was a noticeable cultural shift.” 

And then Covid-19 arrived.

“The pandemic hit and it immediately sent everyone inward,” said Tuttle. Two years later, the fallout has been extreme. Adolescent screen time doubled during the pandemic, according to a recent study in JAMA—on average going to 7.7 hours a day. And that number doesn’t include online school—it’s just pure, unadulterated digital distraction. 

According to the report, girls now spend twice as much time on social media as boys. As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony emphasized, the extra screen time has impacted girls especially hard, causing significant increases in anxiety and eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, loneliness and cutting, and, according to the CDC, a 50 percent spike in visits to the emergency room for suspected suicide attempts.

That’s all the bad stuff. Of course, all usage is not equal: A solid chunk of the time that our youngest generation (newly coined as Zoomers) was spending on phones was, in fact, beneficial. FaceTime, Houseparty, Zoom gatherings—these all offered a lifeline for otherwise socially isolated kids. Yet even now, as in-person education and IRL hangouts resume, the JAMA report concludes, “screen use may remain persistently elevated.” 

Today, the average age at which kids get a phone is 10, according to some industry groups. Common Sense Media says the average is 11, and one in five kids has a phone by the age of 8. Its new data, to be released later this year, shows a continued “aging downward,” as the group’s senior director of research, Michael Robb, put it. While it’s tricky to show the effects of the pandemic, he said, “you’ll see that slightly more 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds have smartphones relative to 2019.” (This is despite the fact that a pre-pandemic Pew study found that 73 percent of parents said they believe it’s acceptable for children to have their own phone only after age 12.) 

Whatever the age at which a kid gets a phone, it still arms the kid with a device designed to addict. “Silicon Valley wants the same thing Vegas wants,” said Dr. Richard Freed, a psychologist and the author of “Wired Child.” “Time spent on device. Teen time spent.”  

Freed works with families in lower-income Antioch, Calif., as well as in posh Palo Alto, Calif., and the divide is wide between those communities: “The difference is, tech parents haven’t been duped. They know the dangers. They know Apple and Zuckerberg and all the social media apps are after their kids—which is why their kids aren’t on them!” 

On the other hand, the parents working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet “don’t have access to the inside scoop,” he said. “They see smartphones as a status symbol, something they think helps their kid, something they want to give their kid.” A lot of affluent parents don’t want to give their kid a phone. But just like their children, adults succumb to pressure—peer, family and societal—all too easily.

“I would’ve loved to have made it to eighth. We tried. We failed,” said Jeremiah Rosen, CEO of Sundae, a social media marketing firm in Manhattan. “My daughter would’ve killed us. It would’ve seriously ruined our relationship.” He first heard about Wait Until 8th through a friend of his wife. “She was really pushing it,” he said. “Like, ‘You guys have to do this, too.’” And for a while, they did hold out—even lasting through the first 18 months of the pandemic. Then, last September, the day before the beginning of school, they gave their sixth-grade daughter a phone—albeit scrubbed of social media. “That’s the hill I’ll die on,” said the father, who works in it.

Now, said Rosen, his daughter is constantly looking at her phone. “I’d rather she be looking out the window! There’s a real value in that.” He asked her recently: “Do you feel more fulfilled? Are you happier? Is your life better now that you have a phone?” She shrugged. Not really, she told him. But she uses it to arrange lunches in Union Square and walks around the Village with friends. She plays Sneaky Sasquatch. She listens to Bleachers. She has taken 700 photos. And her parents know her whereabouts; they are reachable, and vice versa. “As an only child, in New York City, I think it’s been a good social outlet,” said Rosen. “She has gained a new level of independence—well,” he added, “while becoming more dependent on her phone.”

*

The thing—the worst thing—about handing kids a mobile device is that it offers them “access to everything,” said Tiffany Shlain, author of “24/6: Giving Up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection.” “Do we really want them to have access to…everything?”

Shlain serves on the advisory board of The Digital Wellness Lab at Harvard’s Boston Children’s Hospital and has been a proponent of Wait Until 8th since the start. Her older daughter, now at Yale University, didn’t get a phone until midway through her freshman year of high school. “I think we were the last one at Tam High,” Shlain said, laughing. She wondered if maybe they’d waited a tad too long, given that Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif., uses apps in its curriculum.

As for her younger daughter—half the parents in her class took the pledge back in fourth grade. But come Covid-19, everybody caved, Shlain included. The pandemic scuttled everything, she said. “We never even used to allow iPads in the bedroom! And then suddenly bedrooms became classrooms.” On one day of home-schooling, it hit her: “The iPad is just a big phone. We’re so adamant about not getting her a phone, but she’s already got this iPad.”

Shlain and her husband, Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at University of California, Berkeley, really wrestled with it. “I was like, what am I doing? I spent so much mental energy thinking about it, I wanted to scream.” They had a big discussion, drew up a contract, and eventually gave their seventh-grader a super-stripped-down iPhone—text, camera and calling only, barely more bells and whistles than in the Gabb phone she had once had but never used. “It just wasn’t the cool phone,” explained Shlain. “You want to think what’s ‘cool’ doesn’t matter, but it’s middle school. It does.” (One San Francisco parent told me about a boy so mortified by his flip phone that he’d walk away and hide whenever he had to send a text.)

The phone, some say, is just a conduit to the real culprit. “Social media magnifies age-old teenage problems,” said Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of the new book “Anything but My Phone, Mom!” “Before smartphones, kids would hear about a party they weren’t invited to on a Monday; now that party is posted in real time, so they can watch it endlessly and make themselves miserable.” 

In some ways everything has changed, said Cohen-Sandler, and in others “nothing has changed.” Wait Until 8th’s Shannon agreed. “Every day all day, these platforms are just showing kids every BFF they don’t have, every group they’re not a part of, every sleepover they’re not invited to,” she said. It’s ironic: “Kids say they feel so left out by not having a phone—they don’t realize they feel just as left out having one.”

During the home-schooling phase of the pandemic, parents were in survival mode. Now it’s time to recalibrate, many say. Or as Dr. Jean Twenge argued in her 2021 New York Times op-ed, “This Is Our Chance to Pull Teenagers Out of the Smartphone Trap,” it’s time to rethink and reduce the amount—and kind—of time kids spend on phones. 

*

After a two-year pause, groups like ScreenSense and Wait Until 8th are rebooting—taking surveys, switching gears, admitting a sense of defeat. They’re still calling for parents to delay giving kids phones, if they can. But if they can’t fend off their kids’ phone usage, the goal is to at least cordon off the most attention-sucking, confidence-stealing applications. Shannon and Wait Until 8th suggest not allowing any social media until kids reach 16.

There is the fear that the idea of Wait Until 8th is too puritanical—a digital version of 1990s virginity pledge craze. Maybe, some suspect, it’s not all that effective. As Cohen-Sandler says, every child is different. There is no magic age or grade when someone should suddenly be able to access everything. That includes eighth grade. As one friend of mine said about her 15-year-old twins: “We waited till eighth—and they’re still fucking addicted.

A lifetime ago, back in 2017 B.C. (Before Covid), my husband and I declared to ourselves (as opposed to signing a pledge) that we would not give our daughter, then 8 years old, an iPhone until eighth grade. So far we’ve stuck to that (although we did gift our kids a landline—a once-cool 1980s ombre phone, which my parents would never let me have, in my bedroom or otherwise). 

Still, I know the end is nigh. As much as I hate having other people’s kids in my car’s back seat, necks curved downward, texting, scrolling and watching instead of chatting (especially after I’ve cheerily said, “No phones in the car, please!”), I also hate wondering: Am I sabotaging my daughter’s social life by barring her from an online one?

Though I’d like to parent like it’s 1994 and tell my kids to meet me at the Orange Julius at 5 p.m. or call me collect from a payphone if they need me, I realize that’s not realistic. So we will probably opt for Plan B: We will start slow, giving her a Wi-Fi–free “on-ramp,” as Cohen-Sandler said: “When your kid gets his driver’s license, you don’t just send him out on the highway with five friends in the car!”

Maybe if we sign other types of pacts and contracts. If we establish trust and communication. If we ban phones from the classroom and the bedroom, from carpools and dinner tables, while walking or talking, certainly while crossing the street. Maybe if our daughter can remain confident and capable of conversing and forming real-life relationships. Then maybe…giving her a phone would actually be more helpful than harmful? After all, devoid of Instagram and TikTok and the Wi-Fi–fueled freedom to forever scroll, maybe a phone is just a…phone, almost as innocuous as the ombre ’80s landline. 

“Pick me up in Dolores Park at 5 p.m.!” my 13-year-old daughter emailed me the other day from her laptop at school. At the park?” I wrote back in a panic. Where in the park? At 5 p.m.? On a Friday? I’ll never find parking! I’ll never find her! But it was too late. She was offline and unreachable. 

So I did what any mother of one of the few remaining phoneless seventh graders in San Francisco would do. I texted her friend.

Who Wants a Hotel With a Hallway Anyway?

As for many Americans, motels, for me, have typically been a lodging of convenience. Not places I specifically seek out per se, but book en route elsewhere or out of necessity. A respectable Best Western off Interstate 80 when Donner Pass to Tahoe is suddenly snowed in. A basic room at the Stargazer Inn (and one of the few rooms anywhere) near Great Basin National Park. Lots of affordable, how-many-twentysomethings-can-fit-in-a-room rooms for all those post-college wedding weekends.

Pop culture, however, has long depicted motels as a lodging category toavoid. “Psycho.” “Memento.” “No Country for Old Men.” Even my family’s kitschy Covid TV comedy, “The Goldbergs,” has contributed to motels’ bad rap. Specifically, Season 7, Episode 1: the one inspired by the 1983 film “Vacation” where, like the Griswolds, the Goldbergs’ station wagon breaks down and they check-in to a motel room. It’s grim. And the coin-fed bed bumps and bucks like a bull all night.

Motels just can’t seem to shake their cinematic reputation as sad, seedy, last resort-resorts. No matter how successful 21st century moteliers have been at transforming tired properties, from Montauk to Malibu, into stylish escapes.

Newly inoculated this spring, I wanted to get away from the same-old 400-something days. I wanted a getaway that was fun and easy; fashionable enough to force me to forgo my fuzzy slippers I’ve been padding around in all pandemic; andnot $400 a night. I wanted to swim in a pool and see friends and eat good food neither cooked, nor retrieved, nor requiring dishes to be washed by me. My primary criterion, however, for My First Pandemic Getaway was that it be Covid Anxiety-Free. Which meant what I wanted was a hotel without hallways. Without crowded lobbies or “club levels” or elevators, too. What I wanted, I realized, was: a motel.

I am not alone. It seems a lot of people have wanted motels — be they shabby orchic — this year. “The technical term is exterior-corridor hotels,” explained Patrick Scholes, managing director of lodging equity research for Truist Securities, an investment firm. Exterior-corridor hotels — simply because their walkways and room entrances are open-to-the-air (and not the coronavirus) — “have definitely had an advantage during the pandemic, especially during the heart of it,” Mr. Scholes said. “They have done better across the board. Well, let’s use the phrase ‘less bad.’ They’ve done far less bad.”

It makes sense. Flying has been a daunting prospect for many Covid-conscious travelers. And so across the country, drive-to destinations have seen a surge of interest, as have road-trips themselves, and the roadside motels that have long paired with them.

“It’s been the perfect kind of hotel during the pandemic,” said Amar Lalvani, chief executive of Bunkhouse, the Austin-based hospitality company with eight properties, almost all overhauled mid-20th century motels, and plans to double its portfolio in the next few years. “Covid has given certain things a boost,” he said. Zoom. Baking. Cryptocurrency. “And motels are one of them. ”

A Room Off the Road

Motels were specifically designed, almost a century ago, to offer a direct line from car-to-bed, of course. “Mo-,” as in motor, a motorist’s hotel. The first was built by the Milestone Interstate Corporation, in 1925, in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegramranan article on its opening, explaining the then-novel concept: “A traveler arriving at night, or at any other time, need not climb out of his car and go into the office to register.”Who would have anticipated that a hundred years later, the very lack of interaction and indoor mingling a motel requires would be such a boon?

After World War II and the proliferation of the family automobile, motels cropped up along the country’s county roads. The 1950s and ’60s were motels’ happy heyday. Things began to change after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956: With the roll out of the interstate highway system, roadtrippers could suddenly bypass towns. Big-box hotel brands were built right off the exit ramps, offering the perceived comfort of uniformity. Motels’ status took a downward turn.

Many of the existing 60,000 motels in the United States began to close, explained Mark Okrant, professor emeritus of tourism management at Plymouth State University and author of “No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise, and Reprise of America’s Motels.” Others lived on as fine establishments; others were rented by the hour. “Many became love motels,” Mr. Okrant said. “Places to take your insignificant other.”

As in places where you could walk straight to your room and be anonymous. Illicit. Creepy. Hitchcock’s 1960 film based at the Bates Motel may have helped usher in motels’ new M.O.

Fast forward to the Netflix era, and “Breaking Bad” certainly didn’t do motels any favors with its recurring scenes at Albuquerque’s Crossroads Motel. And, of course, to where does the wealthy Rose family flee after losing all their money, in “Schitt’s Creek?” The run-down Rosebud Motel. “You want me to get murdered first?” Alexis says to her brother, David, in the first episode, as they argue over who has to sleep in the bed closest to the door.

No Shirts or Shoes Required

And yet offscreen, oh how things are changing. The Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, created by the entrepreneur Chip Conley in 1987, may have been the first made-over motel. But Liz Lambert, an ex-lawyer, is often credited with starting the trend, when she renovated Austin’s once-sordid Hotel San José. “I didn’t have great ambitions at the time,” she told the “Women Who Travel” podcast in 2019. She thought she’d just do a one-off. Instead, she went on to open Austin’s Hotel Saint Cecilia and found Bunkhouse, which was majority acquired by Standard International in 2015.

Mod-motels have taken off in recent years, especially this past pandemic year. Weekends at the Stonewall Motor Lodge, a renovated 1964 property near Fredricksburg, Texas, with nice linens, live music and complimentary charcuterie, have been booked since last summer.

“We’ve been getting a lot of people who say they’ve never stayed at a roadside motel before,” said Tim Henke, the manager. “There’s a stigma that motels are hole-in-the-walls, but we’re a high-end motel.”

“In the past twenty years, there has been what I call a democratization of design to places outside of the luxury environment and outside of the traditional metropolises,” Mr. Lalvani said. Unique looks intended to be anything but cookie-cutter that lean into both the place and the past, inspired by the mom-and-pop owned motels of yore. Plus, many new motels offer programming — like Purple Rain-themed pool parties and outdoor yoga and macrame-plant-hanger-making classes.

Marketing nostalgia, companies like Bunkhouse are bullish on new-fashioned, mid-20th century motels and the relaxed indoor-outdoor atmosphere they afford, whether we’re in a pandemic or not.

For Rob Blood, founder of Lark Hotels, which has some 30 properties, the pandemic got him nostalgic for the family road trips and Howard Johnsons he remembers as a 1980s kid. “I started looking for opportunities, geeking out over these midcentury motels that had lost their luster,” he said. He created Bluebird by Lark, a sub-brand which opened Spa City Motor Lodge in Saratoga Springs on June 4, the first of three revamped motels Bluebird will launch this summer alone. (Next up for Bluebird: Cape Cod; Stowe; Hunter, N.Y.)

Mr. Blood discovered, after spending much of his career restoring buildings as old as 1612 into luxury hotels, refurbishing motels has been a relative breeze. “There are only two floors, two room types, one courtyard — sturdy cinder-block construction,” he said.

Jou-Yie Chou is a partner at the Brooklyn-based design studio Post Company, which redid Brentwood Hotel in Saratoga Springs in 2016 and now Callicoon Hills, a century-old resort, which reopened in the Catskills on June 7. The challenges in renovating these midcentury properties are in the unknowns, he said, like “what’s behind the walls, what ‘skeletons’ are buried.” Another challenge, he said, is bringing them to today’s standards “in a manner that respects the original design and does not implode the budget.” They lifted the carpet, for instance, and discovered gorgeous Douglas fir floors.

Though restoring old bonesis Bunkhouse’s brand, in September, the company opened the brand-new Hotel Magdalena, in Austin, in a 1970s motor-court style. “It’s what people want,” Mr. Lalvani said, of the couches and courtyards, outdoor walkways, low-key comfort.“Especially after a year working from home.” No suits. No formalities. No shoes. “I can’t walk around a Four Seasons barefoot.”

The Influence of Instagram

Mr. Chou believes motels have shed their “historical negative baggage.” (Travel-pun intended?) People appreciate their designs, as well as the autonomy and touchless communication that comes with them, he said. “The pandemic has accelerated guests’ acceptance of virtual service.”

Indeed technology is helping the very self-service nature of motels. At the Capri, a 1963 property, in Ojai, Calif., renovated three years ago, check-in is via text. Its 30 rooms all open to the air and have been open — and mostly occupied weekends since September 2020 — said Marlee Rojanfrom the front desk. And consistently booked midweek since March. “For months, I’d just sit here by myself all day, trying to make sure people felt comfortable. We weren’t allowed to serve coffee or water, it was super weird,” she said. “I’d just say: ‘I’m here if you need me!’” No one did.

It’s also vital with marketing, which as Mr. Blood said, can be “a bit of an uphill battle.” Catering to people’s nostalgia plays a big role, as does choosing desirable locations, but Instagram in particular has made it easy to showcase the mood of the new motel. The feeds of hip hotel-motel groups are convincing scrolls through cool pools and pretty couples, patterned pillows and simple yet sophisticated rooms. Palm-held reminders that these arenotyour parents’ musty motels.

The M Word

Maybe just don’tcall them motels?

“I’m not afraid of it,” Mr. Blood said of the M-word. “But we like motor-lodge better.”

“We prefer not to refer to it as a motel,” said Kristin Huxta Bradley, senior director of communications for Kimpton, when asked about the Goodland, a converted 1960s property outside Santa Barbara. It has record players and poolside DJs and retro-styled rooms flanking the pool. “It’s not the motel experience,” she said. “It’s a boutique hotel. We don’t have any motels in our portfolio.” Call it what you will, of all Kimpton properties, those with exterior corridors “have performed well and seen some of the quickest return to prepandemic business levels,” Ms. Bradley said.

A ground-floor, drive-up room during a pandemic in dreamy Ojai or sweet Cape Cod is desirable, no doubt. But a ground-floor, drive-up room off the highway, or street-side in a crime-filled city, during normal times? Not so much, the major chains decided a dozen years ago.

By 2008, Holiday Inn — which began in 1954 as a chain of hotels off the interstate highway system — stopped renewing contracts with its exterior corridor hotels, citing perceived safety concerns among its guests. “Major brands see exterior corridors as a liability risk,” Mr. Scholes said. “They made a big push to get rid of them. We’ve definitely seen a purge.” He dismisses the mod-motel movement as niche, and while exterior corridors have been advantageous lately, it is not a sign, he said, that the traditional long, carpeted, hermetically sealed hotel hallway is going anywhere.

All I know is: On a recent sunny afternoon, coming anxiously off My First Flight and My First Uber, walking into the Cara Hotel in Los Angeles felt like a breath of fresh air. Because it was fresh air, mixed with a warm breeze. The Cara opened in the Los Feliz neighborhood in September, across from a Petco-Marshalls mall and down the road from Griffith Park.The 1950s property had most recently been the Coral Sands Motel, once a popular gay cruising spot touting free porn TV until the deteriorated motel was purchased for $16.5 million — and transformed into a 60-room elegant, al fresco hotel.

Wide, wrought-iron, glass doors were propped open to an expansive courtyard. Palms fanned overhead. White archways and billowing drapes offered a faint whiff of the Greek Islands, on Western Avenue. I whisked off my filtered Graf Lantz, like Mary Tyler Moore and her beret. And as I climbed the exterior stairs and followed a long, narrow walkway beneath blue sky to my small yet cushy room, I felt a kind of calm I hadn’t in a while. I was mask-less! On a mini-vacation! From Covid-life. From my life.

Until my 12-year-old daughter rang on FaceTime. “Are you at the motel?” she asked. I flipped my screen and flashed the scene from my second-story balcony: the courtyard buzzing below with beautiful, full-faced people sipping brightly colored cocktails; plates of pricey arugula-avocado salads; olivetrees strung with little lights; the decorative — yet only ankle deep — pool aglow. “That’s not a motel!” said Hazel, wide-eyed.

At least not the no-frills motel it used to be. “It looked like something out of a scary movie before,” said DJ Roller, a fellow guest and founder of an entertainment technology company, upon recently checking-out of the Cara. Waiting on the sidewalk for the valet, he marveled at the motel’s open-air makeover. (Complete with this very unmotel amenity.) “I used to stay at a hotel down the street, but …” he smiled, making it clear he’s found a new favorite. “It’s been closed because of the pandemic.”

A Family That Runs, Really Fast, Together…

Leap Day, February 29, 2020. Sara and Ryan Hall are in the backseat of an Uber, sitting in traffic—and silence—in downtown Atlanta. Shivering a little in her race kit, Sara accepts Ryan’s offer of his sweatshirt. The driver mutters something about road closures. It would’ve been faster to get out and hobble back to the hotel, but they just sit there. Staring out the window, in disbelief. “We were in total shock,” recalls Sara. “We just didn’t see this coming.” 

Sara arrived at last year’s Olympic marathon trials as the second-fastest woman at the starting line, favored to make the U.S. team for Tokyo. Confidence was high. The night before the race, Sara and Ryan told their four daughters, biological sisters adopted at ages 5 to 15 from an orphanage in Ethiopia in 2015: All of mom’s hard work will be worth it for this moment. Ryan, Sara’s husband of 15 years and coach for the last five, even teared up. “I remember…” Sara says. “He’d said, ‘Tomorrow is going to be your day.’”

Except, it turned out, it wasn’t. Atlanta’s tough course “obliterated” her legs, as Sara posted on Instagram. She dropped out at mile 22. DNF. Her dream—their dream—dashed.

Sara had made it to the Olympic trials five times before. But this time was different: “I’d never felt this prepared,” she says from her home in the hills of Flagstaff, Arizona. “It was the biggest heartbreak of my career.”

And then, ironically, she went to Disney World. Well, technically, Wizarding World, at Universal Studios. With Jasmine and Lily, her two youngest daughters, licking her wounds in the line for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure while Ryan went home to Flagstaff with Hana and Mia. A week later, the world shut down. With the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and all the unknowns that came with it, there would be no more races. No redemption.

“It was definitely an emotionally hard time,” says Sara. “It’s tough to motivate without a race in sight.”

It was just as tough, if not tougher, for Ryan. A retired two-time Olympic runner, he knows disappointment intimately himself. Now that he’s a coach, he says the hardest thing he’s had to learn, especially as Sara’s coach, is to “be invested in the athlete, but not go on the same roller-coaster ride as the athlete.” And for Sara, for Ryan, for all of us, life has been a roller coaster. An emotional and physical roller coaster. It’s been a year of change for the Halls. One long-haul marathon of a year.


My button-down no longer fits!” says Ryan, over the phone last fall, from a hotel room in Tucson, where he and Sara are getting ready for a dinner function during the pandemic. It’s a fundraiser for Lifesong for Orphans. “It’s like Tommy Boy!” he laughs. “I’ll be twirling around singing ‘fat guy in a little coat’ all night.”

On the menu is steak, mashed potatoes, and asparagus, which Ryan will eat even though he isn’t hungry. He hasn’t been since summer, when he started taking in upwards of 5,000 calories a day. That’s a couple of thousand more than back when he was running 100 miles a week and eight races a year, including the Houston half marathon in 2007. He crushed it in 59:43, making him the first American to break the half’s one-hour barrier. In 2011, in Boston, he rocketed 26.2 miles in 2:04:58, becoming, to date, the fastest marathoner in America.

The fastest marathoner in America who, at 38 years old, doesn’t run anymore. Not competitively. Not weekly. Though on a whim, occasionally: as in, maybe 25 miles in all of 2020. Well, not counting the 43 he ran in September, from Crested Butte to Aspen, in 12:47 with a 6,000-foot elevation gain. “I just hopped in,” he says, about the Grand Traverse Mountain Run. His first. For fun.

And his body has changed substantially since his marathon days. He’s gained a ton of muscle. Since retiring from professional running in 2016, the 5’10” Ryan has gone from 127-pound waif to 200-pound weightlifter. “After depleting my body of so much strength for years and years with intense training and dieting, my body was craving an activity that was anabolic,” Ryan explains. He also just fell in love with “the sensation,” he says, of pulling something so freaking heavy off the floor that he previously couldn’t budge.

He noticed it in his face first. “A marathoner’s face is gaunt,” he says. “Right away, I lost that. I was retaining a ton of water. My face got so bloated. My arms just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he says, not boasting but as a matter of fact. “I barely recognized myself!” Sara and others barely recognized him, too.

“It was a big transition,” says Sara. “I like his physique now, but it took getting used to.” Ryan had looked “emaciated” since they first met after the Foot Locker West Regionals outside L.A., senior year of high school, at 17. But now his body was completely different. “We were in an elevator and this guy walks in who’d known Ryan for years. He was like, ‘Hey, Sara. How’s Ryan doing?’ And I was like: ‘He’s standing right here!’”

In his old life, Ryan was long and leggy, with the kind of natty, sun-bleached blonde mop you’d expect on a kid who grew up in Southern California. Clean-shaven with concave cheeks, he had a boyish, Oliver Twist look about him. He used to gallop the streets with the speed and light and grace of a gazelle. Now, bearded and buff, he spends one to two hours a day working out in his garage. He hoists and huffs, presses and puffs. Veins pop from his neck. Pecs bulge beneath his T-shirt. “Happy Birthday Hulk!” one of his 90,000 Instagram followers commented, with a biceps emoji, beneath a chronological series Ryan posted of bare-chested, six-packed, painstakingly sculpted selfies. A virtual flipbook of his physical transformation over the past five years.

Unlike most of social media, though, it doesn’t come off as a gross display of vanity. Ryan isn’t saying, “Hey, look at my body!” He’s saying: Hey, look at the body. Look at what the human body can do.

As a runner, Ryan used to hate lifting weights. And as a typical baseball- and basketball-obsessed kid, he hated running. Until, at 13, gazing out the car window at Big Bear Lake, God urged him to run around it. And so, a boy of faith, who’d never run more than one dreaded mile in PE class, he begged his dad—and ran 15 miles. From then on he never stopped running, racking up four state championships, a track scholarship to Stanford, and two Olympic teams. Until, at 33, tired of injuries and low testosterone, and just plain tired, he rather abruptly did.


In their old life, before kids, Sara and Ryan traveled the globe to training camps and races with nothing but each other and their Asics. (The company has sponsored the couple since they both graduated from Stanford and turned pro.) In their old life, they concentrated day-in, day-out—like all elite athletes have to—on themselves. In their old life, whenever they were not running, they were in “energy conservation mode,” says Sara. Expending as little energy as possible: literally lying on their couch, watching movies, reading books. The antithesis of parenting, essentially. “With kids, you can’t live that way,” says Sara. “You’re constantly doing things and sensing things and listening to them talk for hours about Harry Potter.”

And talking to them for hours, too—about Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In May, when Floyd was murdered by a white cop in Minneapolis, the world erupted, and the Halls awoke. “Coming from Ethiopia, the girls had never seen themselves as Black before,” says Sara. They didn’t know about racism, let alone systemic racism. Arbery’s murder was especially disturbing, and confounding, for the girls. Why was a man shot and killed while he was just out running? “Suddenly, they were learning what it means to be Black in America. It was new to them. It was new to us,” says Sara. “The family spent the summer having hard, deep discussions. “I had to tell the girls, ‘This country I brought you to, that you’d idolized in your minds as this idyllic place…is not.’”

Motherhood takes up mental space formerly fully reserved for running. That is not necessarily a bad thing, says Sara. “I’m not sitting around overthinking running,” she says. It doesn’t mean she’s leading a balanced life. She wishes she had extra energy to go on a hike with the girls. Or kick around the soccer ball without worrying about getting injured, she says. “When you’re trying to be the best in the world at something, your life is never going to be balanced.”

Being a mom motivates her as a runner, she explains. It has made her value, even approach races differently. “I think: I really fought to create the time and space in my life for this opportunity. I’m going to take advantage of it.”

Ryan, too, has turned his formerly laser self-focus on his daughters, of course. Driving them to the dentist, helping with homeschooling, coaching Hana and Mia, the two eldest, during the pandemic, before team practices resumed. He also personally coaches a dozen or so amateur athletes through Run Free, the online holistic coaching company he cofounded in 2018 with his friend Jay Stephenson. Ryan and Sara have worked on behalf of millions of women and children living in extreme poverty in Ethiopia through the Hall STEPS Foundation, the development organization they established in 2009, most recently raising $50,000 to fund a home for homeless girls in Addis Ababa.

But Ryan’s attention these days is, most acutely, on Sara. Riding a bike beside her as she runs, he watches her every move: How is her breathing? How is her form? Her pace? Her knee drive?

When he was a pro athlete, Ryan never wanted to be a coach. “It always just seemed like what all pro athletes do after they stop competing.” He aspired to no part of that cliché. But soon after retiring in 2016, he received a cold email from a runner in New York City looking for a coach. David Roeske, a fellow Stanford grad, had always admired Ryan’s “gutsy” approach to racing from afar. Recently back from climbing Everest without oxygen, Roeske’s body was wrecked. He hoped to PR in the upcoming NYC marathon that November. He also wanted to PR in the Fifth Avenue Mile, and win or PR the Empire State Building Run-Up, where he’d placed eighth in the past. “I thought Ryan might understand my weird set of goals.”

He did. Ryan took him on. For no other reason, really, then, well, what else was he doing? Plus, Ryan says, “he sounded like a cool guy.” Within a few months, Roeske accomplished several goals, if not those, including cutting his fastest marathon time from 2:37 to 2:34. Ryan told him, ‘Run the first 20 miles with your head, and the last six with your heart,’ Roeske recalls. “As I ran those last six miles I kept repeating, ‘With your heart! With your heart!’ as a mantra, and it fueled me through the finish.”

Ryan and Sara realized he should coach her, too. “It just made sense,” they both say, in separate conversations, like melded couples do. “You want your coach to know everything about you. How you sleep, how you eat, what makes you tick,” explains Sara. Ryan, obviously, knew it all. “He’s always been that person for me, even when he wasn’t my coach.”

Ryan and Sara, both devout Christians, bond over the Bible and statistics. Their lives are steeped in both scripture and the stopwatch. Luke 1:37. Sara 2:20.

Sara says she’s often felt misunderstood by her past coaches. She likes to experiment with her workouts and training. Ryan gets that. “We have a mutual trust. He trusts that I’m in tune with my body,” she says. “That’s allowed me to be more aggressive in my training than a coach would normally be.” Which means: Ryan lets her do crazy, unconventional things professional runners don’t typically do. Like, say, take relatively few rest days and run back-to-back marathons.

“Ryan’s goals are Sara’s goals, and Sara’s goals are Ryan’s goals,” as elite runner Rachel Johnson, 27, puts it. The fellow Christian athlete moved to Flagstaff in 2018 for its “skinny air” and the opportunity to train with Ryan Hall. His was a name she’d first heard from reading magazines like Runner’s World, back when she was a high school track star in Plano, Texas.

After just two phone calls with Ryan, she was sold. “I was like, I’m going to Flagstaff!” She could just tell: “He’d put everything into running himself. It was clear he was going to put everything into coaching, too.” He did. Johnson set several PRs and represented Team USA at the Great Stirling XCountry International Challenge 2019 in Scotland. “He’s made me a better runner,” she says. As well as a dedicated coach herself. In 2019, she moved to Virginia to coach cross-country at Liberty University; she also works for Run Free as a virtual trainer. She often hears herself sharing what she’s learned from Ryan with her own athletes. “He talks a lot about heart goals,” she says, “about how everyone has time goals, but you also need a heart goal.” To run a race with joy, perhaps; or to run without comparing yourself to others. “You may not achieve your time goal, but you can still feel good about achieving your heart goal,” says Johnson. “And you usually end up running way better than if you didn’t have a heart goal in the first place.”


Goals—time goals, heart goals—are what drive all the Halls. You can’t be a Hall (or for that matter, human, really) without them.

Back in 2019, plagued by injuries, Sara started writing her goals on the bathroom mirror, in erasable marker. 2020 Olympics… 68 half … 2:22… It helps focus her attention, she says. She likes how it shows her girls how you go after goals, how to tangibly put them front and center. After failing to make the Olympic team in February 2020, she came home and immediately wiped off “Olympic marathon trial champion” and replaced it with “America record holder.” It was her way of moving on, of looking forward. 

There was very little room left. “Can I have some space to look at my face?” Ryan joked not long ago, then squeezed one in: 200 pounds, he scrawled. “That one was clearly his,” Sara laughs.

Achieved. Ryan has indeed tipped the scale over two hundred. It was a “soft 200, though,” he says. He wants “a lean and cut” 200—muscle, not fat. Bulking up is not as fun as it sounds, he says. But bench-pressing 330, deadlifting 520, and squatting 475 and counting is. The other day he came across some dude on Instagram, from San Diego, who deadlifted 500 pounds then dropped it and immediately ran a 4:49 mile, a world record. It’s a rather niche record relative to the kind Ryan used to shatter, but still: He plans to beat it.

Maybe it’s Ryan’s easygoing yet self-assured tone, or his seemingly innate sincerity, or his guiding belief in God—or just the credibility that comes with super-heroic athleticism. But what in another messenger might be construed as self-help BS comes off as inspirational. “Anyone can be good at something,” he says, invoking wisdom gleaned from his father, who coached him as a kid. “But if you want to be great at something, it’s about finding what you’re made to do, and doing that.”

And Sara, it seems, is made to run. After taking some time off after her Olympic trials heartbreak in Atlanta, she got back in her Asics. And Ryan got back on his bike, pedaling alongside her, shouting “Put yourself there!” and “There is more there!” and “Make it feel easy!”—and, as her tempos and times continued to improve: “New normal!” (As in: this—this!—is your new normal.) In June, she ran a half marathon on the treadmill at her chiropractor’s office, setting a treadmill world record at 1:09:03. In August 2020, in a solo time trial, she ran 13.1 miles along a bike path in Eugene, Oregon, in 1:08:18, a personal record—and beating her mirror goal.

It was just the boost Sara needed going into October 2020’s London Marathon, a windy, rainy, pandemic-style bubble production. It was to be run by some 40 COVID-tested elite men and women, on a 1.3-mile loop, without spectators. Unless you count the cardboard cutouts of Queen Elizabeth and Prince William, complete with thumbs-ups, lining the course.

The first 13.1 was tough. “I was running alone in the silence,” says Sara. Which is not how Sara likes to run. She took it one lap at a time, spending most of the first half somewhere in the middle of the pack. Because of the loop route, she passed Ryan every six minutes or so. He was going crazy. “I was like a caged animal!” he says. “I had all this energy and nowhere to go. I’d see her come around and start screaming super loud.” Soon, Sara started to catch people, including Ethiopia’s Ashete Bekere, winner of the 2019 Berlin. As she moved from ninth place into fifth, then fourth… the switch was flipped. “I wanted the podium,” she says. Heading into the final lap, she found herself in third.

Watching her pain and effort and superhuman humanity, it was as if she had channeled not just all her training but all she’d been through, all we’ve all been through, all year. “I wanted to do something inspirational in London,” she says. She did.

Sara killed it, coming in second and completing the 26.2 miles in 2:22:01, the fastest of her career by 15 seconds, at age 37. Her kick-finish—a surge of the very best kind—blazing past Kenya’s Ruth Chepng’etich, 2019 marathon world champion, brought her, and Ryan, their daughters watching on TV, and people everywhere, runners and not, who happened to see the clip come across Twitter, to tears.

She came home to Flagstaff to flowers and chocolates that the girls had gone out and bought with their own money.

In late December, a mere 11 weeks after London, Sara wowed the world again at the Marathon Project: running circles around the three dozen competitors and mostly spectatorless 4.263-mile loop, finishing first with yet another personal 26.2 mile best: 2:20:32 — on the heels of Deena Kastor’s 14-year-strong 2:19:36.

And yet, Sara’s mirror doesn’t lie: “American record holder”—and breaking 2:20—had been her goal. Crossing the finish line, “the prevailing emotion I had was just disappointment,” she says. Though for the rest of us mortals watching, it was anything but. Instead, we saw a woman rise up, from the biggest blow of her career, during a goddamn pandemic to, once again kick butt, and become the second-fastest female marathoner in America.


People age. People change. Most people do it at a slow, steady clip. Not the Halls. Clearly, they move at a different pace. Over the past five years, all six have undergone transformations of epic proportions. Not to mention the fact that under Ryan’s tutelage, Sara just keeps getting faster, it seems.

In 2015, back in Ethiopia, the girls were prohibited from leaving the orphanage. But the eldest, Hana, had always wanted to be a runner, like the elite women runners of her birth country, and then, of course, like her adopted mom. Three years later, as a junior at Flagstaff High, she became the third Hall to win a state cross-country championship. (And win again.) In November, Mia, still a sophomore, became the fourth state champ in the family. “She took it from a minute in and never looked back,” Sara posted on Instagram, to her 148,000 followers.

Watching their daughters quite literally follow in their footsteps fills Sara and Ryan with immense joy. But so does watching the girls work hard in school. And master the English language after knowing not a lick of it. And rap every single word of “Hamilton” while playing on the banks of Colorado’s Slate River during a family vacation. Hana attends Grand Canyon University with a track scholarship. She’ll compete on the Division 1 squad, pandemic permitting. Mia is chasing PRs in the mile and 2-mile. When Jasmine grows up, she wants to be a Hollywood actress, but in the meantime she has joined the soccer team. Lily, age 10, wants to be a scientist.

“I just hope to show our girls what it looks like to come alive,” says Sara. “The world needs more people doing things they love.” Or as Ryan put it: people doing what they’re made to do.

Was he made to be a runner or a coach? “I was made to do both,” he says. “I think this is a common life experience, where one’s first life purpose is primarily ego driven. It’s about an individual trying to maximize their own potential, which gives way to a second purpose that is ‘other driven,’ where the goal is to help others maximize their own potential.” There is nothing wrong or better about one stage compared to the other, he adds. “They are both necessary and good.”

Helping others, as it happens, requires Ryan to do something he’d never done much of before: sitting. At his computer: at 5 a.m., writing his first book, Run the Mile You’re In: Finding God in Every Step, a religious-running memoir published in 2019. Typing up personalized workout programs for the dozen or so runners he trains virtually through Run Free. Sequestering himself in his garage, recording the weekly companion podcast, on which he chats effortlessly and honestly with guests like his younger brother Chad about booze and body image; with fellow runners Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb, about their high-school heyday when they were dubbed “the big three”; and occasionally with his wife, about training and breakthroughs and his famous high-protein pancakes. He has also sat on his couch watching The 41st Day, the new documentary about his career, from first-time filmmaker Tim Jeffreys. Three times.

“It was hard to watch,” he admits. “I felt like I was just watching a lot of failures, my failures, being played out on the big screen.” The pulled hamstrings and plantar fasciitis, the low testosterone levels, the fatigue that plagued his final years—years he practiced “faith-based coaching.” God was his coach. But even God couldn’t save him from the biggest failure of his career: his 11th mile walk-off and DNF at the 2012 London Olympics.

“I’d so clearly missed what God was telling me,” he recalls. In the months, leading up to the games, he’d had a vision. God had told him about a golden puzzle, which, of course, Ryan interpreted to mean a gold medal. Who wouldn’t?

It wasn’t until his third time watching the documentary—the final scene with Sara and their newly adopted girls—that it all came together. “I had this aha moment,” he says. A healing moment. “Wait a second…God never said it was a gold medal, he just showed me a golden puzzle, put together.” The golden puzzle, he realized, was his family, two families brought together into one.


Ryan may have symbolically—and literally—left his sneakers at the finish line in Sydney, after completing the World Marathon Challenge in 2017, a mind- (and body)-boggling seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, but as a husband and a coach and a father, he runs on. Through Sara who’s not slowing down; through Hana and Mia, who are just getting started; through David Roeske and Rachel Johnson and all the athletes who Run Free.

“Running isn’t meant to last forever,” he says, almost shrugging through the phone. “That’s what makes running special. That’s what makes life special.”

Still, don’t most runners want to run until we can’t? Doesn’t every runner but Ryan dread the day our bodies tell us to hang it up? I ask Ryan: Does watching Sara run—watching her arms pump and her chin lift and her legs churn in long, strong strides, in the prime of her career—ever make you jealous?

He pauses for less than the three seconds that gave way to his famous sub-2:05. Maybe it’s their faith in God, or their faith in each other, or their faith in training—but envy is wholly absent from their relationship. He cites a Biblical verse (Mark 10:9) as a way to describe their marriage: “And the two will become one flesh.”

Sara is hoping to get a chance to run a sub-68 minute half marathon and “get in sub 2:19:30 shape” by fall. Her hopes are concrete, clearly spelled out, right in front of her face as she stares into it every morning. 

After falling short of her Olympic team dreams again, in June, she watched the Tokyo games like the rest of us—at home. Still, today, at 38, her aspirations remain scrawled, and simple (so to speak): “Olympian” and “American record holder.” What she wants even more than the record, though, is to finish first in Chicago on October 10th.

What about Ryan? Apart from breaking the scale, I ask him what everyone, athlete or not, asks themselves —whether in the final days of December or summer’s waning sunlight. “What are your goals for the year ahead?”

At first, it seems as if he misinterpreted the word your—until I realized: no, I did. “Aw, man, there’s so much more there,” he says. “We still don’t know how fast Sara can go. I want her to finish her career knowing.”

Can California Tourism Survive Climate Change?

“Want to go camping in October?” a friend texted in August. Somewhere pretty, she suggested. Big Sur? “Yes, but …” I replied, “how about May?”

Fall used to be my favorite season. I’d traipse up and down California, from coastal cabins to backcountry lakes to wine-country weddings. But in the last few years, fall has become something I rationally, and irrationally, fear. It’s too unpredictable. Too hot. Too dry. Too smoky. Too anxiety-provoking.

I’m not the only one worrying. As climate change continues to ravage our planet, those who like to explore it — as well as the travel industry that supports them — are inevitably affected, too. Especially precarious and popular California. And yet no one seems prepared.

In 2019, California was the No. 1 state in visitor spending in the United States, according to Visit California, the state’s tourism agency, with tourists bringing in $145 billion to the state economy. It was an unprecedented amount. Travelers splurged at Napa wineries and San Francisco restaurants, San Diego surf-side hotels and Sierra slope-side resorts, Airstreams in Yosemite and yurts in Joshua Tree, stargazing in Los Angeles, whale-watching in the Channel Islands — and don’t forget Disneyland! California tourism saw 10 consecutive years of record growth — until the pandemic. In 2020, revenue plummeted 55 percent.

Now, as travel emerges, pent-up demand has many small towns from Ojai to Oakhurst rocking. This mixed-up moment may not be a fair gauge of what’s to come. What is to come? According to Visit California, a full recovery and then some — $157 billion tourist dollarsby 2025.

And yet: Wildfires consumed 4.2 million acres of California in 2020, and roughly 2 million so far this year alone. Severe drought forced quaint Mendocino inns to beg guests to conserve water. South Lake Tahoe was evacuated. In Death Valley, two hikers died in August from extreme heat, as did a family of three hiking southwest of Yosemite. This week’s welcomed rain came hard and fast, causing flooding, power outages and rockslides. All of this will continue in California’s future.

Though little research has been done on climate change’s long-term effects on tourism in the United States, much less in California, many scientists see the poorly managed forests through the trees.

“Places that are already hot are going to get hotter,” said Tamma Carleton, an assistant professor of economics at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We’re going to see extreme heat paired with impacted water supplies, and that will make it really hard for visitors to enjoy the activities they’re there to do, she explained. “Who wants to go wine tasting or hiking if you’re baking?”

Hot and unbothered in Wine Country

One of the state’s hottest tourism spots, Napa County, drew 3.8 million visitors in 2018 (and some $50 million in occupancy lodging taxes), according to Visit Napa Valley, the region’s tourism group. But it’s getting hotter.

Instead of four days of extreme heat each year, it will see 36 — a ninefold increase — by the end of the century, projected Lisa Micheli, founder of the Pepperwood Foundation, a Sonoma County climate research preserve (which has burned, twice, since 2017). Roughly 42 percent of Napa County was consumed by fire in 2020: land, vineyards and some 1,500 structures were lost, including one luxury hotel (Calistoga Ranch) and much of another (Meadowood). More power shut-offs, rising electricity bills, decreasing water supply, increasing infernos:These are problems that will only persist, Dr. Micheli said. “Whatever is stressed now, is just going to get worse.”

The science is way behind, said Marshall Burke, an associate professor at Stanford University who studies the social and economic impacts of environmental change. “The rate of change has been so dramatic. If I was the California tourism industry, I’d be really worried.”

And yet, it seems, it often isn’t. In Napa, the luxury hotel operator Auberge Resorts, which already operates two resorts in the region, is opening a third there, and another in arid Santa Ynez. And from Auberge to Airbnb to fully booked destination-wedding planners, not many cared to discuss how climate change will affect business.

“Maybe my head is in the sand, but I’m not going to put that negative energy out there!” laughed Sonja Burch, founder of Intimate Napa Weddings Napa Valley, a local wedding planner. Smoke-choked pools? B.Y.O. water to weddings? Last-minute cancellations? “Everyone is just thinking: ‘We’ll deal with it when the time comes,’” she said.

Perhaps reticence goes hand in hand with livelihoods. California’s tourism sector employed 1.1 million people in 2019, according to a report by Dean Runyan Associates, a tourism research firm. “Leisure and hospitality” is one of the top 10 drivers of California’s enormous economy — below industries like finance, manufacturing and health and education, but above the construction sector, according to a 2019 ranking of gross state products provided by the economist Troy Walter.

Visit California has said little publicly about climate change. At a trade show appearance in September, the president and chief executive, Caroline Beteta,briefly discussed the “natural phenomenon” of wildfire. She emphasized that while the fires in Tahoe resulted in mass evacuations, the flames didn’t infiltrate the “tourism corridors.”

Still, Visit California is starting to think about global warming. “Climate change impacts California in profound ways,” Ms. Beteta later wrote in an email. At a recent board meeting the group designated a board liaison, she noted, “to help navigate the industry’s approach to sustainable tourism and sound practices in destination stewardship.”

(California State Parks wanted to discuss all they’ve been doing to help mitigate the effects of climate change, but because of the Alisal fire, staff were unavailable to talk.)

Palm Springs is one of the few sunny tourist destinations in the U.S. climate scientists havestudied. Francesca Hopkins, an assistant professor of climate change and sustainability at University of California, Riverside, released a paper last year that looked at how climate change will affect snowbird season in the Coachella Valley. Conclusion: rather dramatically. (“And no one cared!” Dr. Hopkins said.) Daily temperatures between Thanksgiving and Easter have historically averaged below 86 degrees Fahrenheit, but going forward, research showed that there will be far fewer days that fall below that “pleasant” threshold. Palm Springs will become uncomfortable, on both ends of snowbird season,she projected, pushing those average daily temperatures toward 96 degrees, and almost doubling the number of extreme heat days.

More tangibly, the probability of having a high-heat day during April’s Coachella Music Festival will increase. Dancing in the desert in 105 degrees? “Even young people could experience heat stroke,” Dr. Hopkins said. “They’ll move the date.” Eventually, she said, people will start to think: “Why go to Palm Springs if it’s so miserable, when I can go to Monterey?”

Low snow, shorter ski seasons

Most research that has been done on climate change and U.S. travel destinations centers on ski resorts — which, facing decreasing snowpacks and truncated seasons, have had no choice but to assess their future. The number of low-snow years has spiked in the last 30 years, said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center at University of California, Davis.

“It’s the extremes that will hurt the ski industry,” he said. Extreme lows like on March 29, 2021, when the Sierra snowpack measured 89 inches — well below the 142-inch historic average.

Snow itself has declined as a fraction of the total precipitation in Tahoe, to 33 percent in 2020 from an average of 52 percent in 1910, according to “Tahoe: State of the Lake Report,” research published this year by U.C. Davis. In other words: We’re seeing rain in winter, when it should be snow. “Given that we are at an elevation of over 6,200 feet, have hosted the Winter Olympics and have a snow-based economy, this is a dramatic fall,” Dr. Schladow said. The number does not have to drop to zero, he explained, for Tahoe to no longer be a snow-based economy.

For many out-of-state skiers who must book visits in advance, Tahoe has become too unreliable to bother. Jonathan White, 47, of Boston had a ski trip planned several years ago for Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe). “Lack of snow caused us to bail, and actually just go to Stowe,” he said of the resort in Vermont. (Imagine: New England skiing being better than out West.) Now, if the investment manager wants to ski deep powder, Utah is his destination. The state’s snow, he said, is “much more predictable, when thinking about Western ski trips for our East Coast crew.”

Royal Gorge Cross-Country Resort, Tahoe’s largest — and, at 7,000 feet, highest — Nordic area, has been feeling it. Unlike its alpine sister property, Sugar Bowl, Royal Gorge is “100 percent reliant on Mother Nature,” said Jon Slaughter, the executive director of marketing for the privately owned properties. “It’s scary,” he said, but they’ve been doing all they can, including investing in snow-making machinery for Sugar Bowl and creating “low-snow” cross-country trails: super-smooth, packed tracks the resort can open with just 2 feet of snow compacted to a 6-inch base. The goal is to increase the miles of these low-snow trails in the coming years.

Still, not a lot of U.S. ski destinations “have a climate action plan, or have even done a risk assessment,” said Daniel Scott,research chair in climate and society at the University of Waterloo.In Canada, the Whistler resort has heavily marketed itself as a summer playground — to the point that summer visitors now outnumber winter. A wise idea for Tahoe’s dozen-plus ski resorts, too. Except, wait, wildfire.

Where there’s fire, it’s everywhere

The Caldor fire burned more than 220,000 acres in Northern California this year. The evacuation of South Lake Tahoe cost local businesses $93 million in lost revenue in two weeks, according to the Center for Economic Development at University of Nevada, Reno.

What’s even more disruptive than fire, said Dr. Burke of Stanford, is its erratic sidekick: smoke. Visitors can choose to avoid a place that’s burning, he said, but smoke is, well, up in the air.

This summer, Lori Droste, the vice-mayor of the city of Berkeley, and her family faced a series of doomed trips. In July, they booked a cabin near the McCloud River in Northern California, but had to cancel because of smoke from the Salt and Lava Fires. In early August, they made it to Serene Lakes, in the Sierra — but because of the Dixie Fire, were “basically confined to the Airbnb, because the smoke was so bad,” she said. They planned a do-over, during the Labor Day weekend. “But then Caldor was raging.” They canceled.

Shifts in where we go, when

California is often presented in the media as an object of disaster, as Tom Hale underscored to me. Mr. Hale is the founder of Backroads, the Berkeley-based travel company, which has been operating biking and outdoors-oriented trips in the United States and 54 other countries for four decades. It deals with fallout from it all, from hurricanes in Baton Rouge to floods in Berlin. As we all know, climate change is not a state or country specific issue.

And in California, 2021 has been Backroads’ best year yet; 2022 is booked nicely, too.

“I don’t see natural disasters having a permanent impact on demand,” Mr. Hale said. “Unless thewholestate is on fire — which is not the case. As much as newspapers make it out to be.”

Still, he acknowledges there have been some differences.

“Wine country used to be our bread and butter,” said Mr. Hale, “but we’ve seen a decline in bookings in the last five years.”

Utah State University study, published in September, found that changing climate conditions are likely to affect the recreational use of public lands across seasons and regions of the United States. California’s public lands are likely to see a decline in visitation primarily in the summer and fall. What people dothere will change, too.

These results hints at what’s bound to happen beyond the parks — to small towns and big hotels; mom-and-pop restaurants; “taco trails” and hiking trails. “When you put it all together, tourism patterns will be altered pretty significantly,” said Emily Wilkins, the study’s lead author.

A shift is already quietly, anecdotally, underway. In Northern California, low snow, early melts and high winds forced the Shasta Mountain Guides tour company to cancel its most popular route up Mount Shasta in April. Yet Casey Glaubman, a guide, offered words of higher wisdom. “Part of mountaineering is being flexible; adapting and adjusting plans is what it’s all about,” he said. “Things are changing, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of everything.”

It willmean running more rock-climbing trips, though. The mountains aren’t going away, he said. “There will just be more rock.”

It might also mean Napa promoting a lush spring, or Joshua Tree National Park touting starry winter skies. (And me perhaps sequestering myself in San Francisco each year until the winter rains begin.) Ski resorts, wineries, desert spas, woodsy retreats and more treasured California destinations will have to learn to attract visitors in different ways, at different times.

“Tourism in California is going to need some serious innovation,” said Dr. Scott, of the University of Waterloo. “Good thing you’ve got Silicon Valley.”

Rachel Levin is the author of “LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds,” and co-author of “STEAMED: A Catharsis Cookbook,” published in May. She lives in San Francisco.

When the Techies Took Over Tahoe

They just kept coming. The day-trippers, Airbnbers, second-home owners, and unmasked revelers. Unleashed after California’s first statewide COVID-19 lockdown ended in late June of last year, they swarmed Lake Tahoe in numbers never before seen, even for a tourist region accustomed to the masses. “It was a full-blown takeover,” says Josh Lease, a tree specialist and longtime Tahoe local. 

July Fourth fireworks were canceled, but that stopped no one. August was a continuation of what Lease called a “shit show.” 

The standstill traffic was one thing; the locals were used to that. But the trash—strewn across the sand, floating along the shore, piled around dumpsters—was too much. Capri Sun straws, plastic water-bottle caps, busted flip-flops, empty beer cans. One day in early August, Lease picked up a dirty diaper on a south shore beach and dangled it before a crowd. “This anyone’s?” he asked. 

Lease was pissed. He couldn’t believe the lack of respect people had for this beautiful area, his home for two decades. Plus, they’d invaded during a pandemic, bringing their COVID with them. 

That day, after the diaper incident, Lease went back to his long-term rental in Meyers, California, a few miles south of the lake at the juncture of Highways 89 and 50, where he could see the endless stream of cars. An otherwise even-keeled guy, he logged on to Facebook and vented. “Let’s rally,” he posted on his page, adding that he wanted to put together a “non welcoming committee.” He was joking—sort of. But word spread like the wildfires that would soon rage uncontrollably around the state. Before long someone had designed a flyer of a kid wearing a gas mask, with a speech bubble that read “Stay Out of Tahoe.” It went viral.

On Friday, August 14, at four o’clock, over 100 locals from around the lake began to gather. They commandeered the roundabouts leading into the Tahoe Basin’s major towns—Truckee, Tahoe City, Kings Beach, and Meyers in California, and Incline Village in Nevada—to greet the weekend hordes. Young women in bikini tops, elderly couples in floppy hats, and bearded dads bouncing babies in Björns held up hand-painted signs: “Respect Tahoe Life,” “Your Entitlement Sucks!,” and “Go Back to the Bay.” One old-timer plastered his truck with a banner that read “Go Away” and drove around and around a traffic circle.

But summer turned to fall, which turned to winter, which became spring, and the newcomers are still here. It’s not just the tourists anymore, whose numbers have ebbed and flowed with lockdown restrictions and the weather and whose trash has gone from wet towels twisted in the sand to plastic sleds split in the snow. There’s another population of people who came and never left: those freed by COVID from cubicles and work commutes. They migrated, laptops in tow, to mountain towns all over the West, transforming them into modern-day boomtowns: “Zoom-towns.”

“Absolutely bananas.” That’s how Truckee-based realtor Kaili Sanchez of Sierra Sotheby’s described real estate activity in 2020. And, she added with an air of disbelief when we spoke in mid-January, it’s still going strong. 

The bulk of Sanchez’s clients come from the Bay Area and L.A. “They’ll say, ‘I want all the screens out of the house,’” she says. “‘I just want to hear the birds! See the stars!’” But much of the activity is also represented by locals capitalizing on the frenzy and cashing out, she says. They’re heading to Reno, Nevada. To Montana. Back east, to the ice, to get two houses for the price of the Tahoe one. Year-over-year stats from Sierra Sotheby’s are staggering: In November 2019, the agencyhad 67 pending sales, totaling $38.2 million. In November 2020, it had 94 pending sales, totaling $127.6 million.

According to Zillow, Truckee (population 16,735) saw 193 home sales in December 2020 alone, an 88 percent increase over December 2019. Home values were way up, too—December’s median sale price in Truckee was $833,000, an almost 30 percent increase compared with the same month the year before. Sales have soared as high as the Sierra Nevada’s snow-covered peaks, especially for properties with views of them. In wealthy Incline Village, the median home price hit $2.2 millionin February 2021. And even on the relatively humble, less developed west shore, the median sales price in 2020 was $756,000. Inventory is at a historic low, while demand is at an all-time high. For example, Truckee’s Tahoe-Donner neighborhood typically has 80 to 100 homes for sale at any given time during the summer. In the first week of 2021, it had six. Buyers are signing contracts after Zoom walk-throughs, or even sight unseen, says Sanchez, and multiple offers over the asking price are now standard, as are all-cash bids. More than one Tahoe local has gotten a knock on their door, accompanied by an unsolicited offer: “I’ll give you $2 million for your house.” 

“It’s the wildest time,” says realtor Katey Brandenburg, who works on Tahoe’s Nevada side. For her and other realtors around the lake, the autumn of 2020 felt like winning the lottery. “I paid off a lifetime of debt—28 years of loans, college, credit cards, and cars—in three months.”

All told, 2020 saw more than 2,350 homes sold across the Tahoe Basin, for a boggling $3.28 billion, up from $1.76 billion in 2019, according to data analyzed by Sierra Sotheby’s. That $3 billion stat is on a par with 2020 home-sales revenues in Aspen, Colorado (albeit there, the latest average home-sale price came in at $11 million). The trend is in line with real estate records being shattered from Sun Valley, Idaho, to Stowe, Vermont. And according to a just-released market update, it hasn’t stopped: in the first quarter of 2021, median prices for single-family homes increased by an astronomical 70 percent year over year in Truckee, 72 percent in South Lake, and 81 percent in Incline Village.

With Tahoe just a four-hour drive (well, without traffic) from a Silicon Valley–funded tech city, San Francisco, the Zoom-town effect here embodies all of the cultural and economic tensions fueling the mountain edition of the Great COVID Migration. “It’s the white-collar flight,” says Colleen Dalton, CEO of Visit Truckee-Tahoe. Urban professionals are trading in the proverbial button-downs—or rather their Silicon Valley hoodies—for puffy jackets. 

“I’ve had several California clients tell me, ‘I don’t care if it’s Jackson or Park City,’” says star realtor Katherine Rixon from Ketchum, Idaho. “They just wanted a mountain town.”

According to U.S. Postal Service data analyzed by the San Francisco Chronicle, Truckee alone saw a 1,082 percent increase in San Francisco transplants between August 2019 and August 2020. More San Francisco households requested a change of address to that greater area’s 96161 zip code than to any other zip code in the country. And notably: “A disproportionate number of people who purchased homes in Tahoe in 2020 are employees of some of the largest tech companies in the Bay Area,” says Deniz Kahramaner, founder of Atlasa, a real estate brokerage firm that specializes in data analytics. Of the 2,280 new-home buyers Atlasa identified throughout the Tahoe region in 2020, roughly 30 percent worked at software companies. The top three employers were Google (54 buyers), Apple (46), and Facebook (34). 

Prior to the pandemic, most people who moved to the mountains would probably consider themselves the type to prioritize place over career: where you live comes first, what you do to support yourself while living there is a distant second. Jobs in the mountains rarely came with Slack accounts or stock options or even, very often, full-time salaries. You were either employed by the mountain or the restaurants, shops, and hotels surrounding it, or you carved your own path as a free agent and Lived the Dream, making bank and riding bumps. But in Zoom town, you can work for Pinterest and ski powder. The Dream has become a reality, and with it, the potential for a kind of culture clash that inherently follows all that cash: when those who have it and those who don’t begin living side by side.Tahoe residents rallying on the side of the road in August 2020(Photo: Tim Parsons)

Lake Tahoe has long been home to money. Some of the West’s wealthiest families first ringed the lake with their summer estates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these historic properties, like the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, are now state parks popular for snowshoeing in winter and picnicking in summer. The classic Cal-Neva Hotel and Casino, which sits on the north side of the lake, was owned by Frank Sinatra in the 1960s and was a haunt for JFK, Hollywood celebrities, and mobsters alike. Oracle’s Larry Ellison bought it for $36 million in 2018. (Plans for redevelopment and reopening have since been paused by the pandemic.) 

And yet somehow, despite Tahoe’s proximity to the Bay Area, it’s managed to stay relatively low-key compared to its posher mountain-town peers. Most of the swank has been confined to the resort villages (such as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Northstar); behind the country-club gates at the 2,200-acre, mansion-studded Martis Camp; and at secluded lakefront estates, like Mark Zuckerberg’s $59 million compound on the west shore, which he bought in 2019. When I ask Heidi Hill Drum, CEOof the Tahoe Prosperity Center, why the area has neveroozed glitz, she hypothesizes that part of it may be because Tahoe is a more local, drive-up market, unlike Aspen, Telluride, and its ilk, where visitors fly in.

Still, locals worry that the “Aspenification of Tahoe” is underway. “Private jet traffic is just as busy as it was before, but the character of flights has changed,” says Hardy Bullock, director of aviation and community services for the Truckee Tahoe Airport. Now it’s mostly midweek business travel, whereas before the pandemic, it was Bay Area families flying in and out on weekends. “Those families live here now,” he says.So do young, kid-free professionals with money to burn. At one lakefront restaurant, I recently overheard a stylish couple talking startup valuations and ordering rounds of $100 bottles of wine on an ordinary Wednesday.

They migrated, laptops in tow, to mountain towns all over the West, transforming them into modern-day boomtowns: “Zoom towns.”

Silicon Valley money hasn’t dramatically transformed the character, or tenants, of Tahoe’s various downtowns yet. A walk-up lift ticket this winter at Squaw Valley might be pushing $230, but that’s a symptom of the ski industry, not the tech industry. (Locals old and new have season passes anyway.) Most businesses in downtown Truckee are still locally owned, says Cassie Hebel, executive director of the Merchants Association. Grassroots organizations like Mountain Area Preservation have worked hard to keep it that way. Unlike Aspen, it’s doubtful a Prada store will ever come to Truckee, and Hebel says it’s doubtful the town would even support a Prana store. People here don’t want global brands and chains, whether they’re luxury or low-key, she explains. And unlike the more remote ski towns, those visitors who do can just drive back to the Bay for that.

What’s more, there are a lot of budding upsides to the influx of new residents: Diversity. Locally operated grocery delivery (which has provided jobs to laid-off restaurant workers during the pandemic). More culinary and cultural offerings. Higher property taxes going toward public services. And more money eventually pumping into bars and restaurants. Drum sees the potential for a more diversified economy and workforce in a traditional tourist destination. What if Strava opened a Tahoe City satellite office? she muses. What if a college grad who comes to ski could stay and be an engineer? What if Santa Cruz Bicycles decided to have a testing base out here? 

Finally, more homes being filled with full-timers means fewer homes being rented out on Airbnb for, say, Tuesday-night bachelor parties. (North Tahoe’s Washoe County recently passed an ordinance cracking down on short-term rentals, aiming to help curb the ongoing complaints about them.) Even with the influx of new homeowners, the Tahoe Basin actually has fewer full-time residents than it did at its peak in 2000. Says Drum, “We’ve got room for more.”

There is, however, one glaring issue with all this rapid, high-priced growth: the people who actually make a mountain town run—the ski instructors and patrollers, lift operators and shuttle drivers, housekeepers and snowcat mechanics, cooks and servers—can no longer afford to live there. 

This isn’t a new problem. Nor is it unique to Tahoe. Lack of affordable housing in regions dominated by tourism and the low-paying service sectors that support it is a decades-old issue. It’s just suddenly on steroids.

“It’s very scary,” says Deb Lee, pulling down her mask to take a sip of coffee from her favorite café, Zuri. It’s a sunny, snowless afternoon in mid-January, and we’re sitting on opposite tapestry-draped couches outside Truckee’s beloved 50-50 Brewery and adjoining Drunken Monkey restaurant, where her daughter, Katie Baillargeon, is the general manager. (And which was preparing to reopen for outdoor dining again the next day.) 

Deb and her husband, Spencer, moved to Truckee from New England in 2014. A lively, fleece-clad couple pushing 60, the Lees wanted to be closer to Katie, who settled here after college in 2012. Deb found a job in town, the couple fell in love with the community, and eventually, in 2018, they signed a three-year lease on a cabin near Northstar. “We cared for it like our own,” says Deb.

When COVID-19 hit, Deb, who is immunocompromised, couldn’t return to her retail job. But she and her tight-knit neighbors brought each other food. “We helped one another,” she says, tearing up.

On August 1 of last year, the Lees came home from a walk and discovered an eviction notice taped to the door. “Not even a phone call,” says Spencer. “We had 60 days to get out.” 

“I contacted every real estate office, banged on every door,” says Deb. “I was crying every day.” All the long-term rentals online were booked. Every storage unit within driving distance had a waiting list 50 people long. Their three-bedroom cabin, built in 1975, was listed for $1 million and sold within a week. “Cash,” says Spencer. To a couple who barely looked 30 years old.

A year into the pandemic, affordable homes in Tahoe have disappeared faster than the snow on the 55-degree Friday I visited in mid-January. According to the Tahoe Prosperity Center, in 2019, only 28 percent of residents in the Tahoe Basin could afford to buy a home—a percentage expected to drop after 2020 stats are tallied, says Drum. And the rental market is hardly an affordable alternative. Recently, Spencer forwarded me a Redfin listing he found for a basic, four-bedroom house in Truckee going for $6,000 a month. He prefaced it with one flippant word: “Sure.”

Some locals are trying to help. Truckee-based Colin Frolich, the 40th employee at Lyft, is putting his tech money toward the problem caused in part by tech money. He founded Landing Locals in 2018, with his wife, Kai. The company aims to personally match long-term renters in Tahoe and other resort towns like Telluride, Colorado, and Big Sky, Montana, with second- or third-home owners who’d rather invest in the community than deal with the churn or COVID-related hassles of Airbnb. 

Landing Locals tried to help the Lees, but to no avail. Demand among renters in need was too high.Eventually, the Lees posted a Hail Mary plea on Nextdoor. A man miraculously came to their rescue, with a cabin in Carnelian Bay, on the lake’s northern shore. They got lucky.Lake Tahoe

We should talk about the shoveling.

City slickers can be naive about mountain ways, say the seasoned Tahoe locals. “[There are]a lot of new people up here this year who don’t know how to move snow,” a Tahoe-Donner resident commented on Nextdoor in late November. “Using a shovel is like rocket science man, not everyone gets it.”

“A lot of us feel like they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” says Matt Schorr, a Tahoe-raised realtor. For instance, he’ll ask buyers if they want the seller of a new house to throw in a snowblower, and the buyer, having purchased the home during the gorgeous summer, will pass it up. “They’ll be like, ‘Nah, we don’t need it,’” he says.

They have more basic weather concerns instead. The Lees’ daughter, Katie Baillargeon of the Drunken Monkey, says the restaurant gets calls at dinnertime from folks asking if it’s cold outside. It’s winter in the mountains: “Of course it’s cold outside!” she says. 

Some new neighbors have so many questions that longtime second-home owner turned full-timer Dayna Grubb and her husband, Terry, have jokingly considered compiling them into a pamphlet. “We call it Terry’s Tips,” says Dayna. “What’re those poles lining the driveway?” (So the plow doesn’t tear up your yard.) “Who do we call to plow?” (Jesse.) “What’s up with all the exterminators?” (They’re for the carpenter ants, which invade every spring.) Terry also offers unsolicited tips: Don’t put your trash out the night before collection, and don’t ever keep any food in your cars. (Bears.) And definitely don’t leave your dog outside. (Coyotes.)

Many of the newbies are also “super tree huggers,” says Lease, the tree specialist. Clients who have never heard of defensible space—the landscaped buffer created around a home to protect it from flames in a wildfire—will tell Lease, I want to save this tree! “It’s not their fault,” he says. “You go from a concrete jungle to being surrounded by burnable material, you don’t necessarily understand. But they need to learn.”

The other big thing they need to learn, locals say, is how to safely venture into the backcountry. As in other mountain regions, interest in backcountry skiing and snowboarding skyrocketed in Tahoe over the winter, driven in large part by the new arrivals and the COVID-related desire to avoid resort crowds.The trailheads are often overparked by 9 A.M. To be fair, it seems many are eager to learn: sign-ups for some intro classes and American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 courses sold out back in August. Backcountry Babes, the 24-year-old backcountry-education organization, had a waiting list 100 names long. 

Other first-timers, though, are more clueless.“People will come in and ask, ‘Do you guys have any of those avalanche finders?’” says one Tahoe-born employee who works for a gear store in Truckee. They’re referring to the lifesaving beacon-probe-shovel package, and their lack of knowledge is “scary,” he says. “New, inexperienced groups increase the avalanche risk for everybody.” (Around the West, the 2020–21 season has been one of the deadliest on record, although Tahoe has been unscathed by avalanche fatalities so far.)

As Caleb, one localchef who preferred to speak with a pseudonym, put it: “This isn’t the Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park—you can actually fucking die out here.” 

Locals hope the harsh living might weed some people out. Back in December, Truckee resident Matt Chappell, who’s lived in the area nearly 25 years, told me, “Everyone’s hoping for a huge winter to knock people back to the Bay. The winter that destroys your roof and blows your back out shoveling.” Now, as vaccines roll out and cities reopen, some hope the quiet mountain life everyone craved during the pandemic will lose its luster in muddy May. Because what many local residents fear more than unprepared transplants is the long-term incursion of what one person called “the San Francisco vibe.” 

For one, there’s the honking. People never honked before, says Chappell. Now he’s honked at while crossing the street with his kids. The chef, Caleb, got honked at the other night. “I was like, Are you reallyhonking at me because I’m not driving fast enough out of the Raley’s parking lot?” he says. “You’re in this dreamy place! And you’re honking?”He rolled down the window of his weathered Wranglerand told the guy in the squeaky-clean white BMW X3, “Hey man, why don’t you go wash your car?”

This newcomer shininessis part of what annoys the lifetime locals.All the sparkling cars, the untested gear, the brand-new puffy coats, and the eager-beaver enthusiasm.“Tahoe is attracting a less calloused crowd,” Lease says. “I miss the diehards. It’s like the Good Vibes Squad around here!”

Except when they’re complaining and giving off bad vibes, of course. “‘I ordered this a second ago, and I want it right now,’” says Sanchez, offering an example. “‘Why is the Wi-Fi so slow?’ ‘Why isn’t the gym open?’ ‘We need a heater.’” Lease recalls the time “a house full of techies” moaned about the noise from the chainsaws when he showed up for a three-day tree-clearing job. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he told them. “Welcome to the woods!”

And finally, there are the Teslas. Almost every local I spoke to talked about the number of Teslas, though a couple did point out that the company had opened a new factory in nearby Storey, Nevada. Nonetheless, there they are: The Teslas blowing through intersections. The Teslas stuck in the snowy ditch. The Teslas spun out on steep Northwoods Boulevard. Again.At a rally in Tahoe last AugustAt a rally in Tahoe last August (Photo: Tim Parsons)

To be fair, for every bumbling newbie, there is another who’s been coming here for years and who prepared for this move long before the pandemic. They’re ready for the storms, the fires, and the fact that it’s hard to find good Indian food. They’re happy.

Dayna and Terry, of Terry’s Tips, moved into the weekend cabin they’d owned for more than ten years last June and never looked back. “Why would we?” says Dayna, who runs a small online retail business. Now they go for sunset walks and gather around the Solo Stove with their new neighbors (including, admittedly, a few from the tech industry). “We’ve met more people here in six months than we did 12 years in Berkeley,” she says. 

Nina, a director at a Silicon Valley–based AI company who asked that only her first name be used, moved to the area in October, when she bought her first home just five minutes from Heavenly Ski Resort. She and her husband, newly married thirtysomethings, say they may not be experts at mountain life, but they’re eager to learn. (YouTube has been helpful, she says—it’s where they learned how to rake pine needles.) When she’s not working, Nina is snowboarding with women she met on local Facebook groups. She’s in heaven.

But like other newcomers, she and her husband have sensed a little resentment. She recalls the time a check-out woman at a grocery store in Stateline, Nevada, gave her and her husband one look and said, “Oh, you’re not going to last a winter.” She admits to skirting around the fact that they moved during the pandemic in casual conversations with locals. “I’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not the bad tech people,’” she says. Another source told me, “There’s a lot of negative feelings about people like us.” Most Bay Area transplants I spoke with similarly requested anonymity, and many more declined to be interviewed. (So did many longtime locals. “Sorry, it’s a touchy subject,” one told me.) The newcomers just want to quietly slip in and fit in. 

Not everyone has that option, though. If you’re not white, like 82 percent of people in Truckee, you stand out, says Grace (not her real name), who is Korean-American and moved into her longtime second home last spring before the boom. Being Asian American “is like a big ‘Bay Area’ sign pointing at my head,” she says. She was disgusted by the “Kung flu” comments and other casually racist quips she saw on Facebook and deeply disturbed by the time she was fake sneezed on at the Safeway. She and her family moved back to San Francisco full-timeby the fall: “I needed to be with my people,” she says. But thanks to the influx of new homeowners, she says, Tahoe feels a little more comfortable on the weekends, a wee bit more diverse. In honor of the Lunar New Year, the Trokay restaurant in Truckee even debuted an all-Asian takeout menu for the month of February. “The fact that they’re doing this makes me feel hopeful,” Grace says. Still, her husband, who is white and wears flannel, handles the contractors; otherwise, she says, “I get gouged with Silicon Valley pricing.”

Cross-country skiing past a trailpost carved with the words “Locals Only” doesn’t feel good. Neither does being evicted mid-pandemic because someone with more money wants to move in. Both beg a very American question that’s long been asked at the intersection of rural and urban, between the haves and have-nots. 

Who’s a local? Someone with duct tape on their Gore-Tex? Who belongs in a mountain town? In a city? In this country? “Are you a local if you were born in Tahoe?’” says Lyft’s Colin Frolich facetiously. “Our friends like to joke that you’re a local if you went to high school here, and are divorced.” 

In the Great COVID Migration to the mountains, do Dayna and Terry count as locals? They bought their house more than ten years ago but only relocated ten months ago. Do the Lees count? Their daughter, who had to lay off most of her local restaurant staff, is a local, right? How about the Salesforce guy who’s been hiking Sunrise Bowl for two decades and just paid $100,000 more than he’d anticipated for his first house in Tahoe-Donner? He drives a Tacoma, after all.

The Dream has become a reality, and with it, the potential for a kind of culture clash that inherently follows all that cash: when those who have it and those who don’t begin living side by side.

Ultimately, most of the locals I spoke with said they welcome anyone who wants to be in Tahoe as long as they respect its trails, its quietude, its small-mountain-town culture. “We have this soulful community,” says Chappell. Reminiscing about pre-COVID times, he remembers, “When you walk down Main Street, six people stop to give you a hug. I worry that we’ll lose that connection. I worry that we’ll lose that soul.”

What Tahoe will always have, though, is its heart: the lake, where on a quiet winter night, after the sun sets behind the snowy peaks, the water and sky melt into one as they morph from electric Sierra pink to brooding blue. The lake, and the mountains around it, are why locals both old and new are here. “What we all want—what we really want—is to ski fresh pow in the winter and catch big fish in the summer,” says Caleb, the chef. 

The outdoors has always been the draw, the great equalizer. Even longtime locals admit that what one does for work is ultimately beside the point. “It’s not about how much money you make,” says Frohlich. “What matters is, did you skin up Castle Peak?”

People everywhere are hanging on to the past, hoping their towns, cities, country, and, above all, their lives return to normal. The pandemic shook everything up: neither Tahoe nor the world will likely return to what it once was. But change has always been a certainty. 

“My father-in-law moved to Squaw in the sixties and has seen several cycles of this,” says Chappell. “He always says, ‘You can either get on board the steam train and help steer it, or you can complain about it and leave.’”

In Defense of Grapefruit Spoons (and Anchovy Forks, and Peanut Butter Knives)

We had two grapefruit spoons when I was growing up. Stragglers, clearly, from somewhere. They sort of scared me: With their sharp teeth, they were the sharks of the silverware drawer. Since only my parents ate grapefruit, only they used them. My parents had grapefruit spoons because their parents had grapefruit spoons, but those came with more pomp: They were sets of eight, sterling silver, each lying peacefully in its own slot in a felted wooden box. Whereas our serrated, stainless steel duo lived unceremoniously, jumbled among the teaspoons. Every so often I’d accidentally grab one and get a good cheek-graze with my Honey Nut Cheerios.

Once I had my own home, and my own silverware, I forgot all about the citrus spoon, even though I came to love grapefruit. Instead, I painstakingly cut through the membranes with a versatile paring knife, until each wedge was wrested free. Using a grapefruit spoon to eat a grapefruit seemed akin to using an umbrella in a drizzle. A little ridiculous. Dainty. I was tougher than that. More practical, too.

Like fine china, specialized silverware seemed so antiquated. One-off utensils of yore. So Emily Gilmore-esque effete. So superfluous. Just more stuff in a drawer — in a world! — already cluttered. My kitchen had what it, and I, needed, and nothing more.

Until I met my mother-in-law, the queen of obscure, single-use culinary gifts of the inexpensive, unrefined kind: plastic-square pan scrapersstrawberry de-stemmersapple slicers — she’s sent them all from across the country, with love. It was the pasta scooper that sold me. Serving spaghetti had always been more of an unruly spoon-fork-lift affair for me — and now here I was! Filling bowls like a boss, not a strand astray. It began to dawn on me: By dismissing such humble, hyper-specific inventions, I was actually making my kitchen more complicated.

But while the pasta scooper made me a single-use convert, there’s no Grandma Ida Kitchen Item I’ve loved more than the peanut butter knife. With a sturdy, thick, red handle and perfectly curved 7-inch stainless steel blade, the $12.99 utensil gets to the bottom of the jar, “saves your knuckles” from getting gooped (per the website), and spreads flawlessly. Its official name is the PB-Jife, and it has its own rather catchy jingle, or (ahem) jam, written and recorded by PB-Jife founder Landon Christensen. “It’ll change your life,” the lyrics promise.

Or at least change your mornings. As someone who eats peanut butter toast for breakfast five or six days a week, it has changed mine. Especially those mornings when I pull my toast hot out of the toaster (oven, always) only to realize I’ve got a brand-new jar that needs stirring, fast. And efficiently, sans the oily spillage that inevitably comes from a simple butter knife, or what I used to use: a backward-facing soup spoon. (Not a bad option, but it’s no PB-Jife.)

Of course, the PB-Jife is not some priceless family heirloom, some marrow scoop passed down through generations. It’s not a relic of another time. It evokes no nostalgia. Single-use silverware itself, on the other hand, does. Consider the Ortiz anchovy fork. That cute, dollhouse-sized prong that comes affixed to the jar of olive oil-packed filets, to keep your fingers from smelling like anchovies all night. A treat taped to a treat, since 1891.

Occasionally, I’ll keep the Ortiz fork for a stint. To use with the cheaper jars, the lesser jars, that come without a fork of their own. I go through a lot of them. For six years running, I’ve been a jar-carrying member of an Anchovy Supper Club. Every dish must feature the bottom feeder, or its friends. My friend Samantha gussied up our most recent socially distanced backyard meal with a rare form of vintage fish flatware: a sardine fork. The squat, multi-tined symbol of Victorian refinement was used by oh-so-sophisticated people to horizontally support the slick and slender tinned fish. As did we, unpolished people, using it to bestow potato chip after potato chip with one marinated anchovy after another.

A collectible utensil, a single sardine fork can fetch upward of $900 on auction sites. Samantha found hers, etched and elegant, on Etsy for $30. A luxury, yes, but a little one. It left us swooning. Amortized over all our Anchovy Club years to come, we concurred: The fork was a worthwhile investment.

Did we need this wide-mouthed little-fish fork? Of course not. Specialized silverware is never necessary. That’s what makes it special. A simple, affordable, and, yes, superfluous pleasure smaller than a bread box. (Also nice, but non-essential).

The point is: The blissful functions of these forks and spoons and knives far outweigh both their price and the kitchen space they take up. Life is hard; single-use silverware makes it infinitesimally easier. It also makes me realize that maybe my grandparents, with their precious felted boxes, knew best.

One winter, a few years ago, I was reintroduced to the grapefruit spoon, and more specifically to its simple genius and true joys. My friend Lisa showed up to a shared Airbnb bearing breakfast fixings — bagels and cream cheese and coffee beans, and not only organic grapefruits but, being the overachiever that she is, a Ziploc of grapefruit spoons. All the freaking gear involved in packing for a family ski weekend, and this saint of a woman packed grapefruit spoons, too? “You can’t eat grapefruit without a grapefruit spoon,” she said, matter-of-fact.

She was right. The ease! The effortlessness! The neatly scraped rind! All that sweet satisfaction without an ounce of exertion. (And only $5.99 for a set of four at Bed Bath & Beyond.) She accidentally left them behind. They’ve lived happily among my teaspoons ever since, but lately I’ve been thinking they deserve better.

The other day, over a family text thread, I learned that my mother-in-law ate a grapefruit every single night for decades, until her cardiologist told her to stop. She never used a grapefruit spoon, though, she said. What! Why not? I asked. “Why would I?” she responded. “I had a grapefruit knife.”

Rachel Levin is the coauthor of EAT SOMETHING (Chronicle Books, 2020), and STEAMED: A Catharsis Cookbook for Getting Dinner and Your Feelings on the Table, which comes out in May, from Running Press.

The Cut: Can I Interest You in a Dogshare?

Maybe I’m a monster, but all the posts of pandemic puppies have annoyed me. As have the calls from friends that precede them. “I’ve got news!” no longer applies to just engagements and pregnancy but rescue mutts and $4,000 bernedoodles. It’s not that I don’t find all these new dogs adorable — I do. It’s just that with everyone I e-meet, it feels like I’m one step closer to succumbing to my family’s command: that we get a dog, too.

Thirty-one days into quarantine, they ambushed me after the 31st dinner I’d cooked in a row, with a PowerPoint presentation entitled “WHY WE SHOULD GET A DOG,” littered with pictures of irresistible pups and prayer-hand emoji. My sweet little 11-year-old daughter poured her heart and soul into these slides and argued her case like an extra-small RBG, and still: Being the cold-hearted mother I guess I am, I remained unconvinced. And told her so. And made her cry.

I didn’t want a dog pre-COVID, and I don’t want one post-COVID, though I admit I can see the appeal of a dog mid-COVID.

The begging continued. My kids told me I’m “ruining everything.” In the heat of quarantine bliss my husband said he wants a dog so that when we get divorced he has someone who loves him. Around Day 120, I semi-acquiesced: Okay. We can get a dog, I said, on one condition — and one word: DOGSHARE. Part-time. Splitsies. A cuddly King Charles or bark-y beagle, maybe even a giant Newfoundland (please God, anything but a golden retriever) that will shuttle evenly between two loving, likeminded homes, like the child of an amicable divorce. My friend Samantha is onboard. She lives by San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Our urban dog would have a beach house!

It’s an idea I’d been chewing on for a while. It sounds dreamy. All that puppy love and affection for half the price. The pros appear plenty. Week on, week off. No $35/hour dogsitters. No pleading with friends to pleaaase watch Wobbles. We could hike any trail! Loll on any beach! Rent any Airbnb. Fly back east to visit family without spending money to board a dog and a plane. The cons seemed nonexistent, until I started talking about it. “Once you have a dog, you’re not going to want to share her,” warned Nina, snuggling her new Cockapoo the other night on Zoom. “It won’t know its true owners,” counseled Maddy. “The dog will get confused.” Bullshit! (Which, I declared, I don’t want to pick up either.)

I rang a professional dog person. “Am I being selfish?” I asked Clive Wynne, a behavioral scientist, founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, and author of the 2019 book Dog Is Love. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he assured. “Dogs experience strong emotional connections, but they also come into and out of relationships easily.I see no reason at all that a dog couldn’t find it tremendously satisfying. I bet the dog would be thrilled!”

In his three-decade career, Dr. Wynne has never known anyone to dogshare, he said, but it sounds like a decent antidote to the modern ill of dog loneliness. In normal, non-quarantined times, “We bring dogs into our busy lives, then treat them like Wii consoles,” he said. “Alexa doesn’t get depressed if you don’t speak to her for a week, but a dog does.” A dog shared across two parties, he reasoned, is better than a dog too often ignored by one. After all, what will become of all the pandemic pups once the pandemic ends (if it ever ends) and their owners get back to their busy lives?

After mulling it over, Cameron Woo, co-founder of long-running magazine The Bark, agreed. “The traditional concept of the nuclear family has been turned upside down … What we consider a traditional dog’s family could, too.”

Woo certainly has a point.Why, in a world where we share cars and houses and clothes, hasn’t this clearly win-win notion of dogsharing caught on?Services like Copuppy and Let’s Share a Dogcropped up several years ago, allowing strangers to enjoy a furry fling for a walk or a weekend, but neither ever really took off. Breakups often lead to embattled co-custody of pets, and the legal contracts that go with it. So why not two families willing to share a Fido — forever — from the get-go?

“It’s not the dogs, it’s the humans,” said Dr. Wynne. Consistency is key for dogs, which calls for agreement among people. How many walks a day? Is the dog allowed on the couch? At the table? Is that $7,000 surgery necessary? Dogsharing wouldn’t work for everybody, he warned.

It works for Heather McIlhany. “It’s the freaking best,” said the D.C.-based marketing executive. She and her ex-boyfriend share two Jack Russell mixes, swapping every week and splitting all expenses. Just because she loves having her dogs half time doesn’t mean she loves them any less, she points out.“A dog shouldn’t be treated like an end table. When I’m with Cora and Crash, we go for long walks. But they also puke on the couch, bark at every falling leaf. If I had them every week, it might feel like a burden.” Sure, she gets “a little pang” watching the dogs run into her ex’s house, nary a look back, and since the pandemic began it’s been lonelier. But then they’re reunited and it feels so good. “I tell everyone they should set their life up this way!”

Not all experts think such a set up affords a good dog life, though. Crossing town every two weeks would be “disruptive” for all but the most resilient dogs, said Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts’ Cummings Medical Center. “You have to think not just how it’s going to be for you — but how it’s going to be for the dog.”

For Lulu, a French bulldog in San Francisco, it’s been fabulous.“She has two families,” said Suma Gona, a psychiatrist. For the last ten years, they’ve split the week with another couple. “I thought it was crazy, but they just fell in love with Lulu. They take her to acupuncture! She has this whole other life!” At 14, it has also been a long life. No doubt due, in part, to all the attention that’s come from their unique arrangement — which will likely expire with Lulu. “The kids want to get another dog, but I don’t know …” said Dr. Gona, considering the full-time commitment. “That would be a lot.”

My fear exactly. Dogs are work! I whined to Dr. Borns-Weil. “Well, I also have a ball python,” she offered. “They like to wrap around your arm and you only have to feed them once a week.” (Albeit “a defrosted medium-size rat.”) I floated the option to my family.

They prefer a dog. “But I’ll take a snake,” said my 8-year-old, “if we don’t have to share it.”

Instagram’s Most Fascinating Subculture? Women Hunters.

It’s a dry January, which means two things on this girls’ trip to central Arizona: we’re all skipping the margaritas tonight, and the river will be low enough for our Tacoma to cross in the morning.

Crowded into a booth at a Mexican restaurant in a small town near the edge of Tonto National Forest, swapping names and where-are-you-froms, we are a motley crew: two millennials wearing camouflage and eyelash extensions, an overalls-clad photographer who lives in an Airstream, and me, a San Francisco food writer soon to be out of her comfort zone.

Our server, Penny, flower pen poised over her notepad, is confused. “I have to ask,” she says, inspecting us through rhinestone-studded spectacles. “What are you ladies doing here?” 

Rihana Cary, 33, and Amanda Caldwell, 32, friends who met on Instagram, look at each other. They’re used to this question.

“We’re going hunting,” Amanda explains.

“What? Four ladies hunting? All by ­yourselves? Well,” says Penny. “This is rather interesting.” She wishes us luck.

Apparently, we’re going to need it. What we have, I learn, is a late-season, last-minute, over-the-counter, nonresident, archery-only antlered-deer tag on public land. We’ll be hunting mule deer: an animal that’s flighty and fast, with 310-degree vision, a sense of smell a thousand times stronger than ours, and ears twice the size of Alfred E. Neuman’s. The $300 tag will be difficult to fill—odds of success are just ­10 percent. In other words, it will take serious luck to bag a buck in the next five days. But also serious skill, which these ladies definitely have. 

Ladies they don’t mind. Just don’t call them huntresses. “We hate that word,” says Rihana, who lives in Layton, Utah, and works as a marketing director for Mtn Ops, a company that sells nutritional supplements and clothing for hunters. “It’s too sexualized, like temptress or seductress. Why does everyone try to put us in our own category? We’re hunters”—like hikers are hikers and runners are runners. Amanda, a realtor from rural Montana, agrees.

The style of bowhunting we’ll be doing, called spot and stalk—spotting an animal from afar, then stalking it until we’re within shooting range—is popular on the vast public lands open to hunters in the West, and it’s much harder than, say, deer hunting from a tree stand, which is more common in the East. “There will be lots of highs and lows,” Rihana warns. “But if we do get a deer, it’s going to be epic.”

I want epic. I think. As a liberal, urban, coastal-living walking cliché, I care where my food comes from: I’ll pay for the precious $4 peach, the $8 carton of local eggs, and whatever my bougie butcher counter charges for its organic grass-fed beef. But I have never cared quite enough to take it to the next level and harvest my own. That’s why I’m here, to fulfill my moral obligation as a meat eater. To experience what it feels like to, if not kill the animal myself, at least watch it die. And then, you know, help dismember it before sitting down to dinner.

Modern-day omnivores have long outsourced the dirty work, of course. And in doing so, we’ve created something even dirtier: factory farms and slaughterhouses. Things most meat eaters like to ignore for the ease and inoffensiveness of picking up a pound of plastic-wrapped chicken breasts on the way home from work.

“Ohhh, he’s so killable!” whispers Amanda, her long blond locks free-flowing around her moon-shaped face.

In 2004, David Foster Wallace wrote in Gourmet about lobster, though the same holds true for steak: “As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about it.”

But today, food has come to dominate our collective conversation. “Who makes the best ramen?” is the new “It looks like rain,” and photos of Early Girl tomatoes get nearly as many likes on Instagram as photos of cute kids. At the same time, we’re increasingly concerned about the environment and climate change—according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock contributes 14.5 percent of the world’s human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. The result is our fervent desire to know the source of everything we eat, from our honey to our halibut. Consumer interest in sustainable food increased 23 percent from 2018 to 2019, according to a recent study by Tastewise, a data platform for the food industry. Harvesting your own meat is a way to opt out of the distasteful aspects of factory farming. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened our interest in self-sufficiency, from gardening to raising backyard chickens to hunting. While people panic about meat shortages, having the ability to secure your own supper is an attractive idea. 

Hunting in America has long been associated with gun culture, something for dudes who love to drive big rigs and drink beer and shoot things. But shouldn’t it also be associated with food culture, something for women like me­—or, really, anyone—who love to hike and drink wine and eat things?

Rihana Cary closing in on a buck

We leave our Airbnb and roll into the desert before first light. Everyone but me is dressed in top-of-the-line camo. Rihana wears Under Armour, which has sponsored her as an athlete since 2015. (The company started making women’s hunting apparel in 2011.) Amanda has on more than $700 worth of Sitka gear in Gore Optifade. I’m rocking a pair of baggy REI zip-offs circa 2006, which I pulled from the depths of my dresser because they were khaki, and a puffy jacket, which is lime green. (I know. It’s all I had.)

Clouds stutter across the sky as it glows gold. A thin frost coats the hard, reddish ground, crunching beneath our boots. Snow-dusted mountains rise in the distance. Rihana and Amanda, whose hair and makeup look better at dawn in the desert than mine would at a black-tie dinner, break out binoculars. They begin to glass a hillside across a broad, flat valley. Birds chirp. ­Coyotes take roll call. Otherwise it’s still and quiet, as it should be when you’re scanning for animals that have hyperacute hearing. Then I slam the truck door. Rule number one: “No slamming doors,” whispers Jen Judge, 48, the photographer for this story. Jen bowhunts, too. But without a tag, all she can do on this trip is glass. She’s goddamn good at it.about:blank

“I got deer,” says Jen, not long after sunrise, describing the animal’s location in the beige and sage landscape like she’s giving directions to a lost spa-goer in Scottsdale. “Left of the outcrop, left of the saguaro, in the drainage, in front of that tree.” Which tree? Rihana and Amanda sync up within seconds. Bouncing my binoculars around, I just make myself dizzy.

Doe. It’s the rut—mating season—which means odds are there’s a horny, aggro, testosterone-fueled male on the doe’s heels. Through the spotting scope, Rihana confirms: buck. Bedded under the bush, about 1,200 yards away, the four points on each of his antlers blending seamlessly into the branches. How the hell did they see him?

“Ohhh, he’s so killable!” whispers Amanda, her long blond locks free-flowing around her moon-shaped face. (No hair tie for this hunter.) He’s napping below the chapparal-shrouded ridge, 40 yards from the top, which means Rihana can hike the long way around and over and be within range when he wakes and stands. She’s never gotten a mule deer with her bow before. “I’m so excited for you!” says Amanda. She and Rihana clasp hands and squeal like tweenagers before a Beyoncé concert. 

Rihana plots the buck’s approximate coordinates using OnX Hunt, an app with topo and aerial data that allows stalking hunters to mark and share an animal’s location. She sprays what looks like a Visine bottle, testing the wind. If it’s blowing the wrong way, he’ll catch her scent. The breeze is good. The hunters clink slabs of homemade elk jerky. Rihana readies her bow, tosses her dark, auburn-streaked braid over her shoulder Katniss Everdeen style, and sets out. But not before putting her leopard-print-cased phone into selfie mode, turning the camera on herself, and pressing record for her 65,000 followers.

Rihana and Amanda are part of a growing scene of what I’ll call huntstagrammers, social-media influencers who are quite literally changing the face of hunting. Sure, men like Cameron Hanes and Sam Soholt have helped make hunting look hipper and more handsome on Instagram, too. But it’s their female counterparts who are shifting perceptions, with feeds that are also filled with rifles and camo, bloody fist bumps and butchered backstraps.

According to some industry groups, women are a fast-growing demographic of hunters in the U.S., during a time when overall participation has declined. Four percent of Americans hunt, the lowest share in three decades, says a Fish and Wildlife Service survey. But according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, female participation increased 59 percent from 2010 to 2019, while male participation dropped 4 percent. (Stats from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which uses a different data set, conflict with these numbers, and indicate a slight decline in female hunters.) Today the NSSF says women make up 22 percent of all hunters, compared with 12 percent in 2003. Artemis, a group of sportswomen-­conservationists founded in 2017, already has some 11,000 community members, the majority of whom are between the ages of 25 and 45. 

Women have always hunted, of course. Research suggests that Neanderthal women helped men hunt big game. In the early 20th century there was Nellie Neal Lawing, known as Alaska Nellie, who left Missouri (and her first marriage) in her forties to open a roadhouse along the Alaska Railroad and became a famed trophy hunter. In regions where it’s part of the culture, generations of women have long hunted, often with men, though all-women groups are not unheard of. (The Swamp Witches, a crew in Mississippi, have been duck hunting together for two decades.) Amanda’s mom hunted, too, and so did her grandmother. None of these women had social media, however, or the impulse it breeds to broadcast their skills, and kills. 

Today, women hunters are more visible than ever. “It’s exploded,” says Curt Wells, editor of Bowhunter magazine. He says social media has played a major role. Before it, he explains, when women did show up in traditional hunting media like TV shows, they were often portrayed as sidekicks or cohosts. (Wells cites examples like Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo, “America’s favorite hunting couple” on the Outdoor Channel, and Lee and Tiffany Lakosky of the show Gettin’ Close, on the same network.) Now a new school of young women are becoming stars in their own right, using the Hefe photo filter and hashtags like #girlshunttoo and #womenwhohunt to garner huge followings. Thirty-two-year-old Eva Shockey, for example, is arguably the queen of hunt­stagram, with more than two million followers across platforms and her own television series, My Outdoor Family. (Shockey also cohosts a hunting show with her father, celebrity hunter Jim Shockey.) 

“I had such a heavy heart. So much adrenaline. I was crying,” Rihana says. “Taking a life is always emotional. Once it’s not, you should probably stop hunting.”

Hunting brands are embracing the trend. Following Under Armour, Idaho-based apparel company First Lite launched technical women’s gear in 2015. And legacy brand Orvis, which makes upland (hunting for certain bird species) apparel for women, began expanding its options around the same time. Between 2016 and 2019, Orvis’s women’s upland-hunting business grew 210 percent. 

Prior to that, pickings for women were slim—and what existed was often too big, bulky, and unbreathable, or made with cheap materials. “We used to have to wear men’s stuff,” Amanda recalls. “Remember when they came out with pink camo?” She and Rihana scoff. 

“Kind of defeats the purpose,” Rihana says. 

In the mid-nineties, companies began making women’s compound bows. Like the men’s versions, these high-tech bows use a levering system of cables and pulleys, thus requiring less strength to draw and hold than the longbows you might recall from summer camp. Women’s compound bows are smaller and lighter, with typical draw weights of 40 to 50 pounds, compared with 60 to 70 for men’s versions. Women’s participation in bowhunting increased by 260 percent between 2003 and 2017, according to the NSSF.

“Companies are realizing women are a way to make money,” says Elizabeth Covelli Metcalf, an associate professor and social scientist at the University of Montana who studies hunting. “They’re designing gear and investing in influencers and social media, and it’s spreading awareness.” In 2018, Metcalf started coteaching a course called Hunting for Sustainability; the majority of students who signed up were women. 

Society is used to the image of the burly dude posing with his trophy kill. What challenges expectations more: millennial women like Rihana and Amanda, done up like Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, boasting draw weights of 60-plus pounds, elbows-deep in elk guts.

As Rihana treks toward the buck, Amanda assembles her Phone Skope in hopes of recording the kill. An adapter that allows her to use her smartphone to magnify the view through her spotting scope, it’s much better than my nausea-inducing binoculars. 

An hour later, I see Rihana peeking over the ridgeline, then creeping downhill, each step as intentional as a dancer’s. Hunkered behind a bush, she’s 88 yards from the deer. She needs to get within 60 to shoot. Popping almonds like popcorn, I feel like I’m watching a silent thriller. I thought hunting was supposed to be hard. We’re only three hours into day one and Rihana’s already poised to shoot a stately looking senior? Too easy.

Doe up! She senses something. Now the buck is standing. He’s chomping a bush. Amanda makes a bleating fawn sound to distract the animals, allowing Rihana to inch closer. Rihana is at one with the hillside, as much as the deer and the dead ocotillo shrubs are. It’s primordial. The hunter and the hunted, in one real-life frame. I’m breathless. And then, just as she’s about to draw, for some reason the buck busts. 

Smart guy. Inside, I cheer.

Rewatching the grainy clip later, we’ll realize that it wasn’t Rihana who spooked the deer. It was a bobcat, leaping off the top of a saguaro in the same frame. Holy fucking nature: bobcat saves buck’s life.

“That could be it,” says Amanda over Oscar Mayer honey smoked turkey wraps at lunch. “We could go the rest of the week without seeing another buck.”

But that afternoon, we—well, they—spy three more, including a big guy going nuts for a doe, who is not in the mood. “How are we gonna kill him?” schemes Amanda. It’s her turn to stalk. Two hours later, she texts. The wind was bad. Buck’s gone. So Rihana and I traipse up the ridge to try to find him. A needle in a haystack has got nothing on a deer in 2.9 million acres of national forest.

By the time we get back to the truck an hour or two later it’s dark and raining, and I’m pulling cactus needles from my calves. On the drive out, I wonder why anyone bothers hunting when there’s Uber Eats. Can’t we just get burgers?

Rihana hasn’t had a greasy beef patty in years. She lost her taste for fatty cow meat, she says. She eats wild game now, mostly elk. Her six-foot-long freezer at home is full of it—some 300 pounds of meat that she harvests annually, everywhere from Utah to North Carolina to New Zealand.

That’s quite a feat for a former vegan who grew up in Ashland, Oregon, where the only thing her family hunted was mushrooms. In college, Rihana worked at a Macy’s makeup counter and ate McDonald’s. After graduation she enrolled in nursing school, where she researched a paper on factory farming and was appalled at the animals’ squalid living conditions, how they were pumped with antibiotics. She couldn’t afford organic meat, so she gave it up altogether for a while. Then she met a guy. (It’s always a guy.) He brought her on hunts. She loved the sounds of the forest, the way her senses heightened, the reverence she felt for the animals, and the fact that from life to death to dinner, she controlled every aspect of the meat she ate.

The guy gave her a ring. But her 23rd birthday brought the better gift, the one she kept: a bow.

“I used to think hunting was horrible!” says Rihana, who now, nine years later, spends some 200 days a year in the field for her work with Mtn Ops or just hunting with girlfriends. (Her new boyfriend doesn’t bowhunt, and Amanda’s boyfriend doesn’t hunt at all. But they both plan to teach their men.) Before killing her first animal, a black-tailed deer, Rihana remembers looking at it and thinking, Can I really do this? She pointed her rifle and closed her eyes. “You don’t close your eyes!” she laughs, recalling the moment now. She missed. “On purpose, I think,” she says. Then she got a rare second chance—and dropped the deer. “I had such a heavy heart. So much adrenaline. I was crying,” she says. “Taking a life is always emotional. Once it’s not, you should probably stop hunting.” 

Rihana learned to shoot both a rifle and a bow in the same summer, but it would take several more months of archery practice before she felt strong and proficient enough to shoot an arrow in the field. Thirty-eight percent of gun owners cite hunting as one of their primary reasons for owning a gun. Contrary to what many may think, not all hunters are members of the NRA. Jen says that in her small circle of hunter friends, not one is. Amanda is an NRA member; Rihana’s membership lapsed. Both women still rifle-hunt and carry for protection. But they prefer bowhunting. To them, it’s the epitome of fair chase, an ethical approach to hunting that emphasizes honorable pursuit of an animal. 

The difference is ultimately a philosophical one: with a rifle the hunter arguably has the advantage; with a bow the prey does. An experienced rifle hunter need only get within several hundred yards of an animal, whereas on this hunt, Rihana and Amanda must slip within 60.

While learning to outsmart an animal, to stalk close enough to shoot, Rihana says she developed the patience and persistence and confidence she’d lacked in her aimless teens and early twenties, when partying was her priority. She felt like she’d unleashed a natural ability. “I’m 25 percent Native American,” she says. Her grandparents were Juaneño and Cahuilla, tribes that historically bowhunted. “I feel like it’s part of me.” Caldwell stalking among the prickly pears

Hunting is in Amanda’s blood, too. “I was born in a camo onesie,” she jokes. Hunting has always been her primary means to a meal. Finances were tight in her family, so once she was 12, old enough for a tag in Montana, her father took her out. “At dinner my mom would say, ‘This is your buck, Amanda.’” 

In the fall of 2018, after her mother passed away, Amanda spent three weeks alone in the Montana wilderness (she won’t say where—hunters never reveal their spots) before shooting her biggest elk yet: a mature Rocky Mountain six-point she stalked for six hours with her bow, coming within five yards of the bull. She harvested a year’s worth of meat. 

Processing and packing out an animal is not for the squeamish. Amanda uses the gutless method, which requires slicing open an animal head to tail down its backbone. She peels off the hide, pulls out the backstraps, then the front shoulders, then the hind quarters, and debones. She hangs whatever meat doesn’t fit in her pack or on her horse and returns for the rest, sometimes multiple times. She once carried 95 pounds on her back over six miles and crushed a vertebrae. It took her two months to recover.

“Telling a woman not to wear makeup in the field is like telling a guy not to fart in the field!” Rihana says. “Why would I change who I am when I go hunting?”

Amanda posted a photo of that six-point bull to her Instagram feed, and it remains her most liked post to date. “You were completely solo?!?” commented @mountain_momma_1102, with a mind blown emoji. But not all female huntstagrammers are willing to post photos of fresh carcasses. Some stick to selfies in cute orange hats or bowls of venison bulgogi. Rihana doesn’t shy away from gore. “I’m not afraid to show blood,” she says. “I’m not afraid to show the reality of it.”

No matter what #womenhunters post, they receive the same thing male hunters do: hate mail. But more of it, some say. “I’ll get stuff like ‘I hope your family dies,’” Rihana says. “I’ve probably blocked 1,000 people, including friends from high school who wrote that they don’t understand who I’ve become.” She and Amanda also get asked out at least once a day. “Can I take you hunting?” is a recurring DM. Both say their followers are 75 to 80 percent male. 

Ultimately, though, the “You’re an inspiration!” messages far outnumber the nasty comments. Rihana and Amanda are on social media to share their love of hunting, they say. To show women they can do it, too.

Day three, and we’ve rented a UTV. It’s a full moon, which supposedly keeps deer up all night and bedded down all day. Still, Jen spots a buck, hot on six does, within minutes of ­adjusting her binocs. Later, Rihana superheroically spies another from 1,200 yards away. 

After two long, ultimately failed stalks, we meet Rhonda, a sweet, gangly fifty-­something mom from Flagstaff wearing camouflage. She’s with her husband and son, and the three of them are also bowhunting for mule deer.

“I saw you two earlier!” she says to Rihana and Jen. She looks at me and Amanda. “And then I saw two more! I never see women hunting together,” she says with a mix of awe and envy. 

I want to tell her I don’t really count. But then I realize, hey—I’ve been out here 12 hours a day, and now I’m wearing borrowed camo and cooler khaki pants and even picking out puffy white butts hidden in the brush, so maybe I do? 

In the afternoon, we gorge on Sour Patch Kids and go after a bedded dude with two does who eventually busts. As the sun dips behind the mountain, Jen again has deer. A buck, two ridges over. It’s 30 minutes until dark. “We still have a shot!” Amanda cheers. As the sky bleeds purple, we speed off in the UTV, rumbling over rocks, through creeks. Four women chasing a nice-looking male we can no longer see.From left: Cary in camo; Caldwell’s handmade leather leash, adorned with ivories from elk she harvested

Women hunters might be all over Instagram, but as I’m learning, the idea of us hunting IRL without men is still a new one. “Where’s your husband?” is a question women told me they occasionally hear, in the woods or at Cabela’s. And though more women are trying hunting, retention is a struggle. In the West, on average, 36 percent of female hunters don’t renew their licenses each year, compared with 22 percent for men. In the Southeast, it’s 48 percent (32 percent for men).

“We’re working through it,” says Ben O’Brien, host of the Hunting Collective podcast. Last spring, it dawned on him that he’d put together 54 episodes and hadn’t had on a single woman hunter. For episode 61, he reached out to Jess Johnson, cofounder of the conservation group Artemis. “Is this a space that feels good to be a woman in?” she asked. “There are times it doesn’t feel welcoming.” 

Rihana would reluctantly agree. She gets occasional jealousy or condescension from men, she says, but both she and Amanda have sensed judginess from both sexes for looking the way they do—though they suspect that if they weren’t such successful hunters they’d feel it more. “No one says anything to our faces. It’s just a vibe we get,” says Rihana, inky liner curled above her eyelid. “Telling a woman not to wear makeup in the field is like telling a guy not to fart in the field!” she adds. “Why would I change who I am when I go hunting?” 

Amanda agrees. “Makeup makes me feel good,” she explains. “And if I feel good, I’ll have a better hunt.” 

There are gradations and nuances among the women of huntstagram, and among those who follow them. On one end of the spectrum are the “gun bunnies,” influencers whose feeds are all skimpy bikinis backed against big trucks and booty shorts stuffed with handguns. Some of these women have follower counts in the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing Rihana’s and Amanda’s combined, but they question the authenticity. “You can’t actually hunt dressed like that,” says Rihana. “Especially not with all this cactus!” 

Then you have more homespun, seemingly Maybelline-free huntstagrammers like Allie D’Andrea, whose tasteful feed focuses on her white lab and the beauty of public lands. (She’s a cofounder of Artemis.) Known as @outdoors_allie, she has 116,000 followers, Jen among them. “Wearing makeup in the outdoors just doesn’t compute in my brain,” Jen says. “I have a million things I’m thinking about when I’m hunting: the wind, my scent, my noise. The way I look is not one of them.” (Still, Jen declared Rihana and Amanda “the real deal” by day one.)

The huntstagram chatter is reminiscent of high school and its cliques. The unadorned (like Jen) evaluate the “Barbie dolls” (like Rihana and Amanda), who judge the gun bunnies. Jess Johnson of Artemis states the obvious yet often unspoken fact about all this scrutiny: “No one ever picks apart men. I’ve never been like, ‘That guy’s pants are too tight, he must not be a legit hunter.’ Women have to scramble harder for validity.”about:blank

Predawn on our penultimate day, we begin as we have every morning, with Hot­Hands in our pockets and binoculars in front of our eyes, scanning for the flicker of an ear, the shimmy of a cotton tail, beige racks between beige branches. Before long we spy a four-by-four—a buck with four points on each antler—with a limp, all by himself, 400 yards away. After a two-hour stalk, the deer bounds off.

Then Jen spots a funny-looking fella chilling under a tree. Debate ensues until the spotting scope confirms: a one-antlered buck. Bedded. We send OnX coordinates to Rihana and Amanda, who pivot from one stalk to the next. Then Jen and I sit in the desert sun, whisper-talking about old boyfriends and death and family and Trump and whether Rihana and Amanda will vote to reelect him (they will). We watch and wait and watch, riveted by one spike of one antler, tucked beneath a distant tree. I’ve never sat so still for so long, glued to something so unexciting and yet so exhilarating.

“I love this buck,” says Jen, peering through her binocs. “He’s a misfit like me.”

Hunting, I’m realizing, is an entirely different way of being outdoors. As hikers, campers, or photographers, we’re nonconsumptive land users, the type of nature lovers who frolic among the flora and fauna without firing, appreciative participants merely passing through. Hunters, though—the good ones—become part of the land and everything in it. They attune to behaviors and tracks as they crawl from cactus to cactus, bush to boulder, stepping as swiftly and softly as humanly possible, another animal in search of supper.

Hiking suddenly seems oddly aimless.Glassing from the UTV (Photo: Jen Judge)

Our last morning, our last chance. Before 7 A.M., Jen’s got deer. “A really. Big. Buck,” she says. Biggest one yet, another four-by-four, 800 yards away, eating breakfast. Now—yes!—lying down.

Rihana, wearing convertible fingerless camo gloves, plots his location on her phone. She tests the wind. Amanda applies a fresh coat of lip gloss and they’re off. Two scents, two sounds—it’s risky, but it might allow for more opportunity.

Jen and I set up on a knoll. I’ve grown rather expert at spotting by now. He’s to the right of the auburn bush, buried deep in a dead ocotillo. We keep our eyes on what we hope is an antler while he takes a nap of Rip van Winkle proportions. 

“I have to pee,” Jen says, three hours in. 

“You can’t,” I whisper.

Rihana and Amanda relay word via text that they’ve split up and are each closing in. Rihana is hidden in the drainage, about 130 yards away. She can’t get closer though, or he’ll see her. Amanda reaches the ridge, then creeps in her socks between prickly pears to within 25 yards. Rihana can see both Amanda and the bedded buck, and texts her a snapshot of his spot in the brush: “Just wait till he stands.” We wait. Amanda’s arrow is nocked. 

Holy shit. My binoculars are shaking. This sweet deer is about to die.

Except, as soon as we see him stand, Amanda doesn’t. There’s a slight drop in the terrain, hiding him from her view. He’s up! He’s up!, we attempt to mind-meld Amanda. Maybe he scents her. Maybe that airplane is flying too low. Whatever it is, before she ever sees him, he trots off—right toward Rihana.

They attune to behaviors and tracks as they crawl from cactus to cactus, bush to boulder, stepping as swiftly and softly as humanly possible, another animal in search of supper.

She’s ready, at full draw. Amanda makes a bleating call and the buck stops: ten yards from Rihana, and behind a sprawling bush. It’s too thick; she can’t see his body. His head is exposed, but to be confident that she’ll deliver a lethal hit, Rihana needs to target his lungs or heart. They lock eyes, and he bolts.

“It wasn’t a clean shot. I just didn’t have an ethical shot,” Rihana says, trudging back through the saguaros. She says it again and again throughout the day. The one that got away, as they say.

We have only three hours left to get a mule deer. And after more than 60 hours of trying, I realize that I, of all people, want a mule deer.

It’s true that I’ve never hunted before, but hunting with women feels different. 

In her research, Metcalf found that women hunters are motivated in different ways than men. They’re generally more family oriented, more about feeding people, she says. Men view hunting as an individual pursuit, with internal motivations like solitude, skill development, and outcome. 

That squares with Jen’s experience. “It’s like my way of feeling maternal,” she says. She usually hunts with her husband, a cyclist and rock climber. (She got him into it.) “He’s more success oriented than I am. Yet I’ve had more successes.” She smiles. “This hunt is a true team effort. I’m loving it.”

We persist. Glassing a gorgeous canyon we’ve nicknamed Heaven, Jen, holding her binocs, can barely believe it. “It’s a fawn. And, oh my God, a fucking buck. My heart can’t take this!” No one thought we’d have another stalk today. Now here we are, 700 yards from our farewell dinner.

Jen and I keep watch, as we do. And then another UTV rolls up. It’s the Flagstaff family—Rhonda and her two guys. Because we’re nearing last light, they set up their scopes to help us glass. We text Rihana and Amanda that they’re here, that we’ve got backup. Five pairs of eyes on a flighty forky (hunter slang for a two-point). The camaraderie of stalking an animal.

Rihana and Amanda creep, in socks. At 51 yards they stop, exposed. The buck is busy eating. And soon, standing broadside. Amanda pulls out her phone and Rihana pulls 61 pounds. With the buck looking straight at her, ears perked, she shoots.

And just as her arrow arrives, he dodges it.

And then he bolts in our direction. 

“Rhonda! Get ready!” Jen and I whisper. At the same time, Rihana sends a text: “Tell that gal to get her bow.”

We drive out after dark, in cool open air, feeling alive—but empty-handed. Rhonda disappeared for a good hour into a drainage, but the buck darted before she could get close. Well, at least I don’t have to slice open an animal’s anus. Still, isn’t that what I came for? The full experience? And then I realize that is what I got. It’s the thrill of the hunt, not the guarantee of the grocery store.

Weeks later something will be lost. I’ll find online photos of people beaming beside dead deer as creepy as I always did. But in the moment, back in the desert, it’s different. This wilderness has come to feel like my neighborhood. The red rocks and morning frost, Heaven and the howling coyotes, my trusty little auburn tree and that saguaro that looks like it’s giving us the finger. And Rhonda and her family, the misfit and the limpy buck, and a lucky two-point who gets to live.

Our last supper may not be mule deer, but it is elk, grilled over an open flame. Elk that Rihana stalked, retrieved, packed out on her back—300 pounds, which she (with her boyfriend’s help) hauled over six miles in two trips at 2 A.M., and butchered in her kitchen, then brought here, to share with strangers who’ve become friends. Before we feast, she shows us footage of the kill from last fall. 

We hear the bull elk bugle and watch Rihana, crouched in camo at full draw, as she waits for the hulking creature to round the bend. We see her arrow fly and sink into the animal’s skin behind its shoulder, a clean shot to the lungs, and the elk sprint off before it falls. We watch Rihana’s jaw drop and her big eyes grow bigger as she stands in the woods, filled with shock and awe and disbelief—even though she’s done this many times before.

And then we eat. Tenderloin brought from trees to table by Rihana’s two hands, not 200 others’. It’s rosy pink and pure, lean and tender and deeply flavorful. I feel a gratitude for this elk that I never have for even my favorite $21 burger. And for Rihana and Amanda and Jen—for sharing their animals and their stories, and for being women who cook and clean and kill their own dinner.

I got a taste. And I’m going back to San Francisco wanting more.

RACHEL LEVIN

Rachel Levin is a San Francisco–based journalist who has written for The New York TimesThe New YorkerThe Wall Street Journal, and Eater, where she was the first San Francisco restaurant critic. She is the author of LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (Ten Speed, 2018) and EAT SOMETHING (Chronicle Books, 2020).

It’s Jewish! It’s Nostalgic: It’s Camp!

As if on cue, the first camper I meet is a guy named Josh: a nice, 27-year-old Jewish boy with kind eyes, a subtle smile and the same name as my husband, another nice Jewish boy, back home.

“Do you know where Malbec is?” asks this Josh, Josh Blake, rolling his eyes, and then his suitcase, over a wide dirt path flanked by rickety cabins that have been renamed for the weekend. (Malbec and Cabernet, for the men; Pinot Grigio and Rosé for the women; Raisins for all.) “I don’t want to walk all the way over there, if it’s back there …” he says, sounding not unlike Woody Allen.

I don’t blame him. The camp is desert-hot and dusty. And he’s ultimately here, he later admits over bagels, because his parents paid the all-inclusive $525 for him to be. They met on this very land, albeit half a mile away. “Talk about pressure!” he says, laughing.

Ilana Rosenberg, 31, sitting nearby, agrees. “My mother said, ‘Have fun! Go meet your Jewish husband!’ My sister was like, ‘Mom, she could find a Jewish wife, too, you know’.”

American Jewish University owns these 2,800 acres in Southern California’s Simi Valley, which is home to rolling hills and herds of cows, the university’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus and Camp Alonim. Over the next three nights and four days, this 66-year-old summer camp for Jewish kids has been commandeered by a new kind of summer camp — Trybal Gatherings, for Jewish adults.

Trybal Gatherings was founded by Carine Warsawski, 34, a buoyant, Boston-bred M.B.A., with the goal of fostering lasting community among Jews in their 20s and 30s, and, ahem, a few in their 40s.

She held her first Gathering at Camp Eisner in the Berkshires in 2017, roping in mostly friends of friends. Over Labor Day weekend, it sold out, with 125 campers and a wait-list dozens’ deep. Last year, she added Wisconsin; next summer Atlanta, and has plans to expand from Seattle to Austin to Toronto.

Whereas traditions like Birthright Israel offer free trips to the homeland, Ms. Warsawski’s aim is to offer an immersive, low-commitment experience closer to home — one rooted not in Zionism or religious doctrine, but in the shared nostalgia of a Jewish-American rite of passage, complete with archery and horseback riding, and a roster that reads like it’s from the Old Testament. (At one point, I’d forgotten my name-necklace. “That’s O.K.!” someone joked. “It’s probably either Sarah or Rachel.”)

Also, adult campers have careers, though no one talks about them. Web developers and screenwriters, wedding planners and wardrobe stylists. And yes, a few doctors and lawyers. The majority came solo; others hand-in-hand and interfaith or happily married in matching outfits, like Emily and Rachel Leavitt — my Secret Santa, er, Mystery Moses.

It’s a mix of die-hard camp people reliving their glory days, once-homesick campers redoing their awkward years, and first-timers wondering what all the fuss is about. “My parents were immigrants from Iran! They didn’t know about camp!” says Baha Aghajani, 30. Neither did Saraf Shmutz, 39, who moved from Tel Aviv to San Diego. “My summers were ‘go play soccer and bug off.’”

No Abe Weissman rompers were seen.
CreditBeth Coller for The New York Times

As a writer who hasn’t been back to her camp, Young Judaea, in New Hampshire, in 25 years, I signed up to learn what’s moving Jews to opt for uncomfortable bunk beds and kosher-style mess halls, in lieu of a real vacation.

Trybal isn’t the only over-21 camp cropping up these days. Nor is it the only Jewish one. Camp Nai Nai Naiwhich also operates on both coasts, and attracts a post-college, more conservative crowd. And “55+” Orthodox Jews have been davening at summer retreats for decades at places like Isabella Freedman where campers crochet kippahs and take day trips to Tanglewood, in the Berkshires.

Trybal is arguably the only camp, though, that starts the day with an “Abe Weissman Workout,” a calisthenics routine straight out of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (Tomato juice refreshers included, but no rompers.)

It’s also, explains Ms. Warsawski, “a place for people who are more -ish than Jew.” Like Molly Shapiro, 28, of Berkeley. ““This is my jam!” she says. “Synagogues today aren’t really designed for us. We want something less traditional, more affordable, more fun. I mean, playing cornhole isn’t Jewish, but we’re playing cornhole together!”

Togetherness is what Trybal is all about. The schedule is packed from early morning to midnight with get-to-know-you-games and group activities like partner massage and mah-jongg, pickling and pool time.

 “Will 20 loaves be enough for all 60 of us tonight,” some worried during challah baking class.
CreditBeth Coller for The New York Times

The next morning, I pass up dreamcatcher-making for challah baking. “Oh yeah, this is what I’m here for,” says Abel Horwitz, a young Robert Downey Jr., kneading dough we’ll later braid and adorn with toppings beyond the traditional sesame. Rainbow sprinkles. Peaches. Jalapeños. “Will 20 loaves be enough for all 60 of us tonight,” some Jews worry.

Next, it’s a tossup between the relationship workshop and the ropes course. I decide I like humans more than heights and head over to hear what the visiting Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, has to say. She reads a passage from the 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and tells us to partner up. A 26-year-old named Sam and I stare into each other’s faces for a full five minutes. “Sit with the discomfort,” the rabbi urges. Reluctantly, I do. I smile. He winks. I wiggle, examining his wrinkle-free forehead and bushy eyebrows bound to grow bushier in old age, until my awkwardness turns to calm. I’m overwhelmed by a deep feeling of curiosity and compassion for this man, for myself, for humanity.

“That was a good reminder,” Ms. Aghajani says afterward. “To give people more of a chance. To not swipe so fast.”

After a grilled cheese buffet, there’s solar art and yoga and Slip-n-Slide kickball. I head for the hammocks, where a guy with long red hair is lounging in a tie-dyed Helvetica T-shirt that reads “Falafel & Sabich & Hummus & Schwarma.” It’s his third Trybal. He is the camp guitarist, and a rocket scientist in real life.

“I come to be a kid again,” Jeremy Hollander, 34, says. He pauses. “And to, you know, be with my people.” In real life, he doesn’t bring up the fact he’s Jewish. “‘Hollander’ isn’t ‘Schwartzenbaum’. People see me and usually think I’m Scottish or something.” He feels safer that way. Especially today, he says, with rising anti-Semitism. “The flame is being fanned. You never know who has what opinions. Here, I can let my hair down.” (Although, technically, it’s in a ponytail.)

“The only one thing I have to worry about at camp,” he says, “is when am I going to squeeze in a shower?”

Still, before sundown, we all emerge from our bunks neat and clean and dressed in white. “Can you believe I got this for $2.99 at Saks Off Fifth!” exclaims Lauren Katz, a volunteer staffer wearing lace. (We can’t.)

Picture time. “Say Cheese!” the camp photographer instructs. “But we’re lactose intolerant!” someone cries from the crowd.

We gather in a stone-lined grove, to sing and sway and cheek-kiss “Shabbat Shalom,” before making our way to the dining hall for a sit-down dinner of roast chicken. And, of course, plenty of challah.

I agree with what he said earlier. There is something easy and assuring about spending a summer weekend like I used to (albeit for eight whole weeks): with my people. Or, at least with people who remind me of my people. New friends bonded by old memories.

 

Trybal is like a modern millennial shtetl, where gesundheits fly. And “Hava Nagila” plays at a Hawaiian luau. And campfire stories include, “How I Became a ‘Nice Jewish Guys’ Calendar Model.”

It’s an alternate, insular universe where I find myself running through a field, streaked in war paint, chanting: “We have spirit, because we’re Blues! We have spirit because we’re Jews!”

It’s a world where conversation flows from the Netflix show “Shtisel” to the lack of Jews in Santa Barbara to the universal disdain for online dating (despite the fact that Trybal is sponsored by JSwipe), to whether Ms. Rosenberg indeed met her future husband.

“We’ll see,” she says, smiling. She did make-out at Arts & Crafts with the Trybal barista: a boy she barely remembers being at her bat mitzvah.On the last night, I slip quietly out of the luau, where the D.J. is rocking “Lean On Me.” I leave the Leavitt ladies in their twin Hawaiian shirts and my Rosé bunkmates dancing the macarena. Mr. Shmutz and the Cabernets are making reunion plans. Mr. Blake is flirting with one of his crushes.

I have an early flight to catch. Back to my husband and kids and, in a way, the future. In the morning, I’ll miss the friendship bracelets and the compliment circle and, like a true last day of camp: tears. For a moment I have FOMO. And then I realize, it’s fine. Sometimes an Irish goodbye is just as good as a Jewish one.

In 2019, Men Named Their Restaurants After Women

Like snakeskin skirts and reusable straws, grandmothers dominated 2019. Italian grandmas, Jewish grandmas. German grandmas. Russian grandmas. Real-life inspirations all, behind many of the biggest restaurant openings this year.

There’s Rosalie in Houston. Emilie’s in Washington, D.C. Dear Inga in San Francisco.

In Denver, Vince Howard had hoped to name his new deli after his grandmother Hazel. “But there were already too many Hazels!” he says. So, he went with a different woman’s name: Tessa.

He doesn’t actually know anyone named Tessa. He just likes the way it sounds, what it conveys. “I always thought of it as a nice, comforting name,” he says. “It seems to suggest a loving, female touch.” In Greek, Tessa translates to “born fourth,” and as the father of three daughters — the deli his figurative fourth — that made sense. Also, he adds, it’s a kind of ham.

Mothers and daughters got their fair share of signage this year, too, like Leila in Detroit; LilyP in Boston; and Birdie G’s in Santa Monica, an ode to chef Jeremy Fox’s daughter, Birdie, and his grandmother Gladys. This is all nothing new, of course. Naming food establishments after women — often a chef’s first and formative culinary influence — is a convention about as old as eateries themselves. And a genuine, heartfelt tradition at that.

But it does make you wonder: Why wouldn’t Howard be moved to dub his deli, say, “Damien” instead? Why does this restaurant title tradition persist? What’s in a woman’s name today, anyway?

Apparently, the same thing that was in it yesterday.

“Warmth, caring, hospitality,” says San Francisco chef David Golovin, who opened Dear Inga in October. He and his partners, Ravi Kapur and Jeff Hanak, wanted their restaurant to feel like “somebody’s home, like Grandma’s cooking,” he explains. Like his grandma Inge’s cooking.

They switched the “e” to an “a” because they feared everyone would mispronounce it, like “hinge” or “ing.” They also added a little something extra.

“It was never going to be just Inga,” he says. Prefacing it with a long-lost salutation helped evoke the Old World feeling they were going for. Or at least a time before text and email, when handwritten letters reigned.

The trio floated a few other options, including Borzoi Trading Company (“Ridiculous!” says Golovin) and Linda, a nearby street. “But there was no Linda in my life,” he says.

The name “Dear Inga” has attracted as much press attention as its delicious langos and Liptauer cheese dip. “We liked the feminine note to it,” explains Golovin. “It’s a pretty masculine management team here; we wanted some female power.”

Wanting to telegraph an explicitly female energy makes sense in this #MeToo moment. “A female name shows that a restaurant doesn’t have the Mario Batali attitude,” says Paul Freedman, Yale historian and author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America. “Or even David Chang’s fuck-you attitude,” he adds. “A restaurant with a woman’s name conveys a kind of comfort and gaiety, a supportive, collaborative environment. Whereas a man’s name conveys… proprietorship.”

Does that sound a little sexist itself? Perhaps. (Rich Table alum Brandon Rice named his upcoming San Francisco restaurant Ernest, which I’d argue conveys something sweeter than simply ownership.)

It’s also worth noting that nearly all of the latest lady-named restaurants have been named by men.

That’s not to say women chefs never name their restaurants after their female influences. (Melissa Perello’s first San Francisco restaurant, Frances, for instance, was in homage to one grandmother, and her new LA restaurant — M. Georgina — the other. In Portland, Oregon, Maya Lovelace’s Mae is an ode to her grandmother, too.)

But my very unscientific study reveals that if a woman names her restaurant after a woman, she more likely names it after herself. Like Mamma Leone’s. Ruby Foo. And stalwarts like Stephanie’s, in Boston; Manhattan’s many Sarabeth’s; Harlem’s Sylvia’s.

And the more contemporary case in point: Dominique Crenn, of America’s first woman-run three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Atelier Crenn. And Petit Crenn. And Bar Crenn. But these days, Crenn is very much an exception for invoking her last name only.

No one is criticizing men, or anyone, for honoring the people who raised them, cared for them, and cooked for them. Even if we wonder, as ever: Why did those responsibilities always fall on the women? (Answer: patriarchy.)

Still, it’s the enduring practice of assigning random women’s names to men’s restaurant ventures that confounds. Celebrity chef Curtis Stone, whose two Los Angeles restaurants are named after his grandmothers, recently debuted a new restaurant, in Dallas, called Georgie. (Well, officially Georgie by Curtis Stone.) “And who, you might ask, is Georgie?” posed the Dallas Morning News. Stone selected it from a list of “G” names presented by his partner. It turned out Georgie is the nickname of Stone’s niece.

In Portland, Oregon, co-owner Sean O’Connor and executive chef Alex Jackson named their new Nordic-Northwestern restaurant Vivian. After the Vivian Apartments, which formerly occupied what’s now Iceland’s first stateside Kex Hotel. Had the apartment building been named, say, Victor, would they have kept it, though? No, admits O’Connor.

“We wanted to give the restaurant a feminine character,” he explains, echoing the other owners I spoke with. Jackson and O’Connor toyed with “Systir” and “Dottir,” sister and daughter in Icelandic, respectively. (They decided Dottir made a better name for the rooftop bar.)

In their minds, and on their mood boards, they envisioned Vivian as an unconventionally feminine woman. A “rough-around-the edges, yet refined” woman. And a specific woman: an ex-neighbor of their designer, in LA — a former Eastern European duchess, whose name no one remembers. But she’d hold court at the communal pool, playing the harp and pouring schnapps and sharing stories of her worldly adventures. “Vivian” exuded warmth and hospitality, as does, they hope, their restaurant.

And Big Dave’s Barbecue Joint doesn’t?

It goes back to the “mama’s boy” thing, says Joseph Szala of Atlanta-based Vigor Branding, to people’s relationships with their parents, to traditional family dynamics: the fathers and grandfathers as the stoic disciplinarians who go off to work, and the mothers and grandmothers as the loving caretakers and family cooks.

“People today are looking for restaurants that are genuine and inviting, as an answer to the divisiveness in our culture,” says Szala. “A restaurant with a woman’s name sounds like an open-arms type of place.”

That may be true. But as gender and gender roles continue to mix and morph, as our long-held associations with parents and grandparents continue to change, so too might something as seemingly simple as restaurant names. After all, it’s not a person’s gender per se that’s driving these feelings, says Szala. “It’s the connection, the love and respect a chef has for that person.”

Sometimes a term of endearment alone is enough — as in Portland, Oregon, restaurateur Micah Camden’s latest spot: Bae’s Fried Chicken. His business partner, the football player Ndamukong Suh, came up with the name, and Camden liked it straight away. “It was easy and memorable, and I liked that a 330-pound NFL defensive lineman suggested such a cutesy name,” he says. And a gender-neutral name. “I liked that it’s not overly masculine or overly feminine — it’s just, you know, my bae.”

Ultimately, says Szala, there’s a yearning right now for more interesting restaurant names. “Band names for restaurants — why not?” he says laughing. “Angry Grandma. That’d be a good one.”

His colleague, Aaron Allen, founder of Aaron Allen & Associates global restaurant consulting, is generally against naming restaurants after women — whether the owner knows them or not. “If you’re pushing really hard for a female-driven name, there better be a good story behind it. Even if Barbara had the best spaghetti recipe! In Santa Barbara! I’d advise against it.” A first name means nothing to anyone else, he says. What are you about? What’s the cuisine? What’s the takeaway?

“There are a million restaurants in this country,” says Allen. “If you can’t figure out something better than your grandmother’s name, maybe you’re in the wrong business.”

Running with the Rhinos

THE NIGHT before the race, I started to freak out. A few nerves are normal, I know, but this was different. In my past as a very amateur competitive runner, I’d climb into bed on the eve of a race and fret about whether I’d set the alarm for p.m., not a.m.; whether it would even go off; where I’d go for breakfast after the run. But here I was, lying on a cot in a canvas tent in northern Kenya, hours before the start of a half marathon, worrying about lions. As in: being eaten by one.

Last summer, my husband, four friends and I had traveled from San Francisco via Frankfurt, arriving late in Nairobi to spend the night before flying out the next morning in a little plane to land at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. In other words, we were not in tiptop marathon shape—even half-marathon shape. And this was not your average, or easiest, course. Rather, it’s said to be one of the world’s toughest. At 5,500-feet elevation, Lewa was hot, dry and dusty. It suddenly dawned on me: Maybe I should have trained for this.

Team Gazelle—as we’d optimistically christened ourselves—had come to take part in the Safaricom Marathon, a meticulously orchestrated event co-hosted by Lewa, in partnership with the nonprofit Tusk, to raise funds for wildlife conservation, education and community development across Kenya. A 55,000-acre preserve, Lewa is home to 137 rhinos, 182 giraffes, 1,160 zebras, some 500 migrating elephants, 26 lions and—I was promised before committing to this harebrained idea—140 armed guards standing watch in case there’s any trouble. (In the marathon’s almost two-decade existence, though, there hasn’t been.)

Still, as I lay in the dark listening to screeching baboons, the possibility felt palpable. A few hours earlier, we’d gone out on a game drive and seen scores of wildlife: Cape buffalo, hyenas, black rhinos, white rhinos, so many rhinos. We even chased a cheetah. In the Land Cruiser, mind you, not on foot. For 364 days a year, safari guests aren’t allowed to roam free, but race day is a different beast.

I awoke before sunrise to Kenyan pop music blaring over speakers, thumping through camp, a communal call to rise. Then came the whoosh of helicopters, revving up to ready the course. Manned by Mike Watson, longtime CEO of Lewa and a rugged bushman if ever there was one, and his colleagues, the helicopters crisscrossed the landscape, hovering overhead, gently flushing the wildlife away for the day—making way for Lewa’s rarest species: humans.

Fourteen hundred runners from 20 countries—the majority from Kenya—come together for one morning every June, in the name of conservation and inspiration. Most people opt for the half, but a hardy 200 or so, including top Kenyan runners like 2016 Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge go for the full, which double-backs along the same route. There’s a 5K kids race just before it, too. Local school kids train all year in hopes of winning vouchers to the supermarket, goody bags filled with socks, pens, paper and chocolate, and to the first-place finisher: a phone.

For 364 days a year, safari guests aren’t allowed to roam free. Race day is a different beast.

 

Fueled up on bananas and coffee and what felt like a reservoir’s worth of bottled water, we laced up our sneakers and drifted down a dirt road toward the starting line, where we met up with one more member of Team Gazelle: Jacob Kanake, a Lewa driver who had worked on the preserve for years, but had never run the race before. “I’m ready!” he said. We group-hugged. A muffled voice over the speaker beckoned everyone to the start line. The Kenyan flag waved and we were off. It was a human stampede, 1,400 runners of varying levels charging the line, a simple banner propped up by two branches, revealing a dirt path no wider than a fire-road. We squeezed onto the soft, stone-strewn path—flanked by uneven ground and prickly grasses, ensuring we didn’t stray too far—and took off en masse: a scrum of sinewy Kenyans, brawny Kenyans and some barefooted Kenyans, as well as fully outfitted super-fit foreigners in dry-wick tees emblazoned with company logos, and not-as-fit foreigners, no offense to my fellow Gazelles.

And then the adrenaline-fueled din subsided into a collective quiet, everyone instantly awed—or was it daunted?—by the vastness surrounding us, by the quest before us. Behind me was a mini-platoon of rangers running in full garb with their rifles. A helicopter hovered above keeping tabs on everyone’s whereabouts—like an overly concerned parent. Soon the throngs started to split. I found my rhythm, relaxed and realized: Nothing was going to maul me.

I ran. And ran. Past the odd acacia tree and lone ostrich and pair of giraffes in the distance, rising from the ground like elegant, blinking sculptures. Spectators were sparse—a handful at the homemade spritz station; a smattering outside Kirafu, one of five lodges on the preserve. Uniformed, apron-clad staff waving, cheering. It might be Lewa’s biggest day of the year, but the Boston Marathon this is not.

I picked up speed, crested a small hill, and continued through a canopy of acacias. Soon, I found myself in lockstep with a muscular Kenyan man. We sprinted toward the finish line. We crossed together, then high-fived. I finished with a respectable 1:56:28, by no stretch the fastest woman—that went to local Betty Karambu, at 1:14:28. Soon enough, in strode lanky superhero Philemon Baaru, completing the full 26.2 miles in 2:22:18—before my fellow Gazelles even finished the half.

For the rest of the trip, we were on a standard safari—tracking leopards; marveling at lions’ manes and elephant herds; aww-ing at rhino babies—bumping through the bush in the back of the Land Cruiser. And all along, I was itching to get out. safaricommarathon.com

Taming the Beast in Your Basement

“I get lot of calls about animals in pools,” said Ray Hartley. “Squirrels in pools. Skunks in pools. Usually I tell people, ‘You don’t need me. You’ve got a skimmer, just gently scoop it up!’ ” Recently, though, a woman rang about a deer in her pool.

“That was a first,” said Mr. Hartley, owner of Intrepid Wildlife Services in Westchester County, N.Y. His tagline: “Your castle shouldn’t be a zoo.”

We can deal with pesky seagulls on the beach. But when it comes to raccoons in our chimney, chipmunks in our yard and bats in our bedroom, we human beings are helpless, especially in this era of Uber-Insta-On-Demand everything. Why would we handle a snake in our garage when we don’t even hand-select our own groceries?

Mr. Hartley is one of a growing breed of professional critter gitters—also known as nuisance-wildlife-control operators. They are a fearless group of (mostly) men willing to rescue us from wildlife that has gotten in our way. (Or is it vice versa?)

“It blows my mind what people pay me to do,” said Mr. Hartley.

And lately people have been paying for woodchucks—starting at $400 for up to four visits. Woodchucks, or groundhogs, tear up the lawn, burrow tunnels, erode the foundation and eat away at the electrical. “I jumped, like, 250% on woodchucks!” he said. “Been jamming on squirrels, too.”

And last summer—every summer—bats, 24/7. Bats in toasters. Bats in washing machines. “Bats and squirrels are my bread and buttah,” he said, joking.

He fields anywhere from 200 to 300 frantic calls a month,he said. Winter (mating skunks), spring (flying squirrels), summer (rabid bats) or fall (den-seeking raccoons), all you’ve got to do is call. Whether it’s two in the afternoon, or four in the morning—he’ll rush over in his Toyota Tundra Rock Warrior. And charge accordingly.

Mr. Hartley, 53, got his start snaring beaver and catching coyotes in the 1990s in rural New Hampshire—long before the industry had formal training and Facebook groups and national conferences. He was pretty much a lone wolf back then, self-taught, aided by a bimonthly magazine called Wildlife Control Technology and his buddy’s VHS: “Snaring Beaver Alive.”

“The farmers loved me,” he recalled.

They paid him in bushels of corn and bottles of maple syrup. But he didn’t love New Hampshire. “Too many do-it-yourselfers,” he said. “Business is way better in Westchester.” (Plus, people there pay cash.)

Business is booming, said many of the wildlife-control operators who attended last year’s Wildlife Expo in New Orleans, which had a record turnout and offered programs such as “Zoonotic Disease: What You Wish You Didn’t Have to Know” and infrared rat tours of downtown. The annual industry event is put on by the National Pest Management and the National Wildlife Control Operators associations.

“The industry has grown exponentially,” said Mike Tucker, 60, who has been chasing squirrels in Minneapolis for 40 years. He and Mr. Hartley stood on the second floor of Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel & Casino surrounded by furry replicas of rats and cans of Critter Ridder repellent.

“It’s urbanization,” explained Mr. Tucker, sporting a navy “Wildlife Removal Services” cap. “We’ve made it more hospitable for animals. Sleeping under a porch is cozier than sleeping under a rock. We put out our birdfeeders… We house them, we feed them, and then we complain about them!”

As city populations surge and developers push into previously uninhabited areas, humans and wildlife are interacting more. And more interaction means more conflict. “People are used to having a pool guy and a landscape guy, now they need a raccoon guy,” said Mr. Tucker.

As an industry veteran, Mr. Hartley led a conference session called, “Preparing for the Unexpected Jobs.” He showed a video of himself pulling a growling raccoon out of a client’s bathroom wall by (gloved) hand, then wrangling it into a steel Tomahawk Live Trap. “That’s how we do it, folks!” he said.

The crowd cheered.

Escorting out uninvited guests is a big part of the gig, but so is sealing up entry points and installing devices such as chimney caps to prevent home invasions in the first place.

Educating clients is, too. “People call up all the time saying, ‘Oh my God. There’s a coyote in my backyard!’ ” said Mr. Hartley. “I’m like, ‘Yup, that’s nature. Call me if it gets aggressive.’”

Added Mr. Tucker: “Customers are clueless. A guy once demanded I find the squirrel eggs in his attic. He was from New Jersey. Not that that matters.”

Rates range, uh, wildly, depending on animal and location, urgency, severity and number of visits required. A middle-of-the-night bat call in Chappaqua might be $325; a midday squirrel call, minimum $485; a raccoon eviction in San Francisco, $140 for an inspection and $400 for Junio Costa—aka Mr. Raccoon—to, say, catch pole one feasting in your kitchen.

Most wildlife-control operators do it all—snakes, squirrels, skunks—but they often have a soft spot for certain animals. Keith Markun, owner of Beast Wildlife Solutions in St. Paul, Minn., likes working with birds and bats, and has a bat colony etched on his arms to prove it.

Jimmy Hunter, of Nashville, has seen an influx of armadillos. And Gregg Schumaker is all about skunks. He calls himself the Skunk Whisperer of Northern Michigan, where he removes some 200 a year from vacation homes and high-end hotels. He also has a skunk as a pet. His name is Tybalt, like the Shakespeare character, and he is allowed to sit on the couch.

“I like the smell of the spray,” Mr. Schumaker admitted. “A lot of people do.”

Newbie Dan Bailey, 24, with a degree in wildlife biology, handles a lot of snakes in New England. Once, he removed a 2-foot-long milk snake from a nail salon. “That was fun!” he said at the expo, beaming beside a stack of pigeon birth-control pamphlets.

It may take time for him to learn what Mr. Hartley and his peers confirmed after decades of house calls. What’s the craziest animal they’ve ever dealt with?

They replied in unison: “People.”

Rachel Levin is the author of “LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds.”

The Usual: The Solace of Sol Food

Framed outside the front door of Puerto Rican restaurant Sol Food in San Rafael, is a complaint. Not a Yelp review, but a real-live letter, handwritten in cursive, from 2006: “Dear Mrs. Hernandez, The lime green color you selected for your new restaurant is garish and ugly. That color may be appropriate for Puerto Rico, but it isn’t for Marin County.”

It makes Christopher Adam Williams laugh, like a lot of things do. “People who don’t understand culture will complain about color,” says the Sol Food regular. “When I saw the green, I was, like, OK, this food has personality. You expect a colorful restaurant to be good!” He admits his theory isn’t foolproof. (“I’ve been hoodwinked before.”) Still, as someone who paints canvases that measure nearly 7 by 6 feet and celebrate Black joy in purples and pinks, “bright, bold color calls me in,” he says. “It’s a sign of hope.”

As was his first date with Nakeyshia Kendall, in 2018. “It wasn’t a date,” Nakeyshia says, rolling her eyes. “I was just hungry.”

An educator-entrepreneur, she was looking for an artist to lead a group of middle-schoolers in painting a mural. He was a recent graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. They met up at the annual Art Market in Fort Mason, where he proposed coffee at Starbucks. She suggested a drive across the bridge to Sol Food instead. The wait for a table was the same as it always was: long. So, they got takeout, drove up to the Marin Headlands, and talked art and music and relationship status (single), as they watched the sun dip into the bay. “We had slow jams going in the car,” Christopher adds. (Date.)

Nakeyshia learned about Sol Food the way most outdoorsy, food-loving locals do — googling for somewhere to eat after biking or hiking in Marin. In a county with a restaurant scene about as diverse as its population (affluent, 85 percent white), Sol Food stood out back when Marisol Hernandez opened the restaurant in 2004. It still does. She expanded to a larger location, then opened a second, in Mill Valley, in 2013. People come from all over the Bay Area — and everywhere from India to Italy — for her tender bistec encebollado and pescado frito Friday special, and garlicky, oregano-spiked pollo al horno (three pieces for Christopher, two for Nakeyshia). As Hector Lugo, a longtime Oakland regular, puts it: “Marisol’s menu is honest. She doesn’t try to do fancy things like all the Nuevo Latino cuisine bulls— I can’t stand,” he says. “Who are these chefs who think they can improve upon generations of delicious dishes?”

Even Nakeyshia’s Guyana-raised mother — who considers all “restaurant food junk food” — is a fan. “It reminds her of her own cooking,” says Nakeyshia. Though she grew up in Florida eating plantains and rice, it’s not so much Sol Food’s food that reminds Nakeyshia of home as its soul. The way it feels. The people she shares it with.

Christopher, who’d been living off mostly fast-food as a student, fell hard for Nakeyshia and her favorite restaurant. “It was real food,” he says recalling the Cubano. A month after that first meal together, Christopher and Nakeyshia took off on a cross-country road trip to Maine, to drop Christopher at graduate school. Their last stop before leaving town: Sol Food. “Everything was downhill from there,” he says.

It started with really bad barbecue in Idaho. (“All of a sudden he turned serious and went on this tirade against the baked beans!” recalls Nakeyshia. “I had no idea he was this barbecue connoisseur.”) The other thing about Idaho: There were very few Black people. “We tallied how many we saw in each state,” says Nakeyshia. Three in Idaho. Zero in South Dakota, where they were served “pasty mashed potatoes out of a can” and some dude asked Christopher if he was on the Oakland A’s. (For the hell of it, Christopher said he was and signed his autograph.) They ate passable macaroni and cheese in Wisconsin, and a “world-famous meatball” in upstate New York, but they missed Sol Food. And more.

In Maine, Christopher faced racist cops and hate-emails, as well as stares every time he walked into a restaurant. “I was literally the only Black guy around. I felt like I was on display,” he says. The lobster rolls were decent, but not the people serving them. He remembers once ordering two — “and the lady goes, ‘That’s going to cost $40, you know.’ I was, like: ‘Yeah, I know.’” It might’ve been summer in Maine, but the state felt cold. Within six months, he drove West. First stop in California: Sol Food. “I was back where I belonged,” Christopher says.

He was also back with Nakeyshia. Eleven months later, they got married at Fort Mason. (Wedding catered by Sol Food, naturally.) Before COVID-19, Bianca, a server in Mill Valley, would find them a table, and gift them flan. Salt ‘n Straw always gives them free ice cream, too. “We don’t know why!” Nakeyshia says with a laugh. “I think they just like our vibe. You don’t see a lot of Black couples in San Francisco.”

As a Black couple walking around San Francisco, they’re also often asked: “Are you lost?” And then there’s the time Christopher was accused of breaking into his own car. As a Black man, he encounters more racism when he’s not with Nakeyshia, he says. It’s been better during quarantine, she says, “Because we’re always together.”

As they are on this summer day, chatting in camping chairs with purple masks around their necks and to-go containers in their laps. It’s easy to see, from 6 feet away, why Christopher and Nakeyshia get free flan. The virus is surging, unemployment is rising, systemic racism remains, and yet: This couple’s contentment with lunch and life and each other is contagious, in a good way. Early in the lockdown, Christopher and Nakeyshia rarely left their Russian Hill neighborhood. They shopped locally, took 6 a.m. walks, watched Trevor Noah. Until one day in May, they decided to take a road trip of a different sort.

They donned their matching masks and cruised over a Golden Gate Bridge devoid of traffic. “It felt like such an adventure,” recalls Nakeyshia. The sun was beaming. The line wasn’t bad. Bianca waved. They collected their collective five pieces of baked chicken and pink beans and white rice and extra maduros and headed for the headlands. Damn COVID, it was closed. No matter. They ate their Sol Food somewhere else appropriate, shelter-in-place or not: home.

The Usual: Saying Goodbye to Jardiniere

An irregular column about regulars in their restaurants — and the roles such places play in the lives of the people they feed.

Illustrated by George McCalman

Jardiniere may have been the city’s preeminent pre-theater spot these past 21-plus years, but Fred and Terely Harrell never went for the 5 o’clock prix fixe — they went for each other.

Their first supper, of some 250, was back when their youngest of four kids was still in diapers. They didn’t take their kids, of course. Jardiniere, with its white linen and lush lighting, wasn’t that kind of place — which, of course, is why they picked it. “It felt like a date,” says Fred, senior pastor of progressive City Church.

Initially, the Harrells bounced around Hayes Valley’s two-tiered castle of modern French-California cuisine. They’d sit knee-to-knee and split a burger, or across from each other at a tad-drafty two-top, sharing the short ribs and a warm bread salad. Until one night, they were led up the carpeted stairs to Table 93, to a quiet booth in the back — and basically never left.

Well, except when Table 93 was occupied by other beloved regulars, like, say, Vija Hovgard: an 80-something, Bentley-driving ballet-lover who’s been coming for her Chopin on the rocks, and Jardiniere’s flawless service, since the start.

Jardiniere has a lot of regulars. Like opera singer Sara Colburn, who met her now-husband there 15 years ago one late night after rehearsal. And neighborhood hair salon owner Gene Hayes, who used to bartend down the block at the Ivy before it was Absinthe, and would come once a week for the warm bread salad and his “Genie Martini.” And symphony season ticket holders and wine industry-types and a disproportionate number of aging socialites. (For years, Denise Hale, in her sparkling chokers, was as much a fixture at the black marble, horseshoe bar as the Tiffany-style lamps lining it.)

Like all well-tuned fine-dining restaurants, Jardiniere’s staff knows its best guests: their drinks, their dishes, the proper pronunciation of their names (“Te-rel-ee,” they practiced). They know their likes and dislikes, their birthdays, their children’s birthdays — which were the onlytimes, really, the Harrells would invite their brood. “Are you kidding?” laughs Fred. “We couldn’t afford to take teenagers to Jardiniere! They’d outeat us three times over!”

On Terely’s birthday, they’d amend the menu to read “Terely’s Quail,” because they knew it was her favorite. And on nights they knew the Harrells were coming in, but Fred’s short rib wasn’t, they’d be sure to have one on hand, just in case he wanted it. Which he always did. Sans the pomme puree, please. “I told them: ‘It just doesn’t work,’” Fred explained. “The potatoes turn too soupy.” Chef Traci Des Jardins later took it off the menu and started serving the short ribs with another setup. (“I don’t know, maybe it was because of me,” Fred ponders.)

Jardiniere
Jardiniere Illustrations by George McCalman

Another thing the staff did on nights they knew the Harrells were coming in: cheer. Actual hoots and hollers during the pre-service meeting. Their son, Lucas, told them so.

Now in his 20s, inspired by his infrequent special-occasion meals, he’s grown up to be a chef, working the line at restaurants like Petit Crenn and Coi, where he fell for a co-worker a few years his senior: a former pastry chef at Jardiniere. She definitely made desserts devoured by her future boyfriend. And it’s likely she made the two dozen mini-macarons that Terely, a Cuban-born flan maker, once begged the kitchen to make her as toppers for a last-minute order for her catering company called What the Flan! “Yes,” says Terely. “The answer at Jardiniere is always ‘Yes.’”

One night over post-work cocktails at a bar full of San Francisco cooks, Lucas met a guy from Jardiniere, and another connection was made. “Whaaat? Your parents arethe Harrells!?” the guy exclaimed, like they were real celebrities, not just in-house ones. “We love the Harrells.”

It’s a true love, and a mutual one. A rarity in the often fleeting, superficial exchanges between those who serve and those who sit. At some point, for the Harrells, hellos became hugs and “see you next times!” became “lets meet for lunch” (and discuss your boyfriend troubles and decorate your house and swap hairdressers). And once in a while, an otherwise not-inexpensive bill became a big fat $0. Like the time after Fred led a memorial for the homeless, and manager Mario dropped by and said, “Thank you. This one’s on us.”

Only once did the pastor walk in to the restaurant with his clerical collar still on, following a Black Lives Matter march — looking the part he already played. “I’ve always felt like the chaplain of Jardiniere,” he says. Talking. Listening. Welcoming staffers who’ve long felt unaccepted by the church, into his. Some for the first time, and often on Easter for the annual Sunday service he holds at Davies Symphony Hall. “I’ll look out at the crowd and see our server — our favorite human on the planet — sitting with Terely …”

He trails off and Terely picks up: “We know how much courage it takes him to be there,” she says through tears.

It’s all such a far cry from the requisite “I’ll have the chicken.” It’s what happens when a restaurant morphs into an institution, like Des Jardins’ refined brick fortress that we thought would never fall. It’s what happens when the life of a restaurant intertwines with actual lives.

Fred finds commonality between City Church and what he considers his otherchurch, between Jardiniere’s hospitality and his philosophy as a pastor. “Both are about community and congregation, about creating a space where people feel welcome and cared for.” As the Harrells, and so many, have.

Two decades later, Fred and Terely are empty nesters; their kids are gone, and now so is their restaurant. “Nothing will replace it,” he says. Although, of course, something will.

“Jardiniere has been our place to talk, to be together,” he says. “A place important to our marriage — our literal investment in it.”

Upon hearing about Jardiniere’s Saturday, April 27, closure, a lot of people made one more reservation. The Harrells made a rash of them. Their last suppers.

The other night, sipping their go-to twin martinis (Old Raj, served up, with a twist, and four olives on the side), they surveyed the menu. “Hmm. They brought back the pomme puree,” Fred notices — and orders his short ribs with it. Just because.

On Regulars, in Prime Covid Times

I haven’t had a latte since March 12th. I’m not complaining, merely stating a fact of my coronavirus life. Pre-pandemic, I purchased one every day. Most mornings, it was at Cole Valley’s Wooden Coffeehouse. I’d sit in a window seat, earning my keep in cold LaCroixs, talking with the owner, Steve Wickwire, about his squawking parakeet in the corner or complimenting Ivett Martinez on her latest T-shirt, as she handed me a ceramic cup brimming with a leaf-shaped swirl, before I could even order.

A latte in San Francisco costs $6 or so, including tip, and you have to tip. For fun one day, my fifth-grader calculated that I had been spending $2,184 a year — on coffee. Appalling, yes, but that’s also $2,184 cafes are collectively losing from me alone. I’ve been making coffee at home. I’ve also been cooking at home. Morning, noon and night, seven days a week for my family of four.

Much of my San Francisco life — like much of San Francisco life itself — had revolved around restaurants, until they were whisked away faster than an empty cocktail glass at Che Fico. I wasn’t so much a regular at any particular restaurant as I was a regular of restaurants. Still, I had my go-tos, and from writing a column for this newspaper about regulars, I know — for many people, myself included — a restaurant is more than just a source of food.

What Izhar Buendia, 30, appreciated most about Hayes Valley’s Rich Table wasn’t only the sardine chips but dropping by with his girlfriend after work, scoring two seats at the bar and sipping whatever whiskey-based cocktail was available that week.

Since Nopa opened on Divisadero in 2006, George McCalman, my collaborator on the regulars column, and I have laughed and cried and closed it down like it’s our living room. “Hovering for a seat at the bar is an Olympic sport! I’ve met a couple of boyfriends sitting at the bar,” says McCalman. “I’ve been spoiled for the experience. How can takeout compare?”

In those first weeks, bombarded by GoFundMe and Insta-pleas, choosing who to financially support felt overwhelming, like facing a desert filled with friends who were dehydrated and now lost without a compass. Almost six months later — with businesses desperately propping up parklets and slinging pizza kits — it still does. As restaurant regulars, who do we save first? Can we even save anyone?

A lot of diners are trying to — making donations and picking up “picnic packs” and pimping their posts. Recently, instead of making my 163rd lunch in a row, I decided to pick up sandwiches. Standing inside the small space waiting for my order, I almost had a panic attack. There were too many customers too close for comfort. Two of them chortling 2 inches from me, noses exposed over their masks. It’s not a busy counter staff’s responsibility to police its customers. Then again, a small business — no matter how beloved — can’t expect unconditional support from its COVID-conscious customers if they don’t.

Still, most restaurants are following the rules, working their butts off and doing their best. In turn, some diners are doubling-down and ordering out with intention.

Amy Dumas, a retired wrestler and vegan, considers takeout as a way to help San Francisco. “I don’t want to see this city become a shell of what it was!” Currently, cravings aren’t what dictate dinner in her house. “It’s ‘Where do we want our dollars to go? Who are we going to support tonight?’” She skips the delivery apps, with fees that cut deep into a restaurant’s bottom line, and instead zips around on her Vespa, picking up pizza at Beretta; dumplings from Golden Era in the Tenderloin; mushroom skewers from her friends at the Kebabery across the Bay Bridge. “It gets me out of my bubble and makes me feel connected to the community,” she says. “Living in a city is about contributing to your surroundings. Smiling at your neighbor. Ordering curry.”

Even without their beloved dining spaces, regulars are rising to the occasion. Buendia gave to Rich Table’s employee fund and has ordered from its to-go menu. “It’s my small way of saying ‘I believe in this community,’” he says. He also believes in Oakland’s Tacos la San Marquena and 36-year-old Pho84, and orders from both weekly.

Saramanda Swigart, who teaches writing at City College, spent $300 on meat loaf and mac ‘n’ cheese at the Mission’s long-running Blue Plate one night because of a special that gave all profits to furloughed employees. “My sister and I drove around like DoorDash, dropping food off for friends, saying hi from a distance,” she says. They’ve done the same from fellow favorites like Shakewell and Shanghai Dumpling King, La Ciccia, China Live.

“In the absence of an economic system that takes care of people, it’s up to those of us who still have a salary to support,” she says. Swigart, who used to work at Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside, also gave to a bunch of GoFundMe accounts, including 50 bucks to Mister Jiu’s — even though she’s never been. “I could never get in!” she says, laughing. “Maybe, one day, they’ll be able to save me a table.”

Not all the kinship of being a regular has been lost to the coronavirus. For years, Kim Caldwell and her daughter would “get cute” and go to Flava’s Jamaican Grill once a week. “Leroy makes sure everyone feels welcome,” she says. In this moment, it feels especially imperative, she says, to support Black-owned restaurants. Since COVID, just picking up ackee and saltfish on a Saturday night feels like a celebration. “I’ll run into people and say, ‘Hey, I saw you last week’ and we’ll nod, like, ‘We’re not cooking!’ It feels like a night out — but in.”

To me, cooking is what feels most right, and yet, it also feels wrong. I feel both guilty for not supporting the industry I care so much about, and good for not contributing to the endangerment of the industry I care so much about. In an effort to “limit interactions,” as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises, I can count on two hands how many times I’ve ordered takeout since the lockdown. As for eating out, outside or inside a plastic dome designed to separate the haves from the have-nots? Not once.

But if COVID and wildfires have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is permanent. Not our 1,000-year-old redwoods, not our 100-old restaurants, and certainly not us. I know my occasional takeout won’t save the day. Still, the other night I ordered one roast chicken for two (for four) and a Caesar salad from Zuni. My family and I sat around our kitchen table, again. Without the copper bar and expert bussers and Bob at the piano and the only worthwhile white tablecloths left in this world, it wasn’t the same. Not even close. But it was still Zuni. I felt a hint of hope. Maybe, together, it’s the regulars who will see this through.

Challah giving sourdough some competition

Sourdough may be the celebrity loaf of #quarantinelife — and it is delicious and deserves all of the love and care and at least half of the amateur photos it’s getting — but it’s not the bread I’m suddenly baking.

Instead, every Friday since San Francisco mandated we shelter in place, my 11-year-old daughter, Hazel, and I have been making challah. Sure, I spent eight weeks every summer at Jewish camp, lost the limbo at my bat mitzvah and was hoisted in a chair at my wedding — I even recently co-authored a Jewish cookbook — but confession: baking challah is not something I often do. Now it’s the only constant of our amorphous week. I’m not religious at all, but there’s something comforting, even moving, about this part of the Shabbat ritual. Perhaps because, in a way, it feels like we’ve all — regardless of religion — been tossed into a secular sort of Shabbat. An endless Shabbat.

The Sabbath, as the more pious call it, is intended to be a day of rest. A time when time seemingly halts and we slow down, ditch our cars, go for walks, cook and eat, and focus not on work but on what ultimately matters: the people we love, the present. As 20th century German philosopher Erich Fromm once wrote of Shabbat: “By not working — that is to say, by not participating in the process of natural and social change — man is free from the chains of nature and from the chains of time, although only for one day a week.” Typically, Shabbat lasts 25 hours. (No, not 24, an hour after sundown on Saturday, and all.) Right now, though, it feels like we’re honoring Shabbat seven days a week, every week. It’s like the Jewish version of “Groundhog Day” (starring Billy Crystal instead of Bill Murray?).

Shabbat, too, comes with rules and restrictions. They are different than those of the coronavirus, but restrictions nonetheless. Both come with family time. (So. Much. Family. Time.) And wine. So much wine.

Even before our collective lockdown, the ancient tradition was trending. In her 2019 book, “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week,” local filmmaker Tiffany Shlain urged modern families to turn off all devices for 24 hours and take what she calls a “technology Shabbat.” Ashton Kutcher was lighting the Friday-night candles and racking up tens of thousands of likes. My gentile friends in Fairfax were “Shabbat-ing” amongst themselves (and, yes, turning it into a verb). A WASP-y mother of three in Potrero was powering down at the end of the week, bringing her kids together around the table. Millennials were hosting group dinners with OneTable, a social dining platform with a challah hotline and the tagline: How do you Friday? Everyone taking a collective pause on a Friday night over roast chicken (or fried chicken, shumai or shrimp tacos) and calling it what it is: Shabbat.

In COVID-19 times, Shlain has been baking challah every Friday with her daughters — and a hundred or so strangers online (hashtag #zoomchallahbake). OneTable turned its Friday dinners virtual with a new tagline: “Shabbat Alone, Together.” And recently, Wise Sons launched a $110 Shabbat meal kit, including schmaltz-roasted potatoes, candles and a pre-made challah of its own, that’s quickly proven popular.

Pop star Katy Perry, raised an evangelical Christian, told a reporter not long ago: “I wish there was a thing like Shabbat for the whole world.” Well, Katy Perry, now it seems there is.

When this unprecedented, virus-induced reality was foisted upon us, something about it felt vaguely familiar. Like other times in life where it was upended in an instant and rearranged into something unrecognizable. In the beginning, I’d tried to pinpoint it. Sept. 11. The sudden death of my old boyfriend. The slog and fog and existential anxiety of new motherhood. The times when I’d wander the house and streets in sweats, forget where I parked, venture into the world only when I had to, warily. Times when the new normal was unwelcome, wrapped in a bubble that would eventually not so much burst as slowly blow away like a lost balloon, until I could see it only in the distance.

And then, the other day, as I sat in the backyard reading with my son, waiting for the dough’s second rise, I realized there was something else this quarantine reminded me of: Shabbat.

Around Passover, everyone was calling this 21st century pandemic our 11th plague, and — far worse than lice and frogs ever were — indeed it is. But it’s also been 14 weeks and counting, of an endless Shabbat. All the days blend together, but not Fridays. It was a few hours before sundown, and Hazel and I rolled and braided and brushed, like Jews have done, in some form or other, for thousands of years, through persecution and pain and perhaps times harder than this, and yet still: come out OK.

As does our challah. Warm and soft and sweet, made with flour and oil and eggs and honey and, unlike sourdough: yeast. (Which was not easy to find during this pandemic, but I had a connection.) An improbable sign of hope? It gets better each week.

Rachel Levin is the co-author of “Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews” (Chronicle Books).

Diary of My So-Called Homeschool Life

7:51 a.m.: We’re still in bed. Hazel, Oren and I. Typically, at this time on a Tuesday, I’m yelling at my 8-year-old to put on his shoes because our carpool is coming at any minute and he needs to be ready and out the door. But this morning Oren does not need shoes. There is no carpool, and no one is coming at any minute. Sometimes people do come, though — for a minute. To drop off homemade snickerdoodle cookies. Or tell us they found a salamander that looks like a snake. Or to just chat below our window, Rapunzel style.

8:07 a.m.: Breakfast is Josh’s meal. I escape for a run in the already-too-crowded park. Why is it only male runners who barrel ahead, center path, refusing to budge for pedestrians, while I make giant half-moons into the street?

9:02 a.m.: I return reluctantly, to find my kids engaged, actually engaged, in morning meetings, live Zooms our school started three weeks into quarantine. Hazel is upstairs in her room, on her laptop like a teenager instead of the sweet, 4-foot-6, fifth-grader she is. Shunning his new little makeshift desk in the kitchen, Oren settles into the beanbag, iPad in his lap. This is the 32-minute highlight of my day, and — I think — my kids’ too. They get to hear their teacher and see other kids and share their feelings about what they’re feeling. (“I miss my friends,” is a collective refrain.) I drink coffee and turn on my laptop: headlines, emails, Twitter threads, Instagram. This time is finite and I should not waste it, but I can’t help it: I do.

9:24 a.m.: “Why couldn’t the toilet paper cross the road?” Oren asks his classmates over Zoom. “Because it got stuck in a crack.”

9:30 a.m.: Hazel consults her schedule and keeps to it. Rarely online before homeschool, she now Gchats all day with friends. She also does whatever her teachers ask of her. I don’t even know what that is. I pretend she doesn’t need me.

9:33 a.m.: Oren logs off Zoom with good intentions. He will do all his work, he says. He just doesn’t know what he wants to do first. He wants to make his own schedule, he says, snubbing mine. I wish he would do reading first: 30 minutes of solo reading a real book every day. If only he’d do morning meeting straight into solo reading — that would give me a full uninterrupted hour. How about math? I ask. No, he wants to wait for Dad for math. I don’t blame him. Dad is working downstairs in the cold, dark, windowless basement. Uninterrupted. I’m envious.

Oren and I settle on social studies. He is studying changemakers, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We watch an animated RBG on the iPad. Oren liked watching RBG on “SNL” better. “Does she really lift AA batteries for weights?” he asks. My work is not done.

9:58 a.m.: Ah, Hazel does need me. She lugs her laptop downstairs to the dining room and sets it up an inch from mine. “The Armchair Historian” and its nine-minute segment on the British colonization of India is not making sense. The guy in a blazer and button-down is using big words. “What does subjugate mean?” she asks.

9:59 a.m.: “You said you’d read the Newsela article with me!” Oren wails, referring to the distance-learning education company that rewrites news articles for young students. He climbs into my lap, almost knocking over my third cup of coffee onto both laptops. “Let’s watch Hazel’s ‘Armchair Historian’ first,” I say. He doesn’t want to, of course. I don’t either.

10:04 a.m.: The Newsela article profiles a local changemaker — a woman who plays cello on her front porch during the pandemic. “Why did the woman play the cello?” asks a multiple-choice question at the end. “C,” Oren says. “To help people feel less lonely.”

10:09 a.m.: Writing. Biographies. Pick a family member to interview, the purple slide instructs. Oren picks me. I have a better idea. “Let’s call Grampy in Florida!” I prop up my phone at Oren’s little desk and let my father’s big face fill time and space. “Where were you born?” I overhear Oren asking as I leave the room. My heart warms. Grandfather and grandson connecting across the country and generations during quarantine. “Brookline, Massachusetts,” replies my dad. “How do you spell Brookline?” B-R-O-O … my dad spells as Oren writes each letter with care, and cross-outs. “How do you spell Massachusetts?” he asks. “M- A-… just abbreviate it,” my dad says, already over his celebrity interview.

10: 21 a.m.: “I’m hungry,” Oren declares for the third time since breakfast. He helps himself to another mini-bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, which my husband bought in bulk, because when he thinks school snacks, he thinks 1987.

10:50 a.m.: Live Zoom PE with the PE teacher! We love the PE teacher. “How’re you guys doing?” she asks the kids. “Good,” Oren says, sprawled in his beanbag and sounding like he’s stoned. For exercise, he flips through the anamoji options on the iPad.

11:01 a.m.: Raz-Kids. Oren likes Raz-Kids. A woman’s voice reads “A Job for James.” He listens, looks at the illustrations, and “turns” the pages, sort of like a real book. I turn to my laptop.

11:08 a.m.: The woman’s voice has gone quiet. I suspect foul play, as in: Oren surreptitiously switching from Raz-Kids to Pixel Gun 3D. Because I have a deadline, I pretend he’s still e-reading.

11:32 a.m.: “Oren, what’re you doing?” I call from the next room. “Raz-Kids!” he lies. I let him.

Noon: Lunchtime. Leftover pesto pasta and Hazel’s hand-rolled bean-and-cheese burritos. She’s got serious burrito-rolling skills. I decide she will be OK. Josh emerges from the basement. Everyone eats. I do the dishes.

12:18 p.m.: Josh and Oren descend to the basement. It’s MATH TIME. They do math! Hazel and I go for a walk up and down the street. The same street we’ve been walking up and down every day, sometimes three times a day, for the past six weeks. At least I love this street.

12:40 p.m.: Josh has a work call. Oren reappears. We do math. 7 x 8 = 56. It’s all coming back to me.

1 p.m.: It’s only 1 p.m.?

1:02 p.m.: Hazel sequesters herself in her room to draw the digestive system. She will work on this for the next few hours — while on Google Hangouts asking friends for advice on how to convince her mother to get a dog — until every part, from esophagus to anus (her word), is sketched and labeled and every last bit of large intestine is colored pink. Oren will work on nothing.

1:04 p.m.: Well, technically he is practicing his stealth ninja skills as he makes several attempts to sneak into the dining room, slip quietly under the table and reach his hand up to steal my phone. I urge him to practice ukulele instead. He plays “You Are My Sunshine” once then throws his uke like Eddie Van Halen and storms the pantry for his fourth mini-bag of Doritos, which he stuffs in his sweatpants so I don’t see. Except I do.

1:10 p.m.: I spy two bruised bananas on the counter. Activity opportunity: banana bread! Oren mashes. I mix. We pour the batter into a pan. He licks the spatula clean. It’s a cute, quality 18 minutes.

1:42 p.m.: Oren challenges his friend Zagnut42 to a game of online chess. He loses, too quickly. Rematch? Zagnut42 disappears.

2 p.m.: Desperate measures mean: It’s documentary film hour. “Can we watch ‘Marvel’?” Oren asks. No, I say, this is homeschool. He cries and whines and says then he will watch nothing. So, watch nothing, I reply. Read instead. He agrees to a matinee. “March of the Penguins”! I proclaim. (I love “March of the Penguins.”) “Pumping Iron!” Oren counters. (“Pumping Iron”?) We watch the 1977 trailer starring a young, bronzed, bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger. “He used to be the governor of California,” I say. Oren is confused. “March of the Penguins” it is. The penguins are so not social-distancing.

3:51 p.m.: It’s cold and gray and drizzling. Whatever. I’ve got to get him outside. We’re going for a run, I inform him. Yes, I know I already did.

4:12 p.m.: Oren finally puts on his sneakers. We head down the street, the street I love, and over the grassy knoll and down the creaky wooden steps. It’s wet and slick. “Don’t touch the railing!” I yell. Oren touches the railing. We hang a left and wind up and up, flanked by the lush electric-green hillside, as we walk-run through the middle of the double-yellow-lined road, toward a Twin Peaks devoid of cars and tourists. I hope, post-corona, neither come back. Oren pulls ahead. I watch his ever-longer hair flop in the mist as he plods along the pavement. I decide: He’ll be OK. We all will.

Pandemiquette: A guide to manners in the age of coronavirus


I’d been sequestered in the Sierra all week, seeing no one but my family and the 5 feet of snow we weren’t allowed to ski in, so our return to the newly locked-down city was especially eerie. The Bay Bridge devoid of traffic. Haight Street sidewalks deserted. Buses empty. The gravity of the novel coronavirus began to sink in. But, wait, was that someone walking out of the Ice Cream Bar with a $9 waffle cone?

“Oh, can we get ice cream?” my kids squealed from the back.

“What?! Of course not!” I shrieked, suddenly turned into a shrew.

We unpacked the car; all at once there were so many people. Kevin, from across the street, confessed that his teenage son may have been exposed to COVID-19 at a sleepover because the dad of that house just tested positive. You let your kid go to a sleepover party?! I managed not to scream. Pride in my self- restraint was short-lived. When neighbor Nancy, back from a speed-walk, came over to say an innocuous “hi” to my husband, I did scream, loud and shrill: “You’re too close!”

What was left of my manners? Nothing, apparently, by the time I escorted my son to see his friend, from a distance, on the sidewalk. Sweet Miles had brought Oren a gift, a small Ziploc of gummy bears, which he tossed across the 6-foot, invisible divide. “Nooooooo!” I yelled, as the baggie, clearly covered in a thousand viral droplets, arced through the air slo-mo-style and landed in my son’s little hand. Seeing the horror on my face, Miles’ mom apologized profusely. Miles himself began to cry. I felt like a madwoman. Or just — more accurately — an ass.

Courtesy and civility, always important, matter even more in a time of crisis. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the very meaning of those terms — and doing away with handshakes is the least of our conundrums. When epidemiologists tell us the kindest thing we can do for our fellow human is to avoid them like the plague they might harbor, manners inevitably take a hit. It’s an “exogenous shock” to our norms, says Jennifer A. Chatman, a professor of management at UC Berkeley. “What you’re seeing now is that people are negotiating what those new norms should be.”

The point is worth remembering: We’re the ones writing the new rules of etiquette; the new customs are in our (chapped-from-scrubbing) hands. Some lovely new traditions may yet emerge from what otherwise seems a manner-pocalypse. “Be your most positive, vibrant self,” counsels fourth-generation etiquette expert Lizzie Post. Her preferred greeting of the moment is a Middle Eastern custom, she says: placing a hand over your heart, with a slight bow of your head. “It’s such a beautiful way of greeting people, I wish we did it all the time.”

Maybe, when all this is over, we will. In the meantime, some suggestions on staying human while complying with our new order:

On the sidewalk: Eye contact won’t kill you

We in the Bay Area have never been big on acknowledging the strangers we encounter. Maybe it’s time to change that, given that many of us are now stepping off the sidewalk and into the street to keep our 6-foot distance. Next time, try that little half-circle with a smile — or at least a nod, a look in the eye, or any subtle acknowledgment of our new spatially awkward custom. Also, I’m no expert, but it’s gotta be OK to stop holding our (my) breath. (And to those who continue to commandeer the 3-foot-wide path in Golden Gate Park without shuffling to the side, who are you? It’s worse than manspreading on Muni. Make room.)

At the grocer: Practice personal-space shopping

It’s not so easy in those narrow aisles but please, give your fellow shoppers some space. If two people are picking out their dozen boxes of pasta at the same time, that is not 6 feet. Quell any impulse to hold open the refrigerator-section glass door for someone; chivalry is dead for now. And don’t make anyone else hold open the door for you so that you can sneak in and grab your eggs without touching the germy door handle. (I’m talking to you, dude who got way too close the other morning at Luke’s Local.)

Resist the urge to hoard

In recent days, you may have encountered Amazon’s doomsday note, “We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock” — especially if you searched for, oh, toilet paper, yeast or Rao’s tomato sauce. Perhaps your heart raced and your chest tightened. But the Bay Area — and America’s — food supply is healthy and, as Chronicle reporter Janelle Bitker recently wrote, “There’s no need to panic.” There is, however, a real need to resist the impulse to overbuy so there’s enough for everyone. Trader Joe’s has propped up in-store signs, written in a sweet cursive, asking customers to “show kindness” by not buying more than two units of any single item. “Let’s Get Through This Together,” TJ’s urges. #truth.

Throw money around (if you have some)

Everyone who is still out there in the working world — chefs, delivery drivers, pharmacists, grocery clerks, and above all doctors and nurses — is risking their lives so the rest of us can shelter in place. Now is not the time to skimp on appreciation: May we suggest a minimum 20 percent tip? If there’s no way to tip gracefully (Walgreens and Whole Foods execs: It seems like a good time to roll out the tip jars), a heartfelt thank-you and smile is the very least you can do.

Apologize as necessary

Remember Neighbor Nancy, victim of my fear-induced wrath? I later emailed her to say I’m sorry. (I wasn’t going to, God forbid, ring a doorbell!) She understood. “For 1/100th of a second I felt a sting,” she replied. “For the rest of that second, I felt gratitude.”

Thank your teachers

Parents of younger kids are enduring their own version of hell: homeschooling. Show them compassion. Just because someone pushed a child or three out of her body does not mean she wants the sole responsibility of educating them, or knows anything about doing it. My 8-year-old son has spent much of his first homeschool week writhing on the floor crying, playing something previously prohibited on my phone called Pixel Gun 3, and asking for snacks and sandwiches every hour. So on behalf of struggling parents everywhere, please keep reports of your A-plus, Harvard homeschool to yourself.

Bring back “I hope you’re well”

Crafting an email to colleagues in the Age of Corona isn’t easy. Even if you don’t know what others are dealing with — illness, economic trouble, son writhing on the floor — you can be sure it’s a doozy, if not an outright cluster. Not acknowledging the severity of the times seems, in some way, uncouth.

Not long ago, there was a movement to do away with certain superfluous, empty-sounding greetings in email. Though I stopped leading with “I hope you’re well” long ago, I’ve started using it again, or sign offs like “Be well.” Where once I heaped scorn on “Take care” — irritating and dismissive, I thought — I’m now using that one, too. Because now I really, truly, mean it.

Rachel Levin is a freelance writer and author of “Eat Something,” published this month by Chronicle Books.

Running Free at San Quentin

“I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d put my money on Fidelio,” says Markelle “the Gazelle” Taylor, winner of the 12th Annual San Quentin Marathon—and the three before that. He isn’t running this year. The 26.2-mile race, held inside the 30-foot walls of what’s got to be the prettiest prison in the world, is for inmates only.

Prettiest, at least, from the outside, where the sparkling San Francisco Bay stretches to the sky and Mt Tamalpais rises above the barbed wire.

The Gazelle always appreciated that view of Tam while running around and around and around the prison yard. He completed his last San Quentin Marathon—105 laps around a quarter-mile track— in a record 3:10:42. A few months later, paroled after 18 years, he ran to the top of the mountain he’d been looking at for so long. (And then he ran the Boston Marathon, in 3:03:52, his personal best.)

No one is going to beat Markelle’s time this year, predicts Frank Ruona, 74, crazy-accomplished ultra-runner, Vietnam vet, longtime coach of Marin’s Tamalpa Running Club—and head coach of San Quentin’s 1,000 Mile Club, since its inception in 2005.

But on a sunny, 46-degree Friday morning in late November, two guys set out to try: Fidelio Marin and Mark Jarosik. Lifers both, like most of the 4,215 inmates at the maximum-security penitentiary, California’s oldest.

I don’t want to know what these guys did to get in here.

Coach Frank sends me the roster of runners in advance, their names right there, ready for me to type into Google. Instead, I concentrate on another email I receive: a Word doc detailing what not to wear. The list is long. No jumpsuits. (Noted.) No sweats. No gray or white or denim or anything resembling denim—or anything that might make me resemble an inmate.

So that the guards with guns watching from the towers above can easily distinguish you, I’m told, in the event of any trouble.

It doesn’t explicitly say no body-hugging Oiselle pants, which is what I usually wear running, but as Kevin Rumon, another longtime volunteer, put it over the phone: “These guys don’t get a lot of female communication, so…” Also, he reminds me, I won’t be running.

*

The sun rises as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. I breeze through the rainbow tunnel and pass all the Highway 101 exits I typically take. Sausalito, Stinson Beach, Muir Woods. Just past the posh Marin Country Mart, home to $400 bikinis and $32 burgers, I follow signs to its antithesis, another iconic Marin County destination. The one I’ve driven by for years — yet have never been to.

It’s about two minutes till race time and the first runner I meet is Fidelio. At 49, he’s wrinkle-free, with warm eyes and a wide smile, dressed in droopy gray shorts, white socks, and donated gray Adidas sneakers. He has a white napkin wrapped around his forehead, like a bandana. I ask what he had for breakfast. “Snickers,” he says.

There’s a digital clock on the ground and a homemade “1000 Mile Club” banner hanging over “San Quentin’s Field of Dreams” scoreboard, but otherwise the runners gather without fanfare.

No one else on the yard seems to care, nor much notice, that there’s a marathon today. Not the men doing push-ups or the men punching bags or the men playing dominos or the men, so many men, ambling the same track in long denim jackets marked CDCR Prisoner. The geese puttering around the patchy grass could give two poops, too.

‘But these runners do. They’ve been training all year for this, with Coach Frank and Kevin and a handful of other elite runners—who are here this morning, in black puffy coats, with stopwatches and clipboards and pouches of berry-flavored Gu. All lifers in their own way, they joke. They care, too.

“It’s one of those corny-sounding things,” says ultrarunner Diana Fitzpatrick, 61. “About getting more out of it than I put in, but it’s true.” She hasn’t missed a San Quentin marathon. The first had only one finisher, she recalls. Ronnie Goodman, since paroled. A lot of 1,000 Mile Club runners have been paroled.

Running today are 30 of the 60 or so in the group. Not all are looking to finish and 17 are injured and not running at all. (Hips. Hernias. An ingrown toenail.) Still, they’re here help, to hand out water, to cheer on their teammates.

Like Brett Ownbey. “Positive affirmation isn’t something you typically get a lot of in prison,” he says. The 1,000 Mile Club has given him that, and more.

Incarcerated for 17 years, he’d never run before arriving at San Quentin last September, weighing 252 pounds. He has since completed his first marathon, in four-and-a-half hours, and lost 62 pounds. “Running has taught me to set goals, and attain them,” says Brett, 45. “When I’m on the track, I’m in the present. I’m not just a prisoner. I’m human.”

Manning the starting line chalked in gravel, he finally feels a part of something, he explains. “Individually, you know, we’re all going at our own pace, at our own ability—but together, we make up the club.”

“3-2-1,” Frank counts down, and they’re off. A ragtag group, ages 22 to 72; whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians. The rest of the yard might be segregated, but not the 1000 Mile Club. “There’s no racial bullshit” as one runner puts it.

“This track is horrible,” says Ralph Ligons, 68, cofounder from a plastic chair on the sideline. He was an All-American sprinter at Cal State Sacramento who competed in the 1972 Olympic trials, before being sentenced 25 years to life, before he had a cane and his scraggly goatee turned white. He retired from running ten years ago. “But I never stopped walking,” he says. “You’ve got to keep going.”

Part-pavement, part-dirt, the “route” has six 90-degree turns and all sorts of distractions. It starts in right field, near the flaming sweat lodge, then cuts between the busy basketball court and the always-taken tennis court, weaving past a pull-up bar and an artist displaying his work.

A few things, though, make this race different from any other in Marin County: the sporadic prison alarms forcing everyone on the yard to sit down where ever they are, until the issue, whatever it is (medical, rioting, murder), is resolved.

Perhaps the toughest thing: “Every lap, you’re passing the finish line,” says Nicola Bucci, 47. “You’re thinking: ‘When’s it going to end?’” Not unlike prison itself, he adds.

Recovering from surgery, Bucci is sitting this one out. He completed his first marathon last year, coming in dead last. Didn’t matter. “It felt like coming in first,” he says. “It gave me the will to want to continue. It helped me realize that whatever I face, I can overcome.”

“Only 102 laps to go!” cries Dan McCoy, giving a thumbs up as he goes by. There are no live bands or little kids holding signs or water stations. Most guys BYO in old plastic Pepsi bottles, to hang on the chain-link fence. Some are topped with squirt caps Kevin bought for them on eBay, so they can drink and run.

Eventually, the smiles and waves turn to groans, guys gripping hamstrings, some shuffling to a walk.

John Levin, 55, a two-time finisher, cuts out after 18 miles. “Hey, sister!” he jokes, having heard we share the same last name. His brother loaded up his MP3 player with running-themed songs, he tells me. “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. “Marathon” by Rush.

John came to San Quentin with a degree in computer science, but had never run before. “It means everything,” he says, wiping away tears. “That coach, and all these free people, show up, and can look past your poor decisions and treat you like a real person, like you’re not the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

For most of the race, Fidelio is indeed in the lead, a full lap ahead Mark. Until mile 21—lap 87when he rolls his ankle.

Mark pulls ahead. He’s got less than a mile to go. “Down in the yard,” booms a voice over the loud speaker, cramping the runners’ style. Seventeen minutes later, they’re allowed up.

The last lap is a short one, the .2. Shirtless and chest puffed, 107.7 “The BONE” blaring in his ears, Mark barrels toward the finish line.

Brett and Bucci hold up a piece of red plastic tape that reads “Danger” — and he busts through, six minutes short of Markelle’s record.

Feeling like a lone SportsCenter reporter after the SuperBowl, I scurry over, holding up my mini-recorder. “There’s a new king in town,” says Mark, with a wry smile. Then softens for a moment. “Running takes you out of this place.”

Fidelio rolls in two minutes later; second place but still beaming.

Steve Reitz finishes at 3:41. His mom is going to be proud, he says. Vicente Gomez follows in white stocking feet. He kicked off his crappy sneakers four miles ago. Blisters.

Watching them go by is Warren Corley. He’s inspired. “I had no idea there was a race going on. I was just sitting on the wall and said, ‘Hey, I know half those guys! I’m gonna get them some water.”

This is his second stint at San Quentin. His first was in the ‘80s, he tells me. “It was another place back then.” Riots. Murders. Tension all the time. “None of this was here,” he says, surveying the yard. No tennis. No garden. No 1,000 Mile Club. No marathon.

“I could imagine doing this,” says Warren still holding a cup no one has grabbed. “Yeah, I’m going to run next year.” He pauses. “I’ll be here.””

The marathon won’t be over for another couple of hours.

Fourteen more guys will finish, including fresh-faced first-timer Michael Johnson, who fixed to have a friend waiting at the end with Peanut Butter Panic ice cream. (“I lent him a calculator earlier,” he explains.)

And, for the fourth time, Tommy Wickerd, his tattooed arms bulging, his bad knees holding, his bald head inscribed: “Ma & Pa I Tried.” He never ran long distance before prison. “The cops always made sure I didn’t get very far,” he jokes. Then turns serious. “Running has changed my life. When I’m running, I’m not in prison. I’m thinking about my father, my grandkids, my next breath, my next step.”

Brett and Bucci string up the red tape for every runner crossing the finish line, as if instead of Danger, it reads: fresh start.

 I’m ushered out before the end of the race. I leave these men and their mistakes and regrets and hopes and dreams. And Mike Keeyes, still trucking tortoise-style at 72, before he finishes his fifth San Quentin Marathon in five-plus hours. He’s been incarcerated for 45 years. My entire lifetime.

These guys run, I realize, for the same reason I do: to feel alive, and free.

The bars clank close behind me and I drive out along the bay toward Tennesee Valley. I swap pants and hit the trails until the sun starts to set.

Later, at home, I can’t help it: I Google. Yet like Coach Frank and Kevin and San Quentin’s geese, I don’t care. I want to go back.

The Usual: For generations, Thanh Long has been the go-to for crab

In the summer of 1985, Annette Jackson and her high school boyfriend drove into the city in his drop-top Mercury Cougar toward Ocean Beach. Not to the beach— only once has she gone to the beach— but a few blocks east of it, to Thanh Long.

All senior year, her boyfriend kept telling her: “I’m going to save all my money and take you to a special dinner for graduation.” Graduation Day came and went, but he wasn’t quite yet flush enough. So, he gave her flowers instead and saved a little more.

“I’d never heard of no restaurant Thanh Long!” she says. “Thanh Long? I thought he was making it up!” The two dated all four years at Oakland High. They’d go to Mexicali Rose. “Sizzlers was always popping,” says Annette.

That first supper was special. “All of East Oakland was there!” she recalls. It turned out, everyone knew what 18-year-old Annette had just discovered: Somehow, Sunday nights at Thanh Long were a tradition. . And there was no better place in the Bay Area for Dungeness crab. Garlicky, peppery, buttery sweet roasted crab.

Now 53, Annette’s relationship with the restaurant has long outlasted the boyfriend. “Oh, I dropped him my first year of college!” she says. “But I kept the crab.”

Most Sundays, she and her girlfriends would make the pilgrimage from Merritt College for their favorite meal—and the crowds of cute, single guys who came craving it, too. Real gentlemen, she recalls. They’d buy Annette her friends drinks. Gift them garlic noodles. “Someone would usually pass us a platter of crab, and say, ‘Here you go, ladies!” She laughs. “I guess that’s why we went on Sundays.”

As life moved on, she’d go with her favorite cousin, with guys she dated, every birthday. And after watching him grab the crab in her New Years’ Eve gumbo and crack it with his bare little hands, she brought her son for his fourth birthday, too.

“He went beserk!” recalls Annette. “He got on his hands and knees at the table, all dressed up in his little plastic bib, and went to town like he’d been doing it for years,” The butter was running down his face, he was licking his arms.” She and his dad, Lenny Jones Jr., were cracking up. “We were like, ‘Did he really just eat an entire crab by himself?’” (He did.)

Lenny Jones III, now 28, has spent every birthday dinner since, like his mother—devouring Dungeness.

He has had hundreds of other dinners there, too: “look how much I’m spending dinners” with his high school sweetheart, Mariah; prom night dinners; boys’ night dinners; home-from-college dinners. One lone “I’m a vegan now” dinner. (Until, Lenny left hungry.)

Since then, he’s had countless any-old-time “I’m feeling crab” dinners. Even if it takes two hours, from Dublin, during Friday rush hour traffic to get there.

And only there. Thanh Long has been drawing crowds to Judah and 46th Avenue long before the stretch became a media darling as a magnet for bearded surfers and clog-clad women seeking espresso and toast and ceramics and succulents. Which is to say: predominantly white. People will wait hours for dinner at Outerlands and people will wait hours for dinner at Thanh Long— but these are noticeably not the same people. Neither Lenny nor his mom have ever been, nor really noticed, anywhere else on the block but Thanh Long.  “I only eat at Thanh Long when I come to the city,” says Annette.

The longtime host, Lani, lets them slide in sans reservations. Lenny fist-bumps the same server he’s fist-bumped since he was a kid.

At 6’3”, 256 pounds, his knees, when sitting, are now taller than the table. He forgoes the bib, unlike everyone else in the two-story, 150-seatrestaurant. He drinks Don Julio 1942 Tequila neat, with a side of pineapple juice. His mom lets him wear sweatpants. And he never lets her pay the bill. Which, of course, isn’t cheap.

“I remember when the crab was $28!” says Annette, a customer service employee at Target. “Then it went to like, $34. At some point it shot up to $43! Now it’s at, what? $53?” ($58.95)

On this night, they get two, roasted with founder Helene An’s “garlic sauce and secret spices. Plus, those garlic noodles—no one doesn’t get the garlic noodles—and an order of chicken fried rice, with an extra side of melted butter, which Annette pours over the bowl of rice.

They add the shaken beef, cubes of New York steak flambeed in Chardonnay. When it arrives, Lenny shakes his head at the piddling plate — and politely sends it back. “Can you put a few more greens on there?” he politely requests. As in: Where’s the beef? Lenny turns to his mom. “That’s a sign of disrespect, right there!” he says. Their Thanh Long is better than that.

Their Thanh Long is also a blissfully messy one. Not unlike, they admit, their life: a mix of ups and downs and obvious mother-son love. Lenny’s father  left long ago for prison and has since passed away. Annette’s sister served time, too. Getting a full ride to the University of Reno for football and signing with the Forty-Niners were definite highs.. The two concussions that followed, and his current free agentsituation, a bit of a low. “You are not going to Canada!” declares Annette. Maybe he’ll become a firefighter? “You are not going to be a firefighter!” she says, finishing off her glistening rice.

Lenny didn’t even start playing football until senior year. He recalls the coach saying: ‘Are you really going to let those big ol’ hands go to waste?’”

Clearly, no matter what happens, he hasn’t.

The crab crunches beneath his massive claws. No mini-forks for this table. “We’re finger people,” explains Annette, wresting a piece of fleshy meat from a leg and dragging it through the bottom of the accompanying bowl. “It’s about the butter and the pepper,” she instructs.

It’s also apparently about the shell. Lenny palms the featherlight, fire-red carapace, and sucks. “I saw an Asian man do that once,” he says.

Other than the prices, the only thing that’s really changed over the years, says Annette, is her drink. (A Hennessey margarita these days.) Also, she’s a grandma now.

 In his four months, Lenny IV, has already been to Thanh Long three times. No crab for him— yet. Mariah brings avocado mash instead. She doesn’t do crab either. (Only that so-so shaken beef.) “But I’ll still come,” she says, rolling her eyes beneath lashes as long as her nails.

 Everyone still comes. Annette and her Lennys — andlimos of lively ladies from Oakland; and decked-out couples from Concord; and graying trios from Vallejo who religiously rotate the tab; and chatty besties from Antioch who refuse to share. Even, yes, Danny Glover, as Thanh Long’s website proudly touts.

“They’re not lying,’ says the local celebrity, laughing over the phone. “I’m going to go with my niece tonight!” He’s been a regular since it first opened in the early 1970s.. It was his family’s first introduction to Vietnamese food, as it was for most Californians. Last year, Helene An was honored by the Smithsonian for introducing Vietnamese cuisine to mainstream America.

The crowd was mostly African American  then too, Glover tells me. People from the Western Addition, the Fillmore, before they were pushed out of the city, he says. “You get something that catches on in a community— especially the Bay Area’s relatively small African American community— and that’s it, word spreads. Also, it’s crab! You know what I’m saying?”

They come for the crab, they say. The best in the Bay Area. But after four decades, is it really the crab alone?

As Annette says, she can get it at her local Lucky for just $6.99 per pound! She has tried to recreate An’s long-secret recipe (so secret the restaurant has an entirely separate kitchen for it). “But it’s always an epic fail,” she says. That’s okay. Her mom’s seafood gumbo recipe—which had been her mom’s seafood gumbo recipe, back in Louisiana—is damn good, too.

“People are always like, ‘Girl, do you have stock in that place?” one regular put it while waiting for the valet. We laughed.

Maybe not in the financial sense. But stock as far as faith and trust and roots.

It’s a rare thing anywhere, even in the food-obsessed Bay Area, for anyone to consistently commute across cities and bridges for a meal. But it’s an especially rare, wonderful, thing for generations of black people to trek to some foggy block otherwise swarmed with white people in Patagonia puffies fawning over fresh pain au levain, to a far-flung restaurant founded almost 50 years ago by a family of Vietnamese immigrants— and call it home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delivery Date

Performed at La Cocina’s “Voices from the Kitchen”

https://flipboard.com/@LaCocinaSF/-rachel-levin—delivery-date/a-67IWj7Q7S0iNmVJQ6eKjIw%3Aa%3A3124443399-666e978c1f%2Fyoutube.com

The Talk of the Town: Mom Friends

Two mothers from Montclair, New Jersey, piled into a black Volvo on a recent rainy evening and drove forty-five minutes to a lonely street in Gowanus. “It’s a good night for being inside making friends, right?” Hillary Frank (mother of Sasha, four and a half) said to her friend, Natalie Chitwood (Freddy, five; Wynn, two), as they unloaded goody bags containing sweet-potato-and-pumpkin baby food.

Frank, the host of the WNYC parenting podcast “The Longest Shortest Time,”was worried that the weather might keep women from leaving their plastic-toy-strewn homes for the Bell House, a club where she was holding her first live event,“Speed Dating for Mom Friends.” The twenty-five-dollar admission included a cocktail, snacks, and plenty of promising new adult playdates. Sixty moms had signed up.“We have someone driving in from Pittsburgh!” Frank said, picking raisins out of her purse.

Billed as a “3 A.M. bedside companion for parents,” Frank’s biweekly podcast covers such themes as “What Does Your Breast Pump Say to
You?” and “A Parents’ Guide to Eating Over the Sink.” “Over and over, I hear, ‘It’s hard to make mom friends,’ ”she said.“It’s such a vulnerable time. You’re suddenly in charge of this person, and youdon’t want to screw it up. You need support.” She and Chitwood met four years ago, at mommy-and-me yoga. “It was love at first sight,” Frank said. Tonight, she was hoping to help her fellow-moms find the same thing.

At seven o’clock, the doors opened. Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You” blasted, and new mothers from such places as East Harlem and Williamsburg wandered in and scribbled nametags.“I’d like to meet someone from the senior set,” Allison B. (Oliver, thirteen months), a
personal stylist, said.“I’m forty-three, and there aren’t a lot of us.”

Standing solo by the bar was Jennifer M. (Henry, six months), a stayat-home mom from Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “If I see someone
breast-feeding at the park,I think, Oh, good, she’s not a nanny,”she said.“Sometimes I meet someone who seems O.K., but then she starts badmouthing vaccines and I’m, like, Red flag!”

“How many times a day do you want to throw your kid out the window?” Kathryn M. (Julian, three years) asked a young woman who
was sipping water. The woman looked petrified.“I’m only ten weeks pregnant,”she replied. She looked around.“Am I the only one?”

Soon, everyone had settled around card tables. Beth Pappas, a professional speed-dating host, who had on black stilettos and a spaghetti-strap top, took the stage. “Ladies, listen carefully,”she said. “Interior row stays seated, exterior row rotates.” She banged a butter knife against a gong.“Go!”

The room erupted with the sound of women talking.

“I have four children, and I don’t work,” Chana M., an Orthodox Jew with red lipstick, told her tablemate. “Wow, you must be busy,” Allison B., the personal stylist, politely responded. Chana M.ontinued, “Most women in my community have three to six kids and work.I feel like an underachiever.” Probably not a match.

Gong!

Susan F. (unnamed kids, ten and thirteen) slid in across from Lee I. (Mavis, three), who was wearing a floppy red hat. Susan F. confessed
that she is the founder of Park Slope Parents, and that if moms needed to speed-date maybe she wasn’t doing her job.“So what’s your story?” she asked. Lee I., an environmental planner with the mayor’s office, brought up her daughter’s love of singing. “No,I don’t want to know about that,” Susan F. interrupted.“I want to know about you. You’re so much more than your daughter.”

Gong!

Afterward, the mothers were invited to “grab your new best friend for a picture in the couples photo booth!” Two women who’d bonded over the Cry It Out philosophy jumped in front of the sequinned photo backdrop. Others hit the bar for another round of Long Island Iced Teas. Kristine A. (Eva, two months) was tired. “It was nice to meet you,”she said to her tablemate. “I’ve got to go home and feed my baby.” ♦

Is the Shofar … an Instrument of Technological Disruption?

Sure, it’s been around since biblical times, but suddenly the shofar is trending among Bay Area billionaires.

Well, O.K., only two leading tech C.E.O.s of our time have revealed that they are quite skilled in the most analog of instruments. Still! Their mothers must be so proud.

On Sept. 10, the 34-year-old founder of Facebook posted there a video of himself tooting his own ram’s horn in the comfort of his home in Palo Alto, Calif. “Mark Zuckerberg is celebrating Rosh Hashana,” read the status update, complete with an apple-and-honey emoji.

He huffed and puffed an impressive tekiah-teruah-shevarim: a series of staccato blasts followed by a longer high note, as per tradition. Unintentionally adding an extra fillip: his 1-year-old daughter, August, wailing offscreen.

 As of Monday, the day before Yom Kippur begins, the clip has received some 1.4 million views and 13,000 comments on Facebook. (Although an earlier post of his baby goat standing on top of a tortoise got more.)

“Love the Jewish pride!” one commenter wrote. “That’s some serious blowing skills.”

“I got a little carried away on my Teruah,” Mr. Zuckerberg posted.

Another commenter tried to comfort him: “Your terua was perfect.”

Heartfelt wishes for a “happy, healthy!” poured in from around the world, along with a healthy dose of criticism. “Dear Mark,” one person posted, “I wish you new algorithms.”

Others offered fun shofar facts, pulled from Wikipedia: Apparently a call once recorded by composer Elmer Bernstein for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments” was later used by sound editors in “Return of the Jedi” as the cry of the Ewok battle horn. (Currently available as a free ringtone, as is the Shofar itself.)

A man from Cairo posted a fair question: “What is Rosh Hashana?!”

“It’s the Jewish new year. Happy new year!” Mr. Zuckerberg replied joyously, to hundreds of Likes.

Apart from rushing Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish-oriented fraternity, at Harvard, Mr. Zuckerberg wasn’t always so audibly observant. Fatherhood, the attacks in Paris, the rise of anti-Semitism, all influenced him, Mr. Zuckerberg has said. Last year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, he asked for forgiveness for Facebook’s sins (on Facebook).

Then there’s Marc Benioff, the C.E.O. of Salesforce, the cloud computing company, who recently with his wife made news by buying Time magazine.

While Mr. Zuckerberg was blowing his shofar before a virtual crowd, Mr. Benioff, 54, was blowing his own, in a San Francisco synagogue, before the city’s largest congregation, and one of the oldest West of the Mississippi.

Backed by a talented guitarist, the holy ark and a toddler wielding a purple plastic horn, Mr. Benioff raised what looked like the shofar of all shofars: a long, curled, hollowed-out horn. With cheeks and chest full, he exhaled a tekiah-gedolah as well as any of the talis-draped rabbis beside him.

Around 5 o’clock, Mr. Benioff and some 700 members gathered at nearby Baker Beach to cast away the sins of the past year and usher in the next. Beneath September’s glowing sun, the burnt-red Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop, they tossed birdseed (bread crumbs are so 5778) into the Pacific, drank rosé and blew shofars above the crash of the Pacific.

Afterward, San Francisco’s Jewish community continued to kibbitz, but Mr. Benioff wandered off. Wearing billowy white pants and one of his signature fuchsia Tommy Bahama shirts, dog leash and shofar in hand, he headed home through the sand to prepare for his own high holy day, happening next week: Dreamforce, the technology conference.

EAT SOMETHING

(Chronicle Books, March 2020) Order from your local bookstore! Or buy here.

ADVANCE PRAISE!

“This book embodies the spirit of Jewish soul food we all need right now. Equally delicious and inspiring, it satisfies like a holiday brisket, with a joy that lasts for days (minus the heartburn).” —David Sax, author of Save the Deli

“My Russian-born mother always used to ask, “Is it good for the Jews?” And I have to say that Eat Something not only is good for the Jews but also will make them chuckle and enjoy cooking. This book offers a fresh California perspective and a dash of cultural irreverence.” — Joyce Goldstein, chef & author

“An extremely entertaining and haimish guide to Jewish food and the role it plays in our lives.” — Josh Russ Tupper, 4th generation co-owner of Russ & Daughters

***

From nationally recognized Jewish brand Wise Sons, the cookbook Eat Something features over 60 recipes for salads, soups, baked goods, holiday dishes, and more.

This long-awaited cookbook (the first one for Wise Sons!) is packed with homey recipes and relatable humor; it is as much a delicious, lighthearted, and nostalgic cookbook as it is a lively celebration of Jewish culture.

Stemming from the thesis that Jews eat by occasion (and with enthusiasm), the book is organized into 19 different events and celebrations chronicling a Jewish life in food, from bris to shivah, and all the makeshift and meaningful events in between, including: Shabbat, Passover, the high holidays, first meal home from college, J-dating, wedding, and more.

The Usual: Lou Seal & His Deliboard Sandwich

Welcome to The Usual, a new, irregular column about regulars in their restaurants — and the roles such places play in the lives of the people they feed.

Joel Zimei and Deli Board’s Adam Mesnick are talking, as apparently men do, about meat sweats. Meat sweats? “You know, if you eat a burger and a hot dog at a tailgate, and then at the game you’re like, ‘I’m going to get a cheesesteak!’ and then you go home later and have filet mignon for dinner,” explains Joel, biting into a sandwich the size of a newborn. “That’s it: meat sweats.”

Does Deli Board give him meat sweats? Nah, he says. It’s a lot of meat, but not enough meat to make him meat-sweat. Joel regular-sweats, though, rather profusely and frequently and even in the fog.

It’s his outfit: a 10-part, 30-pound furry getup he dons on average four hours a day, five times a week, six months a year — plus, another month or so in a good year (which it’s looking like this year isn’t).

“I had a little thermometer and it’s 37 degrees hotter for me than it is for you,” says the 46-year-old part-man, part-seal. Lou Seal. The San Francisco Giants’ mascot — a character, and costume, that Joel has lived and breathed (in) for the last 21 years.

The media room, which feeds mascots too, often does it up, offering chicken kare-kare and pinakbet on Filipino Heritage Night, or wok-fired gai lan and fried rice on Chinese Heritage Night. But nothing, says Joel — not even Crazy Crab’z “phenomenal” crab sandwich — compares to Deli Board.

Sometimes, he’ll send one of his “seal-curity” guys over to Deli Board for a pregame pickup. “It’s usually after a loss, when we need good luck,” he says. “I’ll be like, ‘GO GET THE LUCKY SANDWICH!!’”

Remembering the Leslie Salt Mountain: Bay Area’s odd, glistening landmark

As in, his usual: the Leroy Brown. Romanian pastrami, kosher salami, roast turkey, with peperoncini, special sauce and extra pickles on Dutch Crunch. (Hold the cheese, please.)

Joel admits he is “ridiculously super-duper-stitious.” There was a bagel shop off Townsend that used to be his lucky lunch. The Giants won the 2010 and the 2012 and 2014 World Series with those bagels after all. But when the shop’s ownership changed, Joel realized, so did his luck.

In 2015, he discovered Deli Board at 1058 Folsom St. Although he didn’t know it at first. His wife happened to bring him home some ginormous turkey clublike concoction one day — without realizing it was sandwich royalty.

“It was one of those euphoric food moments,” Joel recalls. “I remember scarfing it down, thinking I shouldn’t eat the second half. But then, of course, I did.”

A few months later, he got a Twitter notification, something along the lines of: “Hey @LouSeal01! I made you a sandwich. Come try it sometime.” Joel realized it was the same place he’d had the sandwich, and bonus: He lived nearby.

So, he put on one of his three World Series rings (proof of identification and all) and walked the few long SoMa blocks over to Deli Board. Adam was manning the register.

Flaunting his bling, Joel pushed his business card forward — and placed his order for, ahem, one Lou Seal. An Italian combo, for the Long Island-raised Italian: Genoa salami, mortadella, provolone, cherry peppers, lettuce, house Italian dressing, shum spread (garlic) on Deli Board’s signature Dutch Crunch.

Adam was starstruck and Joel was overjoyed. “Except I couldn’t eat my own sandwich,” he says. Cheese. So, Adam remade it for him without the provolone. Joel exchanged it for a signed Lou Seal bobblehead. And a new friendship was born.

“I had an issue for a while,” admits Joel. “I gained a couple of pounds.” He’d started lunching there a few times a week via electric scooter. “It’s only a two-minute ride!”

He now walks. He also treats Deli Board like a treat. “Thanksgiving wouldn’t be special if it was every day, either.”

Over the years, Lou Seal has become as popular among San Francisco baseball fans as Deli Board has among San Francisco sandwich fans. Both are loyal and cult-y and lean heavily male, judging from their recent respective daytime crowds. (Baseball I get. But sandwiches?)

“My first few years as Lou Seal, I’d get a lot of ‘Hey, sewer rat! Down in front!’” says Joel, who has yet to miss a single game — after some 1,700 games. With his humorous hip tosses, hip-hop moves and free hugs, he has built the character into one of the nation’s most beloved mascots, complete with a Hulu documentary series (“Behind the Mask, Season 2”) to its name.

“Sometimes I’ll get heckled by a baseball purist who doesn’t want the frills and just wants to watch the game. I get it, but I’m, like, ‘Sorry, man, go back in time.’” Now, says Joel, all he has to do is saunter into a section with his pot belly and raise his paws (flippers?) over his head “and the crowd just erupts,” he says. “It’s crazy.”

Lou Seal makes it look easy. But Joel works hard. Fans ask him to officiate their weddings and perform at tech parties and autograph their Lou Seal tattoos. He does upwards of 300 outside events a year. That’s in addition to his “offseason” gig as the leader of the Golden State Warriors’ Hoop Troop. No seal costume required, just general crowd-pumping and T-shirt-launching. Only thing is, he says: “Now that the Warriors are always in the NBA finals, I don’t really have an off-season.”

Adam works hard, too. He’s a no-frills purist himself, the sole owner, sans investors, of a bare-bones, 20-seat sandwich counter dedicated to handcrafted meats he can barely afford to sell in this city anymore. Still. “I will not compromise on quality,” says Adam. “What am I going to do? Bring in some s—y turkey just so I can sell a $9 sandwich?”

Spend a lunch hour chatting and chowing with Adam and Joel on Folsom Street, and you start to see the sandwich as something bigger than itself. (If that’s even possible at Deli Board.)

Not unlike baseball. It’s just a game. Some people say. It’s just a sandwich. Not to these two.

Nor to the neighborhood. In this stretch of SoMa, Deli Board is a means of connection, an unofficial community center in a disparate community. And in his own way, Adam, like Lou Seal, is the character who brings everyone together. He just talks more than a mascot.

His longtime refrigerator repairman, Falla, comes by in uniform to kibbitz, even though everything’s running fine. Lou Seal gave him and his family a special high-five at the game the other night. A homeless man walks in. “Hey, Yoni. How’s it going? You want a root beer and chips?” asks Adam. On his way to grab them, he stops to shake hands with a well-coiffed, TV-handsome man. Justin Fichelson from Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing.”

Deli Board gets its share of local notables. Michael Krasny likes the corned beef with nothing but his native Cleveland mustard on a French roll. Before moving to Sacramento, Gavin Newsom’s go-to was the Ron (roast beef with coleslaw and avocado). Late mayor Ed Lee was a regular (pastrami with cheese, light mayo, light sauce), as are a disproportionate number of public defenders and judges, given Deli Board’s proximity to 850 Bryant. There’s an artist-neighbor the staff nicknamed “Brian the Babe,” who eats lunch here every day, alternating between the Cobb salad (yes, Deli Board does salads) and the turkey-bacon-avocado-stuffed Armando, always saving the second half for supper.

Still, it’s obvious: Adam’s favorite customer is Joel.

He doesn’t make his off-menu buffalo-style wings for just anyone. And Joel doesn’t spontaneously drop by dressed as Lou Seal for just anyone, either.

“I’m a sandwich guy,” says Joel. A Deli Board guy. “I won’t eat some crappy sandwich somewhere else.” Neither will he, or Adam, eat hot dogs with mayo. “It’s disgusting!” they declare in unison.

They’re like two burgers in a bun, meat-lovers talking stadium mustards and Bumgarner and middle age, marveling over how time flies. How they never thought they’d still be doing what they’re doing. How they’d never want to do anything else.

It’s easy to envision them 20 years from now, sitting here at Deli Board doing the same, reflecting on careers spent less on making money, and more on making people happy, be it through baseball or corned beef.

Deli Board’s menu includes stalwarts like the Zoe, an ex-girlfriend; the Goldie, his aunt; and the D. Rubin, his friend and “a great play on the Reuben.” And for a brief moment in time, the Lou Seal.

A lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, Adam thought of it as his own little ode to his adopted team. “I’ll never name a sandwich after a ballplayer,” says Adam. “They just get traded.” Not Lou Seal.

Is there any greater honor for a Sandwich Guy to have a sandwich named after him?

“If he hadn’t named a sandwich after me …” says Joel wistfully. “We would have never met.”

No matter that the sandwich is no longer on the menu.

“It’s a special!” explains Adam. “It’ll come back.”

As will, perhaps, the Giants. If Lou Seal eats enough Leroy Browns.

 

Rachel Levin is a Bay Area freelance writer. Twitter: @rachellevinsf Instagram: @offmenusf Email: food@sfchronicle.com

George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. Twitter/Instagram: @mccalmanco Email: food@sfchronicle.com

 

The Usual: Tekka’s Most Regular Regular

Welcome to The Usual, a new, irregular column about regulars in their restaurants — and the roles such places play in the lives of the people they feed.

It’s 8:49 p.m. on a dark, drizzly Monday, and Dan Weinberg and Shoshana Leibner are right on time for their reservation. After 2,000 dinners over two decades, Dan knows: Show up before 8:45 p.m., and Yoshimi Shimizu won’t have finished wiping down the counter from the first seating. Show up too long after 8:45 p.m., though, and her chef husband, Noboru, might not let even him in.

Dan and Shoshana have barely unwound their hot towels before they inquire about another reservation. “Are you able to do 10, for Scott’s birthday?” asks Dan.

“Ten’s too many,” Noboru calls from the back. He will do seven.

“You’re the boss,” ribs Dan.

“I know,” he replies.

Tekka (537 Balboa St.) doesn’t technically take reservations. Its 10 seats typically command a serious sidewalk wait, especially with the owners’ preference to not necessarily fill all of them. The kind of wait where San Francisco’s sushi-obsessed civilians show up as early as 4:30 p.m. with camping chairs and beer and bundle up in Balboa Street’s fog, and wait, and wait, and occasionally watch — with a mix of awe and envy — as apron-clad Yoshimi opens the door around 6:30 p.m., peeks out from behind the little red curtain, and wordlessly waves in some unassuming couple who just walked up. Regulars.

Regulars who put in their time, and over time, earned Noboru’s trust, and Yoshimi’s cell phone number. Regulars who just shoot her a text, and she saves them a seat, plops a magnum of sake on the counter, and then serves them course after course after course — an off-menu omakase off-limits to everyone else — until they kindly have to tell her to stop.

Regulars like Dan, a freelance IT guy with a graying ponytail, and his partner of 20 years, Shoshana, a pioneer of flotation-tank meditation.

And regulars like their friends, who they met at Tekka: like Scott and Carolyn, and Bruce, Phillip, Marcel, Henry, and that nice guy who moved away years ago. “What was his name again?” asks Shoshana, calling up a photo on her phone from an especially fun night at Tekka, among reams of photos of especially fun nights at Tekka.

“Peter,” says Yoshimi, setting out two bowls of edamame. He’s married now. She and Nobu were invited to his wedding. She and Noboru are invited to all of the weddings. They never actually go to the weddings, but if Dan and Shoshana ever had one, they might.

They do attend Dan and Shoshana’s annual Hanukkah party, after all, always bringing a platter of sashimi bigger than the two of them combined. As soon as they walk in, everyone — including Scott and Carolyn, and Bruce, Phillip, Marcel and Henry, who bartends — bypasses the latkes and homemade applesauce and makes a beeline for the buttery hamachi. Dan understands. He loves sashimi, too. Especially Noboru’s sashimi: pieces so fresh and wide and fat, he says, “you could surf on them.”

In the last few years, the city has seen an influx of sleek Japanese restaurants, with Michelin stars and $200 menus and counters filled with diners focused more on curating their Instagram feeds than consuming fish, making the atmosphere feel more Apple Genius Bar than sushi bar.

But Tekka, which turns 30 this month, is the antithesis of the trend, a tiny time warp in a city moving at warp speed. Tekka feels like the kitchen of a couple who have been married for 50 years — a cluttered, cash-only kitchen walled in old photos and Japanese prints and placards of handwritten love letters from customers he’s invited to write one, including Dan and Shoshana.

In one corner, by a window, where at any other San Francisco restaurant a rent-generating table would be, is essentially storage: cases of Sapporo topped by an upturned stool and dusty space heater. And behind the bar: shelves of mismatched dishes, a burnt toaster-oven for eel, an old Sony clock flashing red digits. Also nearby is a small television with a DVR that Dan bought for Noboru ages ago, after the one he’d bought him before broke.

He has ever since he came to this country at 19. He joined the U.S. Army and fought in Vietnam as a fast-track to citizenship. A father of three, he spent most of his career working for a Japanese airline and partying overseas, until Yoshimi told him, no more: They would open a restaurant in the Inner Richmond.

“I like to dance discotheque,” he says, striking a petite John Travolta pose. “Remember, Nobu? When we’d have dance parties here until 2 a.m.?” asks Dan. He smiles. He does.

One day, Noboru received a cease-and-desist letter from the Bee Gees’ people saying it’s illegal to play the same music video over and over in a public space. Another regular, an attorney, fought it pro bono on the chef’s behalf, and the Bee Gees came back on.

But tonight, the TV is dark. Noboru, now 74, isn’t in a Bee Gees mood. He’s in a good mood, though.

Dan and Shoshana are, too. How could they not be?

They’re the only people in the place, their place: sipping bottomless ceramic cups of sake and eating creamy-cured squid topped with uni and bottarga; and steaming bowls of nasu; and ground pork bathed in ginger; and a piping hot tangle of sauteed enoki mushrooms revealed under a crumple of tin foil; and flaky halibut katsu; and a soothing broth brimming with bok choy. “No more, please,” begs Dan. “We’re done.”

Noboru takes a seat on a crate in the kitchen and calls Japan, on speaker. “That’s his old friend,’ says Dan, pointing to a photo above the bar. He’s sick, his heart. Yoshimi and Noboru come out, holding up their shared cell phone for Dan and Shoshana to say hi; the four of them crowd around, as if squeezing into FaceTime, except they’re not on FaceTime.

“Come see me before I go!” says the cheery voice on the other end. “We will!” Dan and Shoshana yell into the phone. They promise.

In the beginning, Dan ate at Tekka several times a week. When he started coming four nights in a row, Noboru cut him off. “‘Three nights is the limit,’ he told me. ‘Take a break.’” So, Dan slunk back to Ebisu. “The owner there was like, ‘Where have you been?’”

The thing about Ebisu, though, about every other restaurant in the city (“even the very best restaurants in the city,” says Dan), is that they’re just never as good. They’re never as fun. They’re always more expensive. And “they’re never like . . . this.”

By this, he means homey, happy, abundant, a restaurant that feels less like a night out and more like a night in.

Tekka is open weeknights only, two seatings a night. Occasionally they’ll close on a random Wednesday for, say, a golf tournament. Noboru and Yoshimi love golf. There was a time, a few years ago, when another regular supposedly rigged Yelp to say that Tekka had closed. It hadn’t.

“It can’t!” cries Dan, who knows that Yoshimi and Noboru are getting tired, and that sooner than later, it will.

These days, Dan goes once or twice a week. Not always with Shoshana, but always on his birthday. (As well as the night before his birthday. “Not everybody can fit at once,” he explains.) He always comes on Noboru’s birthday, and on Yoshimi’s birthday and on June 16, Tekka’s birthday. (All dates etched into his calendar.)

And always on Fridays, after 8:45 p.m., with his merry band of regulars.

And almost always that supersize slab of sashimi is too much for Shoshana. She walks her leftover fish into the back for Yoshimi to wrap, which she does, often in a real dish. “She knows we’ll bring it back,” says Dan. Shoshana likes to cook it up with butter for breakfast.

Sometimes she cooks for Noboru and Yoshimi, too. They love her turmeric-tinged roast chicken, which she’ll bring to them in a Tupperware container on request.

When Shoshana was going through breast cancer, she could barely eat anything at all. Sashimi would just stick to the roof of her dry mouth, she says. But she came anyway. Yoshimi made her broth. Noboru buoyed her spirit. Tekka nourished her soul.

“Dan and I might be fighting, and then as soon as we sit down, everything’s fine,” says Shoshana. “It’s like you walk through this door, and you’re in a different world.”

It’s like you’re in a different city. Or at least the city it used to be, before the $21 cocktails and the $1 million one-bedrooms and the $100 billion valuations. A city where an immigrant couple can run a true mom-and-pop restaurant on their own terms, and raise a family — and unintentionally create another one, that crosses cultures and countries and decades and bloodlines.

A city where almost anyone can afford an exclusive omakase experience in the chef’s kitchen. Well if, and really only if, you’re a regular.

Noboru and Yoshimi unabashedly play favorites, and no one faults them for it. “This place exists for them,” says Dan. True, every restaurant takes care of its regulars — but not all regulars take equal care of their restaurant, of the lives and livelihood of the people who run it.

It’s close to midnight by the time Dan and Shoshana get up to leave. Dan pulls a small wad of twenties from his wallet and bids Yoshimi and Noboru a long, Jewish goodbye at the door, as if it might be a while until they meet again. “OK, goodnight,” he says. “See you Friday.”

Rachel Levin is a Bay Area freelance writer. Twitter: @rachellevinsf Instagram: @offmenusf Email: food@sfchronicle.com

George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. Twitter/Instagram: @mccalmanco Email: food@sfchronicle.com

 

Help! There’s a Bear in My Airbnb

Ann Bryant’s phone rings all season long. She has four phones, actually, in her Homewood, Calif., home office, and they ring 24 hours a day. “Sometimes all at once,” says the executive director of the Bear League, a community-based nonprofit that aims to educate the human public about their animal neighbors. Its tagline: “People living in harmony with bears.”

The thing is, though, people and bears are living not so harmoniously these days — which is why Bryant is busy. She operates what is basically a 911 service for people’s bear-related emergencies.

And in Lake Tahoe, people have a lot of bear-related emergencies. Home to some 300 bears in the summer months, the popular vacation area swells with second-homeowners and car-campers and Airbnb-ers, many of whom do not always understand the proper protocol for visiting bear country.

“Fifty percent of the time we coach idiots,” says Bryant. “I could tell you crazy stories all day.”

There was the guy who left a trail of cookies in his yard, leading into his living room, because he thought it would be fun to get a picture of a bear eating cookies on his couch watching TV. We had a father at a campground who put peanut butter on his child’s face then stood him next to a dumpster filled with food, and waited for a bear to come and lick it off so he could get a photograph of the bear “kissing” his kid. That sent us reeling. Another father, of an 8-year-old, put food in his daughter’s hand, then filmed her feeding a bear, like it was a dog. Bears are not dogs.

Shockingly no, but the parents should have gone to jail for endangering a child, and a bear. We don’t want people to get hurt, but we also don’t want bears to get hurt.

People don’t understand. They have a city mentality; they’ve grown so out of touch with the natural world. They come up here and they think it’s a controlled environment. Like a zoo. I’ve gotten calls from tourists asking: “What time do the bears come out?” Or, “Where can we go to see the bears?” Or they’ll say, “I just saw a bear in the woods behind our rental cabin. You need to come get it, and put it back in its crate.” I have to tell them: These are wild bears, and they’ve lived here long before we did. This is their home, too.

People leave dinner on the deck and trash cans in the driveway. So the bears come. Then those people leave, but the bear keeps coming back, because the previous guests fed him for the last four days! People come here to hike and water ski and have fun and they just don’t think about it. They go off to the beach and leave the door ajar, or a window open, and then they come home — or wake up — to a bear eating everything in the kitchen. They might remember to put the garbage in the bear bin, but then they’ll forget to lock their car. We had a big rampage recently of bears getting into unlocked cars. All it takes is a pack of gum in the console. A bear can open a door, like a human. Then the wind blows it shut, the bear gets stuck inside, and the car gets destroyed. Visitors might learn by the end of the week, but then they go home, and the new renters arrive. It’s an endless cycle of ignorance.

Bird feeders are the biggest culprits. Get rid of the bird feeder. If you feed the birds, you’re feeding the bears. A lot of older cabins are nothing more than cardboard boxes with single-pane windows. You need double-pane windows, solid doors, electric doormats — otherwise known as “unwelcome mats.”

It gets busier every summer. When I first started the Bear League 20 years ago, we’d get about five calls a day. Today, we get about 200 calls a day. People panicking — “A bear keeps coming into my backyard!” — and they don’t know what to do.

Or they’ll hear noises in their house and think it’s a bear. Or sometimes they’re upstairs sleeping and don’t realize until morning that a bear broke in. Bears break in to homes around the Tahoe Basin every single night.

I’ll head right over and check out the scene. If we get a case where there’s a bear on the premises and it won’t leave, it’s usually because it’s a mama with cubs. I’ll go and get everyone away, so she can get her cubs down from the tree safely. If there’s a bear under a deck, I’ll crawl under there to see what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll use a paintball gun to scare them off.

No, it’s the bears who are scared. I can read a bear’s mood, its body language and facial expressions. I know what a bear is thinking. I was a wildlife rehabber. I’ve dealt with all kinds of wildlife. Raccoons, squirrels, whatever animals are native. An injured pregnant porcupine once needed my help. I’ve raised Maude (pictured), since birth. She was born in my living room.

I can’t be everywhere! I have people, wildlife lovers all around the lake, who are trained to help. But if you see a bear on your deck, or hear noises and think there’s one in your house, just stomp and yell and bang. As soon as you do, the bear usually leaves. Black bears are big chickens. They’re really easy to chase off — just don’t get in their way.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


Rachel Levin is a contributor to the Travel section and the author of “LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds.”

A Big Change in Little Cottonwood Canyon

When Cassie Dippo’s family moved from the city of New York to the slopes of Alta, Utah, in 1965, she was 9 years old. The snow was dry and white and famously light and often so deep it reached well past her (and her father’s) waist.

There were four chairlifts. Lift tickets were $4.50. And lining the road up Little Cottonwood Canyon were five simple, family-run, ski-in/ski-out lodges, all opened between 1939 and 1962. All of which, a lifetime later, have remained essentially the same, in aesthetic and spirit and “modified American” meal plans.

“Honestly, not much has changed here since I was a kid,” said Ms. Dippo, now 63, who remains an owner of the TV-free Alta Lodge, her family’s property.

Until now. Fresh off a $50 million overhaul, the Snowpine Lodge reopens this week as Alta’s first-ever true luxury hotel. It appears to have everything any luxury ski hotel anywhere has — and a lot of things Alta, a world-class mountain with a $116 lift ticket and a whopping six chairlifts, intentionally, has never had.

Many of its 77 accommodations (including 19 dorm-style bunks) come with balconies, because unlike other lodges in the area, the Snowpine will be open year-round. There is a heated pool and full spa; an indoor “grotto” and outdoor hot tubs; and firepits, of course. And contrary to tradition, both the Gulch Pub, which will serve standard après-ski fare (wings, burgers, $14 cocktails) and Swen’s fine-dining restaurant, with a $42 Wagyu zabuton steak with duck fat potatoes, will be open to the public.

Snowpine’s opening winter rate for a standard king is $569 for two, and $780 with breakfast and dinner; Alta Lodge’s regular season rate is $500 for two, including meals.

Night life at Alta — about 25 miles from Salt Lake City and not much else — has always meant books and board games (or, after a day hiking Devil’s Castle, bed), but the new Snowpine brings activities: arcade games like Skee-Ball and 2-Minute Drill, karaoke and big-screen movies. Also, an oxygen bar.

 

The final touch: A new chairlift and ski valet to welcome home guests at the end of the day. “We’re offering a Deer Valley-type of lodging at Alta,” explained Robin Cohen, Snowpine’s longtime reservations manager. That statement alone is sure to make die-hard skiers like Alta loyalists, who refer to themselves as “Altaholics,” cringe.

Ms. Cohen admits she has mixed feelings about her new digs. “I’m old-fashioned; people should just ski so hard they eat and crash. I get it: with the world in such chaos, things that don’t change are comforting. But it was time,” she said. “I mean, we have elevators! And bellmen! I’m never going to have to carry luggage up all those stairs again.”

What had been the oldest, quirkiest, squattest structure in Alta (22 awkward rooms, warm cookies, rope tow) is now its newest, swankiest and tallest: six stories towering 25 feet above the road, the maximum permitted by local zoning regulations. The only things taller are the mountain peaks.

 “It’s massive. More massive than anyone anticipated,” said Tom Pollard, general manager of the Rustler, which previously laid claim to being Alta’s most luxurious lodge, with its heated pool and dining room with a wall of windows framing the mountain.(He used the word “massive,” or its synonyms, at least 10 times. Ms. Dippo used only one word to describe her first impression: “Whoa.”)

“It went from being a quaint little lodge to a massive Restoration Hardware,” said Mr. Pollard, who moved to Alta in 1981. “My wife says it looks just like every building in Vail.” As former mayor of Alta, he oversaw the Snowpine’s planning approval process. “I’ve been getting a lot of ‘How did you let this happen?’” he said.

“We’re still about fostering a communal vibe, that feeling of making friends that last a lifetime. What would really be drastic, would be if Vail Resorts came in and bought up Alta,” countered Ms. Cohen, nodding to the seemingly inexorable, industrywide trend of big corporations commandeering privately owned ski resorts, like Alta. “That’s what we’re all hoping to avoid.”

At a time when almost every mountain is building a mall-like village at its base, many say change like this was bound to happen, and that it is healthy for the long-term viability of the resort, which remains one of three in the U.S. to not allow snowboarders on its slopes. “The lodges have been resting on their laurels: their 60, 70, 80 percent return-rates,” said Connie Marshall, who ran Alta’s press office for a quarter-century before retiring last year. “This is a gauntlet thrown.”

She went on: “Millennials like my kids are looking for authenticity as much as older generations, but they also have expectations of, you know, getting a drink at a bar.”Image

Middle-aged skiers have expectations, too. “You’re talking to a 46-year-old guy who slept in a van last ski weekend,” said Brent Thill of Mill Valley, Calif. A fan of the old Snowpine, he and his family are excited about the new one. “I mean, no one wants Aspen at Alta,” he said, “but it’s smart to stay with the times. Hopefully they can preserve the charm without bringing the one-piece Bogners,” referring to the expensive ski suits popular at flashier mountains.

Every winter, Anne Williams, from Boston, stays at the Rustler with the same group of women. It costs about the same per night as the Snowpine. (Snowpine said its pricing is intentionally on par with the Rustler this season.) Still, she has no interest in cheating on her lodge. “Swank is my choice for a spa retreat, but when it comes to skiing, I’m a traditionalist. Maybe it was all those Warren Miller films, but I want wall-to-wall carpeting, too much brown, a circular fireplace,” she said. And great service, which the Rustler prides itself on.

“A ski getaway should give you a cozy-sweater feel that a shiny new hotel doesn’t,” added Ms. Williams. “But — I may sneak out to the karaoke bar.”

What every Altaholic wants — no matter where they choose to sleep — is for Alta to, always, remain Alta.

“Am I excited about the new Snowpine? No. But there’s a happy grittiness to people who go to Alta. A fancy hotel can’t break that,” said Troy Rothwell, who proposed to his wife at Alta and even named his dog Alta.

“No one goes to be seen,” he said. They go to ski. “You’re never going to get the people with fur around their collars.”

With a Shortage of Reviews, SF Restaurants Grow Restless

As the Bay Area awaits new San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho’s debut review — which is expected to drop any day now — let’s take a moment to reflect on these last almost six months without her — well, actually, without any regular, fully funded, three-visit, supposedly anonymous restaurant critic writing reviews and handing out stars.

After filing a review every week for three decades, Michael Bauer’s last starred supper ran in the Chronicle on September 14. (As any avid follower of the critic could have guessed, it was of Michael Mina’s Michael Mina.) Meanwhile, my year as Eater’s experimental San Francisco critic expired two weeks later — Eater SF has discontinued its reviews.

Before that, Josh Sens, longtime critic for San Franciscomagazine, was told his monthly reviews would be reduced to six a year. (Although now, with the breaking news that his editor Luke Tsai was laid off last week, that number may have unofficially dropped to zero.) It’s tough to tell from Modern Luxury’s decidedly un-modern website, but it looks like Sens’s last real review was Angler, in November. Actually, no — there was another Mina review: this month’sTrailblazer Tavern, the splashy 7,000-square-foot Hawaiian island in a Salesforce building.

In January, Tejal Rao, the New York Times’s new LA-based, California-wide critic, published her first review, also of Angler, which, as many remarked, was more profile than experiential opinion. SF Weekly’s Pete Kane — who continues to write frequent, and occasionally critical, but un-starred reviews — offered his ebullient angle on Angler as well. And even Bauer resurfaced with a summary of his meal of the a la carte Saison spin-off for a new regional magazine called Alta.

I, too, revere Angler’s now-signature radicchio salad, with blood-red leaves worthy of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. But if anyone is keeping tabs, in a city awash in new restaurants amid a dearth of critics, that makes two reviews for Mina and four for Joshua Skenes. Well, five, if you include Angler’s No. 1 spot on Esquire’s Best New Restaurants list.

Basically, our restaurant-obsessed city has been in a review drought. A plated purgatory. No wonder Eater SF hasn’t run its always-entertaining “Week in Reviews” roundup since August.

As a now former critic myself, I’ve been wondering: How do the owners of the dozens of restaurants — like Isla Vida,Bardo Lounge, Merchant Roots, Prairie, Obispo, and many others — that have opened during this time feel about that? Freed from the anxiety of having a critic stroll in unrecognized, cast an almighty opinion, and divvy out stars? Kind of like their parents went away for a very long weekend — and are about to come back and ground everyone?

“It feels really awkward,” says Anthony Strong, chef-owner of Prairie, which opened in the Mission in mid-October.

“[Chef] Daniel Patterson was in for dinner and he was like, ‘Dude, you’re so lucky — you don’t even have to worry about being reviewed!’ I said, ‘Am I?’ I think I’d rather be getting raked over the coals for some exposure.”

He admits that he has missed the critics, despite all the stress and angst they bring. Bauer did dine at Prairie, though, he says. Like clockwork, he came four weeks in, with his partner, Michael Murphy. “I messed up his drink order!” laughs Strong. “At first I freaked out, but then I was like, ‘Who cares?’”

“It would’ve been nice to have a formal review in our first months,” says Strong, even if he can’t stand the star system and the distractions and pressures that come with it. “As a new business, things were all over the place in terms of press, social media. It could have helped level things out.”

He adds: “I know everybody’s a critic. Instagrammers, Yelpers, but God knows we don’t want to just look to them. We might catch some glimmers of insight, but… I really appreciate an in-depth review that really tries to get to the core of things.”

Other coverage, like Eater’s heatmaps and guides or the Infatuation’s blurbs, have a huge impact, says Josh Harris, co-owner of Bon Voyage, the dumpling-and-Singapore Sling oasis that opened in October. “But there is more of a feeling of permanence with a review,” he says. Who knows whether or not his latest bar-restaurant hybrid would have been critiqued, like Trick Dog, had there been a critic to critique it, he says, but he admits that business has been booming without it.

Strong’s first restaurant opening as a young chef was Pizzeria Delfina, back in 2007. “It’s always just been part of the deal,” he says — for establishments run by popular, pedigreed chefs like himself, especially. “You open a restaurant, you get reviewed.”

That may no longer be the trajectory.

Ho won’t be anonymous, and whether she assigns stars remains to be seen, but she has been eating out twice a day, every day, and BART-ing all around the Bay. Unlike her predecessor, she won’t be lured by white linen and low decibels and beet-and-goat-cheese salads. She might not be immediately drawn to no-longer-new, midrange pasta places run by white men in the Mission, either.

Still, with even more high-profile openings on the way, and unsung places worthy of the spotlight, it’s inevitable that some of the restaurants that opened their doors during the critical dead zone will likely get overlooked. Whether positive or negative, a review offers something every new restaurant wants: relevance.

An example: Yo También Cantina, a tiny, seventh-month-old Venezuelan cantina in the Inner Sunset. Run by Isabella Bertorelli and Kenzie Benesh, it’s a simple, heartening daytime cafe with cactuses and ceramics and a crusty egg sandwich called the Jammy Sammy that, with a splash of spicy salsa picante, I’ve come to crave. It’s the kind of little, lovingly run spot that deserves more attention than it’s received. Had it been properly reviewed by someone, anyone, would I still have had it all to myself on a Friday morning? Did Bertorelli and Beneshthey wish they had been reviewed?

“It sure would have been nice,” says Benesh. More buzz and all. At the same time, she and her partner have appreciated the lack of attention; it’s experienced a slow build rather than big splash. They’ve been able to dial in their menu, they say. Get their systems running smoothly.

It’s the kind of quiet period high-profile chefs like Michael Tusk, of three Michelin-starred Quince, and Cotogna, rarely get to enjoy. Lucky for him and his wife, Lindsay, Verjus has arrived around the same time as Ho — should she choose to review it. Meanwhile, Mourad Lahlou, of the forthcoming Amara, noticed the absence of criticism these past few months and says “it was strange to not receive the weekly dose — eventually I stopped looking for it.”

The chef-owner of Aziza, beloved for almost 20 years out in the avenues, says reviews were critical to its success, especially Bauer’s three stars — and especially as it opened pre-Instagram, in 2001. “During that time, people had to be reassured that it was that good, worth a trip before dusting off their passports to venture out to the Outer Richmond district,” says Lahlou.

His next restaurant, Amara, is slated to open this summer, and Lahlou says he “most definitely” looks forward to being reviewed. “Having a legitimate journalist come in and experience the restaurant without any ties or regard to its financial survival is quite powerful,” he says. “[It] can truly contribute to the business’s success, or demise, for that matter.”

Meanwhile, over in Oakland, Brandi and Janice Dulce had been too busy opening FOB Kitchen, their first Filipino brick-and-mortar (and tending to their 2-year-old twin girls), to notice that in their first few months there was no Bauer, et al, with forks poised, at the ready to lay down judgment. “We honestly hadn’t even thought about it,” they said over the phone. “We’ve just been trusting in ourselves, doing what we’re doing, knowing it feels right.”

Five minutes after we hang up, though, they call me back, laughing. “We have a confession: As soon as we did hear about Soleil, that the Chronicle had a new critic, we hung her picture on our fridge. We think she came in. And we’re hella nervous.”

The Price of Poetry

Published by Lucky Peach, performed at La Cocina’s “Voices from the Kitchen”

On Clay Street, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, next to Adult Media Exotica and across from a Chinese community center, there is a restaurant called Jai Yun, which is closed more often than it’s open.

Accolades and Zagat stickers dating back to 2006 cover a door that remains locked behind an accordion metal gate—unless Chef Nei Chia Ji has a reservation, which is a rarity. Diners come in, mostly via OpenTable, sporadically and at a sprinkle: a table for two on a Thursday night, perhaps; a party of five on a Friday. Christmas Day last year was a biggie: thirty tables booked, but a bunch were no-shows. And the ones who did arrive suffered horrible service, admits Nei, who speaks no English aside from “What Night?” “What Time?” and “How Many People?”

The language barrier is his biggest problem, says the five-foot, sixty-year-old chef from Nanjing, through a translator. “It’s difficult to call someone if my refrigerator breaks. It’s difficult to confirm reservations. It’s difficult to communicate my philosophy to customers, or to helpers.” So he often does it all himself: the farmers’ market shopping, the prepping, the cooking, the toilet scrubbing, the dishwashing. The first time I ate there, a Friday night last fall, he also did the serving. We were the only customers in the place—which would be cozy if Jai Yun was the size of, say, a walk-in closet. But it’s not. It’s a two-floor, brightly lit palace, humming with the sound of that refrigerator and festooned with fake flowers and red tassels and paper dragons. At capacity, it seats 160.

When he lived in China, Nei had been a government manager. He quit for cooking school in the ’80s, when the doors to the world were just beginning to open. People were used to filling up with fatty deep-fried foods like pig intestines, he says. Nutritious, seasonal, beautiful fare was a foreign concept—and became the foundation of his cooking. He was well read and had “advanced ideas about the quality of life,” he says. He didn’t like the MSG-saturated dishes in restaurants, and knew he could do better. He opened a small restaurant in Nanjing and had success serving healthy dishes like a tofu-beansprout-bamboo stew and shinjin cai, a stir fry of leafy greens, lotus roots, and mushrooms, so he expanded to a two-hundred-seat space. He had many Chinese-American regulars, one of whom said he would sponsor Nei to come to the States to pursue his dream of opening a fine-dining, ingredient-driven, “healthy” Chinese restaurant there. In 1995, Nei landed at a Marriott in Maryland, flipping burgers—not what he had in mind.

He returned to China. A friend encouraged him to try again—this time in San Francisco, where he might have more luck, given its significant Asian population. Like most, Nei was after the American Dream—and a better future for his son—but he also hoped to change the Western bias toward Chinese immigrants. “That we’re all about getting rich quick,” he says, “haggling over every penny.” In 1999, after cooking for a couple of local Chinese restaurants, he opened his own. Jai Yun’s original Pacific Avenue location was more intimate—just thirty seats, a true hole in the wall. “In a good way,” says Charles Phan, a chef who would come in frequently. Business was solid, but Nei thought he should be closer to the financial district. Not because of the big expense budgets, he says, but because of people’s education levels and open-mindedness. And their willingness to try food like his—inspired.

Jai Yun’s seasonal prix-fixe menu is based on Nei’s personal interpretations of ancient Chinese poems. Each menu set reflects a different poem, he explains. And each line is a different dish, which results in a parade of nine to eighteen plates that collectively tell a story. One, he says, that only his well-educated, culturally Chinese customers can understand. Everyone else just eats. (And ponders the quality of the food versus the steep prices, which start at $98 per person, for two, and can go up to $168 per person or higher for dishes with special ingredients.)

On my second visit, thanks to the translator, I begin to appreciate this man and his menu. Our first course is a gorgeous palette of twelve tiny dishes, each a different taste: bitter melon, spicy cabbage, sweet tofu salad. “Like life,” Nei says. Then the abalone arrives. A pile of fleshy, snow-white meat draped in sautéed egg whites; it’s soft and subtle, a little salty, and as feminine as a food could be. Above it is a sprig of parsley and a cherry. The dish has no official name, he says; it’s a young girl staring up at the moon through at tree. It represents purity. I take another look at the halved maraschino cherry perched above the parsley, and think, Totally. By the time the “Dancing Ghosts” arrives—a tangle of spicy, flash-fried enoki mushrooms—I get it: I’m eating Nei’s poem. “Do you know any American poems I could cook?” he asks. “Maybe then more people could comprehend.”

He’s had a few “helpers” in the past that spoke English and Mandarin and promoted his business. 2009 was a good year—steady reservations, good press—until Nei had to let his helper go for knowingly overcharging customers. Since then, it’s been very hard. A couple of front-house folks have come and go, including a professional Mandarin-English translator Nei once hired, thinking that might solve the problem. “But even he couldn’t understand me and my poetry,” says Nei. Few people do—not even Nei’s son, who financially supports him and his restaurant, but doesn’t necessarily ascribe to his vision.

“Profit is not my priority,” Nei says. “No one understands that, especially the younger Chinese generations.” So why such high prices? “Because my food deserves it. Like Gary Danko,” he says.  Ingredient costs are high, he says, although labor costs are minimal—it’s all him, save for the servers he pays to have on call for when reservations come in. Ultimately, though, Nei is able to continue to operate Jai Yun because of his son, who helps cover the (below-market) rent. Nei busts out a photograph of him and Danko on which the celebrity chef has scrawled, “Amazing Meal!” in black Sharpie. Danko offered him a job once, Nei tells me. Charles Phan has, too. “They said, ‘Come cook for me, you won’t have to spend a penny.’”

“But that is not my dream,” he says, sitting in his empty restaurant on a Wednesday at six o’clock. He slips on his glasses and flips through a three-ring binder crammed with ideas and banquet menus and poems he’s penned on page after page of loose-leaf paper.

“Have you heard the term ‘starving artist?’” I ask. Nei stares blankly until the translator explains. “Yes! Yes!” Nei nods frantically, cheeks flushed. He flashes the first real smile I’ve seen and gives me an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Kantine

Old laundromats have been getting a new lease on urban life lately. And in San Francisco, not surprisingly, that means restaurant leases — from Tide Pods to table, so to speak.

I’ve lived in this city long enough that I used to do laundry where Nopa now serves burgers. But in the last year alone, the Doug’s Suds in Cole Valley has become a coffee shop called Wooden that is, yes, heavily wooded, with a resident wise-cracking parrot. In the Tenderloin, Barnzu serves Korean small plates where soiled pants were once cleaned. And in late May, on a quiet midday stretch of Market Street, the 52-year-old Little Hollywood Launderette became Kantine, San Francisco’s first Scandinavian half-day cafe.

Avery

There was a lot of chest hair. Not in my food, but peeking out from the shirts of the men presenting it. And it was mostly men — wearing skinny jeans, no socks, blazers pulled tightly around fit torsos, and button-downs unbuttoned one button more than most, at least on this coast. I wouldn’t mention it, except the servers underscore the atmosphere at Avery, which can be summed up in two words: bachelor pad. It’s like a dark, boxy, barely decorated apartment rented by a single, 30-something guy who happens to be a really good cook.

And when I showed up alone on a Friday night, it felt like an awkward first date. Greeting me was nothing — and no one — but a floating black slotted wall. I stood staring at it until my husband arrived. Eventually the host showed up. “Welcome to Avery,” he said, unaware we’d been waiting.

“You’ll be joining us tonight for the Cello Player menu?” he asked, I assumed rhetorically. We were unsure of the actualname of the menu we purchased, anyway, as we’d prepaid through Tock earlier that week. The more expensive one, I wanted to say. We followed him through the small, hushed dining room, past a lone table of four, and up a set of black stairs to the second-floor dining room. It looked the same as the first, just without windows.

There, the awkwardness continued. We looked at our server. Our server looked at us. We looked at our menu, a vertical cut of calligraphy paper scrawled, simply, in black ink: “Grains,” “Oyster,” “Curry.” It was pretty and poetic, but clearly called for some sort of introduction, which we never got. So we asked. After a seven-minute monologue describing each of the seven courses, plus all of the possible “additions” — like trout roe, “caviar bump,” and spicy lobster with sea urchin — he wandered off, without asking if we’d like to start with anything to drink.

Then I realized: Wait, we hadn’t prepaid for Cello Player! We’d prepaid for the 13- to 15-course Shades of Spring menu, which was supposed to include all of those decadent add-ons. An honest error, but we would’ve left cheated had we not realized. And — as I learned when we later tried Cello — still hungry enough to eat an off-menu hot dog at the Progress across the street.

I let our server know about the mix-up, which led to more awkwardness: scurrying, whispering. Apparently we should’ve been seated downstairs with the handful of fellow high rollers who had also paid $189 per person. Instead, we were seated upstairs, with the commoners who’d paid a mere $89 per person. We were told to stay put. Our menus were whisked away. (Shades of Spring doesn’t come with menus.) “Let us cook for you,” our server proclaimed, with too much pomp for a moment we both knew had been lost.

All of which is to say: It wasn’t the smoothest start to a $700 dinner.

But Grains is: a ceramic palm-sized bowl half full of a broth infused with toasted rice and clarified burnt onion butter. It was so aromatic and rich and soothing, I wanted to bathe in it. And I hate baths. With each sip, our angst evaporated, and we were reminded: We came to Avery to eat. We also came to drink sake — the restaurant has a sake sommelier, after all — except we still had yet to be offered any. Ultimately, we came for chef Rodney Wages, whose resume is studded with all-star venues like the French Laundry, BenuSaison, and Atelier Crenn.

I never made it to his pop-upRTB Fillmore (RTB as in “Rod the Bod,” a nickname courtesy of his pals at Saison). But it was such a hit, he and partner Matthew Mako decided to make it permanent, and wisely rename it Avery (as in Milton, the American painter). And now we have yet another elaborate, expensive tasting menu in a high-flying town that’s teeming with them.

Lest we forget how elaborate and expensive, each indulgent, artfully arranged course at Avery reminds us. It’s like culinary hedonism’s greatest hits: Pearls of smoked trout roe are piled into a pair of golden spoons over crushed avocado with sesame, and accompanied by cured kampachi in a spicy-sweet sunomono with preserved citrus, crowned with a crisp of kelp.

A tin of osetra caviar arrives in a crystal bowl of crushed ice. It’s served as a bona fide “bump”— the server spoons the eggs onto your fist along with a dollop of smoked creme fraiche, then drapes it all in a fat slab of barbecued wagyu beef fat. (Yes, all on your fist.) It’s a salty, smoky, slippery slurp, enlivened by a perfect pop. The effect is similar to the drug it alludes to: I immediately wanted more — although not at $68 a hit.

Also, an island of Fort Bragg uni floats in a rich red broth made from lobster shells, spiked with espelette pepper. It’s the four-star version of a Fisherman’s Wharf cioppino, and I savored the slow burn of every slurp.

And of course there is foie gras, twin silky, smoky morsels in a light garlicky broth encircled, like a team of synchronized swimmers, by hand-pinched tortellini: delicate pouches concealing shiitake mushrooms and a burst of cultured butter that vanishes. “This might be the star that steals the show,” Mako warned, his chest hair emphasizing the cheesiness of his line. But he’s right.

Until the 12th course, when the “snow beef” shows up: a pair of rosy, marbled hunks of A5 wagyu, perfectly seared.“He’s the Jedi of beef,” said our serverreferring to its famous Hokkaido rancher, Fujio Terauchi. The $78 price for this “supplement” had looked preposterous when I saw it on our wrong menu earlier, but biting into the charred, buttery meat — velvet incarnate, really — it almost made sense.

It at least made economical sense to go for the whole Shades of Spring shebang rather than to tack the beef onto the cheaper, briefer Cello.

Money and value is a funny thing, though, when it comes to tasting menus. These days, we’re seeing more and more of them in the Bay Area at all price points. We’re paying for the food, but at $89, $189, or, in the case of Avery’s private room, $289 per person, we’re also paying for the experience. Avery excels in the former. I revered, and demolished, almost every dish. There were just two blips: The spiny lobster curry, which was overpowered by mint, and tasted like the world’s most expensive cup of Scopeand the cheese tart, which was gloppy and flimsy and, as the penultimate course, oddly incongruous with an otherwise exceptional parade.

But as for everything else, Avery is lacking — no matter where you sit. On my second visit, despite booking the less expensive menu, we were seated downstairs in the supposedly nicer space. Perhaps because they’d remembered they’d messed up last time, or perhaps because they’d recognized me last time. It later became clear I’d been outed — and possibly overserved, yet never charged for it.

Maybe they thought if I drank enough sake by the end of the meal, I’d forget all about its clumsy start.

Nope. That’s the problem. No matter how seamlessly my second supper went, no matter how wonderful Wages’ cooking, the vibe is too immature for its price tag; the experience too stiff and stilted and salesy. The warmest thing about Avery is the nubby, soft West Elm blankets curled in the banquettes, in case you feel cold — like the place itself.

There are too many other restaurants where you can spend a small fortune these days. If only Avery felt more like a good first date: fun enough to want to do it again.

Che Fico

Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t come here often, but she came here once — on the heels of Anderson Cooper, no less. And once, within weeks of opening, by two separate super-celebrities, was enough: enough to garner more than 83,000 Instagram likes between them; enough to book every online reservation for at least a month; and enough to create such a frenzy that on a recent Thursday night at 6 p.m., a friend walked up the flight of terra-cotta-tiled stairs to the host stand and was quoted a — wait for it — four-hour wait.

Which is why we showed up at 5:22 p.m. on a Tuesday, eight minutes before opening, to join the lineup of actually fashionably dressed San Franciscans hoping to score one of the 46 spots generously reserved for walk-ins at the zinc-topped bar, or window ledge, or communal table. Little Star, next door, shooing people away from its entrance, wasn’t asthrilled about the swarm as the squealing women snapping so-excited-to-be-here! selfies beneath Che Fico’s sign.

It’s the flashiest addition yet to the ever-gentrifying Divisadero Corridor, a bulb-lit arrow pointing to what the city’s latest crop of restaurants has been missing: a new classic. A place that both fits right in — and stands out. Che Fico has taken what we know and love about pizza and pasta and San Francisco and given it a jolt.

It might’ve taken almost four years to come to fruition, but — like the wait for a table — it’s worth it.

Inside is one of the most stunning, if intentionally photogenic, restaurants in San Francisco. It’s like Oakland-based designer Jon de la Cruz took the Insta-success of the lone wallpapered wall at Leo’s Oyster Bar and went nuts — well, figs — plastering the place with whimsical illustrations of leafy trees hanging with the plump, fuschia fruit. Mismatched with burnt-orange, black, and white floor tile, it creates a dizzying, almost Escher-like entrance that opens to a space so lovely — and unexpected in this city of lookalikes — that I literally gasped.

There are vintage-styled leather booths mixed with stained maple tables, a long marble countertop backed by a bright-red pizza oven from Italy, and a seemingly never-ending communal table fashioned from a 200-year-old felled oak. It is light and lofty, and inoffensively large. That size, and the rustic wooden rafters (festooned with bushels of sun-dried espelette peppers), are the only signifiers of the location’s former life as an auto-repair shop.

Rarely does a restaurant with so much hype actually live up to it. But from the first sip of my Coriander to the last scrape of olive oil cake through its puddle of roasted strawberry vinaigrette, I was a believer. The cocktail is casually elegant, garnished with a white blossom; it smells like a garden and tastes like gin — citrusy gin with coriander-infused curacao and housemade herbes de Provence bitters. And the fat slice of cake is as light and fluffy and life-changing as fresh snow on a Utah slope, adorned with a heavenly globe of malted yogurt gelato.

 And then there’s everything in between: antipasti and pastas and “peasant comfort” fare, wood-fired chicken and the crusty, eye-catching Parmesan-dusted pizzas that I passed up on my first visit to leave room for the lamb loin. Hailing from Sonoma County, it’s aged for 17 days, marinated for two, then slow-roasted on the wood fire and topped by a shrub of wild watercress. Thick, meaty medallions fanned across the plate, fat blissfully intact. It’s a hefty, yet tender, undertaking for two.

The albacore tuna conserva is the antithesis: delicate, with too few hunks of tuna. But with wisps of radish and wedges of artichoke, it’s a wonder: tuna from Baja that’s been cured and Cryovac’d in olive oil and slow-poached before it arrives drizzled with aioli. It is fleshy and light, more silky than fishy, and blows away anything served from a jar.

Meanwhile, the pasta blew my mind. Not an easy feat in a town where house-made tagliatelle has become almost as ubiquitous as burritos. Each dish is marked with a little bubble on the menu as fatta a macchina in casa (made with an in-house pasta machine) or fatta a mano (made by hand). The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and fennel sausage sounded so standard I almost skipped it, but that would’ve been a serious mistake. The chewy, thick thimbles, tossed in goat butter, trumped every other orecchiette I’ve tried. Another big hit was the bigoli nero, a bowl of delightfully dense squid-ink noodles tangled with octopus and Dungeness crab and littlenecks, scattered with the crunch of toasted breadcrumbs. Only the mafaldini — squiggle-edged lasagna-like lemony noodles in a bland fava-leaf pesto — was a miss. But in the lumache — snail-shaped shells clinging with a pomodoro sauce burning with ’nduja and chiles — I found true love.

And in the box on the menu labeled “Cucina Ebraica,” I found my roots. Sort of. Chef David Nayfeld’s NorCal version of the Jewish-Italian tradition was clearly not mine. In 1980s suburban Boston, where I was raised, that meant Friday night platters of chicken parm with gloppy ziti from a red-sauce palace off Route 9 called Marconi’s.

But, here, off Divisadero Street in 2018 San Francisco, Jewish-Italian cuisine includes locally sourced gizzards and chicken hearts and corned beef tongue. The duck liver is grilled over the wood fire, chopped, and mixed with a chicken-liver mousse. It is creamy and dreamy and something you’d think chopped liver, by its very nature, could never be: pretty. A velvety mound ringed like a hippie chick in petals of purple daikon and pickled onion, it came flanked by a single, seed-studded slab of Roman matzo that, if boxed, would put Manischewitz out of business. (Even if Nayfeld does use a reduction of its sweet wine to make the liver.) There was more liver than matzo, which was a little irritating, until I remembered I still had my fork. A chopped liver that stands on its own is a chopped liver worthy of celebration.

Ultimately, it’s neither Instagram nor Anderson Cooper (nor his viral post of the pineapple-red onion-fermented chile pizza, the crust of which I actually found to be too stiff, and one of the menu’s only disappointments) that is responsible for rocketing this restaurant to the top of San Francisco’s food chain. It’s the food and the drinks and the desserts. Not to mention the industry rock stars behind it: Nayfeld and his fellow Eleven Madison Park alum and Beard-winning pastry chef Angela Pinkerton — aided by co-owner Matthew Brewer and bar director Christopher Longoria, who are also ones to watch. Plus a staff that was so attentive, it at times felt stifling. They were peeking out from behind the fig trees, re-pouring water glasses still three-quarters full, and repeatedly asking “May I take that away?” a tad too soon.

Still, collectively, they have created a restaurant that feels unique and exciting and of the moment, like Delfina did two decades ago, like its neighbor Nopa did 10. And if we can peer into San Francisco’s pasta- and wood-fired chicken-tangled future — it also feels like almost-40-year-old Zuni does today: timeless.

   

Nyum Bai

Restaurants are often defined by their view: There are waterfront restaurants and rooftop bars and sidewalk cafes. But sitting on a pastel-pink stool one day in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, gazing out through a wall of windows, I didn’t see sailboats or city lights or women walking by wearing wide-legged Everlane pants.

Instead, I saw a Donald Trump pinata, dangling not unlike a dead man, from the store next door. And it made my meal of chef Nite Yun’s Cambodian street food even better. I found it satisfying to eat dinner cooked by a member of America’s immigrant community in the symbolic face of a president working to keep immigrants out of America.

If Trump had his way, we’d all be eating his eponymous steaks with ketchup — not dipping asparagus spears into a bowl of pungent Bolognese-like minced pork belly stir-fried with prahok (fermented fish paste) and simmered with coconut milk.

Yun was born in a Thai refugee camp to parents who’d fled the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime. Her family of five eventually landed in a small apartment in Stockton, California, home to one of the country’s largest Cambodian communities. Raised in her mother’s kitchen, filled with the smell of fresh-cut lemongrass, she was later inspired to return to Cambodia, to learn about her family and taste her culinary roots. In 2012, while slurping a bowl of noodle soup from a street stall in Phnom Penh, she found her calling.

Here, across from the Fruitvale BART station, steps from both a Payless ShoeSource and 2018 James Beard-nominated restaurant Reem’s, is the consummation of years of her hard work.

It’s also a sign of what’s to come in a changing city. As outpriced San Franciscans continue to invade Oakland, it’s easy to envision the Fruitvale Public Market one day morphing into a mini Ferry Plaza, complete with $4 peaches and $50 boxes of chocolate. But if change means more fantastic locally owned businesses like Nyum Bai, dedicated to enriching the community rather than bulldozing it, the future looks bright.

Inside Nyum Bai, it does too. The decor is airy and light, an upbeat palette of white, pale blues, neon accents, and millennial pink. Paper-wrapped chopsticks protrude from jasmine tea tins. Even the bathroom is somewhere you kind of want to stay a while — clad in wallpaper custom-designed by local illustrator Ratha Nou, featuring a mix of Oakland’s famed shipping cranes and faces of 1960s Cambodian rock stars like Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth. The same voices are behind the the music playing softly overhead and the colorful retro album covers that adorn the wall.

It’s all intended to buck our longtime association of Cambodia with its dark days, bringing us back to the country’s golden era. And it works.

The place, and its people, exude a kind of homey warmth and genuineness I haven’t experienced much lately on the San Francisco side of the bridge. It also serves the kind of unique, deeply flavorful, very affordable food I haven’t eatenmuch of lately on that side of the bridge.

Take amok, a curried fish souffle, steamed with coconut milk in banana leaf; koh, tender, caramelized pork belly and lightly fried tofu simmered in a coconut-soy broth; and lively ngoum, banana-blossom salad with crunchy sticks of cabbage and basil in a sweet lime dressing. It’s all served tableside, no less. You remember low-key sit-down restaurants, right?

Were Nyum Bai on, say, hip Hayes Street, it would no doubt be a fast-casual situation. I admit, I found myself feeling relieved, even relaxed, when I walked in and realized it wasn’t. (Am I tiring of ordering a multi-dish meal at a counter already? Maybe.)

The sad thing is that a place like Nyum Bai would likely never open on Hayes Street, let alone anywhere in 2018 San Francisco, where the costs of running a restaurant are astronomical, including rents up to three times that of Oakland.

Owning a restaurant in Fruitvale, however, is far less expensive. And Yun’s growing fan base benefits: Her priciest dish is $15.95. A creamy cardamom-coconut curry with braised short ribs in Oakland or a Pimm’s cup in San Francisco? Take your pick.

The sadder thing: A place like Nyum Bai couldn’t open at all without Kickstarter, yes, but also without assistance from food incubator nonprofits like La Cocina, whose primary mission is to help low-income women from immigrant communities realize their professional dreams.

One could argue that the industry is tough for anyone trying to open a restaurant, regardless of race or gender. But for the women La Cocina supports, that deck is stacked particularly high. This is expressly why the organization launched in the Bay Area in 2005 and why a cook like Yun was able to go from her mother’s kitchen to culinary entrepreneur to chef-owner of a restaurant  a restaurant so good, mind you, it’s in the top five of my running mental list and among Oakland’s top 18, according to my colleague Bill Addison.

Yun spent a year perfecting her mother’s recipe for kuy teav, a classic rice-noodle soup, before debuting it at her first San Francisco pop-up in 2014. She later moved to a kiosk at Emeryville’s Public Market. And now, at her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, the kuy teav “Phnom Penh” — dried shrimp and minced pork in a light, subtly sweet seven-hour pork broth brimming with fresh herbs and flecks of fried garlic — is just one star on a menu filled with them.

The restaurant serves 15 or so items, split into three loosely defined categories. My glistening pile of ginger fried chicken was slotted under “Snacks,” but in both size and sticky, crackling satisfaction, it was so much more. Even San Tung’s dry fried wings have got nothing on Yun’s.

Another supposed snack was skewers of grilled beef. Marinated in an umami-packed mix of fish sauce, honey, and lemongrass, countered by wisps of chile powder-dusted pickled papaya, the dish could have easily doubled as a small plate.

The condiment caddy deserves a category all its own. It’s a quadrant that includes a fiery hot sauce — a family recipe made with chiles dried over a wood fire — and something Westerners typically only offer with coffee: sugar. Sugar is a staple, our server explains. “Cambodians sprinkle it like salt.”

Tempting, but to me, the wilted stalks of garlicky water spinach delicately stir-fried and speckled with salted soybeans are perfect without it. So too is the kuy teav cha, which may have forever ruined me for pad Thai. The slippery rice noodles are stir-fried with dark soy and tamarind, touched with palm sugar, and blanketed by a sunny-side-up egg — further proof that a sweet yolk enhances everything.

As did knowing that the hundred bucks or so our foursome spent eating almost the entire menu supports a supremely talented, self-taught chef — a woman who has opened just the kind of restaurant America needs more of.

Bar Crenn

Not here. This opulent, dimly lit den is star chef Dominque Crenn’s, the Marina’s splashiest new spot since her first born, Atelier Crenn, opened next door in 2011. Crenn is one of America’s only multi-Michelin-starred female chef (Chef Suzette Gresham also maintains two at Acquerello). Nothing she does is kitschy: not the white, faux-fur-draped chaise or the chandeliers dripping crystal or the leopard-print thrones or the intentionally distressed books lining the shelves or the ginormous painting of a Coco Chanel lookalike presiding over our plates. It all could have felt gaudy or overwrought, but with Crenn’s touch, the sum total was tasteful, impeccably done. Bar Crenn is the most romantic place to sit and sip a pamplemousse negroni — and slurp Guy Savoy’s ice-poached oyster in its own gelee — in all of San Francisco.

And the most expensive: Bar Crenn was billed as a wine bar, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. If you want a table, you’ve got to buy a ticket through Tock: That’ll be $165 per person for the caviar tasting, $85 per person for the three-course “carte blanche” menu, or $50 per person for wine with “small bites.” If I’m going to spend at least $200 for two, I’m going to call it dinner. The only way to make this place affordable is to pop by for a glass (standing room only) or forgo all booze and order nothing but the brioche. Which, being a buttery, golden masterpiece of a mini loaf, would still be worth it.

As Crenn told Eater earlier, Bar Crenn’s design is intended to make us feel like we’re hanging out in her living room. (Her house must be pretty nice.) It’s not unlike George Chen’s aim for his elegant, “private chateau” Eight Tables or the couch-strewn vibe at SF Jazz’s newish B-Side lounge.

I’m down with living room-like dining. I don’t mind sinking into a cushy armchair or hunching over a coffee table. But to be fair, I usually do it while eating delivery pizza in front of Netflix, not cutting into a dainty pancetta-studded tarte flambee donated by Alain Ducasse. (Jews are supposed to recline on Passover, so why not on a Saturday night at a 1930s-style Parisian salon, too?)

Glancing around Bar Crenn’s long, narrow room, though, it was clear not everyone felt so comfortable. There was the trio squeezed side by side on a loveseat, facing out rather than toward each other, TV sitcom-style. The silver-haired foursome (men in sports jackets, ladies in pearls) shifting in their deep, velvet cushions, trying their best to make out the menu’s 10-point font in the dark. (“It sets a mood,” said our server. “But…”)

The flirty, well-heeled couples sitting knee to knee at the marble-topped bar were content. As were my sister and I, sliding into our mismatched settees, feeling chicer than we actually are — until we also felt something I hate feeling in a restaurant: cold. Seated beneath a ceiling vent blasting frigid air, it was like Siberia suddenly invaded France. We couldn’t switch because every one of the 26 seats was reserved or occupied; requests to make it warmer resulted in a warm stuffiness that we all agreed was worse. So, soigne Siberia it was. I thought about wrapping myself in the white faux-fur throw draped behind me, but realized that would’ve probably been frowned upon.

After all, Bar Crenn is civilized and sophisticated, a welcome detour off otherwise fratty, fleece-clad Chestnut Street. The kind of place where a hollowed eggshell arrives brimming with bone-marrow custard, smoky creme fraiche, a squeeze of Meyer lemon, and an abundance of sturgeon caviar on a silver pedestal; and Dungeness crab comes delicately sandwiched between slabs of creamy avocado, dotted with Marcona almonds and purple nasturtium.

Meanwhile, one pink scallop, recently pulled from the Puget Sound, curls up inside a seashell with horseradish-spiked creme fraiche, a few pearls of caviar, and a $20 price tag. And finally, an eggy salmon souffle baked with a layer of black cod and accompanied by a sweet tomato compote arrives so fluffy and fleshy and flavorful — yet it’s finis after four or five forkfuls and left us craving more.

Which is to say, at Bar Crenn, the portions are small, the prices are high, and midway through the carte blanche tasting, you start to worry that despite blowing big bucks, you might leave on a still-empty stomach.

Hence, my sister: “Another round of scallops!” she said to our server with gusto, without realizing that’d mean another $40 on our tab. We opted for seconds of the $5 oysters instead.

We also opted for the wine pairing. It was lovely — particularly the rare Loire Valley Sancerre — but it, too, wasn’t enough. Call me a wino, but for $65 I wanted more than the allotted three half-glasses spread across our almost three-hour supper. Or maybe it was just that the pacing was off; the Sancerre was poured long before our salmon souffle arrived. I took my first bite with my last sip. It would’ve been nice if our server had noticed and offered a splash more. At these prices, in this heady atmosphere, it would have been appropriate.

Personally, watching Crenn, rock star that she is, chitchatting at the bar, I didn’t forget how to eat — I just wished I could keep eating.

My earlier fear about not getting enough food? Confirmed — even after we enjoyed every last morsel. (Everything except for the quenelle Lyonnaise, that is. Its twin mounds of fish mousseline were squishy and airy and doused in a too-fishy crayfish sauce. It all tasted like a failed French attempt at Gefilte fish.) Even after spreading more whipped beef fat onto my brioche than any respectable human being should. Even after devouring the most divine Madeleine of my life — bronzed and buttery, made with almond flour, filled with lemon curd, bursting with Sicilian pistachios, and served less than 60 seconds after leaving the oven — I was out hundreds of dollars and still hungry. No matter how enchanting an evening, that’s never a good feeling. Or maybe it’s just the American in me.

   

International Smoke

Everyone loves Ayesha Curry. She is warm and smart and real, with a tireless commitment to kids, her own as well as the 13 million children in America struggling with hunger, and a genuine adoration of her husband, the Golden State Warriors’ mouth-guard-dangling NBA star, Steph.

After joining her 5 million-strong Instagram followers and binge-watching her Food Network shows the other day, I became a fan, too. Of Ayesha the person. The businesswoman. The brand.

Just not of her restaurant: International Smoke, the sprawling, globally inspired, don’t-call-it-barbecue spot she opened with Michael Mina (his 33rd restaurant), street level at the slowly sinking Millennium Tower, in November, to much hype and booked-solid reservations.

Scanning the menu was like taking a quick culinary trip around the world: from wagyu shaking beef to jerk-rubbed duck wings to Argentine rib eye in a chimichurri to a Punjabi-spiced fish fry to a carne asada-stuffed baked potato alongside togarashi-spiked sticky rice. And that was my favorite thing about International Smoke (apart from the word “HUMAN” being stenciled on every bathroom door): its globetrotting, multicultural focus, its borders so blissfully wide-open I wouldn’t put it past Trump to swoop in at any minute and order them closed. I only wish International Smoke lived up to its promise.

Curry smartly conceived of a restaurant that mirrors her own Jamaican-Chinese-Polish-African-American background. Although she intended Smoke to be a mash-up of true international flavors, it played more like a muted, Epcot imitation fit more for an Anywhere USA mall than a sophisticated food city. Something along the way — from Ayesha’s home to the Mina Group LLC headquarters to the Millennium Tower — must have been lost in translation.

The place certainly had its pros: the frothy, coconut-milky, crushed-ice Horquito rum cocktail and the crisp fennel-radish-carrot crudite; the buttery-sweet curried cornbread and the garlic-chile hominy that should be bagged and offered to road-trippers as a substitute for corn nuts. The roasted, soy-caramel-glazed Brussels sprouts tasted like sticky-sweet bundles of joy. And the Thai shrimp tom khawas rich and spicy and better than any I’ve had from my go-to take-outs. Then again, if I’d been in the mood for red curry with shrimp, I would have stayed home and ordered it. This one, though, came flanked by an atypical garnish: more of that cornbread.

Otherwise, upon reading the menu, I wanted absolutely everything! Upon eating it… we were underwhelmed by almost everything. The Kalua “Instant Bacon” with Hawaiian teriyaki, cilantro, and pineapple salsa on a steamed bun was all bun, barely any bacon. I love a soft pillow, but its folded doughy-white puffs were so smothering they muffled any flavor. The green papaya slaw lacked so much, including kick, I thought perhaps the kitchen had accidentally shredded the fruit and then forgot about it. The smoked burrata came with a big show (a glass dish lifted in a magic puff of smoke) and a befuddling cold mush of shaved Brussels, spiced squash, apples, and pecans. The black garlic and miso cod was as salty as the sea, and the Vietnamese barbecue pork chop was striped with aesthetically pleasing charred marks, but tasted more like a quick flame-broil job than barbecue through and through.

Smoked pork — in various forms — was the supposed centerpiece of the lengthy menu, yet I’d take the simple charcoal-grilled, lime-tinged Maine lobster tail (for a ridiculous $58) over them all. The Korean scallion crepes were flaccid and forgettable; the sliders ranked low among all the sliders I’ve enjoyed in my life. Only the crunch of the tostadas topped with smoky-hot New Mexican adovada-style pork shoulder sated. And the smoked ribs, trimmed to an easy-to-eat St. Louis style, came coated in a too-mild Korean gochujang, spicy New Mexican adovada, or sweet, sticky American barbecue. Touched with caramelized sugar then blow-torched, the American barbecues were the best. The meat fell off the bone, but without more bark, more finger-sucking, soul-stirring depth, the ribs failed to make me fall in love.

I wanted to at least like our servers. As people they were fine, but as humans working in the hospitality industry, they lacked an understanding of their jobs. Instead of offering eye contact, a semblance of personality, and an ability to offer much more than poorly memorized descriptions of the $30, $40, $50 entrees, they seemed sort of miserable, mechanical, hoping to just get through their night rather than help us enjoy ours.

We had a minor issue not worth getting into here, but I’m glad it happened, as it brought over the manager, who was effusive and sincere and expertly handled it. I felt better knowing there was someone working the floor Ayesha would be pleased to know was taking good care of her customers, if she can’t.

Customers who are loyal Curry Family fans, packing the restaurant like it was Warriors stadium, and comprising a crowd equally, and refreshingly, as diverse. Customers who come from around the Bay, if not the country, to support Ayesha and Steph, to soak in their aura, and bask in their glory while shooting Buffalo Trace bourbon picklebacks chased by turmeric-curry-infused pickle juice.

Customers like the couple clad in NBA Finals hoodies we met at the bar. They’d trekked in from Vallejo for happy hour— and left unimpressed, but not unhappy. It’d be hard to be with $3 ponies of Miller High Life and $3.50 apiece ribs and barbecue red-chile-basted oysters. Still, “everything was so salty, I feel all swollen up!” laughed the middle-aged man, puffing out his cheeks. (I couldn’t argue.)

“I guess it was a little more gourmet than ballpark food,” added his wife. “I wouldn’t make a special trip again, but I’m glad we tried it.”

That’s the thing about a celebrity-owned restaurant like International Smoke. It has the easy advantage of getting people in the door, but then the food has to be good enough to bring them back. True sports fans will stand by their team through the ups and the downs. True Ayesha fans may, too. When it comes to restaurants, though — in San Francisco especially — food fans aren’t so forgiving.

As Quoted

A Glutton’s Report from the Gluten-Free Frontlines

For an omnivorous, carb-craving, cocktail-swilling, relatively new restaurant critic still getting accustomed to her intake, spending dawn to dusk at As Quoted, an allergy-friendly, all-day cafe in Presidio Heights, was like checking into a one-day detox center. Or at least the “spa cafe” of a refined resort.

Fresh off an especially indulgent stint that included ham-centric holiday parties and Harbison Cellar cheeseboards, platters of ribs and baskets of jalapeno poppers, I — like so many San Franciscans — decided I needed a cleanse of sorts, but just a quickie, as I’m not really the cleanse type. (I once tried a juice fast and quickly realized two things: Liquid kale makes me queasy, and I prefer to chew my food.)

According to As Quoted’s Instagram account, the cafe looked healthy and happy, like everything I hoped for 2018.

For this first review of the new year, a glutton’s notes from the gluten-free frontlines:

9:30 a.m.

Scene: Quintessential Sacramento Street. Well groomed, high rent, and white (its subway-tiled walls, Formica-topped tables, and customers alike). Lines of mostly women waiting for organic beet lattes, Americanos, and “dark green” smoothies.

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants.

Overheard: “Hiiiii! How are you? Are you working these days?”

Order: I decided to stray from my regular morning ritual and kick things off as one is supposed to at As Quoted: with an organic turmeric latte, infused with fresh ginger, almond milk, coconut oil, sea salt, and coconut sugar. But then I asked the perky woman behind the counter, “That includes espresso, though, too, right?” She smiled. No. And so I reverted back to my latte, made with Andytown beans and real milk. (The only cow milk item on the menu.)

Adequately caffeinated and settling into the As Quoted spirit, I decided to give the turmeric latte a try. And it was a pleasant surprise. As I sipped the steaming, spicy, coconut creamy, curry-yellow concoction, I felt my skin glow, noticed my stress dissipate, and instantly anti-inflamed. Kidding. Still, Gwyneth, who’s popularized the benefits of the almighty turmeric latte, might be onto something. (As Ayurvedic practitioners, who have been using turmeric for centuries, were before her.) Even if, for me, that something is only an occasional non-caffeinated hiatus from espresso.

For breakfast, I was flummoxed, too. The brief list of options sounded perfect for my health-focused mission: an open-faced organic almond butter-banana-honey-cinnamon sandwich; avocado toast, of course; and poached eggs over frisee drizzled with a shallot-Champagne vinaigrette (hold the pasture-raised bacon). Except, wait a minute. “Do I have to get it on gluten-free bread?” I asked, fully expecting a gluten-free cafe to offer real bread for those who want it.

“Uh, yes,” said the nice woman, giving me a look that said, Duh. “Everything here is gluten free.”

Right.

And so, after years of eschewing it, I experienced My First Gluten-Free Toast. And you know what? Baked daily with sorghum and multigrain flours, honey, eggs, and avocado oil, it was hearty without being too heavy, and not bad! It was made better, of course, because it came smothered in super-fresh avocado, thinly sliced radish, a swath of “Just” mayo (a mix of yellow split pea, lemon, and canola oil), and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes and Jacobson sea salt.

It came accompanied by a ready-to-go “honey-bruleed” grapefruit, complete with a sticky, shatter-worthy sheen, more Jacobsen’s salt, and a dash of cayenne. I realized I could, and should, eat this grapefruit every morning. (Although five bucks almost seems like a fair price for having someone else segment and sweeten your grapefruit for you, I’d probably be better off eating it at home.)

1:10 p.m.

Scene: Crowded, but calm. Ladies lunching; people pecking away on laptops; babies wailing.

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants; pressed slacks with button-downs.

Overheard: [Married woman to single man] “Can I set you up with my friend?”

Order: Salad expectations are high at a health-minded place like As Quoted. And my “Chinese Chicken” rose to the occasion: a simple, heaping pile of crisp romaine and cabbage chopped and scattered with scallions, black sesame seeds, and cilantro in a clean, subtle sesame dressing. It came with a single, sprawling sheet of rice noodles that I broke to spread its sweet crunch. Was the salad worth $15? I’m not convinced, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

 3:45 p.m.

Scene: Still crowded, with a steady stream coming and going. Afternoon work meetings over herbal tea and “Shrub Spritzers.”

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants; real black pants, too, with leather boots and long cashmere coats.

Overheard: “My friend launched his startup with only $12 million in funding.”

Order: A cup of the seasonal/local/organic/andwholesome! (S.L.O.W™) bone broth soup of the day. It was spicy chicken vegetable — although I only spotted three teeny slivers of chicken, so it might as well have been veggie soup. Regardless, it was a deeply rich Marin Sun Farms bone broth with cayenne, cumin, broccoli, and an organic mirepoix. It was soothing and satisfying and I felt invigorated just sipping it (if also a little like a white-collar inmate who’d convinced Martha Stewart to cook for her; the $6 portion was small, and served on a spare white tray with a half-slice of multigrain gluten-free bread). Unadorned, it wasn’t as tasty as it had been earlier, but dipped in that broth it did its job.

6:30 p.m.

Scene: Still here. It was just me; a solo dude; and about a dozen single red roses, one on every white table, each poised in a glass bud vase. (If I weren’t married, and this guy were my type, and we were both vegan, this could’ve had the makings of a New York Times Vows piece.)

Dress code: Me: Uh, black exercise pants (Oiselle, though, not Lululemon.) Him: below-the-knee gym shorts and flip-flops.

Overheard: “Cruisin” by D’Angelo, coming out of the ceiling.

Order: “Is the zucchini pappardelle hot?” I asked the nice woman, already knowing the answer.

“No,” she said.

“And it’s just zucchini, right? No pasta?”

Yes, she replied. I tacked on a glass of earthy Spanish red. If As Quoted served wine, then even on my 10-hour cleanse I considered it kosher. Plus, it enhanced my vegan pappardelle: wide, paper-thin ribbons of zucchini that were silky and slippery in a sprightly green goddess sauce, effusing fresh basil and strewn with cherry tomatoes and crushed red pepper. It was a tangle that proved more flavorful and satisfying than it first looked.

The same could be said of As Quoted itself. Customers come in daily, sometimes twice a day, jonesing for its kale-romaine-cucumber smoothie, its Moofy muffin (brown rice flour, rice milk, avocado oil, banana), its Muff-Tata (eggs, spinach, garlic, basil), happy to have an eatery where they’re the majority, not an inconvenience. More and more people are anti-gluten and -dairy, -nuts, and -soy, and sisters Kara and Andie Yamagami opened this cafe, in 2016, for them. Digging into my zucchini pappardelle, though, I realized I don’t have to be one of them to enjoy it.

I admit, I often dismiss places like As Quoted and its ilk. If you eat everything, why go somewhere so restrictive? But my meals offered a glimpse into the Goopy, gluten-free lifestyle I’ve long ignored. It’s not my lifestyle, but spending the day at As Quoted, writing, eating, eavesdropping — and refilling my glass of fizzy water for free — left me, I’ll admit, feeling good. Better than I felt after my last review meal, as much as I’d loved it. It also left me feeling something I’ve rarely felt since starting this critic gig: hungry.

8 p.m.

Scene: Home.

Dress code: PJs, slippers.

Overheard: “What do you want for dinner?”

“I already ate,” I replied, tearing into a loaf of Acme’s olive bread.

Beep’s — SF’s Best $7 Burger

I had no childhood memories of the place. I had no adulthood memories of the place, either. Honestly, I barely knew Beep’s Burgers existed, until lost on Ocean Avenue one day, I noticed its red-and-white retro sign, complete with something resembling a rocket ship and a yellow arrow pointing the way, and pulled in.

Later I learned that the rocket ship was actually a satellite, a remnant of the Space Race days, when I guess all Sputnik really did up there was beep. It must’ve seemed like a good name, back in 1962, for a drive-in.

Fifty-five years later, having scored a prime parking spot, I questioned the drive-in concept on the whole. Scarfing down food from the front seat is a barbaric practice that should be reserved for those times when you’re running late to work or, say, trying to outrun Tahoe traffic. I suppose if they had servers roller-skating around and I were parked down the street and it were raining, I could see the appeal.

Instead, on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, we stood behind just two people (you can’t call that a line in this town) and placed our over-order with a nice woman behind the window. Then we grabbed a couple of free stools capped with squeaky-clean, bright-blue, Pepsi-branded cushions, and waited for our name to be called over the muffled loudspeaker — a throwback I didn’t realized I missed until I heard it.

No hand-held vibrating buzzers. No hordes of tourists. No Ferry Building prices. There’s no Trumer pilsner or Turley zinfandel either, but that’s okay; Beep’s is more of a Cherry Pepsi-Orange Crush kind of place. And ever since 30-year-old Samantha Wong took it over in 2014, it’s become a Cherry Pepsi-Orange Crush kind of place with food fit for discerning San Francisco eaters who’d never deign to drink the stuff. Myself included. (A Twinkie milkshake and jalapeno poppers, however, I was totally up for.)

Biting into the thick, deep-fried crust to find oozy-hot cream cheese hiding a fat hunk of jalapeno was a thoroughly satisfying, and, for once, non-tongue-burning experience. As it turned out, sucking bits of blended Twinkie through a straw wasn’t as fun as it sounded. But apparently it’s a hit with the college crowd. No matter: The Nutella and the Oreo milkshakes, the latter made with Oreos crushed on the spot, were thick, kitsch, and delish. At $4.95 apiece for the 16 ounce, they together cost less than one at Cole Valley’s Ice Cream Bar.

What I really loved, though, were the onion rings: hearty, steak-cut, almost greaseless loops with a clean crunch and slippery, flavorful insides. The curly fries, too, were firm and seasoned and all I wanted them to be. Even the sweet potato fries, so frequently mush, had that perfect snap. The only disappointment in the fry department were the plain ones, which were not as crisp or golden or salty as they could be. Nothing to rant on Yelp about, but nothing to come back craving either.

My burger, however, I’d trek out to Ingleside for anytime: an all Angus beef quarter-pound patty, with Beep’s secret sauce (a mix of mayo, ketchup, paprika, and cayenne that could’ve used more kick), leafy lettuce, and melted cheddar on a soft Semifreddi’s bun. Juicy, messy, hand-shaped Niman Ranch beef, it was a $7 feat in a city where burgers now push $20.

In June, Beep’s was declared a San Francisco Legacy Business, joining beloved institutions like Casa Sanchez and Tommaso’s. A dinosaur, however, it’s not. What’s driving Beep’s today is Wong’s commitment to preserving the past, while serving the present. She shed what didn’t work (a confusing mix of teriyaki rice plates, tacos, watery pineapple shakes, and shoddy ingredients) and enhanced what did.

“They’ve definitely upped their game,” said a dad in a tweed cap, with his tweenage son just out of the SSATs and diving into a half-pound double.

I’d heard from a few San Francisco natives that Beep’s used to be a spot where local City College and high school kids would come begrudgingly — not because it was good, but because it was cheap, and the only thing around. Literally, the only thing around, confirmed a guy who grew up nearby. He’s been back on Beep’s since the revamp, he said.

He comes for the crispy chicken sandwich. (I also had it, and it was a winner: succulent breast meat coated in a thick crust, with a fresh, lively jalapeno-parsley-red onion slaw.) The kid pointed to the Whole Foods and the spate of new condos and the Philz Coffee across the street. “None of that was here before,” he said. “It was just us.”

And now it was me. And the hipster dad and son. And a college couple, totally intertwined. And two pairs of stressed-out parents attempting to corral toddlers covered in ketchup. And a trio of 20-something dudes with slicked hair, wearing Vans and white tees, looking appropriate for the time warp where they were lunching. “I just discovered this place two months ago,” one of them told me. “And now I’m, like, here every day.”

There was also a nerdy high school student patiently waiting, with a McDonald’s bag, for his Beep’s Burger. “I like McDonald’s nuggets better,” he explained. I agreed.

True to its name, Beep’s is for burgers, with grilled onions or mushrooms, fresh avocado or fried egg, if you like. As well as mini-corndogs and breakfast sandwiches served all day, and wafer cones of vanilla-chocolate swirl that cost less than a ride on the K Line.

Beep’s is a worthy reminder that every meal in this town doesn’t have to be epic or expensive or — gasp — organic. Or consumed in a leafy parklet built by a local craftsman with reclaimed wood, for that matter. Sometimes, even in San Francisco, it’s enough to just sit outside, on a Pepsi stool at a non-descript counter, and enjoy an admirable, below-market-price burger, mere inches from a row of parked cars that includes more beaters than Beamers — looking up at a neon-lit sign that, propped up by the next generation, has stood longer than anyone eating beneath it.

Eight Tables

The walk to Chinatown’s most expensive restaurant isn’t easy. For one, hidden behind a chain-link fence down an otherwise desolate alley, the place is hard to find. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is: Striding past so many homeless people huddled in doorways on your way to blow a thousand bucks on dinner is, well, hard to justify.

True, it’s an encounter we have in this increasingly stratified city every single day — but as I stepped around an old man outstretched in a sleeping bag on Broadway, I felt acutely conflicted about my upcoming evening at Eight Tables.

I also felt excited (if, in jeans, underdressed). The new, yes, eight-table restaurant was arguably San Francisco’s most anticipated opening of the year. George Chen is the brains behind Union Street’s 1990s trailblazing Betelnut, four restaurants in Shanghai, and in March, ChinaLive, the $20 million Eataly of dim sum downstairs. And now he was opening his “home” — or an opulent stage set of it — to the .5 percent, si fang cai-style. Or “private chateau cuisine,” as Chen puts it, a lavish, 10-course feast that takes entertaining tips from 17th-century China.

Sitting on a crushed-velvet settee waiting for my date, looking at framed black-and-white Chen family photos and listening to Miles Davis on a midcentury console record player, it indeed felt like I was in someone’s living room. Though when a fellow diner checked in and stiffly took a seat beside me, it felt more akin to an upscale doctor’s waiting room.

After several minutes of awkward silence, the fellow diner spoke: “I’ve never been to a restaurant like this,” he said.

Me neither. Because of the price and pomp, some might consider it the French Laundry with chopsticks; a Qing Dynasty-style Quince; a less-austere Benu. But, really, Eight Tables is unlike any restaurant this side of the Pacific — and exactly what chef Chen intended it to be: dinner at his place. The elegant, tan-hued, multi-room maze was regal but warm, with white embossed wallpaper fashioned from antique wedding dress patterns, cushy leather banquettes, and circular, semi-private tables that were comically large for two.

It also includes a full (and appropriately pedigreed) staff: Anthony Keels, a genius bartender who defected from Saison, along with GM Andrew Fuentes; Tony Kim, a sociable sommelier who came from the Clift; and a mannerly server named Huntly, who genuinely thanked us for asking his name. “People rarely do,” he lamented. Then snapped his fingers. “It’s just, ‘deliver my drinks, serve my food.’”

Which he did, flawlessly. He was aided by a fleet of mostly men wearing light-beige three-piece Ralph Lauren suits with a rainbow of patterned Hermès ties, who collectively looked like groomsmen at a WASPy summer wedding — and Chen, who came around to each table like the proud father, to introduce each course. (Chen was also wearing jeans, by the way, and a stained chef’s coat, looking a little schlubbier than a fine dining chef parading through his dining room usually does. I found it refreshing.)

I also caught a glimpse of an elderly Asian couple wearing white socks and matching Asics, and instantly felt better about my outfit. A good reminder that this is San Francisco: underdressing always goes.

The first course was a grid of mini multicolored porcelain bowls containing the “nine essential flavors” of Chinese cuisine. These bite-sized beauties tasted even better than they looked: sweet, a jujube date bursting with chrysanthemum honey; salty, sous-vide chicken coiled with cured duck-egg yolk; smoky, dark soy-marinated smelt wok-fried then smoked; numbing, paper-thin slices of beef tendon simmered in red and green Sichuan peppercorns that left my lips tingling until the next course.

Which was a next-level shrimp har gow dumpling: a delicate, open-faced quadrant brimming with Russian golden osetra caviar, trout roe, chives, creme fraiche, encircled by dollops of uni one night, curled on top another. Scooping it, and savoring it, like a Hoodsie Cup with a mother-of-pearl spoon, it had me wishing I could flag down this creation from any old dim sum cart, anytime.

But no, everything about Eight Tables is the antithesis of “anytime.” (For most civilians, it’s special-occasion time, if not once in a lifetime.)

 What Chen has done at Eight Tables is take standard Chinese dishes and turn them into more glamorous versions of themselves. You know, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.A supplemental course referred to as “beef and broccoli,” for instance, was anything but the gloppy go-to take-out order. Rather, bright-green baby bulbs of tender Gailan hearts were plated sparingly with Miyasaki A5 wagyu, marbled hunks the color of cooked rhubarb and the texture of softened butter — and worth every one of its 6,000 pennies. (Although, on another night, it was a less transcendent experience.)

Barbecue “shao kao” became a trio that included sweet, smoky strips of Iberico char siu with a kumquat glaze; a crisp deconstructed Cantonese-style pork-belly sandwich about half the size of a Kit Kat, with more crunch; and a crackling Peking duck skin topped with Kaluga caviar teetering over a piece of feather-light shrimp toast — maybe my favorite bite of the night, save for the mushy fish eggs (which were farmed in the Hubei province of China, and not yet quite up to snuff. Still, Chen explained, he wanted to support their efforts).

On my first visit, Norwegian Icelandic cod steamed in banana leaf with hot ginger scallion oil, buried with lotus root stuffed and topped with shreds of pickled white melon,was silky, mild, and memorable, but a couple of weeks later, prepared with local cod and pickled cucumber, it was too firm, dry to the point of tasting almost parched. In a place that aims for perfection, the slightest imperfection — and inconsistencies — stands out. The velvet chicken, too, suffered a similar fate. Tender breast poached in shallot oil and enmeshed in slippery, snow-white egg whites and matsutake mushrooms came blanketed in Burgundy truffles, and yet, it was a bit bland. A kind of comfort food dish I’d be happy to eat elsewhere; here it was the faintest of them all.

It was a blip immediately forgotten, though, with the first forkful of the unctuous red “dongpo” pork that followed. The soy-braised, thick-cut pork belly looked, and tasted, as rich as a layered chocolate cake.

We would’ve been content to consider it dessert, actually. We were about eight courses in. And — having opted for the “beverage pairing” — about eight glasses in. We began with a Gosset brut, peaked with a decadent Peter Michael Bordeaux blend (paired with that pork), and in between, enjoyed the prettiest cocktail I’ve ever sipped. The Lily Pond: a palm-sized bowl of Martin Miller’s gin and floating nasturtium, mixed with “forest water” — cucumber juice, sorrel, and red shiso, spun in a centrifuge — prepared tableside, with tweezers and a flourish of liquid nitrogen, making the cocktail the new bananas Foster. Meanwhile, my friend, who rarely drinks, and declined the pairing, was loving, and feeling, his Thai Iced Tea Milk Punch, a white rum-based wonder that was smooth and subtle and creamy, like a real Thai iced tea, made with half-and-half yet magically clear.

Did we really need the two desserts that followed, on the heels of a foie gras-stuffed potsticker, no less? The first was a bracing chrysanthemum granita with plum preserve, and the second was what pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez dubbed “Chinese sea grass”: passion-fruit mousse capped with pickled sea beans and crinkled seagrass rice crackers and frothing with translucent, mesquite-infused bubbles that reminded me of the time I accidentally put dish soap instead of detergent in the dishwasher. It was more spectacle than satisfying, but — and perhaps this was the point — an unforgettable finale.

Did we really need any of it? Of course not. A dinner like this is all about indulgence.

So often, at other restaurants of its caliber, such indulgence comes with an air of snobbery, pretension, and an uncomfortable stiltedness. But Eight Tables isn’t supposed to feel like a restaurant. It’s supposed to feel like a private chateau.

What that means, I’m not quite sure. I never dined with 17th-century Qing dynasty nobles. Nor, for that matter, with 2017 Hong Kong elite. All I know is that after four hours hanging out with Anthony and Tony, Huntly and George, it felt a little like bidding farewell to new friends. Friends who hand you a bill, in a book of Chinese poetry (and inelegantly let you know that the service charge is shared throughout the house, but “anything extra” goes to them, which required us, woozy writers, to do unnecessary math in a moment that should be frictionless). Still, they’re the kind of friends you wish could come over and mix up milk punch at your place — the kind of friends only a fortunate few are able to afford.

A 77,000-acre National Park Off the Tourist Path

Somewhere on the long, lonely, blissfully open road between Salt Lake City, and Baker, Nev. — a tiny town that is the entry point for Great Basin National Park — I texted the one friend I have who had been there.

Lisa’s mother hailed from the small town of Delta, 100 miles east, where we stopped for a quick shop. It was the last chance for our San Francisco family to buy lunchtime essentials like organic crunchy peanut butter and tangerine-flavored La Croix.

“It’s so quiet and peaceful,” Lisa texted wistfully of Great Basin, one of America’s least-visited national parks. “Also, you will probably run over some rabbits on the way. This is normal in these parts. Don’t freak out.”

We didn’t hit a rabbit, but we almost hit a sheep. A fluffy, cute, seemingly lost black sheep. It leapt onto Route 50 and right in front of our rental car. My husband honked and the poor thing scurried away, but I couldn’t help but consider it a fitting start to our long weekend.

Here on the Utah-Nevada border, Great Basin could be called the black sheep of the region’s national park family. Bryce, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, even Capitol Reef, get all the attention — and annual visitors (Zion got a record 4.5 million visitors in 2017, to Great Basin’s 168,000, also a record). But, I soon realized, Great Basin gets something arguably better: anonymity.

“I’d never even heard of it,” said Megan Neemann of Salt Lake City, who I met in Baker and then again, amazingly, on the trail — even though, at some 77,000 acres, Great Basin has more than 60 miles of them. She was on a babymoon with her husband, Erik. Great Basin was his idea for a last-minute Memorial Weekend; it wasn’t exactly Plan B — more like Plan F. “I tried everywhere — Zion, Bryce, Arches — they were all crazy,” he said. “But I was able to get a room here just two weeks ago!”

And Baker — population 68, as of the last census — doesn’t have very many rooms.

Or very much of anything at all. There’s one store selling marshmallows, Lunchables and mousetraps. An espresso cart, the Baker’s Bean, is tucked away on a grassy corner (“If anyone else tried to offer lattes around here, it’d be a hot button-issue,” said Cheri Phillips, the barista and an owner.) And two restaurants: one that appeared to be closed but apparently wasn’t, and Kerouac’s, which was really good (something restaurants in or near national parks almost never are).

A sophisticated pizza and burger place, Kerouac’s was opened last year by Kate Claeys and Jake Cerese, ex-New Yorkers who moved to Baker on a whim. They designed and renovated the circa-1905 miners’ saloon, aided by artisans who worked with ponderosa pine, spruce and steel. Kerouac’s has all the urban accouterments, including seasonal, local ingredients and a fully stocked bar. We ate six meals there in three days.

And not just because it was across the road. Our home base was the Stargazer Inn, also owned and upgraded by Ms. Claeys and Mr. Cerese. For $98 a night, we had wood paneling, carpet, a mini-fridge and toaster and, most important, a shower. It was five minutes from the park and felt kind of like camping, which we had considered, but with a flight and two little kids in the mix, reconsidered.

Last summer, we took a family trip to Yosemite, and it was a zoo. We’d arrived at our cruise ship-size resort armed with a vivid mental list of Yosemite’s iconic sites — El Cap, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome — then spent the trip surrounded by fellow tourists likewise checking them off. We left feeling Californian and patriotic and like good parents. We’d shown our children the American West, in all its glory.

In Great Basin, though, we were like slacker parents: totally winging it. We pulled in Friday evening with no plan, no must-sees, no mental picture of the place whatsoever. It’s a rarity when traveling anywhere these days. And it felt freeing.

It was also freeAs in, no entrance fee. No welcome gate. No traffic backup. Just a simple green-and-white roadside sign that read Great Basin National Park, which we cruised right past. We soon saw a smaller sign, for Baker Creek, and hung a left down a dusty dirt road. Creek sounded nice and my husband, Josh, had his fishing rod.

Remoteness aside, I realized that a big reason so few people come to Great Basin is because without an image of it etched in their minds, no one thinks to. People have no preconception of this national park, in part because it hasn’t been one for very long. Declared a national monument in 1922, it was only anointed national park status in 1986. (No wonder it held no childhood lore for me.) Yellowstone has Old Faithful. Banff has electric-turquoise Lake Louise. The Grand Canyon has, well, the Grand Canyon.And Great Basin, the vast, mountainous “cold desert” between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Range, has … the Lehman Caves? It doesn’t have quite the same ring.

We set out on the Timber Creek-Baker Creek Loop trail, a 5.1-mile trek that starts at 8,000 feet and climbs another 1,600 or so — perhaps an error in judgment given that we were toting two kids under 10. They got their first blisters, kicked off their hiking boots and walked the rest of the way barefoot. (That’s not advisable in rattlesnake country — and I say this as the author of a book on the subject — but I’m also a slacker parent who just wanted to get back before dark.)

Once the whining subsided, we experienced true tranquillity. We picnicked creek-side in a meadow below snowcapped 11,926-foot Pyramid Peak. Josh cast futilely for native Bonneville cutthroat and I fell asleep to the sound of warblers — eventually awakened not by my children, but by a wild turkey. We wandered over boardwalks and mossy rocks, past bright-yellow balsamroot and through aspens shimmering green, their bark whittled with names dating back decades. It was rare proof that other hikers have, in fact, been here. We did not see a soul.

Come dinnertime, though, everyone is at Kerouac’s. Ms. Claeys welcomed us back and regaled us with tales of an enormous but innocuous snake she had discovered outside Room 5 earlier that day in mid-digestion of a bird.We say hello to the Neemanns, who had another great day: Erik climbed 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak; Megan, being pregnant, hung back.

My 6-year-old son, Oren, made fast friends with 30-year-old Sam Schneidman, who was “on his way” (sort of) to a wedding in Washington, D.C. He was initially bummed that he didn’t make it to Capitol ReefNational Park in south-central Utah as planned, but his geologist buddy from Reno had heard of Great Basin and dragged him here instead. Mr. Schneidman was glad he did, as were we. “This place just feels so unexpected, almost forbidden,” he said.

Ben Wong, a van-lifer from Brooklyn, rolled into the park in his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter after rock climbing with his fiancée a few hours away. They’d been living like nomads in their van for the last nine months. “We just looked at the map and said, ‘Hey, there’s some national park nearby, let’s go check it out!’” He glanced around. “We’re the only Asian people here,” he added, laughing.

It appeared to be true. Travelers from Asia, in fact, may be the fastest-growing segment of visitors to U.S. National Parks, increasing by 13 percent in 2016 from the previous year, and accounting for one in six of foreign visitors in 2016, according to a report from Visa. But Great Basin isn’t on the international tourist circuit.

Unlike in the big-name national parks, almost everyone we met was from Utah or Nevada; as Californians, we felt almost exotic. Our neighbor at the Stargazer, Monty Ashton, grew up nearby in Ely, Nev. His family came to scatter his uncle’s ashes up by Baker Lake. He and his 84-year-old mother, Shirley Ashton, have been coming to Great Basin long before it became a national park. And they were happy it did. To Ms. Ashton, a National Park Service designation means crowds and cafeterias. They haven’t showed up yet. “It just means people can’t ruin it now,” she said.

Lehman Caves, a limestone and marble underworld, though, is the park’s main attraction, and popular enough that the hourlong, 20-person tours often book up a month or so ahead. Still, we showed up at the Lehman Visitor Center the next morning around 8 and had our pick of time slots. Dripping with stalactites and bats and a rich history that includes Prohibition parties, the cave is pretty cool (literally and figuratively).

But a cave alone won’t woo me 600 miles from home. Stars, on the other hand, would. One of the least populated areas in the lower 48 — at 10,000 feet no less — Great Basin became an official International Dark Sky Parkin 2016. This is a collection of some 100 destinations — from Warrumbungle National Park in Australia to Hortobagy National Park in Hungary — recognized by the leading anti-light pollution organization for their nocturnal environment and exceptionally starry nights. It’s a designation of rising importance in our country, which is increasingly aglow.

“Half the park is after dark,” as one ranger put it. Unfortunately, the weekend we were there, the night sky was a mix of clouds and bright moonlight. We certainly saw a super-clear Big Dipper, but not the Milky Way or the meteors or the supposedly mind-blowing intergalactic show of stars darting across the sprawling sky. We did, though, get to ogle Jupiter and its red racing stripes through the high-tech telescopes that astronomer-rangers set up outside Lehman Visitor Center on Saturday nights.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t what was overhead or underground that made Great Basin worth the journey.

It wasn’t Wheeler, the tallest peak in the park, as looming and humbling as it was. Or the big, fat marmot we saw squatting on the side of the road, looking at us like a hopeful hitchhiker.

It wasn’t even the 4,000- to 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines — a stark, surreal grove of gnarled, ancient wonders that have withstood all that this cold, harsh world has thrown at them.

What made the trip to Great Basin worth it was the affirmation that an empty national park is better than an epic one — in part, at least, because you feel less like a lemming and a more like a pioneer. (Of course, the Native Americans who lived here thousands of years ago were the real pioneers.) Plus, there’s something bonding about going where so few fanny pack-clad tourists have gone before; a camaraderie that comes from being in an isolated place together.

For our secular, urban clan, the trek was a true pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere. “How far into the middle of nowhere?” a ranger named Becky Gillette had said earlier. “All the way.”

On our last day, amid stalemates and whines of “I’m tired,” we slipped and slid over late spring’s snowfields. The hike was three rigorous, arguably treacherous miles, at 11,000 feet, under the threat of thunderstorms. Good parents would turn back, I thought. But soon, the first bristlecones came into sight. Weathered, wise and weary, but still standing. “I want to touch the oldest living things on the planet!” said my 9-year-old daughter, Hazel. She broke into a sprint, her little brother trudging behind, slowly but surely. Blisters be damned.

Rachel Levin is the San Francisco restaurant critic for Eater and the author of “Look Big: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds” (Ten Speed Press).

Octavia

In restaurant real estate, people often talk about cursed locations. You know, where one day it’s New American, the next it’s Thai, two weeks later you walk by and it’s an always-empty spaghetti house. Is it bad food or just bad juju? You don’t actually know because you never even gave it a chance. Expectations are lower for cursed locations.

But then there are blessed locations. Rare gems that consistently house beloved restaurants that eventually shutter or expand elsewhere, leaving behind their good bones and even better vibes. Expectations are higher for blessed locations.

The window-walled space at Octavia and Bush has long been the latter. And as soon as I punctured Melissa Perello’s divine “deviled egg” — showered in dried marash pepper and a chile fresno relish that unleashed a scent so invigorating it could be the new Red Bull — I knew the latest incarnation of this corner lived up to, if not surpassed, its lineage.

Long gone was the New England stuffiness of the Meeting House, a place I was never old enough, or paid enough, to try (but apparently Joanna Karlinsky’s biscuits were so adored she continued baking them for customers until last year); gone was the genteel white linen and wainscoting of the original Quince; the dark-wood, golf-clubhouse air of Baker and Baker. Now, at this rarified 19th-century address, we have Octavia, open since 2015.

Spare yet warm, with wide-planked distressed floors, black Shaker-style chairs, and servers clad in long denim aprons, you could call Octavia’s look upscale Amish. An airy Pac Heights barn packed nightly with blazers and silver hair, yes, but also short dresses and long locks, new boyfriends, old friends, Frances fans making the cross-Market trek. Everyone swooning over dinner out as it used to be: unadulterated. Before hovering became the standard and mixologists became a must, before tightly crammed communal tables and fast-casual counters and drawn-out tasting menus.

Oh, Octavia has one, if you wish. A tasting menu. And we wished one weeknight. Though, unlike most, it wasn’t a big to-do, or, at $75 per person, a boggling bill. It just allowed us to sample anywhere from nine to 12 dishes in four courses — and catch up, without having to agonize over the brief but beguiling menu.

Like we did on ensuing visits:

Should we get the meaty Pt. Reyes lingcod in a lightly creamy nori beurre blanc scattered with perfect fingerling potatoes, sweet onions, and pearls of Manila clams? (We should.) What about the wild nettle tagliatelle in a tangle of bacon, egg yolk, peppercorns, and pangrattato? (Most definitely.) The ricotta malfatti stuffed with chanterelles, cauliflower, and French sorrel? (Dry and dull; that’s the one entree we should’ve skipped.)

What about the tomatoes? “Nah, a tomato is a tomato,” my friend declared, arguing that he could slice and drizzle olive oil over the same fruit at home. But the firm, sweet, multihued heirloom hunks, sprinkled with sea salt and sprigs of basil, won him over. Proving that when a restaurant like Octavia offers you tomatoes on a warm September eve, you bite.

A $14 avocado, however? You’re welcome to balk. “It’s a Brokaw avocado,” the server explained, seemingly as unsure as we were what exactly that meant. Clearly it was code for pricey avocado, albeit one that was as smooth and creamy as a savory pot de creme. Covered with broccolini and crisp quinoa, however, it looked more like a Chia Pet.

Any moments of mediocrity were fleeting: Chalky chickpea poppyseed sable crackers overpowered otherwise delightful pickled anchovies on one night, plump mussels with smoked pimenton another. But at least both were only a one-bite, six-buck disappointment. A palm-sized bowl of chilled squid-ink noodles with bottarga and fennel, in a pungent lemon agrumato, appeared to be a nightly staple, but unfortunately tasted more like next-day Bento box leftovers pulled from the fridge. After giving them a second chance on my second visit, I guiltlessly snubbed them on my third.

But that allowed for an encore order of the delicata squash — brawny, beautiful, donut-sized rings coated in a thin, crisp, tempura batter accompanied by a puddle of citrusy aioli and dash of chile.

On one night our petit filet begged for an extra pinch of salt. But that was okay, because lo and behold! There were actually mini ramekins of salt on every table. Fitting, as Octavia is not a place that emanates ego.

Rather, it exudes intentionality. From the open kitchen framed like a painting to each piece of earth-toned pottery by Berkeley’s Sarah Kersten to Perello’s fostering of female chefs, like executive pastry chef Sarah Bonar, who also does the desserts for Frances, and now chef de cuisine Sara Hauman, a 2015 Eater Young Gun, who came on in April off a stint as sous chef at Mister Jiu’s, by way of Huxley and Bar Agricole before that. (She actually got her start cooking at health spas in San Diego; she’s obviously back on butter — and for that my lingcod and I were grateful.)

Our only complaint about Octavia was that every starter we ordered arrived at once — also intentionally so. Receiving that dreamy deviled egg at the same time as the chickpea crackers, at the same time as the delicata squash, at the same time as Bonar’s purple barley levain, which is baked daily downstairs? Too much. The egg deserved our undivided attention! Then, fine, let the other dishes follow.

Desserts, on the other hand: bring ’em on. The more of Bonar’s creations the merrier. Our spoons dove eagerly back and forth between subtle treats that were acutely seasonal. And not in a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice way.

The Eton Mess was a visual mess, but an edible miracle: a mound of meringue mixed with poached quince, gooey butterscotch, and cinnamon ice cream. The toasted angel food cake was firm and moist (as much as we all hate that word, that’s what it was, and it was delicious). With a crackling creme brulee-like crust, it was unlike any of the you-call-this-cake? angel food cakes I recalled as a kid. Especially since it came with a scoop of squash ice cream. (Also delicious.)

That’s the thing about Octavia: It’s the kind of place where you feel like an adult, without even being a tiny bit bummed to be one.

Looking around the dimly lit, 55-seat room, at locals from all decades drinking wine and digging in, the scene was soothing but not serious, fun but not frenetic. For a moment, it felt like something was missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on what. Until I noticed: there was no bar, not even a little one. Unlike so many new San Francisco restaurants these days, Octavia bore none of the trendy moneymaking trappings of the moment. The kind that perhaps a less-blessed location — and chefs blessed with less talent — might rely on.

What I loved most about Octavia, I realized, was that it was there. And will be, I hope, for a long, long time.

Hook Fish

It was August in the Outer Sunset and so of course there were puffy coats and wool beanies and beards. And flip-flops.

Everyone out here wears flip-flops, no matter what the weather. It’s the only appropriate footwear for Ocean Beach. And, really, the only appropriate footwear for fish tacos.

As dudes in wetsuits strutted by still dripping, I wondered, what about bare, sandy feet? “It happens,” says Christian Morabito, co-owner of San Francisco’s newest seafood spot. “People try and bring in their dogs, though, and I’m like, no. This is a food facility!”

Friday night at Hook Fish isn’t like Friday night anywhere else in the city. Many of those who cut through Karl the Fog to get here do so on foot. Two blocks from the water, on a mostly residential stretch of Irving Street, there are no double-parked Ubers or eager Elite Yelpers or underdressed tourists, just a bunch of close-knit locals sitting on reclaimed pier pilings, putting back cold Pacificos, and slurping plump West Marin Miyagis, stoked to see each other — and stoked to have a new homegrown restaurant in the ’hood.

It’s a restaurant that feels more like the main cabin of a beautiful wooden sailboat — with hand-built, honey-hued everything: the counter, the benches, the one big table, the ceiling, the wall lamps, even the cash drawer is a log that’s been salvaged and sawed. All elements are the handiwork of resident woodworker Jay Nelson, the sustainability-minded talent behind Outerlands, a restaurant that pioneered the transformation of the nearby 4000 block of Judah.

You could call Hook Fish a “seafood shack,” and I’m sure by next summer, all the food and travel magazines rounding up their lists of “best seafood shacks” will. With just 15 seats inside, it’s the size of one. But that makes it sound rickety and salty and slippery, or like one of those sprawling waterfront traps trying to seem authentic.

Hook Fish is neither. It just is authentic. I don’t mean the food, per se — I mean the people and purpose behind it.

Co-owner Morabito is a 28-year-old lifelong surfer who quit his job delivering boxes of produce for the Fruit Guys to bike 1,600 miles down to Cabo with his brother. They rigged up a bike trailer big enough to lug their boards, camping gear, a bunch of water, and their fishing rods and Hawaiian slings. For three glorious nomadic months, they sustained themselves on spear-caught rockfish, halibut hooked on a fly, clams dug at low tide.

Back home in San Francisco, nostalgic for Baja, he started buying a whole albacore every now and then off the dock in Half Moon Bay. He and a few friends — friends who knew more about cooking than he did — would turn it into poke or ceviche, buy a bunch of beer and chips, and invite everyone over. Soon, that morphed into catering gigs for companies like Patagonia that cared, like him, where their fish comes from.

For a second, Morabito admits, he thought about starting a dog food business that used quality, local ingredients.

I’m so glad he didn’t. Instead, in June, having scored a decent rent from the former owners of Cajun Pacific, he opened a seafood business that uses quality, local ingredients. San Francisco’s 120,000 dogs may balk, but I think Hook Fish is a better boon for the city.

The goal was ambitious, and admirable: to open an “accessible place” to eat (and buy) seafood caught off the California coast, a place that connects “our fisherpeople” to all people while cutting out the many hands that typically touch a slab of salmon before it gets to the consumer.

The city’s most respected chefs, of course, do this already on their nightly changing, more elaborate menus. But Morabito just wanted to serve restorative food and really good fish at prices fair to those both catching it and eating it. And, magically, somehow — even in San Francisco — he did.

That’s a lot of backstory, I realize, but it’s important to understand what Hook Fish is and why it’s worth a long-ass Muni ride.

Morabito and his business partner, Beau Caillouette, hired fellow surfer Luke Johnson, a former in-house chef for Couchsurfing, to do the cooking. Together, they honed the brief menu that hits all the familiar beachside staples — made with your pick of the four of five catches of the day. They are all listed along with the vessel they were caught on and the method used to hook them (i.e.,Halibut, Port: Half Moon Bay, Method: rod and reel, Vessel: Krabmandu, Price: 33.95/lb).

Honestly? It’s all good. Could I really tell the difference between the lingcod and the halibut and the rockfish tacos, when each came cloaked in the same combo: pico de gallo, fresh avocado, a splatter-paint of spicy aioli, and a lively cumin- and coriander-spiked curtido, aka pickled cabbage slaw? Nope. They add a little too much pickled cabbage slaw, but on heavy, handmade corn tortillas, I loved them all anyway. I didn’t want to even bother trying the fried avocado tacos, but I was pleasantly surprised. They were meaty and creamy, and I barely missed the flesh of fish.

Other standouts: the blackened fish sandwich, which I had with halibut. It was firm and flavorful and smeared with tangy house-made tartar sauce, more of that slaw, and pepperoncinis on a not-too-bready roll. With a few dabs of the house-made carrot-habanero, it was even better. The only letdown about the burrito was the same letdown about any burrito: too much rice. When you’re paying 16 bucks for one stuffed with lingcod, you kind of want to be able to taste the fish.

If I lived two doors down, like pretty much everyone behind the counter, I’d come in daily at lunchtime for the house-smoked trout salad, served on a tin tray of seasonal greens doused in creamy creme fraiche, slivers of red onion, sunflower seeds, and these hidden “everything” nut clusters that added such a delightful crunch, I started seeking them out to ensure I got one with every bite.

Drawbacks to Hook Fish? The Fisherman’s stew tasted more like a mild minestrone. (Even on a cold night, I’d skip it.) And despite requesting they pace your over-order, it’ll arrive all at once — and always, impressively, within minutes.

The thing is, though, Hook Fish is the kind of place where you want to, you know, chill. If it took 25 minutes for my tacos, and I had to order another beer, I wouldn’t mind. My only fear is that as the weather warms this fall, and the word spreads, I may get my wish.

But for now, sitting outside on a bench made of cribbing timber, bundled up beneath a hammock of electrical wires sharing fish and chips with friends, Hook Fish still feels like a secret. Maybe the masses will stay away. After all, this is not a place to eat overpriced seafood overlooking the ocean with a sunset view. It’s better than that.

It’s a place to eat reasonably priced seafood with the Outer Sunset crew, ironically the warmest community in this ever-frenetic city. A true outside land, where people prefer to spend time together, surfing waves, not the web.

Duna

Dinner at Duna involves very few decisions, and for this we should be grateful. We’ve got enough to think about as we scroll endlessly, depressingly, through our Trump-strewn newsfeeds all day. Come dinnertime, it’s comforting to walk into a restaurant that’s homey and hearty and Hungarian — with a menu about as brief as a tweet.

It’s a little less comforting to have to stand in line and order at the counter while listening to people ask questions like “How’s the riesling?” and “How many dips should we order?” (My answer, after trying all five: all five.) Then survey the room for an open table. Then carry over your own glasses and carafe. And then have everything you ordered — especially when you ordered just about everything — come in rapid succession, like a blitzkrieg, mere seconds after your wine arrives.

If not before, as our chilled yogurt soup did one night. A peeve. Even the training manual at Pizzeria Uno, where I once worked, dictated that drinks be delivered within four minutes of a customer’s order.

It wasn’t like my soup was going to get cold or anything. So I ignored my pretty antique floral-patterned bowl of garlicky, house-made yogurt mixed with cultured kefir cream and brimming with bits of cool, garden-fresh cucumber, crumbled pecans, and a whole lot of dill, while I waited, for quite some time, for my glass of orange-hued rebula. (Both were ultimately delicious.)

Maybe delayed wine and DIY water are just what it takes to get a decently priced dinner in this town these days.

Due to the astronomical costs of running a restaurant in San Francisco, “fast-casual” spots keep proliferating — eateries with solid food and suitable ambiences that forgo welcoming hosts and doting servers and busting-their-asses bussers in favor of affordability. It’s a format that’s proving successful for the Little Gems and RT Rotisseries of the city, where people know what to expect.

But Duna — which debuted in June in the former Herbivore space, following chef-owners Nick Balla and Cortney Burns’s fleeting pop-up, Motze — is a bit of a different beast. It bills itself as “fine-casual.”

And fine it is. If fine means food that’s soulful, creative, and cooked with care, using local, organic — or as they put it, “noble” — ingredients. Accompanied by candlelight.

It’s the “casual” part of Duna I found confusing. It’s a compliment, really: Balla and Burns’s modern Central European fare deserves full service. Or at least some service.

After three visits, I’m not convinced this kind of quickie, truncated experience works for Duna. Perhaps it works for the owners — and that certainly counts for something — but from the customer perspective it’s uneven, almost awkward (especially when you go to punch a tip on the iPad at evening’s end. Philosophical question: Is 20 percent still fair?).

But nice only goes so far when you want, say, another slab of doughy, warm smoked potato flatbread, and are told, as we were on our first visit: “Sorry, you’ll have to get back in line.” (They’ve since rectified the issue by providing a phone number for already-seated diners to “text for re-orders.”)

And you will want more flatbread. We got seconds every time, as the dips — creamy, vibrant — routinely outlasted it. Standouts include roasted pumpkin seed doused with hot green chile and grapeseed oil; sweet preserved eggplant scattered with preserved kumquats and sprigs of mint; a spicy Liptauer paprika cheese thick with onion, garlic, and toasted sesame seeds that was reminiscent, in the very best way, of Trader Joe’s jalapeno pub cheese. When the last tear of bread was gone, rather than bother ordering another, we scraped the rest with our spoons.

The chopped salads — served family style, like every dish at Duna — are supposed to be eaten with spoons, too. I used my fork for the Sofia, which was essentially just a Greek salad named after the capital of Bulgaria. Nothing special, nothing more. But the Budapest was a bowl of beauty. A brightly colored jumble of bold flavors: juicy red tomatoes (cherry, Early Girl, andheirlooms), fiery electric-green padrons, and soft cubes of Point Reyes’s toma tossed with slices of smoky sausage, rings of piquant peppers, button mushrooms, and finished with plenty of paprika. The dressing — the vegetables’ natural juices soaked in red vinegar with garlic and marjoram — was simple and soupy and indeed worth slurping.

Balla and Burns have tried, yet again, to transform the formerly dull Herbivore space into something warm and woodsy, with bark and branches, woolly art and leafy plants. Intended to resemble the banks of the Danube River — for which Duna was named, perhaps? — it works well enough, but that drab gray institutional tiled floor will remain a thorn in Duna’s decor until they decide to do a real redesign.

Admittedly, no one but the critic seemed to care. Everyone in the long, narrow room clustered around votive-topped tables, as cozy and content as if they were in their own dining rooms (which is possible, as Duna does deliver).

If I squinted past the startup logo-emblazoned hoodies and the latest $300 clogs, it was almost as if 21st-century Valencia Street had time-traveled to 19th-century Budapest. But no, it was just the San Francisco elite digging into Duna’s “peasant” food.

As I slurped my fisherman’s stew, I wondered if the Old World ate this well. I doubted it. I also wondered if the Old World had teeth, as almost every entree had the same texture. That is: none, really. It was like a mushy, madly flavorful meal a sophisticated baby could love.

A duo of cabbage rolls stuffed with chicken and pork snuggling beside slippery house-made sauerkraut, slices of smoked sausage and pork belly, meaty roasted mushrooms, and dried apples was at once delicate and hardy. The chicken paprikas, in a thick, pungent gravy poured over eggy, soft spatzle was just as satisfying. Only the lentil croquettes were a disappointment. A beloved holdover from Balla and Burns’s Bar Tartine days, but made over at Duna, they were dense and dry. Luckily they were surrounded by a gorgeous assembly of roasted spinach, turmeric-tinged cauliflower, and chile-infused yogurt — all of which we devoured.

But we abandoned our croquettes. Like the staff did our otherwise empty dishes, which cluttered our table throughout the entire meal — until eventually I had to text someone to take them away.

“Sunday suppers” at Duna are ticketed, intended to be a more civilized, supposedly slower affair, with cultural themes like “Road Trip to Southern Bulgaria” and “Paprika and Onion.” We’d reserved two seats on the “Boat Trip to Belgrade” (which must have been a speedboat, because somehow our $170 meal was over within 52 minutes). We relished our lively yogurt soup; mild lamb tartare peppered with raisins and parsley; and spicy, rich rock-cod stew nonetheless.

But nothing was as good as Duna’s dips. Especially not dessert: a tasteless frozen custard coated in a parched black-sesame crumble that left me wishing for its doppelganger — Carvel’s crunchies — instead. The “peanut-butter and jelly truffle balls” were the kind of finale only a diehard gluten-free diner could love.

America’s Answer to the African Safari: The Great Bear Rainforest

It’s well into Day Two, and people are wet and cold and starting to worry. “I’m concerned,” says Carol, crinkling her nose.

We’ve spent the past three hours floating quietly on a small Zodiac raft in the salmon-filled Kinoyuk Inlet, then bushwhacking in borrowed gumboots beneath hemlock trees heavy with moss. All of it in the rain. And still: no bears.

“What if we don’t see any?” says Carol, clearly annoyed it’s taking this long.

She’s been everywhere from Iran to Gabon to “all the –stans,” and now she’s here, on a sailboat in remote northern British Columbia, in the Great Bear Rainforest, wearing a waterproof cape, for one reason: bears. Black bears, brown bears, and in particular, the Spirit Bear: an extremely rare, elusive white-furred black bear found only on this remote archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands.

Marci and Marc’s spirits have yet to be dampened. They have saved five years for this trip of a lifetime. They also have matching M&M tattoos (“like the candy”) and camera lenses the size of telescopes. “Marc is always hoping to see bears on any hike we take,” says Marci. “Booking this trip almost guarantees seeing them!” adds Marc. “When I was younger, I admired bears’ beauty, size, ferociousness,” he says. “Now, I look at bears as one of the smartest creatures on earth. They don’t get caught up in life’s trivial things like we do. They’re all about survival, nurturing their young, teaching them to take care of themselves, that’s it. They live a simple life.”

And this week, so do we. Here, biding our time among fjords and estuaries and islands. At 21 million acres, Great Bear is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world, alive with 1,000-year-old western cedars and 4,000-foot waterfalls, a scattering of First Nations communities who’ve lived here for 9,000 years—and more wildlife than annual visitors. An unspoiled swath of our otherwise increasingly spoiled planet, accessible only by boat or float plane.

Consider this British Columbia’s answer to the African safari, only with grizzlies in lieu of elephants and humpbacks instead of hippos.

*

The night before, our first aboard the Maple Leaf, all eight of us squeezed thigh-to-thigh around the galley’s mahogany table, drinking wine and dining on almond-encrusted Coho salmon as the ship’s captain, Greg Shea, asked us to share our “wildlife expectations.” Apart from a penchant for nature photography and zip-off pants, this motley crew—ranging in age from 32 to 82, from Seattle to Switzerland to both coasts of Canada—has little in common other than a desire to commune with bears.

These nice but clearly crazy people I’m with for the next 192 hours or so want to see them all. All day. Every day. Up close. A pack of coastal wolves, they all agree, would be super cool, too.

They’re certainly in the right place. In 2016, legislation was finally passed to protect 85 percent of this 6.4 million-hectare old-growth forest from logging. And on November 30 of last year—thanks to the work of conservationists and the indigenous First Nations communities—the state of British Columbia completely banned trophy hunting of grizzly bears. The First Nations had already banned trophy hunting back in 2012 in their traditional rainforest lands, and our captain explains that means more bears. Lots of bears.

Plus, they’re less skittish than they used to be, now that they’ve learned people aren’t out to kill them. “Bear-watching has been better than ever!” beams Captain Greg, his blond curls spilling out of a faded Maple Leaf cap that reads “Small Ship, Big Adventure.” Expectedly ruddy, with a genuine perma-grin, capable hands, and a calm, confident demeanor, he is for sure the kind of guy I want to be with if —when?—I do see a bear.

 *

The Great Bear Rainforest isn’t exactly on the honeymoon circuit. And with a bunkroom for eight, two small “heads” (ship speak for toilets), and one shower per person—all weekneither is the Maple Leaf.

It is, however, one of the most beautiful old wooden boats you’ve ever seen. The 1904 schooner used to haul halibut, before it was spiffed up for eco-tourism trips. It’s the kind of ship you’d find inside a bottle, a masterpiece of Douglas fir and yellow cedar. Wifi? Nope. Nine whole days without it.

But there are two walking Wikipedias on board: Captain Greg and naturalist Brandon Harvey, who know everything there is to know about the Great Bear Rainforest—its crannies and its creatures.

There’s also a hardworking crew ready to hoist sails and pour coffee and replenish TP as needed, as well as a talented chef who cooks four meals a day from scratch, including not one, but two breakfasts (7a.m., granola, muffins; 9a.m., frittatas, French toast); steamy bowls of lentil stew or beef chili for lunch; two hardy midday snacks; and a three-course supper.

There’s no casino, no lounge show, no midnight buffet. Bedtime follows soon after dessert. It’s up-anchor by 6am, after all.

The cabin is tighter quarters than a freshman dorm room, with as much privacy as a rock band’s tour bus. Only a curtain separates each of the four double bunks, which means, despite the provided earplugs, you get to know the nighttime noises of people you just met. I learn that Marc, a hulk of a man, snores like Fred Flintstone. And that Carol calls out in her sleep. And that Doug and Jean, a sweet, silver-haired couple who’ve been married for 56 years, whisper to each other in French before kissing goodnight.

Still, a trip aboard the Maple Leaf is supposed to be about observing wildlife, not fellow passengers. We just have to be patient, the captain reminds everyone. This is nature, not a zoo.

*

Before arriving here, I assumed that everyone—other than the lunatic profiled in Werner Herzog’s 2005 film, Grizzly Man—was afraid that a 900-pound carnivore might maul them to death. When I booked this bear watching trip, I kind of hoped it would be from the deck of our boat, with, like, really good binoculars.

Not exactly what the Maple Leaf has in mind.

We would be landing on terra firma, walking on shore, along the banks, even, at times, through the woods. Be quiet, we were told. Walk slowly, as a group—no straggling behind! We look bigger together than we do alone, Captain Greg explained. All food stays back on the boat, of course.

After that brief training, I felt (sort of) prepared to meet a towering, hungry bruin on its home turf. I also felt a surge of excitement (mixed with sheer fear), the first time we stepped into the inflatable Zodiac and motored toward shore. But since then, things have slowed down.

Wildlife isn’t something you can just summon On Demand, like Planet Earth II. In this age of Google Express and Amazon One-Hour Delivery, a world where everything from filet mignon to organic marijuana to a personal masseuse can arrive at our doorstep with a single swipe, it’s no surprise we’ve become a society of virtual Veruca Salts. We want what we want and we want it now. Instant gratification has grown so expected that when our favorite podcast pauses to buffer or Uber cites “12 minutes until arrival,” it’s cause for distress. Twelve minutes! An eternity!

It’s sad, but true: We’ve forgotten how to wait. Especially, god forbid, without an iPhone in our hands to keep us occupied. Yet here in the Great Bear, wait times, I find, are on a scale of hours and days, not minutes.

*

When not cruising the inlets on a futile hunt for bears, we roam aimlessly around the ship, from the wheelhouse to the galley to the head to our bed, as we wait—for the rain to stop; for a whale to breach; for the anchor to drop; for the sugar cookies to come out of the oven.

As we make our way further north to Mussel Bay, the rain does stop for a spell, and I start to realize that maybe just hanging around waiting—for something, anything, to happen—isn’t so bad.

Not when you’re cruising slowly through serene waters, gazing up at granite walls carved out by glaciers 12,000 years ago and bald eagles presiding from treetops, and waterfalls cascading into the sea. Which, I notice, is a soft gray today, almost indistinct from the sky. There’s also not a single boat, let alone another sign of civilization, in sight.

*

Just before supper on Day 3, we give it another go. We climb down the boat’s wooden steps and pile back into the Zodiac. We zoom out to the estuary, where we crouch in our gumboots and wait on the grassy, wet bank. We don’t make a sound. We listen and look, hoping to hear the crack of a tree branch or spy a movement in the brush. Time passes. Eventually, not one—but freaking four—grizzlies wander down to the water.

I whisper Oh My #@&%ing God and inch closer to Captain Greg. And watch: They’re only cubs, but they’re massive; ambling on all fours through the shallow water, searching for supper. My visit happens to fall in September, prime salmon time, so they find it, no problem. They prowl the shoreline—then pounce, tearing into the pink flesh of the belly as blood and guts plop back into the water. Then they go back for more.

Somehow two hours pass, and at some point I start to relax. A little. I’m captivated. You can’t really get bored watching bears, because, you know, you’ve got to stay alert. They eat and wade through the waist-deep water, they inch closer to our side of the bank—until we’re standing less than 20 feet from them, snapping photos like paparazzi. And yet they barely register our existence. Apparently all they want is fish. Phew.

*

The next afternoon, we head out on the Zodiac and quietly clamber out as Greg points to a big brown furry mound on a grassy slope: four bears napping, a mama and her three cubs. We sit on the bank in our supposedly rainproof pants, watching bears sleep for almost an hour.

My butt is getting damp, my hands are getting cold, and I’m getting ready to head back to the Maple Leaf for a glass of wine. But Captain Greg is engrossed. He has no idea what’s about to happen, but he’s well-versed in the ways of the wild—he knows what we eventually come to learn: that if you wait long enough, something will.

And something does. All of a sudden, mama bear’s mammoth body starts to move. She lumbers onto her back, nipples up, torso outstretched like a limo, and props herself on her elbows (if bears have elbows?). Her three cubs nuzzle close. At first it looks like they’re just cuddling, until we realize, wait, no— they’re suckling. It hits us that we are sitting in the mud in the middle of nowhere, WATCHING A MOTHER GRIZZLY NURSE HER CUBS. Even Captain Greg is gawking at our good luck. Despite a decade observing bears, this is a first for him, too. We’re mesmerized, even a little embarrassed to witness such an intimate, primal moment.

But like any forthright feminist, mama doesn’t mind. This is what we do, she seems to say. The cubs pull off. Milk dripping from their snouts, they look right at us then saunter off into the trees.

What if we’d bailed before the bears woke up? Proof, people, that patience pays off.

*

In the days that follow, the fog parts and the sun shines. Beneath cloudless, electric-blue skies, we cruise up Princess Royal Channel—alongside breaching whales and dancing dolphins, barking sea lions and swimming deer (what? yeah).

We scatter ourselves around the deck, reading, journaling, talking, not talking, leaping up whenever Brandon spies a whale spouting in the distance—and we wait, cameras poised, ready to capture the perfect whale tail. Or two. “It’s a double breach!” Sara, a self-proclaimed whale fanatic, squeals in her thick Swiss-German accent. Once the whale action subsides, we resume our lazy positions and watch the screensaver-worthy landscape roll by.

Every so often, someone in a sun hat wanders by on their way to the bow or the stern and can’t help but say: “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” Because it is.

In between kayaking around estuaries and soaking in hidden hot springs, jumping off the bowsprit into BC’s ice-cold sea and barbecuing pork loin over a sunset bonfire on a deserted beach, we zip around in the Zodiac in search of bears.

We find them almost too easily now: Bears chasing fish. Bears chomping fish. Bears sloshing through a marsh. Brother bears wrestling like little boys. Bears standing on their hind legs, arms around each other, like two best friends posing for a picture.

*

Day 5, we unload at Gribbell island, home to the sacred spirit bear—or at least a handful of the only 100 or so estimated to be in existence. We follow a man named Garnet, of the Gitga’at Nation, to a small wooden platform tucked in the trees, a few feet above a rocky river. Along the way, chef Tom picks angel wing mushrooms to cook up later for dinner.

“My last group waited 11 hours,” warns Captain Greg. “We can stay as long as it takes.” It’s 7:30 a.m. We could be here until dinnertime, he says, and still never see one. Bring it on, I say to myself.

We peer upriver. We peer downriver. Then upriver again. Then downriver again. Kingfishers flutter above. Salmon flutter below. A jet-black bear wanders by and bats at some breakfast.

A good three hours pass before we spy him: a ginormous, cream-colored marshmallow slowly making his way up river: a spirit bear. Not just any spirit bear, apparently, but “Big Boss,” as dubbed by Garnet.

As he gets closer, I wonder if he knows he’s an anomaly. The fringe benefit of his rare mutation: Salmon can’t see white bears as well as they can black or browns. That probably explains his healthy bulk. I wonder if he knows we’ve been waiting all morning for him, all week for him. Heck, Carol’s been waiting her whole life for a glimpse of him. He has no sense of his celebrity. He eats his lunch, then moseys up river.

Spirit bear sighting box checked, we could easily leave, head back to the boat. But why? We know better by now. We wait.

And indeed, a few hours later, Big Boss comes back. He sees a black bear fishing on his turf and he isn’t happy. Next thing we know, it’s a full-on bear fight—right beneath our feet. The white bear rams over the mossy rocks, like a Mac truck on the loose, coming at the black bear from behind—and slamming him so hard we can hear their bodies crash above the rushing river. They huff and grunt and push and shove, water splashing, until eventually, true to his nickname, Big Boss triumphs.

It’s like the Nature Channel come to life, and in a matter of minutes, the show’s over as quickly as it began. Apparently, an IMAX crew has been hanging around Great Bear for weeks hoping to catch this kind of action, boasts Greg. And we just happen to see it in the flesh—after a mere five-hour wait.

Toward the end of the trip, I decide to skip the morning safari and take a kayak out for a solo morning paddle instead. After a week on a motor-powered sailboat, I need a little human-powered movement. I need a little alone time.

Until I look ahead and see my fellow passengers sitting in the Zodiac staring at a spit of land. They’ve been sitting perfectly still for at least a half-hour. Curious, of course, I quietly move toward them—and then I hear it, too: the howling of wolves in the wild. It’s haunting. And humbling.

Back at the boat, at second breakfast, the rest of the party is giddy: They actually saw the coastal wolf. A rare sighting, rarer than even the spirit bear. Brandon feels elated after a lifetime spent looking. Carol announces she sure got her money’s worth. Marc gives Captain Greg a big bear hug. And me? I feel like I missed out. I was impatient. I paddled away too soon.

But then I realize: Aren’t we always missing it? The wolves and the whales, the bears and the birds, all living their lives in the wilderness while—a world away—we live ours?

Tomorrow, I’ll say goodbye to the bears and Big Boss, to the sunsets and stars. .I’ll be heading back to laptops and Netflix, to traffic and take-out Thai food. I’ll leave the Maple Leaf bobbing by the dock and catch a ride to the tiny airport in Bella Bella. I’ll take a seat in the one-room terminal, and wait.

And wait. And wait. “Flight’s been delayed,” the man next to me will say. I will look around: at the unstaffed counter selling nothing but coffee. At the two fishermen chatting in their plastic chairs. At the little boy slumped beside his mom.

I will try my best to be in the moment, to be the wilderness sage I’ve become, and wait patiently for whatever’s next.

Which, unfortunately, will not be my plane. And then, like the typical 21st century human I still am, I’ll reach for my iPhone, and hope the Wifi works. I will want to send my family photos of Big Boss and the wrestling brothers and the nursing cubs—knowing full well that a picture won’t do them justice.

 

Getting Here

A trip to the Great Bear Rainforest aboard the Maple Leaf ($3,450 for 8 nights in spring, $5,250 for 7 nights in fall; mapleleafadventures.com) begins and disembarks in Bella Bella, BC, a short flight from Vancouver. The cost includes all meals, wine or beer, accommodations, gumboots, and guiding. Trips to see the spirit bears only take place in September and October, and they often sell out months in advance—so if you want to see one of the 100-or-so spirit bears on planet earth, and watch grizzlies munching on fish during the autumn salmon runs, best to lock in an autumn trip soon. Maple Leaf Adventures also runs a boat called the MV Swell, a gorgeous restored tugboat, and this season, has added a third boat to its fleet: the Cascadia, a luxury catamaran.

Rachel Levin is the author of LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds, published by Ten Speed this month.

Taking out the Trash? That’s Still a Man’s Job

On a recent Monday night in San Francisco, as I lounged in the living room watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” out of the corner of my eye I also watched my husband, Josh, march around our house as he does every Monday night, collecting pails and tying plastic bags.

Next, he dons his headlamp (which underscores: serious business), grabs his Leatherman and spends the next 15 minutes or so outside in the dark fending off raccoons and annihilating the latest crop of Amazon Primeboxes; cramming the week’s wine bottles and every last LaCroix can into the blue bin; dumping eggshells and avocado rinds and our kids’ abandoned crusts into the green compost bin; and bungee-ing the filled-to-the-brim black garbage bin. And then bu-bump-ing-bu-bump-ing the trio one by one, down the entryway to the curb. Eventually Josh returns, washes his hands, and joins me, cozy on the couch.

This is our weekly ritual. There’s no acknowledgment of the obvious inequity. No you-do-it-next-time admonishment. He accepts his role without a hint of bitterness. (In a way I do not when it comes to, say, driving car pool or coordinating play dates.) Every Monday around 9 p.m., I feel a tinge of guilt, except … not really.

Almost every woman I know who lives with a man shirks this chore. It’s as if all hard-won equality in the home is tossed on trash night. It may be the last bastion of accepted 1950s behavior. And in this case — and this case alone — women are fine with that.

As one friend pointed out: “Women deal with the rest of the garbage.”

For many, it’s the simple ick factor. “I don’t do trash juices,” said Gabriela Herman, 36, a photographer who lives with her husband and 17-month-old daughter in a brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Mr. Athimattathil, 40, grew up in Yonkers, where he said his father always took out the trash, until he passed the job down. “My sister and I would both be sitting on the couch watching TV,” he recalled. “And my dad would always say: ‘Noble, take out the garbage.’ Why not my sister? She had two arms and two legs!”

Nancy Casey, 41, a nurse practitioner in Portland, Ore., isn’t fazed by garbage. (“Eh, I’m up in vaginas all day.”) Still, it’s her husband’s job. “I do everything else,” Ms. Casey said.

Trash night in Portland is especially taxing, she said, because it occurs only once every other week. Moreover, the standard bin is half the size of the compost and recycling, which are picked up weekly. “It’s the liberal hippie thing. There must have been some kind of movement,” said Ms. Casey, who grew up in Chicago.

She added: “If we ever have extra space in our can it’s like Christmas! And we start running around the house looking for things to throw in.”

Rarely is “Who’s on Trash?” an actual discussion among couples. The division of labor just happens. But Deya Warren and her husband, Gus, likely talked about it, she said, if only because they were given a book before getting married called “The Hard Questions,” which offers discussion topics like: “Do we eat out a lot? Or a little?” “What kind of bed do we sleep on? A king size? A water bed?” (Water beds?)

“The whole idea was that you should talk about the little things because, over time, they inevitably become bigger things,” said Ms. Warren, a 39-year-old entrepreneur and mother of three in Bronxville, N.Y. “Trash beyond grosses me out. I know it’s a gender stereotype, but I don’t care. I’m the one with the drill! I’ve dismantled our broken dishwasher and put it back together! I’m confident enough in my defiance of traditional roles. Gus can take out the garbage.”

What about all the single ladies, that highly scrutinized cohort?

Sophie Galant, 24, a consultant, lives with female roommates in a San Francisco apartment and routinely passes the honor of trash duty to guy friends who come for dinner. “I always ask them to take it out on their way out,” she said. “It smells. And I don’t want it to drip on me.”

Laura Manzano, 26, who moved from her college dorm in Virginia to a three-unit building in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, has never dealt with the trash. “Anthony does it all,” she said matter-of-factly, referring to her superintendent. “We don’t even tip him. Maybe I should start?” (Yes.)

Elizabeth Hand, 41, a stay-at-home mother in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, long had a helpful neighbor. “This elderly Italian man named Augie who’d lived here forever,” she said. “He would just do it for us. I had no idea how much work it was, until he passed away. We miss him.”

Trash chutes in the hallways can make the task easier for apartment dwellers, though some still struggle. “Tom has a habit of taking the trash out from under the kitchen sink, tying the tall bag, then just leaving it on the floor, in the garbage can — but obviously unusable, now that it’s tied,” said Jenny Patt, a lawyer who lives in Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, referring to her partner. “As though that counts for something.”

When quarters are close, there are often heated battles over bins, on whose property they should reside, and who lugs them out each week.

In a recent thread on Nextdoor, the regional social network, a man in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn asked people to petition the city to change their collection time from morning rush hour to off-peak hours. This set off impassioned, paragraphs-long responses, including complaints over noise; comparisons to Europe; scorn at the offense of commuting by car; and the general sentiment that bags are more efficient than bins, and that the city’s metal trash cans of yore were barbaric.

(But are Manhattan’s Hefty mountains any better? Apparently people think so. Rats seem to like them as well.)

Recycling has added to the burden. “It’s insane how much cardboard we generate,” Ms. Herman said. “We get Amazon, like, daily. Fresh Direct, Blue Apron … We have a whole staging area! Sometimes, it’s stacked to the ceiling.” Some admit to such anxiety about box breakdown that they get packages sent to work.

Dawn Perry, 38, the food director at Real Simple magazine, is a self-proclaimed recycling Nazi. “I went to Boulder,” she said, referring to the eco-conscious college in Colorado. When Ms. Perry and her husband, Matt Duckor, moved to a garden apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, they started seeing some “crazy behavior in the trash bins,” she said. Like plastic where clearly only paper should be. (And don’t even get her started about the lack of curbside composting.)

“One day I semi-aggressively said to a neighbor: ‘Are you going to break that down?’” Ms. Perry said. Mr. Duckor furthermore printed (and laminated) diagramed recycling directions to post above the shared bins. He also mentioned a recent maggot issue. “All he had to say was ‘maggots,’” Ms. Perry said, “and people listened.”

Last year, Danielle Fennoy, 37, and her family moved from a 45-unit building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to a triplex in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It was the biggest wake-up call on the planet,” said Ms. Fennoy, the co-owner of Revamp Interior Design. “I thought: ‘Seriously? Now I’m the trash lady?’” An early riser, she would put out the bags before work, a method that avoided rodent, or human, invasion. “I’d be out there in my jammies, with my neighbors. That part was nice. The camaraderie. ‘Like, here we are … trash day, again.’”

Until one trash day, she had a revelation: “I woke up and said, ‘You know what? I’ve got enough on my plate.’” She told her husband to take over trash. “And he was, like, ‘O.K.’”

Lauren Gersick, 36, a college counselor in San Francisco who shares the chore with her wife, believes that garbage night’s gender divide isn’t so much about women eschewing heavy bins or leaky bags. It’s not about a fear of rats or raccoons, or some sort of contrarian feministic stance.

It’s about men’s desire to get out of the house, Ms. Gersick thinks; a sanctioned opportunity to step out, away from the children and the chaos, into the dark solitude of night.

“I know at least when I do it,” she said, “I’m like, ‘Bye! I’m going to do the trash.’”

The Great Schlep: Florida

WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER died in Delray Beach, a few weeks shy of age 97, I was sad, of course. And then, as we ushered the final shiva guests out the door and into the monogrammed golf carts they’d arrived in, I realized a silver lining: A Florida without Grandma Frances, as unfathomable as that was, was a Florida I no longer had to visit.

Schlepping to the Sunshine State to see your grandparents is as much a Jewish tradition as eating Chinese food on Christmas—one highlighted by Sarah Silverman during the 2008 presidential campaign in a YouTube video (aptly titled “The Great Schlep”), in which she urged us to go see our bubbes and zaydes, and convince them to vote for Obama.

East Coast Jews have been making the trip for close to a century now. So religiously upheld is the ritual that the flight routes between New York and Florida have garnered such nicknames as the Hebrew Highway, the Kosher Clipper and the Bagel Run.

Florida and Jews wasn’t always a thing. But after the “No Jews. No Blacks. No Dogs” signs came down in the 1940s and the A/C came on, the “chain migration” of snowbirds began. As seniors set south, they realized they liked palm trees and putting greens better than snow, and decided to stay. At least until spring.

Today, Southern Florida is home to the country’s third largest Jewish population (behind New York and L.A.), with hundreds of communities lining the multilane boulevards with the same lifestyle, if varying levels of luxury, behind every gate.

My Brooklyn-born grandparents, Frances and Samuel Rubin, found their slice of retiree heaven in 1972 at one of the first, the Fountains, in Lake Worth, a series of low-slung, stucco apartments set on three golf courses, with communal swimming pools, a clubhouse and cul-de-sacs boasting exotic-sounding names like D’Este, Trevi, Tivoli.

My sister and I grew up making an annual Bagel Run from Boston during winter break. As a kid, I loved everything about Florida: The sweltering days spent under chlorinated water, timing our handstands; the candy dishes; the clink of the mahjong tiles; all those wizened women and their perfectly painted toes.

Every night, as the sun dipped behind the 13th hole, we’d devour grandma’s “Swedish” meatballs. (“How many bawls do you want?” she’d call from the kitchen). We’d nurse our sunburns, watch “Wheel of Fortune,” then wake up excited to do it all again. If we ever left the Fountains, it was only for the Publix supermarket, where I’d bask in the Arctic chill and beg for Entenmann’s crumb cake.

In my 20s, when I started traveling to truly exotic places, I began to dread the obligatory Florida Trip. So much about the place suddenly made me cringe. The sterility. The homogeny. The canasta scene. And yet, lately, I admit: I’m beginning to get it. For many secular Jews, “Boca” is a bond. My Jewish generation may hate Florida, but we also love to hate Florida. Everyone loves to hate Florida! Political strategists. Larry David. Buzzfeed’s annual “32 Unbelievable Things that Happened in Florida” lists are always a viral hit.

But for us, it’s personal. Our roots run deep. When my Canadian officemate and I first met, in San Francisco, and realized we were both descendants of the Fountains’ D’Este court, we had an instant connection, an immediate understanding of where we came from, of who we were.

I like to think of Florida’s gated Jewish communities as the modern-day equivalent of our ancestors’ Eastern European villages. Maybe the gates themselves were erected not so much to keep others out, but to keep Jews in, as August Wilson might say. Together, in a world where we are otherwise spread thin.

My cousin Emily calls Florida “God’s Waiting Room.” At 44, she’s an aspiring resident. Not me. I prefer skiing to water aerobics, seasonally-driven restaurants to multistation buffets. Still, I admit: There’s a familiar rhythm to the gated community vacation I find comforting. In its Seinfeld-meets-Truman Show way, it’s a place where nothing really happens and nothing really changes. Until, of course, it does.

Last winter, my mother reminded me: I may no longer have to visit my grandmother—but my daughter still has to visit hers.

My parents swear they never saw it coming, but somehow they succumbed to Florida’s generational pull and became snowbirds, too. “This is it,” I informed my mother. “You’re the end of the line. My future grandchildren will never step foot in Florida,” I insisted, as we watched 7-year-old Hazel do her 27th handstand in the pool. My mom and I sat with our legs outstretched, our toes painted the same exact shade.

LOOK BIG

Available at your local bookstore, online at Amazon  + Green Apple
Follow on Instagram @lookbigbook

“LOOK BIG is the definitive guide for anyone who has ever wondered what to do in an animal encounter. With equal parts humor and sound advice, Rachel Levin provides all the info you need to defuse a major critter crisis. Just don’t run. Unless it’s an alligator.” —Chris Keyes, editor of Outside magazine

“Ms. Levin has mastered the art of describing animals and their behavior in archly urban ways. . . a nifty idea carried out with humor and a deft touch.” —Wall Street Journal

“Hilarious but genuinely helpful” The Best Books from 2018 for Every Kind of Reader, Buzzfeed

“Finally, a book that answers the questions every outdoor-loving North American urbanite asks: What is it that I do again if I encounter a mountain lion while hiking? And are you supposed to run if you stumble upon a moose or hold your ground? Rachel Levin’s light-hearted read combines funny stories about wildlife encounters with facts and knowledgeable tips on what to do if you find yourself faced with any one of 50 North American creatures, from alligators to bed bugs. You’ll be ready to walk on the wild side in no time.” — 10 Books to Travel with this Summer, AFAR

“This book both amused and empowered me. I’m now prepared to haze a goose or do hand-to-hand combat with a cougar. . .  whatever it takes.”  — Jon Mooallem, author of The Wild Ones

“Journalist Levin gives well-researched advice for surviving run-ins with coyotes, bears, and moose, among other large animals, along with helpful tips, anecdotes, and charts for dealing with smaller critters, from bees to skunks. The illustrations make it the perfect coffee table book, while its small size means it also fits nicely in a backpack.” —Real Simple

“Levin takes a fun-filled, practical approach to dealing with all kinds of critters. . . Beyond being a simple and speedy reference book, the gorgeous and often humorous illustrations from Jeff Östberg make this fun to flip through, too. . . You’ll likely find yourself spending more time than you expected learning how to look big.” —Mother Nature Network

“Rachel Levin is a heck of a writer … ” —Hunting Life  

LOOK BIG is a humorous and helpful illustrated field guide that explains what to do in the face of fifty of our most feared— or frustrating—animals.

As humans encroach on wild places, encounters with animals—from bears, bison, mountain lions, and mice to turkeys, ticks, rats, and raccoons—have become increasingly commonplace. But wait, what are the rules for facing a moose up close? Do you run from a coyote or stand your ground? How deadly, really, are black widow spiders, rattlesnakes, and sharks?

Packed with expert tips, fascinating facts, and not-so-harrowing true tales (from writers like Peter Orner and Samin Nosrat), LOOK BIG is a must-have survival guide for urban, suburban, and outdoor adventurers alike. If you have ever feared the approach of a grizzly, the spray of a skunk, or an army of cockroaches in the kitchen, this book is for you.

Happy Hour Without the Booze

On a recent rainy afternoon over veggie burgers at NeueHouse, the co-working space in the Flatiron district, three Vedic meditators were discussing drink options for a new kind of happy hour they were organizing.

“Tonight would be a good night for tea,” Katia Tallarico, 33, a lanky psychotherapist from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said to Light Watkins, 42, an organizer from Los Angeles typically partial to a hot lemon-ginger elixir.

“It’s O.K., we have a really great water, from Australia,” said Andrea Praet, 34, a trend strategist from Greenpoint, who also runs an urban retreat series, with Ms. Tallarico, called the Uplift Project. Around 5 p.m., the three made their way over to set up a “bar” and buffet at General Assembly, a fourth-floor technology school and site of New York City’s inaugural Shine: an inspirational, alcohol-free evening.

Founded by Mr. Watkins, the bimonthly after-work party began in Venice Beach, Calif., where it quickly grew to 200 attendees from 12. On this night, for about the price of a glass of nebbiolo at the NoMad, 90 New Yorkers were submitting to an evening of meditation, “enlightertainment” (including live music and film) and vegan food. “Though meat is an option,” Mr. Watkins said. “We want to be normal.”

And “normal” in Manhattan typically involves booze. “Alcohol is such a part of the city’s culture,” said Ms. Tallarico, who drinks occasionally but said her social life doesn’t revolve around it. “There’s nothing wrong with drinking. But people are looking to evolve. They’re looking to wake up.”

Though malbec has arrived at the movies, and brunch cocktails now go way beyond Bloody Marys, some are seeking social gatherings where alcohol isn’t even a temptation.

A recent 50-person “juice crawl” through SoHo was so enthusiastically received that the organizer, Anna Garcia, said she would be hosting them weekly this year. The year-old Manhattan-based social group Clean Fun Network was so overwhelmed by the initial response, it had to temporarily shut down, said Jimmy Hamm, a founder.

And tickets to the Shine sold out within a week, with a lengthy wait list. “We didn’t even do anything,” said Ms. Tallarico, who donned a shimmery top for the occasion. “It is the Shine,” said Ms. Tallarico, putting on lip gloss. Ms. Praet, who pumped her shoulders to a silent beat as volunteers unloaded bottles of floral essence water, said, “Fun, fun, fun.” Ambience, though, was a bit of a concern. “The light is definitely too bright,” said Light.

That’s the thing about alcohol-free events — they tend to be “unsexy,” said Catherine Salway, owner of Redemption, a new “bar” in London’s Notting Hill that opened last August, serving beet-o-tinis, coco-ritas and the like.

“A lot can be done with décor and music,” Ms. Salway said. “It’s not alcohol creating that vibe, it’s the people.” She opened a second location this month in the trendy Shoreditch neighborhood. A former brand director for Virgin, Ms. Salway is also eying New York and (brace yourself) Las Vegas. “If we can convince Londoners to take a night off booze. …” she said, trailing off.

Back above Broadway, doors opened to a disproportionate number of tall, willowy women with flawless skin and a blasé, “I-just-have-more-fun-without-it” attitude toward alcohol. At the name-tag table, everyone was asked an icebreaker: “What actor would you cast to play you in a movie?” Elle Fanning. Kate Hudson. Several Natalie Portmans. A man in a blazer scanned his phone, stumped. “You know, in ‘Sex & the City 2’? When they’re in Dubai? That butler?” asked Siddhartha Banthiya, an investment banker.

People lined up for sunchoke salad and kale-pumpkin-seed pesto. “This is truly a breath of fresh air,” said Porl Gordon, a multimedia designer and regular drinker, guzzling a green juice. “Conversations are more solid and rooted than any alcohol-fueled chat.”

Nick DiMattina, 28, an Australian life coach, said that he had come looking for love, and that he prefers to date sans alcohol. “It’s the only way to see the real person,” he said. “I told my friends, this is where you’ll meet a cool girl.”

Likewise, Jennifer Ekeleme, 37, a freelance brand strategist, thought she had decent odds of meeting “a straight, down-to-earth, culturally aware man” — at least better than during her drinking days at an ad agency. “Booze was always flowing, people would just get hammered and start talking about how unhappy they are,” she said. “It was getting too hard to justify the toll alcohol was taking on my body, wallet and spirit.”

At the Shine, though, people were all smiles. “This is the only real happyhour happening in Manhattan right now,” said Mr. Watkins, kicking things off with a human massage chain. Next, Emily Fletcher, a meditation guide, took the mike and commanded people to close their eyes and plug their right nostril with their thumb, exhale with the left, then alternate.

Meditation Bar in Austin, Tex., offers “Happy Hour” classes, and MNDFL, which opened in November on East Eighth Street, has quickly morphed into more than a place to just sit in silence. “We dedicated half the space to feel like a living room, with couches and free tea,” said Lodro Rinzler, MNDFL’s co-owner and author of “The Buddha Walks Into a Bar. …” “We have real mugs,” said his partner, Ellie Burrows. They also host MNDFL Taste, a partly silent organic catered dinner, paired with water.

“Today, we had training that ended with a happy hour, but I didn’t go,” said Stephanie DiSturco, 26, a digital media planner who chose to go to MNDFL instead. At the Shine, as people sipped water, some vowed to start meditating more, others exchanged business cards. A 40-something woman who works in finance, was glad to have a new kind of night out.

“Rarely, do I ever come home from a bar and say, ‘That was really amazing,’” she said.

 

Advice to Serena Williams on Raising a Kid in San Francisco

Dearest Serena,

Congratulations! You’re pregnant (due in late August). We’re so excited for you. And for us—it’s been a while since we’ve had a non-tech celebrity in town, and with a baby to boot!

Rumor has it that you and Alexis [Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit] are putting down roots and raising your future Wimbledon champ in San Francisco. You have been spending an awful lot of time here lately,crashing a tennis game in Dolores Park, chasing down a phone thief at Mission Chinese, joining the board of SurveyMonkey. You even recently admitted you’ve been “craving tacos”—tweeted like a true local!

Before you officially move in full-time (fingers crossed), there are some things you should know about what it means to raise a kid in S.F. For starters, there are the hills and the kid-unfriendly restaurants and the absolute dearth of teenage babysitters (they’re all too busy mastering Mandarin or plotting Stanford acceptance strategies to wipe your baby’s ass). And there’s the side-eye you’ll get for breastfeeding in public, even though if you don’t do it, you’re a criminal.

You’ll figure all that out, no doubt. But since you’re so busy, I’d like to let you in on some facts of parental life in San Francisco:

• It’s just a fact that before your child learns to tie his or her (we’ll go with her) own laces, she will spy, with her little eye, wrinkly penises and silver spray-painted penises and double-XL penises poking through black leather straps.

• She will see hypodermic needles in the sand and human poop in the park and encampments that she says look like the forts she makes in the living room. Except they are not like the forts she makes in the living room.

• She will not be assigned to a public school you like, but to one you vehemently don’t like on the opposite side of town. (This may not be an issue.)

• She will never learn to swim, unless you commit to attending a 30-minute swim class at noon every Saturday for three years.

• Her first word will be doggie, and she’ll use it every time she sees that dude who hangs out across from the Haight Street Whole Foods yelling at his two pit bulls.

• On her way to her $30,000-a-year kindergarten, her little feet will step around a woman sleeping on the sidewalk. And she will ask you: Why is that woman sleeping on the sidewalk? And you will respond: Because she doesn’t have a home. And your daughter will ask: Why doesn’t she have a home? And you will say: Because some people can’t afford a home. And your daughter will ask: Can she live with us? And you will say: No.

• She will correct your composting and yell, “Jackson says that’s poison!” every time you pass McDonald’s.

• She will understand how two women make a baby.

• She will specifically request sashimi, not nigiri; shabu-shabu, not soup dumplings.

• Before naptime, she will play at a playground with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and clamber over Andy Golds­worthy art in a national park.

• She will live in a blissfully foggy bubble, and you will worry, with friends over a bottle of Soave brut at the new champagne bar in Hayes Valley, that maybe she should live among people with varying viewpoints on topics like guns and Trump and climate change, but then you will remember that you don’t want her to live among those people.

• On Halloween, she will dress up as something super clever, like a little old lady fighting eviction, and she will think trick-or-treating means scrambling for candy as it’s shot from a homebuilt cannon above a garage that has been transformed by Burning Man veterans into an old-time saloon serving artisanal whiskey so parents can have fun, too.

• On April 20, while watching a never-ending stream of people entering Golden Gate Park from her car seat, she will tell you, “It smells like a skunk,” and she will explain that it’s because it’s Mary Janna Day, a holiday where people burn leaves.

• On her birthday, you will suggest a picnic at the park, but she will ask for a party at Pump It Up or House of Air, also known as Hells on Earth, where all the other parents have their kids’ parties—except for those parents who transform their Calistoga compounds into Moana movie sets, complete with virgin mai tais, handmade grass skirts, and a performance by Auli‘i Cravalho herself, just because they met her the other weekend in Hawaii and thought it would be fun.

• And on every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she will carry a handmade sign that says “Always Share” and “Be Kind to Everyone,” and she’ll march around the block singing “This Little Light of Mine” with her classmates of all colors as bystanders wave and Muni drivers honk and shopkeepers smile. Because peace and love and equality is what her preschool—like San Francisco itself—preaches. It’s a really great school. If you can get in.

I think you have a good shot.

Love,
Rachel

P.S. All my friends have moved since they’ve had kids. Can we hang out?

Robin

 It felt, at first, a little bit like flying first class. In part, because of our seats: comfy, caramel-colored leather cushions that would fit right in on row 2A. Then came the hot towels, followed by the soothing voice of our server inquiring whether we’d like something to drink.

Yes, please. The tightly curated beer list, minus the standard Sapporo, was calling. Then again, so was the sake. I started with the “72 Clocks” Daiginjo, which refers to the time it takes the Hiroshima-based brewery to polish the rice. It came in an earthy, mini-ceramic pitcher that emptied far too fast for $19, accompanied by a feather-light glass as delicate and clean as the sake itself.

Robin’s omakase-only menu bridges Japan and California as smoothly as an A380 Dreamliner, but otherwise any similarities to the in-flight experience ended as soon as the first dish (of at least a dozen) landed on the table. Airplane food this is not.

It’s the kind of sushi experience San Francisco has long lacked: one that’s neither austere nor Ace Wasabi. Where going out for serious fish doesn’t have to mean a boring menu, bright lights, and brisk service and an unpretentious, dimly lit, sexy scene doesn’t have to mean sake bombs and monster-sized, cream cheese-stuffed maki rolls named after aging rock stars.

Now my perfect sushi night — the perfect sushi night — can mean Robin.

It also means spendy. Robin charges $79 dollars (and up) per person for 15 or so pieces. Tack on an additional sea urchin dish — or five — and suddenly your tab goes from a $200 treat to an oops-we-just-spent $500 event.

But compared to other top omakase spots in the city, the procession of dishes is a solid value, especially when it includes a velvety A5 Wagyu, gently seared, and streaked with Half Moon Bay-cultivated wasabi (that’s been grated on shark skin, by the way), then showered with frozen foie gras “snow.” As well as a bowl of hand-pulled chilled sesame noodles blanketed with Australian black truffles. And uni. Lots of uni. Premium stuff, plucked off coasts everywhere, from Santa Barbara to Baja to Chile, to yes, Hokkaido.

Plus, it’s cheaper than therapy, which is also what my two tableside evenings at Robin brought to mind. In his calm, caring way, our sushi server felt more like our sushi therapist. He leaned in, stared into our eyes, and asked the hard questions: Do we prefer fatty and rich? Or lean and clean? What don’t we like? How do we feel about raw meat? And above all: Are we even uni fans?

I am. My friend was not. “Oh, Adam converts people,” he warned. (Not her: even the creamy, dreamy uni-topped wagyu tartare on a crisp, toasted nori chip with Asian pear, failed to win her affection.)

Adam, as in Adam Tortosa, Robin’s chef-owner who cut his toro in LA under Katsuya Uechi. (And keeps a framed, signed letter from him in the loo to let you know.) He spent the last two years honing his skills at Akiko (which is now my second favorite sushi place).

Robin’s sushi bar — a wide, beautiful slab of slate set just above the wood bar, so diners can watch the four-man team slicing and molding, tweezing and torching — is unlike most sushi bars of its kind. Most obviously because it’s run by a white guy.

One who looks like a younger, blonder Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer. And who has the utmost respect for Japanese tradition. He just isn’t wedded to it, as evidenced by his ingredients on display: hunks of fresh peaches; purees of Granny Smith apples; a tray of house-made potato chips; plastic containers of tomato confit and charred salsas; a lab-like line-up of squeeze bottles filled with ponzu and aged soy alongside heretical horseradish-based sauces. (“Why don’t sushi chefs use horseradish?” he pondered aloud. “It’s like America’s wasabi and no one touches it!”)

Also baffling to Tortosa: sushi chefs’ reliance on fish from Japan. “I don’t know why people don’t use the fish off our coast,” he said, slicing us the buttery-smooth belly of an albacore caught this morning on its way up to Canada. “I mean, it’s right fucking here!”

He laid a sliver of local fig across a steelhead from a sustainable trout farm up in Lassen. He spooned a serving of smoked white sturgeon caviar from Sacramento onto a ramp aioli-dipped house-made potato chip. He painted a fat, creamy slab of uni, from Fort Bragg, with a sticky-sweet, sunny-yellow shiro dashi-emulsified egg yolk that, together, tasted like I’d just dove into the ocean on a hot summer day. I wanted to do it again.

And on a beautiful Matsukawa starry flounder from Japan, he placed a pinch of grapefruit and a single shred of opal basil. Somehow, its slight spice belonged — with the mild, firm fish, and the tart citrus, and the sweet ponzu — as if basil has been a sushi staple for centuries.

The unlikely herb was at home atop a New Zealand king salmon, too, which was almost as red as its sweet tomato confit and layered with a silky whipped tofu.

In a way that’s not tacky or tasteless but subtle and seamless — and respectful of his painstakingly sourced product — Tortosa manages to combine improbable flavors and textures to make each nigiri something more than just a piece of fish.

Every dish was a work of art, worthy of the ceramic vessel it was served in. Each piece is handmade in Richmond by Jered’s Pottery (aka the new Heath). Apart from the pinch-pot chopstick rests that looked like my kids could’ve made them, it was impressive to see how much effort went into matching tableware to ocean fare.

A smooth bone-colored bowl was ringed in the same soft yellow hue as the diced galia melon with magochi sashimi, its delicate flavor enlivened by thin slices of Serrano. I especially loved the smooth, palm-sized bath my ‘onsen Jidori egg’ came in. A single egg cooked sous vide to a pudding-like consistency when swirled, popping with trout roe and chives and floating alongside meaty strips of maitake in a rich, dashi-soy broth. We slurped the broth, somewhat awkwardly, with wooden spoons that were a little too deep, like shrunken versions of the ladles worshippers use to wash their hands before entering a Shinto shrine.

Really, the only let downs came toward the end of each night. Once, I opted to finish with an albacore and grilled onion hand roll. It wilted into something resembling a flattened tube of tuna toothpaste and became chewy to the point of almost choky. I tried to “eat it before the nori melts,” like our sushi therapist advised, but apparently I couldn’t eat that quickly.

So the next time, I went for a real dessert, the only dessert: soft serve. (I love soft serve. But enough already, San Francisco!) Even if it was made with sake lees from Bayview and scattered with pistachios and blueberries, it was bland. Plus, I’d rather drink my sake.

Oh, and then there was the bill. Also not a highlight, as it was high, especially for a mellow Monday night. But, like a first class ticket on a transpacific flight, if you’ve got the money . . . it’s most definitely worth the splurge.

 

City Counter

I will do breakfast, dinner, after-work drinks with anyone, anytime. But that whole “Wanna grab some lunch?” thing? Eh, no thanks. Like most office types these days, I prefer to grab and go. And eat solo — #SadDeskLunch style.

No offense. It’s not you. It’s just… lunch, the least fun meal of the workday. It’s hard to have a good time with meetings and deadlines looming. Moreover, the standard downtown fare is rarely worth the time it takes to eat it anyway. A three-hour, three-martini outing would be a blast, but who really does that on a regular basis anymore?

I’m not alone in my anti-lunch sentiments: Americans ate 433 million fewer midday meals out last year; 2016 was the lowest lunch traffic in four decades according to market research firm NPD.

Delivery is up, and company cafeterias are taking over. Still, the “meet-me-at-Mixt-at-noon” monotony was clearly in need of a makeover.

Enter City Counter, which opened in May in the old Standard Oil building, in San Francisco’s Financial District. By bringing contemporary (organic, local, sustainable) ingredients to the classic lunch-counter model, first-time restaurateur Harper Matheson hopes to revive a dying tradition: the lunch date.

City Counter’s tagline, “Quality Luncheonette” — scrawled on every plate in an evocative cursive — rings true. The cozy, old-school feelings it purports to conjure up, though, not so much.

Matheson wrote on her Kickstarter page: “I don’t want to just serve you a delicious, satisfying sandwich. I want to make you feel the way I did when my mom took me to lunch after we got my prom dress in Union Square.”

Hmm. Admirable, except the vibe feels more like “I just got an iPhone.” All white, from the tile to the 30 stools lining the 40-foot-long counter to the two-tops set against a wall of windows, City Counter looks more 2017 Apple Genius Bar than 1940s Woolworth’s lunch counter — mixed with 1980s bat mitzvah DJ. “We Are Family” and “Got to Be Real” blare overhead at a decibel level that’s a little too much for lunch. Then again, maybe Matheson is just trying to up the “fun”?

She’s done a bit of a better job upping the food, giving the sandwich the love and attention that, oddly enough, very few downtown lunch spots — other than Dennis Leary’s take-out window, the Sentinel — do.

Consulting chef Sean Thomas, of Blue Plate, came up with nine sandwiches that defy the typical grilled turkey-and-cheese scenario. All are made-to-order yet magically served within minutes (key for any successful lunch spot).

And some are noticeably better than others. Like the Mezzogiorno: a fatty, fabulous hot mess of pistachio-studded mortadella, roasted pork loin and belly, smoked mozzarella, and hot cherry peppers on toasted Acme white bread. The tuna melt, closed-faced on toasted sourdough, with red onion, pickled celery, and a gooey, delicious three-cheese fondue, reminds me that tuna melts, when done right, deserve some respect.

The roast beef is stuffed with slow-cooked tri-tip, on the rare side and sliced thin, with spicy pickled carrots and red peppers on a roll smeared with garlic aioli and a house-made pimento cheese spread that I was happy to see again, as a $1 addition to the deviled egg salad sandwich.

You’ve got to be a real deviled egg lover to love that one. As just a deviled egg liker, I was overwhelmed by what seemed like a carton’s worth crammed between two slices of soft, unapologetic white bread. I was lured by the promise of “crushed salt & vinegar chips” inside the sandwich. A brilliant idea, but unfortunately, there was barely any crunch.

I’m also a beet hater. Blasphemy, I know. But from across the table (the only table in the long narrow space, by the way, that fits a trio and comes with chairs), I could appreciate the beauty of the Reubenesque: smoked red and golden beets pressed between thick slabs of perfectly toasted rye, with pickled cabbage and sharp cheddar that oozed like strawberry swirl. I tried one bite and it tasted like… beets, as beets do; my friend devoured the rest. He declared the beets to be a little too flimsy. I declared I wish City Counter had a real Reuben. Or at least a patty melt.

It would no doubt be better than the Counter Club, which was too bready and bulky to determine if there was indeed anything counter about it.

The salads, however, were crisp and creative. Despite the fact that they were so overdressed they’d make a Chez Panisse chef shiver, they beat any I’ve ever brought back to my office. The fresh peas and dried raspberries in the chopped spring pea were drowning in an otherwise tangy masala yogurt dressing. Purple and orange carrots, just pulled from the ground, were almost unidentifiable due to an abundance of a kaffir lime tahini in the roasted carrot. And the crispy chickpea and tuna: chunks of fresh tuna, cherry tomatoes, and (addictive) garlic peanuts came in a pool of Thousand Island dressing so deep, even my grandfather — who ate it by the bowl — would’ve disapproved.

But everyone’s grandmother — as well as non-gluttons of all ages — will applaud the aptly named Grammy Sammy: a single piece of white bread, spread with “counter sauce” (a mild garlic-Worcestershire aioli) and folded over a slice of mortadella and smoked cheddar. The menu states the Grammy Sammy “changes daily,” but it’s been the same since they opened, the smiley woman behind the iPad said.

No matter. It’s simple and sustaining and half the price of a latte at Blue Bottle next door. A decent $3 sandwich is a welcome addition to downtown San Francisco.

As is City Counter itself. It’s neither a power lunch nor a pathetic lunch, but a proper lunch. One worth occasionally ditching your desk to sit and eat, elbow-to-elbow, at a counter crowded with compatriots — perhaps even sip a root beer float — like people used to.

Walzwerk

As the first San Francisco restaurant critic for Eater, I published reviews every other week. 

Restaurants aren’t entirely unlike people. Each one is unique, striving to forge its own identity, place, and purpose in a crowded city. Some you grow close to; others you eventually drift away from. And when, like an old friend, a restaurant falls off your radar, years later you might reflect, fondly or otherwise, and wonder what’s become of it.

That’s what happened with me and Walzwerk. Last time I was there, in the early aughts, I’d had a fight with my boyfriend and then never went back; something to do with birthdays and bad habits and too much beer. Because at Walzwerk, which pours only Germany’s best, it’s easy to drink too much beer.

Tucked among tire stores and auto-repair shops on an otherwise desolate stretch of South Van Ness Avenue, Walzwerk isn’t the kind of restaurant that gets much foot traffic. Or online traffic. (A San Francisco restaurant without its own Instagram page? Heresy!) In fact, after 18 years, Walzwerk doesn’t get much attention at all.

Which is why it’s the kind of restaurant you might easily forget about. Until one day, for no reason whatsoever, you’re waiting for Muni and suddenly think: Hey, whatever happened to Walzwerk?

Fueled more by nostalgia than a hankering for herring, I decided to find out.

Honestly, I’d assumed the place had closed, like most out-of-sight, out-of-mind midlist restaurants you never hear of anyone going to anymore. But a quick peek at Yelp revealed it was “Open now.” I rang to see about availability for that night, a Thursday, and heard something rarely uttered by a reservationist in this town: “Just come in anytime,” said a woman with a thick German accent. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

True enough, around 6:30 p.m., as I pulled open the heavy wooden door — marked with a multilingual metal sign that read, “You are now leaving the American Sector” — Walzwerk was indeed empty, save for two dudes with steins of Köstritzer Schwarzbier and plates heaped with enough food for Thanksgiving.

Like the time warp Walzwerk aims to be, it looked just like I remembered: a scattering of sturdy, mismatched tables straight out of a 1950s accountant’s office; vintage cushioned metal chairs, some still scrawled with black Sharpie on their backs; framed albums of 1970s German disco stars; and life-size black-and-white posters of Lenin and Marx presiding over the dining room.

Plus, a hodgepodge of vintage tableware pillaged from flea markets over the years by owner Christiane Schmidt, who opened Walzwerk in 1999 with the goal of bringing a true East German restaurant to the Bavarian-heavy Bay Area. “This is one of my favorite plates,” said the smiley, bespectacled expat of a delicate floral pattern as she set down two irresistible appetizers: silky house-cured salmon with horseradish cream and dense “fitness bread” and a trio of lightly crisped potato pancakes with applesauce and chive sour cream. Then there was that herring, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise — pickled matjes in a sweet, lively sauce of sour cream, apples, and onions on a bed of butter lettuce.

As the sunlight that had been streaming in through the front windows began to fade, Christiane came around to light the little candle on every table. And more people began to pile in. These people, you could tell, had been here before: a motley crew of a dozen or so bound for the private room in back; a cute couple who beelined to the tiny, four-stool bar; graying parents who sat sipping their chilled German wine while they waited for their son and his girlfriend to arrive.

Rare is the San Franciscan who’d opt to eat heavy German food every week, let alone every month, which makes choosing among entrees especially hard. Pork schnitzel? Smoked pork chop? Bacon-stuffed tri-tip? Really, at Walzwerk, you can’t go wrong. Especially if you go with the jägerschnitzel, an unbreaded pork schnitzel on a bed of spätzle, topped in a rich mushroom cream sauce reminiscent of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup in the very best way. It’s been on the menu since day one, Christiane said with due pride, and has remained the most frequently ordered dish ever since.

The schnitzel — be it pork loin or chicken breast — is pretty much perfect. Pounded thin and coated thoroughly with breadcrumbs, it’s fried without tasting greasy and comes with buttery-smooth mashed potatoes — or boiled if you prefer — and a delicate cucumber salad that’s a refreshing counter to the schnitzel’s heft.

The grilled bratwurst, made with veal and pork, might be the best bratwurst in town. It’s so well seasoned and flavorful that it barely needed the accompanying spicy mustard and house-made sauerkraut, both of which (note to Walzwerk) were so good, they should be bottled.

Only the sauerbraten sounded better than it was: fat slices of beef marinated in a thick, sweet sauce strewn with golden raisins and paired with a duo of matzo-ball-sized mushroom bread dumplings that were dry and disappointing. The red cabbage it came with, however, had a subtle spice and was so delightful, we ordered an extra side. Same with the spätzle, light and eggy, gently browned little lumps that deserved an unadulterated bowl of its own.

There are a handful of other German spots in San Francisco, more popular German spots where every night is Oktoberfest, complete with groups guzzling from Das Boot. But if Suppenküche is a big, boisterous party at a Wirtshaus in Munich, Walzwerk is an intimate dinner party at the home of your best friend’s friend in Berlin.

An evening at Walzwerk truly is transportive, as the sign on its front door warns. “Leaving the American sector,” if only for a supper, is especially appealing these days. Leaving the current San Francisco sector occasionally is too. Walzwerk represents a return to a simpler time. A time before the ubiquity of Tolix stools and $16 cocktails and OpenTable (if you do want to make a reservation at Walzwerk, you’ve got to — gasp — call.) A time when I could drink too much Schneider Weisse and feel totally fine the next day.

As for the old boyfriend I last came here with, that relationship eventually died. As most restaurants do. Not Walzwerk. Walzwerk, I’m pleased to report, is very much alive.

 

A Mano

It’s a quiet Tuesday night in Hayes Valley, the kind of blustery, cold, blah Tuesday night when you’d expect people to stay in and order pho from Caviar or cook up their latest Sun Basket creation. There’s nothing going on at the nearby Nourse Theater, no symphony performing at Davies, no pricey shoe boutiques still open. There’s no reason, really, for anyone to be out and about. And strolling by old-timer Cafe Delle Stelle (plugging free bottles of wine with bills over $60) and newcomer Nightbird, it looks as if, indeed, they’re not. Apparently no one is in the mood for a heady $125 five-course tasting menu.

But round the corner to A Mano, and suddenly: crowds, Saturday-night-level crowds, visible through a wall of glass as squeaky clean as the spanking-new condos above. There are people seated at every one of the 90 seats; people crammed into the sliver of a bar sipping Negronis; people spilling onto the sidewalk as a perky host quotes hour-long waits.

Everyone, it seems, is in the mood for a $14 bowl of rigatoni.

A Mano (Italian for “by hand”) opened in early May with the goal of bringing affordable handmade pasta to a city where mint tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms has tipped toward $22. It aims to be the everylady’s Locanda. Or Cotogna. Or Tosca. Or La Ciccia… The list of San Francisco’s rustic Italian treasures goes on.

A Mano is the latest “concept from prolific restaurateur Adriano Paganini. And it’s a smart concept, if not an entirely new one. Pasta Pomodoro ring a bell? That was Paganini’s idea, too, back in 1994. At its peak, the chain had 40-something outposts, mostly throughout California, the last of which, under new ownership, closed last year. No big loss. It was a cheap, easy place to eat something edible and Italiany. It had no scene and it wasn’t supposed to.

But ever since, Paganini has been all about scene, or perhaps the proper word is packaging. In 2008, he turned his attention to pizza and figured out that if he enhanced the ambience and added exceptional cocktails — in a killer location — he’d be onto something. And he was: Beretta, on a sunny corner of Valencia Street, was an insta-hit, further popularizing the blistered crust-broccolini contorni trend that was already well underway.

Starbelly (Castro) and Delarosa (Marina) followed. He then wisely branched out to burgers, hawking humanely raised hamburgers for a reasonable $7.75 at Super Duper, which has 10 locations and counting around the Bay. And now — after adding a Belgian brasserie, tacos, and an Argentine steakhouse to his quiver — the Milan-born restaurateur has gone back to his roots: pasta.

The funny thing is, though, as I slid onto my stool, squeezing into the tightly packed communal table, my first thought was: This place reminds me of Pomodoro, just with sleeker digs and duck-liver mousse. And that was before I’d realized Paganini had anything to do with it.

 Aesthetically, it’s much cooler than that. The space is airy and oversized, with those floor-to-ceiling glass windows fronting the sidewalk, presumably chosen so passersby can peer in and see how much fun the hipsters are having.

Which they are. Filled with awkward first dates and rowdy tables of eight, everyone chatting, laughing, eating affordable food — which flies out of the open kitchen at a fairly rapid clip — A Mano feels like an adult cafeteria with cocktails. Call it arestauteriaa growing breed of eatery where essentially everything costs $16 or less; the kind of place that boasts all the accoutrements of a beloved San Francisco restaurant — but somehow lacks the soul of one.

There’s a muted red-white-and-green theme going on (Italy and all); bottles of Aperol and Campari lining the bar like artwork; track lighting (which they fiddled with throughout each night to get it right); and an especially warm, well-trained staff. Still, emotionally… A Mano feels kind of cold.

And, unfortunately, so did my pasta.

Not cold cold, in which case I would’ve just sent it back. More lukewarm, with pockets of varying temperatures, like a lake in summer. The problem, perhaps symptomatic of a slammed kitchen still finding its rhythm, plagued not just one pasta, but almost every pasta I had. (The agnolotti dal plin — rich, buttery pillows of pork, roast chicken, and chard — came out piping hot.)

The cauliflower bagna cauda was my favorite antipasti, roasted with garlic, lemon, torpedo onions, and chiles. The Monterey squid, too, which came in a tomato-rich stew of chickpeas and romanesco one night, summer corn another. Both were good, albeit not as good as similar iterations elsewhere.

There’s always a nightly special, like the Tuscan fried chicken with braised black kale, which was crisp and juicy and, at $20, the most expensive item on the menu. (If you really want to splurge, there’s a $95 bottle of brunello.)

The pizza at A Mano is not the focus. (Nor, after trying one topped with asparagus, green garlic, and anchovy, did it seem to me that it should be: the crust was doughy, and the asparagus mushy.) Which is why there are only two or three pizzas per night. And perhaps why, mysteriously, one evening around 7:30 p.m., we watched a delivery guy from Patxi’s, holding a box high above his head, work his way through the throngs to someone in the back.

The focus here, per Paganini’s plan, is on pasta. It’s handmade daily with durum, a finer ground semolina flour, under chef Freedom Rains, who cooked at Flour & Water and Incanto before heading the kitchen at Belga. He does seven generously portioned pastas nightly. They change frequently and always with the seasons.

Over three separate nights, I tried almost all of them. That agnolotti was the best of the bunch and probably what I’d order if I ever went back. (And I would, if I wanted more of a scene than, say, Souvla, before seeing Pop-Up Magazine or City Arts & Lecture.)

The spaghettini, tossed with clams and breadcrumbs, was firm, if dry, but flavorful enough to not render it a total mis-order. But while the pesto tagliatelle with pine nuts, fava beans, and English peas screamed spring — and was clearly made with fresh ingredients — the pasta itself tasted mealy. And the pesto was bland, as if Rains was told to play it safe.

Only the campanelle with broccoli di ciccio, a sweet heirloom broccoli, had any kick — and that’s because it was scattered with chile flakes. I actually witnessed more than one table request a side of chile flakes for their pastas mid-meal.

It’s what my rigatoni pork sugo needed, too. Like the others, it arrived sort of warm. While hearty, with hunks of braised meat, it lacked the depth and richness of a truly memorable sugo.

Therein lies the problem with a place like A Mano — there’s just too much in this town to compare it to. With every bite of my bucatini all’Amatriciana, I kept hoping it would become more like Locanda’s. (It didn’t.)

Paganini was quoted last year talking about what drives a successful company. “Why does someone open up one little retail store and somebody else becomes the Gap?” he said. Replace Old Navy with Super Duper and Belga with Banana and, hmm, maybe the Gap with A Mano, and Paganini has, in fact, built the edible version of the fashion empire —one that aims to please everyone without wowing anyone.

A Mano’s not going to win San Francisco’s heart, but when the bill comes around, suddenly a so-so sugo becomes a little easier to stomach.

Pret’s Most Regular Regular: Wylie Dufresne

The deli menu at the Gramercy Food Market, a 24-hour bodega at the corner of East 22nd Street and Second Avenue, offers half a dozen grilled chicken sandwiches named for men of a certain stature: There’s the Al Pacino (with spicy dressing), the Larry King (with Russian dressing) and the John Lennon (with chipotle sauce). Each comes with a free bag of Lay’s and a Pepsi. But Wylie Dufresne doesn’t do lunch here. Only breakfast. And only before 11 a.m. (to avoid the $1 late-breakfast fee). And so frequently that the guy behind the counter knows his order: one egg on a roll ($2). Except Dufresne takes two eggs (for an extra 50 cents). “It’s a classic New York egg-and-cheese — the best,” says the chef, who lives nearby. “There are so many bad ones. It’s so satisfying when it’s done right.”

Dufresne takes the foil-wrapped sandwich with him down 23rd Street, walking at a rapid clip. He’s dressed more like a hiker than a world-renowned chef revered for artfully plated, scientifically forward food, including delicacies like fried mayonnaise and savory everything-bagel ice cream. The iconic dishes he served at his now-shuttered restaurant WD-50 influenced an entire generation of molecular gastronomists. But on this day, he’s preparing for the opening of Du’s Donuts & Coffee, a much more casual joint situated at the William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg. (The space is now open.)

“My friend says I look like I’m ‘forever camping,’” he admits, referring to the waterproof backpack usually strapped across his chest, and his dry-wick North Face shorts crammed with mini flashlights and a pocketknife.

As for the hot breakfast sandwich in his hand, he says, “You can’t eat it yet. It’s not ready.” Not ready? “The cheese hasn’t melted yet. It’s still steaming.” Also, he needs coffee — which he didn’t order at the deli because, he says, “I won’t drink bad coffee.” And he is constantly on the hunt for good coffee.

Since the closing of his restaurant Alder two years ago, Dufresne has roamed Manhattan in search of two “meaningful coffee experiences” a day. He pulls a binder clip, fat with punch cards, out of one of his many pockets to prove it. He recounts stories of buying two coffees and only receiving one punch, being called “Willy” by baristas — and sometimes using his eldest daughter’s name, Sawyer, only to see it scrawled onto his cup as Soyer.“Guess they’ve never heard of Tom?” Dufresne laughs. He fans out his punch cards like a poker player proud of his hand: Everyman. Birch. Ground Support. Toby’s Estate. “Ah, they owe me a free one…” he says, pleased.

Turns out, so does Brooklyn Roasting Company, where he ends up this morning. Standing in line, corralled by velvet ropes, he whips out his phone and started the timer. “I always time it,” he says. (He refuses to wait for longer than eight minutes.)

He picks up his short latte (no sugar, no lid). It’s a warm spring day, but even in the dead of winter, Dufresne’s latte is iced — with the proper milk-to-espresso ratio only his most regular baristas get right. Purists might balk at putting milk in coffee, Dufresne says, “but for me, it’s all about coffee andmilk. They’re friends,” he explains. “Like bread and butter. Wine and cheese.”

Speaking of, 15 minutes after leaving the bodega, his cheese is ready. Dufresne unwraps the sandwich to reveal a lightly toasted Kaiser roll, eggs scrambled, a slice of American oozing in its orange-hued glory. Though Du’s is strictly doughnuts (10 highly technical flavors, including peanut butter yuzu as well as Creamsicle), eventually he plans to add an egg-and-cheese of his own — on an onion Kaiser. He really likes onion Kaisers. In fact, Dufresne has a lot of likes (and dislikes). Some more mass-market than you might expect from a James Beard Award-winning chef just back from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremonies in Melbourne.

He likes Popeye’s fried chicken so much he served it at his wedding. He likes the occasional McDonalds burger (no ketchup, no pickles, no sauce). He really likes the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, enough to DVR it. And despite the ostensible competition, he deems Dunkin’ Donuts’ chocolate glazed “perfect.”

Unlike most of America, though, he prefers to finish his coffee while seated rather than taking it to go. “I don’t like holding anything,” he explains. (Umbrellas, in Wylie’s world, are especially ridiculous.) “Scrubbies,” however, are essential. He makes a beeline for Home Depot, which he navigates with the speed and expertise of a star employee, and goes directly to the Scotch-Brite Extreme Scrubs. “So much better than Scrub Daddy,” he says. “Shark Tank’s biggest seller ever!”

Errands done, Dufresne has one last stop before it’s time to test the doughnuts at Du’s: Pret a Manger. He eats Pret for lunch pretty much every day. The chain has 50 locations in Manhattan, and “I’ve got four in my rotation,” Dufresne says. But only one order: the balsamic chicken and avocado sandwich, a cucumber seltzer and a brownie bite. “It’s fantastic.” As good as Maile’s, he says, referring to his wife, who is the editor in chief of Food Network magazine.

He first tried Pret when Sawyer was a toddler. It was easy. She liked chicken. On his day off, they’d sit on a rock in Union Square, near where he grew up, and share a sandwich. “I remembered thinking, ‘That’s tasty.’”Years later, without WD-50 to feed him, and in a moment of nostalgia, he rediscovered Pret’s chicken sandwich. “Next thing I knew,” he says, “I was eating it four times a week.” Soon, Dufresne started bringing his laptop, taking phone calls; Pret became his de facto office. “Setting up investor meetings, my business partner once asked, in all seriousness: ‘Which Pret do you want to meet at?’” he recalls, laughing. “This woman was giving us $75,000. I picked the Nomad instead.”

Only twice has his Pret order strayed — to the chicken soup, and only because he had a cold. He has the utmost praise for the prepackaged sandwich. “It’s smartly engineered,” he says, explaining that the grilled chicken, not the mesclun, is dressed in the balsamic vinaigrette and sits between the dry lettuce and the avocado, so the bread doesn’t “sog out.” He takes it outside to Sawyer’s rock and eats every bite except the brownie bite. He likes to save it for later, for his second coffee experience.

Meanwhile, Dufresne can’t help but laugh about his steadfast devotion to eating Pret’s chicken sandwich. “We’re all creatures of habit,” he offers. “At least it’s not a candy bar.”

Pastrami in Hong Kong, But No Dr. Brown’s

You know you’re not in New York anymore when a restaurant website has a page with the line “What is a delicatessen?” up top.

Manhattan may be losing one of its top pastrami palaces when the Carnegie Deli closes, but Hong Kong recently welcomed Morty’s, which opened in April in the bustling Central district, on the ground floor of Jardine House. The office tower is home to mostly lawyers, financiers and dentists, a clientele that in New York would probably be familiar with lox, bagels, smoked meats and the like. But this is Asia.

A Chinese businessman, standing in a long weekday lunch line recently, said he had not visited New York but had become a regular at Morty’s. He ordered the Reuben. Why? He had seen one on “Seinfeld” and thought it looked good.

Even 8,000 miles and an ocean away from Manhattan, it is good, if flanked by a flaccid pickle and a tad light on the Thousand Island dressing. But the pastrami Reuben (heretically, not stuffed with corned beef) is tender, sweet and smoky, with the perfect hint of pepper. It’s hand-sliced — not too thick, not too thin — and served on soft house-baked rye, with Swiss and sauerkraut.

The space is slim and sleek, perhaps a little too sleek to feel like a true deli; the ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles sit on marble counters, and the menu lacks staples like egg creams and chopped liver. (No Dr. Brown’s either, but there is a full bar.)

The founder, Gerald Li, is Chinese, but he grew up in Toronto eating Reubens regularly and wanted to bring deli culture to Hong Kong. He teamed up with his friend Brian Tock, grandson of Morty Tock, who immigrated in 1920 from Europe to New York, where he learned to smoke meat. Morty’s pastrami recipe lives on at his Hong Kong namesake, where a 45-day aging process calls for 20 days of curing and 24 hours of cooking, followed by smoking with American hickory. (Morty’s smokes its own chicken, turkey and duck, too.) To help ease the wait, strangers — Australians, Britons, Chinese, Filipinos — are often seated in booths together.

At this particular lunch there was not a New Yorker in sight, though according to our server, “they seem to like it O.K.” Their only complaint? Even the large sandwich isn’t big enough.

Check In: The Olema

Rates

From $200.

Basics

There aren’t many hotel options on the Point Reyes Peninsula, Northern California’s national seashore, but in September 2015, West Marin County welcomed back one more: The Olema. Built in 1876, the historic property had operated as an inn (upstairs) and a restaurant (downstairs) for most of its existence, but when its new owners, Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong, took over in 2013, they painted the fusty bright-white Victorian a gloomy shade of gray (to much local controversy) and reopened only the restaurant, named Sir and Star. It was a sequel, in a way, to their celebrated first: Manka’s Inverness Lodge, a pioneering local spot secluded in the woods and beloved by food lovers and luminaries alike, before it burned down in an electrical fire a decade ago. Now, the Olema once again operates as a proper inn, with five renovated rooms — each done in Ms. Grade’s unique style.

Location

Just about every backpacker, birder and oyster-slurper bound for Point Reyes National Seashore passes through the unincorporated town of Olema, and therefore by its namesake inn at the intersection of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Highway 1.

Photo

The Room

Spare but sophisticated, the inn’s rooms are tucked down a short hall dimly lit by sconces. Each room is decorated differently, some with wrought-iron bed frames and footstools, free-standing wardrobes and framed etchings of fowl — all scavenged by Ms. Grade from Parisian flea markets or her personal coffers. Rustic black, wide-planked floors are made from repurposed wood, and long black shutters help keep the otherwise drafty rooms warm. Eye masks and earplugs are set on every pillow, in case you’d rather not fall asleep to owl hoots and the faint jazz coming from the restaurant downstairs — or, for that matter, wake to the dairy trucks rumbling by below.

The Bathroom

It’s called the “W.C.,” as emblazoned on the door’s clouded glass. Clean, with classic white tile, Kiehl’s products and a vintage toothbrush holder too small for today’s bulbous handles, there is nothing especially noteworthy about this water closet — other than the fact that, despite California’s drought, the hot water took so long to warm up I worried that my shower, in a basic tub, might have to be cold. (It wasn’t.)

Dining

Years before the notion of “local” took root in the culinary world, Ms. Grade and Mr. DeLong cooked exclusively with ingredients gathered from within miles of their restaurant, Manka’s. (All that remains now are a few guest cabins.) Today, Sir and Star is an intimate restaurant adorned with antlers, stuffed cormorants and candelabras. It’s a fitting scene for feasting on rustic, memorable dishes like “Leg of a Neighbor’s Duck,” as worded on the whimsical menu — typically written mere minutes before 5 p.m. service begins.

Amenities

No bicycles or hot tubs or even bathrobes, but the Olema does boast a romantic foyer with a seven-foot-high fireplace and pair of deep chairs, perfect for sharing a bottle of syrah by the local winemaker Sean Thackrey.

Bottom Line

If my room — though comfy and calming and affordable — was not a creaky flight of stairs above Sir and Star restaurant, I might wonder: What’s the point? (As Point Reyes has many cozy cabins available to rent.) But how wonderful it is, to enjoy such a fine supper in the countryside — without having to drive the winding road home.

The Olema, 10000 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Olema; 415-663-1034; sirandstar.com.

The ‘Kidbutz’ of Topanga

In a four-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot house with three and a half baths and a two-car garage in this hilly Los Angeles County enclave, Aleksandra Evanguelidi, 41, sleeps in the master bedroom; in the room next door is her daughter, Juno, 6, who shares it with Claire, also 6. Across the hall is an under-the-sea-theme loft. Eli, age 4, sleeps there. His mother, Ashley Welch, 24, has the room across the hall, which doesn’t have a bathroom of its own but does have a private balcony. And in the room next door, is Justin Balthrop, 37, Claire’s father.

Abby Lewis, 63, comes to visit for a month each summer. Everyone calls her Grandma. She is Mr. Balthrop’s mother, and lives in Albuquerque. “She fits in well here,” Mr. Balthrop said one afternoon this past spring as he whipped up a banana-kale-peanut-butter smoothie. “She used to live on a real hippie commune.”

Meet the Topanga Family, as their neighbors call them. They are the vanguard of communal living and child rearing, contemporary-style, where a dusty, off-the-grid farm in the middle of nowhere gives way to a sprawling $2 million house with endless views and vaulted ceilings, a Viking kitchen and multiple terraces, 20 minutes from Santa Monica.

While “co-living” is on the rise in cities like San Francisco and New York — a result of astronomical rents and a craving for community — so-called “hacker houses” and new cohabiting businesses like Common and WeLive are geared toward the young and childless. This is a different situation. The Topanga Family was created to befit single parents. And, in turn, their kids. Everyone involved agrees that the greatest perk is the siblinglike relationships that have developed among the children.

“What we’re doing isn’t new,” said Ms. Evanguelidi, a midwife. “People have been doing this forever. We’re just pimping it out.” She is the one who initially found the listing for the house, which is why, she said, she has claim to the large master suite with its two-sink marble counters, deep soaking tub and enormous walk-in closet.

On this spring evening, Dallas Garcia, the children’s 19-year-old nanny, was barefoot in the kitchen making lentil soup and chopping carrots and celery against a backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains. Three blond children bolted through the front door, past a small wooden sign hanging in the foyer that read, “Remember, as Far as Anyone Knows We Are a Normal Family,” and into the kitchen. They scrambled to get to the countertop. “I want to sit next to my sister-roommates!” demanded Eli, clambering onto a stool between Claire and Juno.

Typically, everyone eats dinner together around 7 p.m., but tonight, Juno’s and Eli’s mothers were still driving home after spending a day off at the hot springs in the desert. So Ms. Garcia was in charge. She just finished her first year of community college; she works part time at a pizza place and part time for the Topanga Family. She found the job through her boyfriend, who is the son of Ms. Evanguelidi’s boyfriend, whose name is Troy Mitchell. “I tell my friends where I work, and they don’t get it,” Ms. Garcia said. “It’s totally opened my mind. It makes me feel like I don’t need to grow up and do things the traditional way.”

Before Mr. Balthrop came along, the Topanga Family used to be all female — except, of course, for Eli. It was known around town as the Hen House, and it originally started out of necessity. Ms. Evanguelidi is a single mother, and her career in helping to deliver babies means that she works odd hours, often at night. In 2012, she was scanning Craigslist, looking for a new place for her and Juno to live when she spotted her dream house: a Topanga single-family modern manse with a landlord asking for a rent of $5,500 per month. (The rent is now $7,500 per month.)

But then something very Los Angeles happened. She ran into a single mother of two she knew at the Whole Foods in Venice who was also looking for a new home and support. “It was fate,” Ms. Evanguelidi said.

By word of mouth, they soon added more single moms, and more children. At peak, there were four women and five kids under age 5. Once, a woman who was not a parent moved in, briefly. “She just didn’t get it,” Ms. Welch said. “She tried to label her food in the fridge, and we knew it wouldn’t work.” (This is not a kibbutz, it’s a “kidbutz.”)

The current configuration of residents took shape in 2013, when Ms. Welch arrived with Eli, who was then 1. During her pregnancy, she had been working as a sales manager at Bloomingdale’s and sleeping on a friend’s couch while taking nutrition courses through an online school. At a party, Ms. Welch met a friend of Ms. Evanguelidi’s who told her about the Topanga house. The women met, and it was an immediate fit.

In 2014, Mr. Balthrop, a programmer, was going through a divorce. His former wife had heard about this nearby house “with a bunch of parents,” as he said she described it to him, and urged him to check it out. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch invited him to dinner. The lease was awkwardly lying on the table, like the rose on the silver tray on “The Bachelorette.” At the end of the evening, he signed it — and he and Claire moved in soon thereafter.

Mr. Balthrop was the first man to live in the house with the Topanga Family. Eli and Juno, whose biological fathers live in other states, initially started calling him “Daddy.” Then the children’s fathers came to visit, and “Daddy” reverted “Justin.”

Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch were initially worried about adding a man to the family. “I didn’t want to ruin what we’d created,” Ms. Evanguelidi said. It was a rocky start. “Our first week, Juno busted in yelling, ‘This isn’t your room!’” Mr. Balthrop said. Then Ms. Evanguelidi threw out all his food that wasn’t organic. “I was like, uh, this might not work,” he said. But two years later, Claire and Juno are best friends, and Mr. Balthrop keeps a stash of Jif and YoCrunch with M&M’s in a minifridge in his room.

Last year, a second man moved in with his two daughters. “That totally changed the energy,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, especially because both she and Ms. Welch initially found him attractive. Within weeks, he and Ms. Welch hooked up. “We were just so connected musically,” she said.

Other rules of the house: In addition to no nonorganic food and no TV (Mr. Balthrop surreptitiously binge-watches “House of Cards” on his laptop), there is overnight guest etiquette. “Sometimes,” Ms. Welch said, “I’ll wake up to check on Eli and I’ll hear Aleks and Troy, and I’m like, ‘Aleks! You have to shut your door!’”

Everyone shares the rent, the car-pooling duties and the expensive Los Angeles County water bill. They also freely discipline one another’s children. “Every kid is fair game,” Ms. Welch said. For example, when her son, Eli, dumped all of Juno’s dresses off their hangers, Mr. Balthrop (the parent of neither child) took charge.

Household duties are split. Ms. Evanguelidi does the grocery shopping; Ms. Welch does the cooking (wild Alaskan salmon with quinoa one night, beef tacos with sautéed kale the next). “I eat way better than I did when I was married,” Mr. Balthrop said. He fixes the overworked washer-dryer and marches around with a fly swatter, stamping out the insects that hover around the compost bin and countertop bowls overflowing with yams, oranges and avocados.

On occasion, they try to take advantage of their unique living arrangement. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch recently registered as domestic partners on Eli’s kindergarten application to increase his chances at getting into Juno’s Waldorf-inspired school. “It’s not a lie!” Ms. Welch said. “We are domestic partners. We have been for the last four years.”

As in all serious relationships, though, there can be complications. There have been arguments over money, and issues of jealousy and secrecy. When Ms. Welch became involved with the man who had moved in for just a short time last year, she didn’t tell anyone for months. “One night, Aleks said to me, ‘I’m so happy neither of us would ever hook up with our housemates,’” Ms. Welch said. “And I was like, uh. …”

It was ultimately Grandma Abby who realized there was an entanglement. She mentioned this to Mr. Balthrop, who was unaware. Then the man revealed his and Ms. Welch’s indiscretion to Ms. Evanguelidi, and she and Ms. Welch talked it out. Everything went back to normal sometime after the man and his daughters, for a variety of reasons, moved out.

When the Topanga parents meet people, and share the details of their living arrangements, there are, inevitably, two questions, Ms. Evanguelidi said. One is whether there are any openings, and the second is whether the single adults date one another. The first answer is not currently. The second answer is not really. (Ms. Welch and Mr. Balthrop made out, but only once, they say. Now they are working together on a dating app they have created.)

The members of the Topanga Family aren’t looking for free love, but for friendship, support and freedom from parental convention. “The mundane pattern of work and dinner and putting the kids to bed,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, “it’s not my existence. The traditional family setup is just so passé.”

Michelin Stars in the Desert

Palm Springs has always been known more for its palm trees and party scene than its culinary prowess.

Hoping to change that perception is SO.PA, a new alfresco-only restaurant hidden from the hum of East Palm Canyon Drive behind a whitewashed brick wall at the posh L’Horizon Hotel and Spa. “Designed by Steve Hermann,” whom we are apparently supposed to know, as his name is flaunted on the sign out front.

Mr. Hermann is also the owner of what he refers to as a “restaurant-driven” hotel. He originally hired the Michelin-starred chef Giacomo Pettinari (of El Bulli and Valentino) who opened SO.PA to immediate raves. Mr. Pettinari’s father recently passed away, forcing him back to Italy. His replacement also came with Michelin stars: the chef Chris Anderson, formerly of Alinea and Moto in Chicago, who cooked 22 courses for Mr. Hermann before scoring the job. (Mr. Pettinari had cooked 20.) “Most owners want authority over the menu,” he said. “Steve offered me free range.”

On a chilly evening in February (when the kitchen was still being run by Mr. Pettinari), we enjoyed just five, if you include the dreamy bowl of house-preserved olives mixed with creamy sheep’s feta and salted Marcona almonds we had with our $8 cocktails at the long walnut table reserved for “communal hour” (5 to 6:30 p.m.). Locals otherwise put off by SO.PA’s prices take advantage; 10 percent of proceeds go to local organizations like the Desert AIDS Project.

At 6:30, our server, whose affability pleasantly undermined his twee polka-dot bow tie, moved us beneath a sprawling mimosa tree to a table for two draped in white linen, and turned up the heat lamp. (That night heat lamps outnumbered diners in the courtyard 17 to 12.) “Come back in summer,” he said. “It’s so hot your foie gras melts.”

Our roasted Spanish octopus, however, was firm and flawless; the tender, meaty tentacle arched on a plate streaked with smoked squid ink, accompanied by crushed potatoes in a parsley pesto. A compressed melon salad with micro mint and French feta, though refreshing and enthusiastically recommended by our server, underwhelmed. But not the spicy, reasonably priced Zaca Mesa 2010 syrah — nor the indulgent confit poussinpan-roasted in duck fat over a seasonal apple purée with flash-fried baby artichokes.

Though a starry desert sky enhances any dinner, SO.PA’s commitment to embracing its darkened surroundings can be a bit of a hazard. Despite gorgeous, golden-hued molecular light fixtures — and the fact that flashlights are provided on request — there was occasional confusion over dishes, and diners.

“Our server, twice, asked, ‘What can I get you, gentlemen?’” remarked a local gallery owner after a recent meal. “My friend was, most definitely, a woman.”

SO.PA, 1050 East Palm Canyon Drive; 760-323-1858; lhorizonpalmsprings.com. Average price for dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $100.

What’s It Take for Two Women To Get Pregnant Around Here?

Romantic it was not. For starters, it was too dark to see. “Oh shit, I forgot a flashlight,” said Wendy, rummaging through her bag. “Honey, just use your phone,” said Sara, lying spread-eagle on the couch in her office, wearing a button-down blouse and nothing else.

It was noon, a Thursday in February, and a nice man had just masturbated in the bathroom down the hall. A week or two earlier, over tea at a nearby café, the semi-stranger had generously offered to help Sara and Wendy. And, unlike so many men who’d preceded him, there he now stood, true to his word, holding a plastic cup with his sperm in it, ready and willing to impregnate Sara.

Except, oops, they needed scissors. Luckily, Wendy had a Leatherman in her truck. She returned with the blade and sliced off the top of a syringe. At least it was sterile.

The same could not be said of Sara’s office, but it was a few blocks from their donor’s place of work, and—as any 41-year-old woman undergoing fertility treatment knows—timing is everything. According to Sara’s basal body temp and ovulation strips, it was go time. By the light of her iPhone 6, Wendy squirted the man’s semen into Sara’s cervix.

Afterward, everyone but Sara dashed back to work. A therapist in private practice, she lay on her couch for an hour, hips elevated—shopping online for sweaters, waiting “for the little guys to swim up there.” Hoping, but careful not to get her hopes up too high, that this time one of those little guys would make it.


Getting to this point
 had been quite a journey—a term often used by cancer patients undergoing chemo, but also by lesbian couples looking to conceive. It’s a cliché, but an accurate way to describe the quest that two women undertake when they decide to start a family. There’s no “Oops! I’m pregnant!” when you’re a lesbian. “That would be nice,” Sara says, drolly.

Five years ago, the petite, pretty PhD had been single and living alone in the Bay Area burbs. (Well, with seven rescue cats.) She’d recently come close to buying a house back East to be near her mom, whose help she’d have needed to have a baby on her own. It was something she’d been determined to do until, ironically, her realtor, a lesbian, talked her out of the house (and the solo parenting) and told her to move to San Francisco instead.

So then there she was, in a one-bedroom rental, wrapped in a blanket and weary of dating, online shopping of a different sort—fielding emails from random dudes supposedly seeking progeny and a platonic parenting partner. “I am well-endowed,” boasted one forty-something man on the European site Coparents. “I am extremely good-looking,” offered another. “Let’s do it the natural way,” suggested the last suitor, before Sara shut her laptop. This wasn’t the way she’d wanted to do this.

In the last few years, websites like Coparents, Modamily, and FamilyByDesign have appeared, aimed at connecting aspiring parents of all stripes. The media immediately glommed on to the new trend in family making, with everyone from Good Morning America to CNN touting smiley, straight, single women who’d all found success starting nuclear families with men they’d met online. But, says founder Ivan Fatovic, 20 percent of female Modamily members identify as lesbian, and he expects that number to climb with the legality of same-sex marriage. Now he’s making a more concentrated push into the LGBTQ market, specifically here in San Francisco, where he hopes to host offline mixers that bring together queer people considering kids.

Such startups have clearly filled a need. But dating for sperm left Sara depressed. “It was like being on Match or OkCupid, but worse,” she says. “I mean, how many people do you interact with online that you actually even want to go to dinner with? Imagine trying to find someone to be your kid’s dad and in your life forever?” (She was adamant that the donor not be anonymous, but rather a fatherlike figure to her child.)

She had always wanted to fall in love first, but the clock was ticking. A year passed before she met Wendy at a gay dance party. “I’m pretty sure I told her on our first date I wanted to have a baby,” she says. Five years younger and focused on her career, Wendy was in no rush to start a family. So Sara waited a little longer, until she hit 40 and realized that if she wanted to have a biological child, it was now or never. Wendy agreed. And then they had sex, and nine months later their baby was born! Ha. That would be nice.


From the moment
 a lesbian couple decides to have biological children, they’re in for a constant stream of deep discussion and decision making, discrimination and dollars—often a lot of dollars—along with the kind of messy, emotional drama that straight folks, barring fertility issues, never have to face.

Queer couples who have biological kids are a minority within a minority. Those who do want kids face legal battles and societal judgment and constant frustration over the fact that—no matter how in love they are—they cannot biologically have a baby together, and have no choice but to rely on a third entity. Considering that same-sex marriage was broadly legalized only last year, it’s no surprise that societal acceptance of queer couples having kids still has a ways to go. Which is why, as one lesbian mother puts it, “It’s important to bring our stories out of the closet.”

Many of the issues faced by lesbian couples looking to conceive are, of course, similar to those faced by all women of bearing age, in the sense that they all need something they don’t have: sperm. However, that’s where the similarities end: The list of topics every lesbian couple analyzes to death goes way beyond those faced by straight women. Who should carry? How will the non-carrying parent feel? Who will be the donor? Will he be known or anonymous? Do we want a donor who does diaper duty or do we want a donor we see once a year (or never)? If anonymous, what kind of qualities do we want in the sperm supplier? If known, how do we ask him? Who will we ask? An acquaintance? A coworker? A second cousin? How will we inseminate? How will we pay for it? Can we pay for it? Wait, how much will this cost again? For biracial couples: What race do we want our baby to be?

Typically, when you read about queer couples having kids, the accounts are very matter-of-fact: “The couple went to a sperm bank.” Or, “A friend agreed to be the donor.” Between the lines, though, there’s always a story—one rarely told. “Everyone talks about fertility issues, and how painful and emotionally draining that can be. For lesbians it’s a whole other kind of roller coaster,” says Sara, echoing essentially every lesbian couple I spoke with for this story (many of whom, like Sara and Wendy, wished to remain anonymous). “No one understands what we go through.”

Elizabeth (not her real name), a mother of two boys, was in her early 30s when she first learned the lesbian version of the birds and the bees. “We had no idea what the steps were,” she says. “Once we decided to have kids, we were like, ‘OK, now what?’” Like many of their sistren, Elizabeth and her partner looked for help. The bible is The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy & Birth (2006), by midwife Stephanie Brill. But reading a book only gets you so far. Apart from several local support groups—like Baby Buds, for lesbian and trans Asian Pacific Islanders, and Our Family Coalition, which occasionally holds parents-to-be gatherings—there are very few solid resources. Says LGBTQ advocate, author, and recent mother Michelle Tea, “As a queer person who wants a baby, you’re pretty much left to figure it all out on your own.”

Which is partly what moved Tea to write a play-by-play blog for three years called Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea—until she finally did. Tea had a story to tell “and no one to tell it to,” she says. “All of my queer, broke artist friends didn’t want to hear it. They were like, ‘Why do you want to ruin your awesome gay life and throw away your freedom and disposable income to have a baby? Parenthood is for straight people.’”

Betsy Kershner, a photographer living in the Sunset whose wife, Toby Branz, has been trying to get pregnant for the last two years, felt similarly alone and went searching for others’ stories. “But when I googled ‘lesbian moms,’ all that basically came up was porn or stock images of super-femme-y women with pregnant bellies,” says Kershner. So two years ago, she started a portrait series called The Pride + Joy Project, intended to reveal real-life two-mom families and show, “Look! Lesbians can have babies, too,” she says. “There’s so little social conversation about how queer women make their families. I wanted to know everything.” And, as she soon discovered, so did everybody else.

In January, she started a Facebook group called Queer Mamas and invited 110 of her friends. By day 10, it had ballooned to 10,000 members, with 24-7 posts from Sweden to San Anselmo. From “What is the best piece of advice for me and my wife hoping to conceive this year?” to “We got ourselves a donor!!” to “My five-month-old cries every time he hears a man speak. Tips?” to “Can anyone recommend a good book about penises?,” the conversations signal an insatiable appetite for more intel. “People are clearly craving this connection,” says Kershner. “They want to talk about it.”

But they don’t always want to talk about it with everyone. More than one Queer Mama has posted questions like “Does it bother you when people ask, ‘How’d you make your baby?,’” generating reams of impassioned replies. Some find the inquiry nosy and/or offensive. “A mom asked me on a playdate and I felt cornered,” commented one woman from San Francisco. “I wanted to reply, ‘How was your child conceived? From fucking from behind or were you on top?’”

Lauren Gersick, a college counselor and mother of a seven-year-old boy in Bernal Heights, thinks it’s weirder not to ask about it. “It’s not like I’d prefer that people ask. But to be honest, I’m often more struck by the silence. There was obviously a man somewhere. I always wonder, ‘Do people wonder?’ Because I would. I do!”

I’ll admit: I’ve been friendly with Lauren and her wife for close to two years now. Our kids are in the same class; we’ve had them over for supper; I mean, we saw Zootopia together—and yet it wasn’t until reporting this story that I’d ever asked about their son’s origin. It wasn’t because I wasn’t curious. Of course I was. I’d just always presumed that if a lesbian couple (or, for that matter, a single mom or a gay dad or a straight married woman struggling with fertility issues) didn’t bring it up first, it was off-limits. But such once-taboo topics are slowly becoming acceptable cocktail party conversation. It’s not uncommon anymore for an acquaintance to confess that she’s freezing her eggs or to gripe woman-to-woman about progesterone injections. And as more same-sex couples marry and have kids, it seems inevitable that how they procreate will no longer be such a fraught topic.

With the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling in June 2015, the rate of same-sex couples marrying has more than doubled, perhaps even tripled, within the year, says Gary Gates, formerly the research director at UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. While it is difficult to track the number of same-sex couples having biological kids, Gates says there is a definite increase in “intentional parenting.” The number of adoptions by same-sex couples doubled between 2000 and 2009. According to 2000 census stats analyzed in Gates’s book, The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, 10 percent of same-sex couples in the San Francisco metro area were “raising” kids. (This includes not just children they conceived but also adopted children.) In 2010, 13 percent of same-sex couples in the San Francisco metro area were raising kids. And according to research covering 2012–14, that percentage soon increased to 14.4.

Given the increasing frequency of LGBTQ people giving birth or raising children, shouldn’t it be OK to talk about the process by which that happens? Clearly, you shouldn’t ask strangers in the Safeway line, as a white mom of an adopted Ethiopian-born daughter told me someone recently did. As in: “Excuse me, how much did your baby cost?” (Yeah.) Family is, of course, deeply personal. But given the proper context—and language—asking a woman how her child came into the world seems fair.

Still, choosing the right language often stymies people, says Gersick. “No one knows how to ask.” And so they don’t. (Attention, unwitting heteros: One of the most offensive questions you can ask a lesbian mother is “Who’s the real mom?” They’re both real moms. The other: “Who’s the father?” There is no father.) Despite the fact that the language surrounding parentage has been “common in our culture for hundreds of years,” says Gersick, “it’s just not language that always works for our family. Intellectually, I get what someone means when they say ‘dad,’ but emotionally, it feels undermining.”

Of course, some lesbians are guilty of taking language to the opposite extreme, too. The desire of many female couples to minimize male involvement in their family making is understandable, but some take it a step further and pretend they bucked biology altogether. “They’re like, ‘What man? We did this on our own,’” says Sara. (Although reproductive science and stem cell research might one day make it so.) For now, every egg needs a sperm. It’s just a matter of how you get it.


Pick your poison:
 fresh or frozen?

Sperm banks have been popular with lesbians since the 1980s, when, as a 1989 New York Times article put it, there was a national “baby boom of unusual complexity.” Partly in response to the needs of would-be lesbian moms, the Bay Area boasts the largest concentration of sperm banks in the country. San Francisco’s Pacific Reproductive Services (PRS) and the Sperm Bank of California were among the first to specifically serve the lesbian community. At California Cryobank, 60 percent of clients are lesbians, up from 30 percent 10 years ago.

The pros to sperm banks are plentiful. Donors are thoroughly vetted. The sperm is tested for sexually transmitted and common genetic diseases. There are rarely legal or parental-rights issues with sperm banks, as it’s all quite clear-cut: Donors either are WTBK (willing to be known, once the child turns 18) or agree to remain forever anonymous. But, says PRS founder Sherron Mills, “most donors these days are WTBK; no one wants anonymous anymore.”

In love, you compromise: He smokes, but he’s smart; he’s hairy, but he loves House of Cards. In sperm selection, you are able to customize your donor down to an almost ridiculous degree. Bachelor’s or master’s? Engineer or artist? Five nine or six feet or, hmm, maybe six two? Hilariously, at California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the country, with a popular Palo Alto branch, you can even choose a donor based on his celebrity look-alike, with an infinite scroll of options: Jake Gyllenhaal or James Gandolfini? South Korean idol Lee Joon or a young John Stamos?

Elizabeth and her wife didn’t actually want sperm from so close to Stanford University. “My brother had gone there and told us the entire men’s water polo team donated on a regular basis. ‘Those guys are assholes,’ he said. ‘You don’t want their stuff.’” But of course, one woman’s trash… “I would’ve loved a water polo player’s sperm from Stanford,” Gersick says. “I’d be more worried about some dweeby tech bro.”

The biggest downside to sperm banks, though, is the cost. Browsing might initially be free, but if you want any info beyond the basics (age, height, education, occupation, interests), you’ve got to pony up. Baby pictures of the donor, $15; adult photos, $15; the full 18-page profile, another $10 per potential donor. Some banks offer profiles that include personal essays and audio for $245. There are sign-up fees, liquid-nitrogen-tank fees. One vial of sperm runs between $690 and $890. Physicians recommend two inseminations per cycle, and it typically takes multiple tries, which means that on average a couple can burn anywhere from $2,000 to more than $10,000 on sperm alone.

Then tack on midwife fees, doctor’s visits, and medical inseminations—IUI, ICI, IVF—which, when they are covered by insurance at all, are often covered only after six unsuccessful attempts, whether a woman is gay or straight. “The lack of initial coverage is a huge issue for our patients,” says Marcelle Cedars, director of UCSF’s Center for Reproductive Health.

Lesbians, who can get pregnant only by insemination, are essentially categorized as “infertile” from the get-go. In the best-case scenario, insurance coverage will kick in for lesbians after six unsuccessful insemination attempts, but a majority of insurance plans have no fertility coverage, says Cathy Sakimura, family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). Like Sara and Wendy, most lesbian couples who are self-employed (or low-income or don’t work for companies like Google with generous insurance plans) have to pay out of pocket. There’s really no getting knocked up for free when you’re a lesbian. (Unless you have sex with the donor, which Tea did try, once or twice, to no avail.)

“The current coverage plans are unfair to lesbians,” Sakimura says. “Lesbian and bisexual female couples and many transgender parents cannot conceive without assisted reproduction, yet many insurance companies require them to meet a higher burden before getting coverage than different-sex, non-transgender couples who cannot conceive without assisted reproduction. They may be denied completely or have to pay for 6 to 12 months of assisted reproduction before getting any coverage.” Hetero couples, by contrast, can try to conceive during those 6 to 12 months via intercourse. The NCLR is currently fighting to get full insurance coverage for fertility treatment for same-sex couples, transgender people, and single mothers—for anyone who cannot conceive with a partner without assistance. “We are advocating on an individual basis at this point, and are interested in litigation if a case is presented,” Sakimura says. She and the NCLR are also fighting for the complete recognition of same-sex parents and parents using assisted reproduction in every state, so that families can travel and move freely without fear of losing their parental rights.

Most insurance forms don’t even account for two-woman (or same-sex) couples. “It ends up looking like my wife is a single woman trying to get pregnant, thus invalidating me as her spouse,” says Kershner. “In so many ways—because I’m female, because I cannot create sperm, because they don’t have a box to check for married, same-sex couples—it’s all very maddening.” (Also maddening: Because of fears about HIV transmission, the FDA still prohibits gay men from participating in sperm bank programs at all.)

Sperm supply is also an ongoing issue. California Cryobank has 500-plus donors in its catalog at any given time. PRS has 135. Each donor at PRS is asked to make 65 “deposits.” This sounds like a lot of sperm, but it’s not nearly enough to meet demand. “We always need more donors,” says Mills. Competition for the best sperm is Ivy League tough, the interview process extensive. “Everyone wants the tall, blond, blue-eyed rocket scientist,” Mills says. And there are only so many of them. There’s only so many of anyone.

To guard against one man spawning a small city—the so-called Delivery Man effect, named after the 2013 movie in which Vince Vaughn plays a former sperm donor who discovers he has 533 kids—sperm banks set limits. Back in the ’80s, at PRS, the maximum number of families who could use a given donor was five. “But we kept running out of donors!” says Mills, so they raised it to 20. (Each family can have as many kids as they want from one donor.) In 2013, PRS “thought it was a good idea,” says Mills, to lower the limit to 15.

Although the San Francisco metro area has the highest percentage of adults in the country who identify as LGBT, according to a 2015 Gallup poll (6.2 percent; in San Francisco specifically, it’s about a percent higher), it’s still a relatively small subset of the region. And the number of queer couples who have biological kids is even smaller. One unusual potential consequence of this small number of women “overfishing” a small pool of donors is conceiving a child who turns out to be a “dibling”—a donor-conceived sibling. To avoid this, some lesbians intentionally seek sperm out of state, paying shipping fees for peace of mind. It’s doubtful that two San Francisco high school sweethearts would end up together forever only to find out they’re diblings, but there have still been awkward moments. At Tea’s baby shower, one outspoken mother noticed a toddler with the same superfine, spiky hair as her child’s. “Oh my God, I bet we have the same donor!” she ran around the party shouting. The other mother was mortified. Later, they exchanged donor numbers, and sure enough…

Going the fresh-sperm route, like Sara and Wendy, may be cheaper—and more effective—but it presents its own hassles and heartbreak. “In the beginning you think the world is your oyster,” says Sara.

Before Sara and Wendy even announced they were ready to conceive, they had all sorts of offers from good friends, peripheral friends, guys they’d meet in bars. “It helped that Sara is hot,” says Wendy of her partner, who is slim, with a wide smile and long blond locks. “No one wants an ugly baby. People see her and are like, ‘I’d have a child with her.’”

After a “bajillion conversations,” they decided to go with Wendy’s younger brother. He could be bossy, and they were worried about boundaries, but they loved the idea of both being biologically related to their baby. Plus, ever since he was 16 he’d assured his sister he’d hand over his sperm whenever she said the word.

Wendy was uncomfortable. “I’m not a big favor asker,” she says. “I felt vulnerable asking something so big.” Still, they went ahead with it, and at first Wendy’s brother said yes. But then he talked it over with his girlfriend. A week later, he sent an email saying sorry. He’d changed his mind.

Sobs. Anger. Devastation. Once they recovered from the setback, they moved on to plan B: Sara’s best friend, Brendan (not his real name), whom she’d briefly dated back in high school and with whom she’d later talked about the possibility of having kids. But Wendy, as the non-carrying partner, was afraid she’d end up feeling like a third wheel in her own family. “He’s still kind of in love with her,” says Wendy. “They’re so close, I worried it would feel too much like their kid.” Plus: “He’s thin and wiry. He looks kind of sickly.”

She agreed to let Sara ask him anyway. They wanted a solid option. But as with people’s awkward reactions to death or cancer or divorce, you can never predict how someone will respond when asked to be a sperm donor. When officially faced with the proposition, Brendan “just disappeared,” says Sara, disappointed in her longtime friend. “He never even said no. He just kept me hanging, and sent me a cryptic text weeks later with some metaphor about sea changes and shifting winds. I was like, ‘I don’t have time for metaphors.’”

Time was, indeed, marching on, Sara’s eggs getting older and fewer by the minute. She and Wendy went back to their short list and analyzed every possibility for hours. “When actually confronted, though, we realized guys just get overwhelmed,” says Sara. “Their life flashes before their eyes. They envision this little creature running around the world that they have no control over, and they freak out.”

Sara begged, “Does anybody know anybody?” It turned out her friend’s friend, a gay accountant in his 40s, was interested. The three of them went out for drinks and discussed it. He was in. Wendy and Sara picked up the tab, thanked him profusely, and said they’d be in touch. Then, on the way home, Wendy told Sara, “I’m just not that into him.” Yet another intense conversation ensued. “Wendy thinks if we’re going to hang out with this guy for the rest of our life, he should be cool and fun, a good dancer,” says Sara. “I’m like, ‘Who cares! I just want a good person.’” And this guy was. But he was also moving back East, which didn’t sit well—the point was for the guy to be around. It killed Sara, but they turned him down. “It was so hard,” she says. “You’re so grateful, this person offers to do you this huge favor, to change his whole life for you, and he is excited about it. And you have to call and say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”

They were getting desperate. “I was ready to ask the mailman,” says Sara. But then, miraculously, they hit the jackpot. Designer sperm! For free! Sara had once been awarded a prestigious fellowship at a university, and she posted a Hail Mary plea on the fellowship’s alumni Facebook page. To her shock and awe, a fellow scholar—a local, strikingly handsome scientist and PhD candidate who is also an accomplished artist who rescued his dog from the streets of Asia—replied. It was love at first email.

Brunch, also including his husband, was arranged. Sara put on her best. “I wanted to look like a viable woman, worthy of his sperm,” she says. She spent 50 bucks on flowers. Wendy made a comically large fruit salad, which she put in a beautiful wooden bowl and carried uncovered on her lap on the drive to his place. On a sunny, warm day, there they sat, two sets of strangers making small talk over vegetarian bacon and organic eggs until Sara steered the conversation to the matter at hand: his semen. Would he share it? And if so, what would the ensuing relationship look like? Wendy and Sara left knowing they’d found the one. The feeling was mutual. Until it wasn’t.

The honeymoon phase didn’t last long. There were weeks of cold contract negotiations and a couple thousand dollars in (his) lawyer’s fees. Meanwhile, Sara continued her fertility injections and acupuncture appointments. Although a 2013 law (AB 2356) allows lesbians to be inseminated with fresh sperm at a clinic without having to retest the same donor’s sperm for HIV at every insemination (straight couples don’t have to retest the sperm every time, as it is assumed the man is the woman’s monogamous partner), Sara and Wendy preferred “at-home” insemination. “It’s more intimate,” says Sara. And cheaper. At the time, though, that meant finding a doctor willing to be present to vouch that two consenting adults never had sex, meaning the man would not legally be the father. (In January, a new law passed stipulating that sperm donors are not presumptively defined as fathers in cases where children are intentionally conceived through assisted reproduction—and that no medical professional need be present during insemination.) After recurring logistical nightmares involving where and when to meet, finally they were ready to inseminate.

They wanted the first time to be special. On the floor of Sara’s office, Wendy arranged a picnic, lit candles, played Stevie Nicks, and did the insemination herself. Afterward, Mr. Designer Sperm had tears in his eyes. “We’re going to make a beautiful baby,” he said. It didn’t take. And after two more unsuccessful inseminations—and two insemination dates for which Sara painstakingly prepared and Designer Sperm didn’t show—he officially pulled out.

Donors renege. It happens. It’s a lot to ask. It’s a huge time commitment, and donors can’t ejaculate for two to five days beforehand, which is a disincentive for some men. Sara and Wendy didn’t know why, exactly, Designer Sperm had bailed, but they were devastated. It felt like a breakup. Another lesbian couple who went through a similar situation told me that the experience of losing their ideal donor was “like mourning a death.”

Donorless, pumped up on Follistim, and poised to ovulate, Sara was distraught. She didn’t want to miss a cycle. Near tears, she called her doctor and shared her predicament. He listened. And then saved the day: He knew someone.

The next day, Sara and Wendy met this man at a café. He was kind and smart and good-looking. They had no idea if he was a good dancer, but he wanted to help. Eight weeks after the insemination by iPhone light—which resulted in her only positive pregnancy test thus far—Sara went in for her first ultrasound. Nervous and excited, she lay on the table, placed her feet in the stirrups, and waited for the doctor. The mood was tense, if cautiously optimistic. They were a team of three facing a fifty-fifty shot, with Wendy holding Sara’s hand and the doctor holding a condom-covered wand. Everyone quietly hoping for a heartbeat.

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

A Regular in His Own Right: The Piano Man of Zuni Cafe

Published by Lucky Peach, performed at La Cocina’s “Voices from the Kitchen”

The six o’clock sun streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the long copper-topped bar and an oddity for a Thursday evening or any evening, really, at Zuni Café: a room full of empty tables.

Bob Carrau doesn’t seem to notice. He strolls in with his embroidered seat cushion under one arm and a tattered yellow Mexican market bag slung over the other, like he has twice a week, every week, for the last nine years. He nods hello to the hosts, whose names, he admits, he really should know by now, and heads downstairs, to Zuni’s underworld—where dishes are washed and ties are ironed and the staff shares big bowls of pasta—and grabs a small ceramic Mexican plate from his cubby: his tip plate.

Bob’s not hungry. He had a couple of carrots before he arrived, but otherwise, he never eats before he plays. He rarely sticks around to eat afterward either, unless friends come in. Doesn’t matter what plates pass by: the thick slices of levain with sea salt-sprinkled butter; the Caesar of all Caesars. Not even Zuni’s famed roasted chicken, nestled in warm bread salad, tempts. (As much as he likes it, he likes his partner Tony’s roast chicken more.)

Somehow, unlike everyone else in the restaurant, his mind isn’t on the food. It’s on his music.

For the next three hours, beneath “a flower arrangement Liberace could die for,” he’ll play a polished K. Kawai grand piano that’s stood there almost as long as the restaurant itself.

First, Bob opens his wallet. “Don’t tell anyone I’m doing this,” he says, and proceeds to do what everyone knows everyone with a tip jar—in Bob’s case, a tip plate—does: and feeds himself a five dollar bill.

Bob never wanted to play for tips! He wasn’t even sure he wanted to play for people. On an average night, he might pull in thirty bucks; fifty on a good night. Tonight—Game 1 of the NBA Finals for the Golden State Warriors—it’s so far looking slow.

“I’ve learned, how I play has no bearing on how much people tip,” he says laughing. “Depends on the night, their mood…” He could make a million mistakes, he says, and some big hitter might still slip him a twenty. Bob appreciates every penny, but he doesn’t play for the money. He can barely believe Zuni pays him at all.

“I guess that means I’m a professional?” He half-balks/half-marvels at the thought as he pulls what looks like forty pounds of spiral-bound jazz fake books out of his bag, some dating back decades.

From fifth grade through age fifty, playing piano was just a hobby for Bob. Something he did on his own, rarely if ever singing along, and always without fanfare. If there happened to be a piano at a friend’s house, he’d sneak off while everyone was making dinner. A performer, he was not, he promises. “I’d just see a piano and want to know what it would sound like.”

But the thing is: his friends thought it sounded pretty good.

And his friends owned restaurants. Like Alice Waters (whose speeches and books he sometimes cowrites, including her latest, Fanny in France, which comes out this fall.) And Gilbert Pilgram of Zuni, which had a piano in need of a player. So one rainy Monday afternoon in 2007, he invited Bob to come in and play a few tunes while he and Judy Rodgers worked on the books.

He doesn’t remember what he played, just how he felt playing. The acoustics were incredible. He gazes from the polished cement floors to the mile-high cathedral-like ceilings. “This room is just beautiful,” he says. “Especially when no one is in it.”

Tonight it’s just a few fellow regulars: a gray-haired woman in a trench coat sitting by herself. Another who gives him what he calls “the Princess Di wave” as she passes the piano. A bearded man in a blazer stops to give him a hearty hug, marveling at having his pick of tables. “Who knew the Zuni crowd were such Warriors fans?”

Bob agrees. The Zuni crowd used to be “gayer,” he says, chatting as his fingers flutter effortlessly over the keys to “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” a WWII tune he sneaks in every time. “The first night I ever played at Zuni, the U.S. had just sent more troops to Iraq, or somewhere, and I was just sitting at the piano, looking around the room, realizing how insulated we were from the world,” he says. “It’s my own silly little protest.”

Bob was a regular back when Zuni was a sliver of an American-Mexican place. Before Judy Rogers took over in 1987, installed the brick oven, expanded, and turned Zuni Café into the iconic restaurant it is today.

There was always a piano, he recalls. “This one old guy from the Fillmore would play the blues and I’d just stare at his fingers, at how fast they could move.” Like I now sit and stare at his.

“Zuni was the kind of place you’d come to cruise,” Bob reminisced. In his thirties, he’d drop by around 11 p.m., hoping to maybe meet someone. “I never did,” he says laughing. “But it felt like you could.”

Now a graying fifty-eight year old in a twenty-year relationship, Bob’s certainly not here to meet men. He’s here to play. And people watch. “I’m a voyeur,” he says. “This gig allows me to be out in public, without, you know, really going out.” Originally a gofer-turned-screenwriter for Lucasfilm (he actually wrote his first script with George), he can’t help but watch the well-coiffed gaggles slurping Fanny Bays and sipping fresh lime margaritas and wonder who they are, where they’ve been, why they’re here.

He barely chats to anyone save the bartender, who pours him a single snifter of mezcal halfway through his set, or the server who always snaps as he strolls past. “That’s how I can tell the music is getting through,” says Bob. “Sometimes I think I sound great. Sometimes I think I sound like a guy on a cruise ship.”

Hardly, says Gilbert, who appreciates the warmth and intimacy that live music adds to a restaurant, a rarity in this age of piped-in playlists. “What I love about Bob is he’s not your typical lounge player. You’ll never catch him playing “New York, New York.” He has standards.”

He’s Zuni’s “regular celebrity,” according to Gilbert. To Bob’s mind, he’s pure background. “People don’t pay attention to me,” he says. “It’s okay.”

Once, though, Michael Tilson Thomas cruised through and gave him a thumbs-up. That felt good. A few years ago, Hillary Clinton came in, with a friend of his who asked her if she had any requests. She suggested “Moon River,” then ordered a Manhattan. But her friend urged her to try Zuni’s margarita. “‘Oh, I’ll just have both,’ she said!” Bob recounts. “Wait, maybe don’t print that. She’s trying to get elected president of the United States!” (Oh c’mon, if Gerald Ford liked his lunchtime martinis and Teddy Roosevelt drank mint juleps and even President Obama puts back an occasional pint, there’s no harm in Hillary Clinton double-fisting a couple of cocktails is there?)

Bob flips the pages of his fake book. He has no premeditated lineup. “I let the room tell me what to play,” he says, and launches into a riff of “Have You Met Miss Jones?”

Time for his break.

He rises and wanders out the side door, onto Market Street. “This stretch used to be scarier, all addicts and homeless,” he says, strolling a few doors down to his “office,” an entrance to a mattress shop and a respite from San Francisco’s wintry summer wind. He points to a shiny tech bus and the sleek new sushi spot across the street. A woman jogs by, as does a man pushing a baby stroller, then two matching hoodies. “You never used to see any of these people here—or if you did, they were lost.”

An almost forty-year-old restaurant with a wall of windows exposes more than just the waning evening light. Somehow, though, because this is Zuni, the changing city remains beyond the glass.

The clock strikes nine and a few Warriors’ revelers start to trickle in. Bob packs up his music, closes the lid on his borrowed piano, and slips the sole fiver back into his wallet. Time to head home. Perhaps Tony’s roasted a chicken.

The Outsize Importance of the Tiny Organic Seed

Parsley. Frank Morton is talking about parsley, possibly the least sexy, most maligned herb imaginable, often relegated to the role of garnish. And he’s excited.

“Parsley could be the new kale. You laugh, but I might make this happen,” says the owner of Wild Garden Seed, who’s spent much of the past 30-odd years living off the grid in Philomath, Oregon, where he breeds new lettuces, quinoas, and other edible plants. Morton is currently experimenting with parsley samples from around the world, sending them to chef-friends for taste testing, in the hopes of creating exceptionally flavorful, hardy varieties that won’t bolt prematurely.

Tonight, one of those parsleys, a flat-leaf from the Republic of Georgia, has migrated from the edge of the plate to headline a granita prepared by Matthew Accarrino of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred SPQR. The occasion: a dinner at the St. Helena, California, farm of Kit Crawford and her husband, Gary Erickson, who founded Clif Bar & Company. The event, benefiting Seed Matters (an initiative of the couple’s nonprofit Clif Bar Family Foundation), aims to push the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table fundraiser a few levels deeper.

“The problem with the farm-to-table thing,” explains Matthew Dillon, who oversees Seed Matters as the director of Clif Bar’s agricultural policy and programs, “is that it jumps into the story halfway.” Long before a sprig of parsley or an ear of corn is harvested—much less cooked and eaten—the right seed must be planted. And the outlook for the people who do the work of developing that all-important source material? Bleak, at best.

During the past century, as agriculture has become more and more industrialized, flavor and genetic diversity have been sacrificed in favor of efficiency and yield. The result, says Cornell University professor Michael Mazourek, is the bland, “one-size-fits-most crops” that dominate today’s culinary landscape. He is among the plant breeders gathered in St. Helena to showcase the work of Seed Matters, which helps fund his research. Mazourek’s chile peppers, including the ‘Habanada’—“It’s a habanero without the blistering heat. Get it?”—were paired with burrata cheese for an appetizer. “But this is not just about what we’re eating now,” says the scientist, who teamed with New York chef Dan Barber to create the squat ‘Honeynut’ squash. “It’s about what we’re leaving for future generations to build upon.”

Unfortunately, the seed business has consolidated in a few corporate hands over the years, and the Monsantos and Syngentas of the world patent their proprietary horticultural product. That’s why Clif Bar underwrites university endowments, fellowships, and grants, supporting the kind of public research that produces open-source varieties any breeder can access. Seed Matters also emphasizes the importance of organic methods. “Seeds created in a conventional, chemically dependent environment,” Dillon explains, “yield far less resilient plants.”

Another downside of privatization: Corporate control has given plant breeding a bad rap. “People think it means ‘genetically engineered,’” says Lane Selman, a researcher at Oregon State University and the founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, which connects breeders and chefs. “The heirloom boom of the nineties helped people see the value of preserving seed, but they don’t understand that it can get even better.” Traditional breeding methods, she says, hit the sweet spot between heirlooms and GMOs, producing flavorful, nutrient-rich edibles that are also disease resistant. “We want to show that plant sex is not a four-letter word.”

Bill Tracy certainly doesn’t shy away from the subject. “Corn is extremely promiscuous. We have to keep our plants isolated to prevent cross-pollination,” says the University of Wisconsin–Madison professor and one of only two public sweet-corn breeders in the United States. He and the other scientists at the Seed Matters benefit—Jim Myers of Oregon State University, Washington State University’s Stephen Jones, and Irwin Goldman of the University of Wisconsin–Madison—represent our nation’s best hope for better-tasting food. It would be hard, in fact, to underestimate the collective brainpower gathered here under an autumn sky. Thao Pham, the vice president of community at Clif Bar, jokes: “We are in earthquake territory. What if something happens?”

“Public plant breeding was on life support for a while,” says Tracy, whose ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ corn starred in a creamy gelato accompanying a cake made with Myers’s ‘Tromboncino’ squash. Preceding the dessert: sublime gnudi created by John McConnell, executive chef at the Clif Family Winery, that incorporated Mazourek’s ‘Honeynut’ squash and Morton’s ‘Lacinato Rainbow’ kale. Chef Accarrino served Goldman’s Danvers and Nantes carrots four different ways: roasted, raw, puréed, and pan-fried.

If the festive atmosphere tonight is any indication, Seed Matters is breathing new life into traditional plant breeding. Morton, for one, says he’s noticed a great deal of enthusiasm among the next generation. “They’re realizing seed is just so primary. There used to be clubs for people who saved seeds,” he adds. “You don’t hear about them nowadays, but I could see it catching on in a second.”

 

My Accidental, Alcohol-Drinking Pregnancy Adventure

“What a day…” I said to my new husband, Josh, uncorking a bottle of cab before bed.

On my commute home earlier that evening, my best friend Madeleine had called from Portland, with News, out of nowhere. “I’m pregnant!” she cheered. I was happy for her, if overwhelmed by what it implied for me. The fact that Madeleine was having a baby meant that someday sooner than later, I might have to have one, too.

I hung up and dashed into a Thai restaurant, where my friend Kimmie was waiting—with more News of her own. Meanwhile, my little sister back East was well into her second trimester.

“I can’t believe this is happening already!” I cried to my husband, an aspiring father himself, as I curled into the fetal position on the couch with my goblet of red. “Why is every human I know pregnant?”

A few nights later, he and I went out for Mexican food with Kimmie and her boyfriend to celebrate. The three of us non-pregnant people toasted with tequila shots, followed by ginormous margaritas, while Kimmie clinked her sparkling water with lime and tried not to glower at us.

A month, maybe more, passed. My sister emailed me photos of her bulging belly. Madeleine and Kimmie’s pants grew tighter. I continued to pop my birth control pill every morning.

And my urban professional, semi-hedonistic, happy child-free life in San Francisco carried on. Josh and I went out for our weekly sushi fix, complete with sake and Sapporos and more nigiri than you’d expect a normal hungry couple to consume. I drank a double-shot latte every morning and a glass or two of wine, sometimes three, more nights than not. I ate soft cheese. I ate raw cheese. I ordered a processed turkey sandwich from the deli counter pretty much daily. I skied at 11,000 feet. I lolled in a hot tub or two. Once, home solo on a Friday night, I discovered a leftover joint in the coffee table, lit it, and looped reruns of Sex & the City.

Then a good friend who likes good food was visiting from Manhattan and we went out for what I now jokingly refer to as my Last Supper: a four-hour Michelin-starred meal, which kicked off with Prosecco and ended with port and had at least seven courses and as many wine pairings in between.

The next day my head hurt. But, oddly, my breasts hurt more. I recalled Kimmie complaining about a similar symptom and rang her immediately.

“Maybe you should take a pregnancy test,” she advised.

“Why would I do that? “I said. “I am on the pill!”

But, then I remembered: I am also irregular. So, just to rule out the possibility, I swung by Walgreens and grabbed one of those purples E.P.T boxes I’d always assumed were for other people.And then, home alone in my bathroom, I watched as a fuzzy blue + appeared. Like Juno, I remained unconvinced, and frantically took another test. There it was again: +. WTF.

As soon as Josh walked in the door, I showed him this strange cotton strip of an intrusion. Stunned, and late to meet friends, we tabled it and adjourned to dinner, where I didn’t touch my glass of wine. As if it matters at this point, I thought. My mind did a rapid rewind of the past few months. I had no idea how pregnant I was, if I really was pregnant. But either way, wasn’t the damage already done?

The next day, I demanded an appointment with my doctor. She was on vacation and I was redirected to a white-haired old man I’d never met. A younger woman in a white coat sat by his side with a notepad, apparently a resident, there to learn the ropes. Trying to sound like the intelligent, responsible person that, up until then, I’d thought I was, I spilled my story, in between sobs. The pill… The tequila… The wine… Kind of a lot of wine, sometimes…

I tried to make light of my predicament and put it in perspective. “I mean, aren’t there babies born to crack addicts every day who turn out fine?!” I said smiling weakly, waiting for him to tell me, Yes, yes, of course it’s fine. But instead he just gave me a strange look and said, deadpan, “No, those babies are generally not fine.”

But I didn’t smoke crack! I reminded him, realizing he wasn’t getting my bad joke—or me. “Do you think this baby will be okay? I mean, should I not keep it??” I asked, searching for some sort of affirmation. He said nothing. I looked to the female resident; she remained silent.

I sobered up from my hysteria. “Wait, are you telling me that because I drank alcohol, I should have an abortion?” I asked.

“It’s your decision,” he said flatly. I walked out of the office and into the crowded elevator, wailing.

I felt like one of those hapless 16-year-olds on that TLC show, “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” except I was 33 and newly married and fully employed and primed—by societal standards, at least— for motherhood.

Later, at my first ultrasound, I was told I was 13 weeks, six days pregnant. Further along than both Kimmie and Madeleine, much to their amusement when I later broke my news. Somehow, a baby had invaded my body and I managed to sail through my entire first trimester—typically a trying, anxious time— without even realizing it. I have to admit, ignorance was indeed bliss. Had I known, I would’ve been like every other pregnant person out there: overly preoccupied, paranoid, and occasionally, insufferable.

**

Women today are subject to a whole laundry list of worries regarding what not to ingest and not to imbibe and not to involve themselves in when pregnant. After the first article on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome was published in the Lancet in 1973, alcohol eventually made its way to the top of the list, dropping into “occasionally okay” territory, whenever a report was released that said “light drinking” during pregnancy contributes to better behaved boys or some-such.

More recently, it seems, the restrictions have intensified. I mean, bury yourself in Babycenter.com’s “Pregnancy Safety” section, and you may spiral into a virtual state of paralysis: Is it safe to take a bath? Is it safe to ride the bumper cars? Is it safe to use a smartphone? Is it safe to sleep in a waterbed? (Wait, does anyone even still sleep in a waterbed??)

And now, last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took it a step further—by declaring what women ages 15 to 44 who are not pregnant should not do: Namely, drink alcohol.

The backlash was, of course, rampant. Tweets and op-eds and rants posted all over the place calling the (albeit well-intentioned) suggestion condescending and unrealistic. (A favorite was from Kalyie Hanson who called herself the “pre-pregnant” national communications director for NARAL. “Okay, CDC. It’s not my glass of rose that’s the problem. It’s a culture that doesn’t respect women or trust us to make our own decisions.”) A friend of mine told me how someone on her Facebook feed linked to a news report saying the CDC recommends all women not on birth control abstain from alcohol, and she added the comment, “Oh yeah? Well I recommend you go suck a bag of dicks you sexist douche bags.”

I prefer the way Rebecca Solnit put it. But hear, hear to the Internet’s collective outcry. Plus, instilling fear in an entire population of people who may or may not—or may never even want to become pregnant at some point is kind of absurd.

I agree that the American Academy of Pediatrics’ current position makes good logical sense: the standard for pregnant women should be no drinking at all, since alcohol-related birth defects and developmental issues are “completely preventable when pregnant women abstain from alcohol use,” as a report released in October stated. But I do think, like many others, that the level of panic surrounding pregnancy has become overblown.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is real and tragic— and yes, completely preventable. For alcoholics, of course, it’s a serious problem. For frequent pregnant drinkers, it probably is too. But, I don’t know… if, once in a while, a pregnant woman waddles into a bar for a beer, is it really such a big deal?

There’s this strange idea that from the moment a woman is impregnated she’s supposed to, somehow, avoid all risk. But a pregnant person is still a person—and, as people roaming the planet, we are constantly taking risks. When we cross the street (could get hit); when we go to the movies (could get shot); when we eat at Chipotle (if we ever eat at Chipotle again…). I commuted two-and-a-half hours a day in California traffic while I was pregnant. I wonder, really, which posed a greater threat: the wine I drank or Highway 101?

Being a responsible pregnant woman, or parent, doesn’t mean eliminating risk —but managing it. Is it responsible for someone who is actively “trying” to drink four shots of bourbon or shoot-up heroin? Obviously not. But it does seem like a reasonable level of risk for a 30-year-old woman who is having sex and not on the pill to split a bottle of wine with her boyfriend at dinner. Who invited the CDC to the table?

 A lot of OBs will quietly tell you what mine —one of the most respected in San Francisco— did (once I finally got an appointment to see her). That this “no drinking while pregnant rule” is really in place because, well… if it wasn’t, some women would probably go nuts.I get it. I realize with the advent of the 44-ounce Super Big Gulp and the $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffet, Americans have lost a little credibility in the self-policing department. Still, whatever happened to the Socratic motto, “everything in moderation, nothing in excess”?

When I got pregnant with my second kid, I knew it from the get-go. And, yes, I curbed it like a normal person. Still, during a weeklong vacation to Paris, while seven months pregnant with my son, I drank one glass of wine a night. (Despite the fact that, for the record, according to my server, French women actually don’t drink wine when they’re pregnant.)

I’m not advocating women booze their way through their first trimester. Not even through their thirdMy story is just one data point in an amniotic sea of overwrought 21st century anxiety. Maybe it will move one newly pregnant woman to live a little and put lox on her bagel.

Back in the Mad Men era, of course, pregnancy was considered a nine-month inconvenience at most, barely a reason to alter one’s lifestyle. Expectant mothers swilled martinis and smoked cigarettes, even swallowed diet pills if they’d gained too much baby weight (doctor’s orders!). A vodka-and-OJ was essentially a welcome cocktail at some hospitals, believed to prevent premature labor. In the 19th century, physicians apparently suggested champagne to ease morning sickness.

We’ve all guffawed over these outdated anecdotes. I clung to them constantly during the second half of my pregnancy, as friends consoled me with tales of their mothers’ gin-and-tonic habits that put my glass of wine or two to shame.

My mom never drank, she still doesn’t, but she did smoke a pack a day while she was pregnant with me. (“The doctor said I could!” she reminds me, adding that they’d share a Parliament at every appointment.) I was four pounds and a month premature, but otherwise apart from seasonal allergies and non-pregnant neurotic tendencies, I’m alive and well.

And so is my daughter.

Friends told me I was lucky. To have so easily gotten pregnant. To have avoided worrying about every little thing, like they did. And though I felt anything but lucky at the time, looking back now, I realize of course I was, for so many reasons. Number one being now seven-year-old Hazel— a witty, sweet, little girl with wild curls and a wide smile— who dodged every obstacle I’d inadvertently thrown at her in utero, including a pill intended to prevent her very existence. And yet she emerged on that clear October day, a healthy, blue-eyed, tiny triumph.

Law and Orders

It’s not every Saturday night that San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer is shown to his seat by a former prostitute who spent serious time on the streets. Not that he knew it. And neither would you. The woman’s smile is wide, her eyes kind. Dressed like all the hosts and servers in an embroidered black shirt custom-made in Oaxaca, Mexico, she exudes a natural warmth and sincerity not often displayed by hosts at hip, high-profile new restaurants in this town.

But Cala isn’t your typical hotspot. Opened in early October on a dark stretch of Fell Street, Cala is the first restaurant in the United States by Gabriela Cámara, the renowned owner of four Mexico City establishments. The most celebrated among them, Contramar, is revered by food-world royalty like Alice Waters and Diana Kennedy, both Cámara’s friends and mentors. “I was living happily in Mexico,” says Cámara, who moved to San Francisco last year with her then-five-year-old son. “Why would I open anything here unless it made sense socially and emotionally, and fit with who I am?”

Who Cámara is, is an extremely successful, extremely open-minded restaurateur who is willing to build her staff primarily from people with prison records and no prior experience. Sixty percent of Cala’s staff hail from long-respected halfway house programs like the Delancey Street Foundation; others essentially come straight from their cells via programs like America Works and the Community Assessment and Services Center, operated by San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department.

Many have struggled with addiction and don’t drink the mezcal cocktails they serve. Some had no idea that wine is made from grapes. “The other night, a server asked me the difference between sparkling wine and sparkling water,” says Cámara. “I don’t care. That stuff you can teach.” What you can’t teach, she says, is character, a work ethic, personality. “You can have technically perfect food, but that doesn’t make a good restaurant. It’s the people.” For her, those people are hardworking, motivated men and women who happen to have been incarcerated.

These members of Cámara’s staff aren’t confined to being part-time dishwashers: They’re full-time back- and front-of-house employees, all paid a living wage with full health benefits, a portion of pooled tips based on a point system (the restaurant prohibits tipping by customers), and a share of the restaurant’s profits. This is not a hiring model you’ll see at any other restaurant in town. Though the Delancey Street Foundation’s SoMa restaurant is staffed by former convicts, it’s a nonprofit entity that functions as a job-training center. Cala is very much a for-profit venture: For all of her idealism, Cámara is not running a charity.

And when you’re sitting in Cala’s airy, sophisticated dining room listening to a well-spoken floor manager talk about how she has found her family here, you realize how profound Cala’s hiring policy is. Cámara, spurred by her general manager, Emma Rosenbush, is, it can be said without an ounce of Silicon Valley exaggeration, changing lives.

In doing so, Cámara and Rosenbush are challenging San Francisco restaurants to think differently about hiring, an issue with which the service industry, which is suffering a labor crunch, has lately struggled. “On one hand, you can’t find people to work in restaurants because they can’t afford to live here,” says Rosenbush. “But there’s a whole population of people who can’t get work because—what—they have a record?” Rosenbush worked at Berkeley’s Prison Law Office after college and vowed that she would one day hire formerly incarcerated individuals if she were ever in a position to do so. They are, she says, “a huge resource not being used.” (Nationwide, about 60 percent of ex-prisoners are unemployed a year after release.)

Cámara and Rosenbush’s real motivation, though, isn’t supply and demand, but their desire to hire people who are a good fit for the restaurant regardless of their background. “You should see the faces of these people when they realize they are not being rejected,” says Cámara, who was hesitant to publicize her hiring program for fear that it would be perceived as a marketing ploy or an invasion of her employees’ privacy. “Emma and I are not trying to save society—we just want to work with people willing to do a good job.”

To find Cala’s staff, Rosenbush reached out to her former sociology professors, contacts from her law office days, and reentry organizations like Root and Rebound. “It went viral,” she recalls. “It was wild! I was getting so many emails and calls.” Her job post went far beyond the typical equal opportunity language: “Strongly encourage applications from people…with conviction histories.”

At least 50 former convicts showed up for an interview, many in a suit or a dress: “The non-incarcerated people dressed shittier,” says Rosenbush, laughing. A lack of experience was not only preferred—it was actually a prerequisite. “Part-time hipster servers,” says Rosenbush, aren’t sufficiently invested in their work. “Professional servers are difficult to retrain. They want to do things their way, not your way,” adds Cámara. “Servers in San Francisco don’t really give a shit. They know they can get a job anywhere.”

Cámara would rather train from scratch. That’s how she does it in Mexico. “If you’re smart, or even halfway smart but work hard,” she says, “you’re able to rise.” Still, she admits that six weeks in, service at Cala has been “a disaster.” During the restaurant’s first two months, it lost 14 of its original 33 staff, including about 10 ex-convicts. One admitted to using meth; another got a call in the middle of her shift that her brother had been shot. After two weeks of training, one of Rosenbush’s favorite hires, an honest, charming guy with zero experience, was a no-show. The reason, Rosenbush learned, was that he’d been re-incarcerated just before the restaurant was due to open.

In spite of these setbacks, to those dedicated to giving former convicts a second chance, Cala is an unqualified triumph. On its opening night, Lauren Bell, the interim director of the Adult Probation Department’s reentry division, was filled with pride watching her clients drape white linen napkins over their arms and pour water. “What Cala is doing is revolutionary in such a simple way,” she says. “It is putting people used to being on the sidelines of life front and center, with people looking right at them, people with deep pockets. It’s making them feel like they’re taking their first steps toward flying.”

Sabrina Reid certainly feels that way. “I’m managing the floor of a restaurant. That’s insane,” she says. “I’m being interviewed for a magazine. Never in my darkest days…” Reid, 46, became addicted to heroin as a teenager and spent the next 25 years in and out of federal prison. During the last five years, she ran private dining at the Delancey Street Restaurant, whose proceeds go directly to feeding, housing, and training Delancey residents, readying them for the “real world.” Rarely, though, are graduates really welcomed—at least not into San Francisco’s rarefied version of the real world. But Cámara and Rosenbush were literally waiting with open arms. “After our interview, it felt like we’d known each other for years,” says Reid. “We were hugging and jumping up and down. I was like, this has to be too good to be true.”

“There’s always drama in the restaurant industry, but this has been another level,” says Cámara. That said, it hasn’t always been the bad kind. As I interviewed Reid, she glanced over my shoulder and suddenly excused herself to greet a young woman who’d wandered in for brunch. “Wow: That’s Sabrina’s daughter,” Cámara told me. “She hasn’t seen her in eight years, I’m not sure what else I can tell you. That pretty much says it all.”

 

The Breakfast Club

Scrawled across the chest of every server at Sweet Maple is a tribute to its signature item. “I [heart] Millionaire’s Bacon,” the T-shirts tout. Indeed, the sales tactic works—as plates of the thick, brown sugar-tinged slabs adorn pretty much every one of the twenty-five tables in the place. But not Billy’s and Bob’s.

Pork?” scoffs Billy Cohen, when I ask if it’s the bacon that brings him and his friend Bob Bransten here every Saturday morning. Definitely not, they say.

At eighty years old, they don’t touch the stuffOh, sure, maybe thirty years ago—when the they were college buddies who became Pacific Heights neighbors and began what’s become a weekly breakfast tradition. Sweet Maple wasn’t always their spot. Neither can recall the name of the first San Francisco diner they went to together, just that they’ve outlived it. “Remember that other place on Fulton, where we could never find parking?” probes Bob, like one half of a long-married couple. “What was it called?”

Another of their spots was Eats, a classic on Clement Street. “But frankly, by the time we got there, it was already packed with families,” says Billy. “I don’t do lines anymore. I gave up that up in the army.”

The Internet is filled with raves about Sweet Maple (“OMG, the millionaire bacon. Let’s talk about that first!” Yelps Karen S. of Sacramento. “As I took the first bite, my eyes rolled back like I was having an orgasm.”), but for Billy and Bob, the food here is just “fine.” Ultimately, they chose it as their go-to place simply because of its size. It’s one of the largest breakfast spots in the city. Plus, they quickly figured out that if they showed up by eight a.m., they’d “beat the mobs.” After four years, the staff knows their names, their window table, and their order. “Granola and fruit, no yogurt, low-fat milk for Billy; one egg white scrambled with tomatoes and mushrooms, no toast, no potatoes, and a glass of orange juice [with a straw] for Bob,” says the smiley server as she presents their plates and refills their coffee mugs. Billy pours in three packets of Splenda and passes Bob the ketchup, which he squeezes beside his egg white. For Billy and Bob, it’s not about the cuisine, but the company.

Bob came from a big West Coast coffee family—MJB it was called; founded in 1881, it rivaled Folgers and Hills Bros. back in the day. He worked in mass-produced coffee for decades, but admits he likes Blue Bottle now. Still, he doesn’t seem to mind the generic Italian roast at Sweet Maple; he accepts a third, then a fourth, then a fifth topper.

Back in New York, Billy took his Harvard MBA to Broadway, where he was a producer. He still is, in that semi-retired, successful way. He co-produced the current hit Beautiful, about Carole King. “I’ve spent my life theoretically working in a creative industry,” says Billy, “but none of it has rolled off on me as far as my culinary habits.”

Bob agrees. “Let me suggest that Billy also likes to go to the same place at night,” he teases. That place is Izzy’s Steak & Chop House, a Marina mainstay since 1987. They go about once a monthwith their wives, which means they sometimes end up eating breakfast and dinner together in the same day. “He likes the potatoes and the creamed spinach there,” explains Bob.

After thirty years sitting across from each other, there’s still plenty to talk about: They gossip about their kids (Billy’s son, who’s thirty-two, “is about to cohabit with a young woman,” beams Billy); rib each other about their prestigious business schools (“You know what they call Harvard,” says Bob. “Preparation H.”); and roar with laughter about their lucky, lackluster military experience. “My friend here, was a member of the distinguished 353rd and Leaflet Battalion!” Billy guffaws over his granola. Apparently, Bob’s role was to drop leaflets for civilians when the occasion called, but turns out his battalion never even had to do that. “They called us ‘Legs,’” says Bob, “A deprecatory term that means guys who walked as opposed to guys who jump out of airplanes.” “You know, on Veterans Day, when you’re at the 49ers game and they ask those who served to stand, I’m always a little hesitant,” says Bob. “I don’t think we’re really the ones they mean to honor.”

The real draw of Sweet Maple every Saturday, say Billy and Bob, is the desire to get out of the house, to talk, and to try to make sense of the sort of life-stuff that happens. “Let me be clear, Billy is my psychiatrist,” says Bob, only half-joking. “My wife, forget it. He’s heard all of my trials and tribulations. It’s painful, but it’s cheaper than therapy.”

Billy puts the point of their weekly breakfast date a little more bluntly: “It keeps us alive,” he says.

With collared button-downs beneath their wool sweaters, gray hairs on their balding heads, and cute comments about grandkids (Bob has six; Billy’s “still waiting”), this two-top sticks out at Sweet Maple. In fact, they stick out in San Francisco, where signs of life over sixty are becoming more and more rare. But sit and talk with these guys for an hour on a Saturday morning, and their wrinkles and their years seem to fade away. Suddenly, it’s easy to see Billy and Bob as they still see themselves.

“Sure, we have more physical concerns now,” says Billy. “But we also wake up every morning and know it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.” He peers around the restaurant, at the fitted plaid shirts, the soft hands sparkling with newly donned engagement rings, the new fathers cutting their toddler’s pancakes, and the hung-over crews devouring deep-fried French toast and sucking down Sweet Maple’s bottomless soju Bloody Marys. “We think, Gee, that guy over there certainly looks old, when he’s probably ten years younger!” (Or fifty years younger.)

Oh, kids today. They text and bail and reschedule and hover for hours, holding out for the perfect poached eggs at the most popular spot—but Billy and Bob know better. They know what matters isn’t so much where you go—bacon be damned—but that you show up. “We just call each other and say, ‘Eight a.m. and hang up,” says Billy.

The bill arrives, which they split, and scramble together a 20-plus percent tip. “I don’t like owing this guy anything,” teases Bob. It’s getting close to ten a.m. A few more swigs of coffee and the old friends shuffle out. In their loafers and pressed-yet-sagging khakis, they cut through the throngs waiting for a table, San Francisco’s hipster youth parting like the Red Sea. “What’s going on the rest of the day?” asks Bob. Not much, replies Billy. “I think I’ll go home and take a nap.”

How Was Your Day … Last Coast Miwok on Tomales Bay?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Merrel Rocca
Marshall, California

I’ve been in my Winnebago all morning watching Buffy (Season 6). My daughter bought me the entire VHS set for my birthday and I’ve been burning through it. Not much else to do. I roll my own cigarettes, I fill them with pipe tobacco. I’m a smoker. I’ll smoke anything. I don’t have a phone. No email. People knock on my door or leave a note if they want to find me. I’ve lived here on Tomales Bay for 61 years. I don’t like to mention it to everybody, but I have.

Usually sitting here outside in this La-Z-Boy I got from my neighbor. He said he slept in this more than his bed and I believe him. God, is it nice. This spot is protected from the wind. So I sit here, smoke, and look at the water. Watch the tourists speeding to the oyster farms. I’ve got my own oysters, growing on the dock across the road. When the wind blows, a lot of the times one of the Hog Island sacks will break away and they’re floating, and I just pick them up. Free oysters.

A while back, I worked at the Bohemian Grove up in Monte Rio, splitting wood and driving around members. Like Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood, and a retired Supreme Court judge who gave me $400 for picking him up. Now I drive old people around, a few locals from here. I drive my neighbor, he’s about 100 years old. I take him over the hill, to Trader Joe’s, doctors’ appointments. Last time I drove him all the way to Novato for an ear test. Five hours and he only paid me 20 bucks.

My son and his wife live in this house 5 feet away. I’ve got my trailers. My grandfather came from Italy all the way to Ellis Island and then here, to Tomales Bay. There were a lot of Italians here. He was a rum-runner during Prohibition. My grandmother grew up in this A-frame across the road, it was built in 1864. I didn’t even know my grandmother was half Indian, Coast Miwok. She never mentioned it until she was on her deathbed.

Then she filled out all the papers, so now we’re connected with the new casino they built in Rohnert Park. We got two free days there before it opened up. Me and my friend were invited to the opening party. We got to eat all the food that was in there. They brought it to us, we didn’t have to move. God, they brought these pot stickers … the Indians throw fun parties.

I don’t know much about the Coast Miwoks. They ate the little oysters, the Olympians. After they finished shooting us and doing all the crap to us, there were only about 15 of us left, as far as I know. They say there were more Indians here years and years ago than there are white people now, which must have been a lot. They said they owned more land than anybody too, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and way up north. Now we don’t own crap. Now we’ve got a casino.

I asked them, “How much do you think my share will be after we pay back the government?” About $10,000 or $12,000 a month. Jeez, after I got up off the floor, I said, “You’re going to put me in a higher tax bracket.” I just want to collect one share and go to New Zealand. And if I die after that, I’ll be happy. Did you see Lord of the Rings? All that land was New Zealand. It’s beautiful … but I’d go just for Hobbiton.

They asked me if I wanted to move; they are going to build us a rancheria and they asked me if I wanted to live on it. I don’t know why they call it a rancheria — it’s a reservation. They asked me if I wanted a house. Why would I want to live there when I can live here?

I’ve been looking at this bay for years and years and years. Sometimes I take it for granted, but usually when I’m gone and I come back, it’s like, wow, like new again. That’s a good view. And one of these days, they’re going to charge me for it. Don’t laugh. They do that.

As told to Rachel Levin

How Was Your Day … Quadriplegic Dad?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Les Peer 
Stowe, Vermont

Well, I stay in bed more often than not lately. Getting up doesn’t happen very quickly. I’m on a ventilator. I need round-the-clock care. Sometimes I’ll sit at my computer or go into town for lunch with my wife, Marion, but I can’t eat much anymore. I used to love a good steak, foie gras, homemade popcorn.Now I drink Ensure.

I also used to be a skier. It’s been 33 years since my accident. I wasn’t supposed to live this long. At 69, I’m supposedly the longest surviving quadriplegic, but I don’t know for sure. I moved to Vermont back in 1965 to ski — and to go to college. Goddard was one of those avant-garde schools, you know, where anything goes: coed dorms, plenty of dope, your own self-designed curriculum and class schedule. You took what you wanted, when you wanted, and I arranged it so I had plenty of time to ski.

I worked as a bellhop at the Lodge at Stowe and got free lift tickets. I skied pretty much every day. I loved the snow, but I liked adventure better than school. A year later, I went to Iceland and worked on a fishing boat … then I went off to London and worked as a waiter at the Playboy Club. I actually tried to get into England’s Royal Academy for acting, but when that didn’t work I went back to being a busboy and a ski bum in Vermont, in the Mad River Valley.

I was footloose. I became a ski instructor and a bartender; I was a pretty popular one, I’ll admit. It was Sugarbush, in the ’70s, and everyone dated everyone. In the winter of ’71, I met a beautiful woman named Barbara; we dated for three, maybe four months. She was a ski instructor, too. It was a fling; and at the end of the ski season, she just disappeared.

After eight years as a ski instructor, I took a job as a sales rep, pedaling skis for Elan. I was pretty good at it so they sent me everywhere: the Midwest, NYC, the Lake Placid Olympics, Colorado. One day, in Aspen, in 1982, I was out skiing with a couple of friends — and, all of a sudden, I just fell. When I woke up I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel anything. I was numb. And I just knew.

I was paralyzed from the neck down. I was 36 and single and I would never ski again.

Marion and I had dated for a bit back in Vermont, in 1981. When she heard about the accident, she came out to Colorado to visit me. She came a few times over the years, and eventually we started dating again. She had two young boys at the time. I had my condition. And I proposed. We got married in 1992 and moved back to Vermont, to Stowe. I ended up adopting her children later. I remember the judge asked, “Do you have any other children, Les?” I’d laughed. C’mon, I couldn’t have kids.

Then in the fall of 2008, the phone rang. Marion answered and hooked me up to the line, and the woman at the other end asked if I knew someone by the name of Barbara. I said, yes, I used to. The woman said she was calling from an agency in New York, that they’d hired a private detective to find me. She said there was a child. A child that could be mine.

It was mind-boggling. We did all the tests and blood work, but when I saw the picture, I knew.

A month later, this smart, beautiful, 36-year-old woman from San Francisco named Katrina walked in our door. She was a gift from heaven. Truly. A skier, too, raised in Manhattan. And she looked just like me. Her first words, she joked, were: “Can I borrow the car?”

I’d remembered I’d seen Barbara, once, in the ski line, a few years after we’d broken up. We just nodded at each other through the crowd. I don’t know why she never told me. I wish she had.

Katrina moved to Vermont a few years ago. To get to know me, she said, which made me feel like a billion dollars. She lives down the road now. Still, I am very sorry I missed something so huge in my life. And in hers. I would’ve given my right arm to watch her grow up. I would’ve given both arms, actually. They’re dead weight at this point.

As told to Rachel Levin

Uber and the Islanders

The “Help Wanted” sections in Martha’s Vineyard’s two local newspapers still read the same as they did 20 years ago, when I was looking for a summer job: server at the Seafood Shanty, carpenter’s assistant, rural mail carrier. Except for one, an ad with a glamorous-looking woman emerging from a shiny black car. “Drive with Uber,” it said. “Get paid weekly just for helping our community of riders get rides around Martha’s Vineyard.”

Uber, the ride-hailing app, began business on Martha’s Vineyard — as well as on Nantucket and Cape Cod — over Memorial Day Weekend, triggering mixed feelings among islanders and, of course, a barrage of resistance from the family-run taxi companies that have long dominated the island. “It will be the slow death of us,” Jim Hickey, a co-owner of Bluefish Taxi, told the Vineyard Gazette, in one of dozens of local articles and competing op-eds (with headlines from “Hashtag, Stay Local” to “Fan of Uber”) that have run since spring.

While many locals praise such technological advances coming to their community, some longtime visitors are unhappy about Uber infiltrating a place they would prefer remain timeless. “I don’t like it,” said Matt Fortenbaugh, 40, an Internet ad sales manager from Boston who spent summers growing up at his family’s home in East Chop, on the northern end of the island.

“McDonald’s, Uber, stay away,” he said. “You come out here for an escape. If you have all the conveniences you have at home, why bother with the hassle of taking a ferry? It used to be a badge of honor not to have a cellphone here. You’d say, ‘Leave me a message at the house.’ Uber is just another thing mainstreaming the island.”

While it is now available in 58 countries and more than 300 cities, operating in quaint seasonal vacation destinations is a new thing for Uber. (In spring, it also opened in other idyllic spots like the Berkshires and Mystic, Conn.; Kiawah, S.C.; and Eden, Utah.) But Uber’s on-demand model doesn’t quite seem to be working — at least not as well as it does in urban areas.

Islanders’ resistance to change is one reason. Uber’s resistance to small towns’ strict regulations is another. But ultimately it is the lack of reliable, round-the-clock drivers that has been the real obstacle. Cars will circle Oak Bluffs like sharks on a Saturday night. “But the drunk people can be annoying,” said Willie Simon, a nephew of the singer Carly Simon, and a part-time Uber driver. In Boston, where he is in school and drives for Uber part time, he might wait five minutes for a passenger, he said, whereas in Martha’s Vineyard it could be an hour. And if he is up island in Chilmark and the ping comes from Edgartown, a halfhour drive way, Mr. Simon said it is not worth the gasoline money or sitting in summer traffic to pick up a fare and then not have one waiting on the other end.

An occasional driver from Vineyard Haven who asked not to be identified because he has another job, said he earns roughly $250 a week as a driver. “It fills my tank, pays for lunch,” he said. “I’m not trying to make a living doing this.”

And that’s the thing: Few islanders are. Five or six drivers on the Vineyard was the estimate repeatedly given. “My friends have other ways of making 20 bucks an hour,” Mr. Simon said. “They have trucks or old cars they don’t feel like cleaning out.” Uber declined to comment on the number of drivers on the Cape and Islands. But Austin Geidt, the company’s head of global expansion, said, “We’ve seen overwhelming demand among riders and we’re always looking to bring more drivers onto platform to help meet that demand.”

This may be a bit overstated. Islanders’ transportation habits are well entrenched. Most locals and seasonal people have their own cars, parking is easy, and a bus ride is inexpensive (an all-day, island-wide pass is $8). Many people here said that while they are happy to have Uber — and see it as a solution to the island’s perennial drunk-driving problem, which worsens in summer — they would not use it.

What’s more, many tourists also don’t realize that Uber is available here. “Three full buses went by before we could get one,” said Bankole Ayodeji from Brooklyn, holding his toddler. “We didn’t even think about Uber. We would have totally taken it.”

On several occasions, when I opened my app in July, it flashed: “No Cars Available.” When I eventually did get Uber, on a Friday morning, I ended up paying $35, including tip, for a 13-mile drive from Vineyard Haven to Chilmark. I rode alone in an Audi sedan with leather seats. A taxi the following Saturday morning from Chilmark, called after another failed Uber attempt, cost me $60, including tip, to take me just two miles farther. I sat on a frayed tapestry, the driver was nice and on time and said his gig came with seasonal housing. (Which is harder to find on the island than Uber.)

It’s the same on Nantucket, said Briana Johnson, 25, a bartender at the Rose and Crown. “I can never get a Uber in the morning,” she said. “But I’ve taken it three nights after work. It’s been the same guy every time.” Dealing with small town regulations has led to some complications for Uber. After starting service in East Hampton two years ago, Uber suspended its operations in June because it refused to comply with local rules that all drivers have a local business office. On the Vineyard, Edgartown has fines up to $375 a day for any driver caught picking up passengers unless they adhere to the same licenses and laws as its taxis — including displaying the company logo on both sides of every vehicle and the town name on the back.

Uber was a good fit in East Hampton, where the social scene is an extension of New York City, and SoulCycle and Starbucks line the streets. But Uber’s arrival represents a bigger cultural clash on Martha’s Vineyard, where people still hitchhike, uphold the existence of dry towns, and leave their doors unlocked. The only chains that squeaked through are Stop & Shop and a Dairy Queen camouflaged by cedar shake shingles. And for better or worse, the old rumbling vans that await the ferries are as much a part of the landscape as the stone walls and sailboat-dotted ponds.

You would expect islanders (who eschew all things corporate) would support their local taxis in the face of a behemoth like Uber. And some do, citing potential congestion around the ferries and the fact that cabs will stick around come winter. But many locals see Uber as a refreshing alternative to a broken taxi system, plagued by rude drivers, rundown vehicles and steep, inconsistent fares.

“Every time Uber is mentioned in the local papers, it’s followed by hundreds of hateful comments about the taxis. Really mean stuff,” said Mr. Hickey of Bluefish Taxi. (He’s not exaggerating: “Is any creature more reviled on this fair isle than the surly taxi driver driving like an escaped psychiatric inmate in his dingy van? Perhaps the lowly deer tick … Or perhaps not,” posted Rex Treadwell of Tisbury.)

“I don’t even know why Uber wants to be on Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Hickey said. “They must think there’s gold in the hills. I work 100 hours a week and am just getting by.”

Despite Uber’s recruitment efforts, its doubtful more drivers will sign on at this point. After all the hoopla, as its inaugural season winds down, Uber has been a bit of a bust. Even Mr. Hickey admits his “slow death” comment back in April has yet to prove true. Business is busier than ever, said Casey O’Connor, who helps manage 25-year-old Stagecoach Taxi, which recently added an app and tablets to compete.

Still, the island will always appeal to purists, like Coco Dowling, a Columbia University sophomore and summer clerk at Edgartown Books. “The other day, I biked from my house to Back Door Donuts at sunset,” she said. “I think it made my doughnut taste better. If I’d just tapped my iPhone for an Uber, it wouldn’t have been the same.”

And she might not have gotten one anyway.

Caviar Queen

At first glance — with her platinum hair, humongous diamond rings and wrinkle-free skin — Deborah Keane looks like your stereotypical wealthy California mom. Then she starts talking. Riffing between thick Boston and Russian accents. Tossing out retro, un-PC terms like a true Irish Masshole from the ’80s. Sharing stories about being “shaken down” by mobster-like men and high-heeling around fish farms for E! TV. That’s when you realize that Keane is not a lady who lunches.

Rather, she is the self-proclaimed “Caviar Queen” running the only female-owned and -operated caviar company in the world — in an industry long dominated, she says, “by mostly big, scary-looking, 60-year-old Russian guys.”

Keane launched California Caviar, which sells domestic and imported farm-raised fish eggs, in December 2007. “At the best possible time,” she says with a smirk. Right before the economy plummeted? “Yup. I had nowhere to go but up.”

And up. Today, California Caviar sells several million dollars’ worth of farmed caviar annually, works with acclaimed chefs like Jacques Pépin, Jose Garces and Daniel Patterson, and in March opened the first “caviar tasting room” at the company’s headquarters in Sausalito — where you can slurp a dozen or so types of sturgeon eggs — by the gram — off the back of your hand. Or, if you want to get fancy, a mother-of-pearl plate (though many — like the Spandex-clad cyclist who rolled in the other day — don’t).

And Keane’s latest coup? Scoring exclusive distribution rights to introduce the North American market to the first-ever sustainable, no-kill caviar.

Called Vivace, the Siberian baerii sturgeon caviar is produced in Germany using a technique patented by marine biologist Angela Köhler. She has perfected a process that’s been the holy grail for sturgeon breeders and caviar producers: making great caviar without killing the fish.

It involves massaging mature eggs out of the sturgeon, then rinsing them with a simple concentration that allows the eggs to maintain their natural state before being salted and packed like conventional caviar. Besides the obvious benefit of not killing the fish, Köhler’s process means a sturgeon’s eggs can be harvested repeatedly — every couple of years instead of just once in what would otherwise be the fish’s 60- to 120-year life span.

At $125 to $135 per ounce, Vivace isn’t cheaper than conventional caviar (yet). But it is sustainable and cruelty-free — and it seems to be passing the critical taste test.

“It has an amazing mouthfeel and pop, with a nice salinity and finish,” says Peter Armellino, chef of the Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga, Calif. Others, like Sterling Caviar’s managing director Shaoching Bishop, applaud the no-kill factor but aren’t yet sold on the texture.

Keane describes Vivace as clean and mild, with the “Caspian pop” of wild-caught turgeon caviar, which we haven’t legally enjoyed since 2011, when wild caviar was officially banned due to depleting stocks.

As farmed caviar has risen in quality and quantity over the last decade — a wave Keane wisely caught — it’s turned into a global, multimillion-dollar industry. And now, with Köhler’s Vivace to sell, she has the potential to help shift Americans’ perception of caviar from elitist luxury to, as she puts it, “everyday indulgence.” Brioche and caviar: the new bagels and lox?

Raised in Foxboro, Mass., by a high school English teacher and a “football-obsessed” engineer, Keane grew up eating hot dogs at the Patriots’ stadium. “There was no caviar in our house,” laughs the woman who now zips around in clients’ private jets and yachts — and plays it up for reality shows like Buying for Billionaires.

After graduating from Northeastern, Keane became a pediatric neonatal nurse practitioner. “I had no life,” she says. “Eventually, I realized I wanted one.” So she landed a job at a luxury lifestyle publication and went from caring for sick babies to selling ads for cashmere.

In 2004, while at a San Francisco fundraiser, she reached for the same crab-leg canapé as an investor in Tsar Nicoulai, pioneers of farmed caviar — and within weeks had a job selling sturgeon eggs.

“I knew absolutely nothing about the industry,” she confesses. But she jumped right in — literally donning waders and heading into the tanks. “When I sell something, I will eat it. Sleep it. I have to touch the fish. … I have to make the caviar,” she says. “I have to love it.”

Only she didn’t. “It was horrible,” she recalls. “It tasted like the inside of a fish tank. I said, ’I can’t sell this.’” So she learned everything she could about caviar — and discovered she had a unique palate for it. “Must’ve been my Boston meat-and-potatoes diet.”

Her supertaster skills came in handy when dealers tested her early on. “I was (a) new to the industry, and (b) a woman,” she recalls. “It happened all the time: They’d put the good caviar on top, shitty caviar at the bottom. … Or try to sell me dyed whitefish when I asked for hackleback. I’d call them up, and say, ‘Nice dyed whitefish, jackass.’”

Things occasionally got scary, says Keane. She was once shaken down by dealers demanding money they weren’t owed, and she narrowly avoided starting a caviar company with a dodgy character who was eventually indicted. Distraught over what to do next, she rang Jacques Pépin, one of her clients at Tsar. “I said, ‘I’m unemployable! I don’t want to work for anybody,’ he said, ‘Good, let’s press caviar together.’” Bolstered by a big-name chef, California Caviar Company had its first custom product.

Seven years later, Keane is on the cusp of ushering in a new era for what’s always been an extravagance. One in which cyclists can sidle up to the bar for their daily dose of omega-3s, and a premium product — with double the shelf life of conventional caviar — could be stocked by Safeway.

“Caviar is today where the wine world was 40 years ago,” says the mother of two, who even packs the stuff in her kids’ lunchboxes. “Americans used to drink wine only on special occasions. Now we drink it every day.” She laughs. “Or at least I do.”

Richard Adams Carey, author of The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire, agrees that the industry is undergoing a major shift. “This is a really interesting development, this Vivace thing. I heard of a previous attempt in Russia that didn’t pass the taste test. … If this one manages that trick, it could potentially become much cheaper to produce caviar,” he says. “And what happens to the mystique of the food, once it’s as ordinary as a bagel?”

If Vivace succeeds, says Carey, “Deborah Keane will be making history. Angela Köhler as well.”

I Tried It … One of Those Damn Juice Cleanses

The text caught me in a weak moment: two days after Thanksgiving, while I was eating a bacon-gruyere cheeseburger for lunch. “Juice fast! Juice fast! Juice fast!” my friend Samantha cheered.

I wasn’t wholly unprepared for her message. A few months earlier we happened to meet the nice, if skeletal-looking co-owner of San Francisco’s Juice Shop at a happy hour. (We were drinking wine. He, of course, wasn’t.) After hearing all about how he and his two brothers started this company because green juicing had saved his life after a serious health scare, we were inspired. “We’re in! We’re doing it!” we’d declared, a little tipsy. And then, on our way to dinner, we promptly dropped the ridiculous idea.

But then, gluttony sort of sneaked up on us. My husband and I followed this year’s all-day turkey feast with a weekend of barbecued oysters dripping in bourbon-butter sauce, cinnamon sticky buns, the aforementioned cheeseburger — and a six-course supper of duck liver pate and pork belly; soup brimming with rabbit sausage; filet mignon paired with a braised beef stew; cheese and chocolate cake for dessert. In this extremely overstuffed moment, the idea of a juice cleanse seemed like a smart one.

And so, $189 dollars, plus deposit and home delivery (!) fees later, I was indeed in. They call it a “cleanse,” but I knew better. Whatever the promise of detoxification and recalibration and regeneration, this was a full on three-day fast: 102 liquid ounces a day of algae elixirs and local, organic cold-pressed concoctions that come in cute glass bottles in flavors like kale and celery, beet and carrots, pear and chia seed and, the real indulgence, raw almond and Himalayan salt.  “Yes!!!” I texted back. “I’m IN. 100%”

There are five or six juicing companies in San Francisco alone, and more juice bars and juice boxes and juice presses around the country by the day. Juice seems to be the new Coke for crying out loud, and I guess we should all be happy about that. Still, Americans — of the LuluLemon-clad, Range Rover-driving sort — have no qualms about spending nine, ten bucks a bottle to unleash their inner Gwyneth Paltrows. It’s a trend I’ve mocked while watching women, and men, (but mostly women) parade around town with their BPA-free bottles of green sludge.

I’m an eater. One of the best. Which is why everyone mocked me when I said I was on a juice cleanse for the next three days.

So, yeah, this was my first-ever fast, without having the stomach flu. Even on Yom Kippur, the one day of the year that Jewish guilt could potentially convince me to forgo breakfast, I start the day off with a three-egg omelet. I’m an eater. One of the best.

And, for better or worse, of the body type that’s more or less able to withstand an above average level of gluttony. Which is why everyone mocked me when I said I was on a juice cleanse for the next three days. “You??” “Whhhhyyy? “Good luck with that…”

How did it go, you wonder? Because, admit it, you have been wondering whether you should maaaaybe try a juice cleanse, too. I’ll tell you: It sucked. Pretty much every second of it was awful.

I choked down the algae, telling my daughter it was medicine so I didn’t give her an eating disorder at age 5. I had a persistent headache from the get-go from giving up coffee. My stomach growled incessantly. I drank herbal tea while my officemates celebrated a book deal with martinis and apple pie.

I would savor every single seed swimming in my favorite juice, the Pear-Pineapple-Chia, and try desperately to reach the ones on the very bottom of the bottle with my tongue to no avail. I peed, oh, about every half-hour. I almost-puked a few times, and eventually, started fasting on the fast because (sorry Juice Shop!) I just could not get the Deep Greens down.

I googled “juice cleanses bull shit” and came across this Jezebel clip entitled (yup) “Juice Cleanses Are Kind Of Bullshit.” And a hilarious feature in San Francisco magazine, “Are We Glowing Yet?,” that made me think, for a split second, when I looked n the mirror on Day 3, that, hmm, maybe I was glowing. Or was that jaundice? Slate’s piece— the one Samantha posted on her Facebook page, along with this apt comment: “Juice cleanses are just privileged people starving themselves voluntarily” — put it best, though: “Stop Juicing: It’s not healthy, it’s not virtuous, and it makes you seem like a jerk.”

And a jerk is certainly what I felt like at the movie theater as my friends passed the popcorn directly over me, while I demurred, no, no, thanks, I’m good with my raw almond-coconut water and, um-excuse-me-everyone bathroom breaks.

But, ok, ok, the upside? I had more time when I was on a juice cleanse. Without my morning run or latte wait or wondering What Do I Want for Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner? (Because when you live in San Francisco especially, every glorious, delicious meal counts.) Life opened up a little. Also, I slept well. I lost a pound. I felt… calm.

Ultimately, though, for me, the real virtue of The Cleanse was, simply, that I did it. (Despite the two texts to Samantha in which I tried to bail.) I said I was IN, 100% percent. And I was. Except for one prematurely celebratory glass of red wine on the last night, which left me a little loopy.

Bottom line for anyone contemplating a juice cleanse? Guess I’d tell you the same thing that I tell my kids: Chew your food.

 

The Joy of Cooking with Samin

When Samin Nosrat wants something, she writes a letter — a real, old-fashioned, heartfelt letter.

“I’m an insane stalker person,” says the 34-year-old cook/writer/surfer with a laugh. “I find people I admire and I just want to be near them. I want them to be my teacher.” So, (novel idea) she simply asks.

And because she is the kind of huggy, happy, highly talented person people want to be around too, they inevitably say yes. Benedetta Vitali. Alice Waters. Michael Pollan. Strangers turned mentors, all. It’s Samin’s way with words — and food — that has gotten her where she is on this sunny winter day: blissfully barefoot in her cluttered Berkeley, California kitchen, toiling over her white Frigidaire stovetop. And laptop. Hard at work on what could be The Next Great Cookbook.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: The Four Elements of Good Cooking will be published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster — to the chagrin of a dozen or so houses that lost the bidding war in March. The lucky winner? Editor Michael Szczerban who happened to write Samin a genuine letter himself that brought her to tears.

As did the enviable advance, which has allowed Samin to make writing this book her full-time job. Prior to the deal, she was scraping by on $17,000 a year. “Now I’m going to buy sea salt!” she cried to a friend the morning after the sale.

What sets this cookbook-to-be apart from the zillions out there? “It fills a gap in the literature,” says Michael Pollan. “Lots of cookbooks tell you what to do, but very few explain why.” Samin is not a restaurant celebrity, as is all the rage these days, but a true home chef, whose aim is to really teach you — yes, even you; and, for that matter, me — how to cook. Lots of cookbooks tell you what to do, but very few explain why. – Michael Pollan

“Once you understand the four basic principles of salt, fat, acid, and heat,” she promises, “you’re no longer a slave to step-by-step recipes.” Samin’s 50 recipes will be mixed with musings, science and personal stories — and, best of all, only call for ingredients you already have on hand. No buttermilk? Try milk squeezed with lemon instead. No need to buy pecorino and Parmesan; Samin would never ask you to do something so… annoying.

Born in Southern California to Iranian parents, Samin was a “food-obsessed” kid who grew up eating her mom’s Persian equivalent of PB&J: cucumbers, grapes and feta on lavash. “My lunchbox didn’t look like everybody else’s,” she says, “and I loved that.”

At age 19, she and her UC Berkeley boyfriend saved up for a special dinner date at Chez Panisse. “I’d never eaten in a fancy restaurant. I had no idea who Alice Waters was or why this place was famous, but we got dressed up, and ordered wine and ate chocolate soufflé,” recalls Samin. “With milk! I ordered milk!” she says, laughing, still mortified. “The meal… the service… It was life-changing.”

The next day, she wrote a letter, pleading for a job as a busser, and was hired on the spot. “I remember vacuuming the downstairs dining room and feeling so honored. Like, I can’t believe they’re letting me vacuum the floor of Chez Panisse.”

Soon enough, she pestered Christopher Lee at Chez to pleaaase let her into the kitchen, even though she had no prior cooking experience. He sent her home with a pile of books, told her to practice, and a few months later, let her peel onions. The rest is culinary history.

Her career includes making pasta and plucking duck feathers in Tuscany; cooking with Lee at Eccolo; and hosting monthly dinners at Tartine that became one of the hottest reservations in town. She also put on a popular “pop-up general store” in Oakland that brought farmers and chefs and consumers together and influenced the launch of Good Eggs, the fast-growing local-food start-up she now advises.

All along, Samin had her heart set on her next guru: New York Times best-selling author and UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan. She wrote him an impassioned plea asking to audit his class — a class with, sorry, a waitlist of hundreds of (paying) students. But her persistence and clear sense of community purpose paid off. She became a star pupil, and not just because she brought in piping-hot lasagnas.

And then…the student became the teacher. When Pollan wanted to learn how to cook for his latest book Cooked (2013), who better to teach him how to braise than Samin? Soon, she was showered with notes herself. The time was ripe for Samin to put her decade-old book idea — one she’d had brewing since her early days at Chez — down on paper.

But first! She had one more “stalker letter” to write. To San Francisco illustrator Wendy MacNaughton whose smart, whimsical work she’d admired from afar. “I wanted light-hearted, timeless illustrations — not photographs. I didn’t want people feeling bad when their dish doesn’t look like the picture,” she says. (Thank you.) “Wendy can find the beauty in anything.”

MacNaughton draws meticulously, and quickly, and always from life, as Samin chops and stirs and squeezes — say, water from balls of chard for cucu sabzi, a Persian frittata so green and delicate, it’ll ruin those eggy French things forever. True collaborators, they share hearty laughs and a love of Bud Lite Lime, which they often sip while working in MacNaughton’s kitchen. (More mod, less messy.)

Once the book comes out, Nosrat plans to resume teaching at places like 18 Reasons and San Francisco Cooking School but also take it on the road into low-income communities and food deserts everywhere. “You are afraid to cook? You only make mac n’ cheese from a box? I’m here!” she says. “I want to connect with you. Whoever you are.”

Pollan, for one, has no doubt she will.“Samin is eloquent, passionate, and clear,” he says. “Her literary gift is to be able to recreate these qualities on the page.”

Samin, however, is still a little overwhelmed. “Man, I’m like a brown girl who grew up in San Diego in the 80s,” she says. “My whole life I’ve been an outsider wanting to be accepted by the mainstream.” And now here she is, an Iranian-American woman with a big personality and even bigger heart, on the cusp — if publishers’ predictions are right — of being a nicer, more talented Rachael Ray. A more approachable Alice Waters. The next … Julia Child?

But Samin’s goal isn’t to become a household name. “I want more people to cook,” she says. “When I show someone how to properly use salt, it’s like crack. Their mind is blown. I want to be the teacher that, you know, gives you the thing and sends you into the world.”

 

Sunset’s Best Cabin Getaways

Sierra National Forest,  California

Far Meadow

Yosemite may be only 12 miles away, but Far Meadow’s Base Camp, in some ways, trumps the iconic park. No valley floor swarmed with bus tours or crowded cafeterias—just you, your friends, and family tucked into a 750-square-foot pine cabin, with 5 glorious High Sierra acres all to yourselves. The Base Camp cabin—undamaged by this summer’s Rim Fire, which actually stopped 100 miles north—was remodeled in 2013, with the addition of a second bedroom and French doors that open onto the deck. In autumn, you’ll find the kind of Technicolor fall foliage that’ll make you think you’ve landed in New England. A bit farther east, above Bass Lake (and the snow line), Far Meadow maintains five additional properties in the Sierra National Forest: a new A-frame was added this season alongside a log cabin, two outfitted trailers, and another A-frame. From late May to November, you can swim, fish, and hike your heart out. After that, these five solar-powered accommodations remain open, but getting there gets more complicated. In winter, after the road closes, they’re accessible only by snowmobile or snowcat, and guides will take only the adventurous in—to cross-country ski, snowshoe, make snow angels—with a friendly reminder to stay safe. As manager Kris Roni puts it, “This is the High Sierra, and we are, always, at the whims of nature.”

Best time to go: November if you’re adventurous, or June for the Sierra’s sunny, clear-sky days.
From $220; far-meadow.com

Point No Point Resort, Shirley, B.C.
It exists: that private waterfront cabin with front-row views of the crashing Pacific, crackling fireplaces, and nary another tourist in sight—for less than $200 a night. So why haven’t you heard much about Point No Point before? Perhaps because it’s on Vancouver Island and Canadians have somehow learned to keep these sorts of special places a secret. The decidedly un-resort escape is the best of both worlds—seemingly on the edge of civilization and yet still accessible, just 40 miles west of Victoria. Point No Point’s 25 simple log cabins were built on a cliff, some in the 1950s, but there have been gradual improvements over the decades, such as new two-person showers and, most recently, a hot tub on almost every wooden deck. Shaker-style furniture, bright red Adirondack chairs, and warm cedar walls give the cabins a timeless feel, as does the winding country road, which you can follow from rugged beach to beach, back to your own empty stretch of sand, complete with a covered firepit to keep you warm. When it’s time for dinner, you can continue up the path to the intimate on-site restaurant. One of Vancouver Island’s best, it has walled-in windows so you can scan for otters, whales, and dolphins (binoculars are on every table) over locally caught salmon and seared scallops. It’s the kind of place that fosters loyalty, says Sharon Soderberg, who’s owned Point No Point with her husband, Stuart, for 32 years. “We’ve watched children grow up here,” she says, “who now come back with their own.”Best time to go: July through September for sunbathing on the beach and your best chance of spotting humpback whales; you can see orcas and gray whales year-round.$$; pointnopointresort.com

Dolores, Colorado
Dunton Hot Springs

Log onto Dunton’s live web cam and the scene looks straight out of the 1800s: a cluster of hand-hewn Lincoln Log-like cabins scattered across a meadow at the foot of the towering San Juan Mountains—a tipi here; a wagon wheel there; steamy natural hot springs everywhere. But if you actually make the trek to this restored ghost town in remote Southwestern Colorado, you’ll find full on 21st luxury. The kind of riverfront “rusticity” that runs you a thousand dollars a night, where both fly-fishing and reflexology are fair game, and the “Saloon” is more like a local, gamey French Laundry. (Slow-roasted elk tenderloin, anyone?) Though Dunton recently erected eight canvas tents in its new Cresto Ranch, four miles downriver, its 12 cabins, originally built out of aspen and cottonwood in 1885, have been sought-after escapes since 2001, when they reopened with outdoor rainshowers, ready-to-light fireplaces, and Rajasthan wedding beds. Couples come from all over the world to hike and ride horseback— and amble around in robes in between 107-degree soaks, as the odd elk or moose or black bear stroll by. Before falling asleep to the sounds of silence; so quiet that at least one city slicker had to download a white noise app on his iPad. Dunton ain’t cheap, but as one guests said, “Three days with the love of my life was worth every penny.” From $600, duntonhotsprings.com, 877/228-4674

Best time to visit: Right about now, rates are lower and, of course, the water’s warm… .

Big Sur, California
Glen Oaks Big Sur

Let the luxury hotels on Big Sur’s dramatic coastline have all the glory— in-the-know Highway 1-road-trippers would rather keep Glen Oaks to themselves. (Though, says the manager, it’s already poached a few Post Ranch and Ventana guests who’ve realized they can spa and sup, but save a significant amount by sleeping here instead.) What this 1957 adobe motor lodge-turned eco-mod retreat lacks in sparkling ocean views, it makes up for with the kind of rare, woodsy quiet that only comes from cozying up under a Pendelton wool blanket, by the crackling fire, beneath 300-feet-tall, thousand-year-old redwood trees. With radiant heat floors and cast iron stoves and ready-to-go-s’mores—it’s a little too easy to hunker down instead of hike. The new Roadhouse restaurant is just steps away too, which means you can feast on grass-fed steak and stumble back to your bed, instead of cooking in your (albeit cute) kitchenette. The main lodge has 16 rooms, but it’s the seven renovated cabins and two cottages along the babbling Big Sur River that are the most coveted. None more so than the Big Sur Cabin, with a private patio, outdoor fire pit —and two side-by-side clawfoot soaking tubs, under the stars. (Though, really, you kind of only need one.) From $275, glenoaksbigsur.com, 831/667-2105

Best time to visit: September and October aka Big Sur’s summer. But if you actually want to score a cabin, winter’s your best bet.

 

Pioneertown, California

Rim Rock Ranch Cabins

Surrounded by nothing but tumbleweed, cacti, and the twisted trunks of Joshua Tree National Park, this 10-acre retreat with four knotty-pine cabins (and one new rustic-mod ranch house) is all about the stars. Yes, Hollywood celebs like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, who used to hole up here, in Pioneertown, in the ‘50s, but we’re also talking galaxies, smeared across the expansive, dark desert sky. Which you can gaze at from your Adirondack chair, warmed by the fire pit on your private patio that proprietor-musician Jim Austin stocks with wood. (Want to get even closer? There’s an actual star observation deck.) This is the desert, which means daytime is all about sunshine, hammocks, BBQ pits, and the “cowboy plunge pool.” Built in 1947, with dated (but fully functional) kitchenettes and actual VCR collections, the cabins are decorated in vintage “desert eclectica” — as is the entire landscape. Austin considers Rim Rock his ongoing art project, where repeat guests see something new every few months. Say, an 18-ton rock heart for weddings or a bunch of antique skeleton keys dangling from a tree. As Yelper Jennifer A. puts it, in all caps: “This place is NOT for the resort types, people looking for a giant in-ground pool and spa.” Indeed, Rim Rock is a far cry from the Four Seasons. Which is, exactly, the point.

From $118, rimrockranchcabins.com, 730/369-3012

Best time to visit: Early spring, when the desert wildflowers bloom.

 

 

 

In the Van with Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers

Kemmerer, Wyoming is the sort of middle-of-nowhere small town that doesn’t see many visitors. The closest major city is Salt Lake, two hours away, and its only claim to semi-fame is the J.C. Penney Mother Store, circa 1902. But for Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, Kemmerer is a must-stop—one of 117 on last year’s tour, that had this rising country-rock band crisscrossing the country, ultimately logging a whopping 57,000 miles.

Home is technically San Francisco, but, really, this one-woman-five-man band lives in the van, in musty motels, at greasy diners. At the whims of the saloons, clubs, and festivals that book them, their routes are often illogical and backtracking is frequent. In summer 2012, they passed through Idaho Falls, Idaho three times in one month. Which is to say, this talented group understands what a road trip is all about: the off-the-beaten-path places—and what happens as you ramble between them.

On this warm summer evening, they’ve hightailed-it 340 miles from Bond, Colorado to roll in right on time to headline Kemmerer’s annual Oyster Ridge Music Festival. The vibe is more ’70s than 21st century—and not just because Nicki looks (and sounds) like a dead-ringer for Karen Carpenter. The grassy square is filled with camping chairs and coolers and a motley crew of locals who quickly become friends—gray-haired men in overalls; toddlers bopping on shoulders; a scattering of twirling hippie-chicks; even a real-life Smokey the Bear, wearing the same Wrangler jeans as Nicki. All congregating for corn dogs and Coors and the sort of free Friday night fun every road-tripper hopes to just stumble upon.

Except, the thing is, we don’t. In these time-crunched, overly efficient days, we’re too busy bee-lining from Yosemite to Yellowstone, Telluride to Santa Fe, to bother being carefree. The modern-day road trip has become more like a micro-managed death-march between big-name attractions, carefully choreographed to maximize a week’s worth of vacation time.

Not so for Nicki and her Gramblers. They may not have time for a guided tour of the Tetons, but so what? They know where to find cold PBRs and warm waffles for breakfast at 10,000 feet. A steamy hidden hot springs off the highway. The best places for a pit stop.

Their white rental van might as well be a wood-paneled station wagon, without the Are We There Yet? gripes and sibling squabbles and crackly 8-track radio. There’s no radio whatsoever, actually. None needed. Not with Tim on harmonica; Deren on mini-guitar; Mike banging on a drum; Dave clapping to the beat…and Nicki blowing your best car-karaoke efforts away, singing her heart out at 70 miles per hour.

Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers’ five million YouTube viewers of their wildly successful Van Sessions would agree: these guys just might be the last real road trippers.

Watch their Hall & Oates cover and you’ll hear the hallmarks of the young band: their soft harmonies and shaggy confidence, Nicki’s voice, soulful, outward-reaching. But listen closer, just beneath the music, and you can hear something else, something more familiar. A low, steady hum. It’s the sound of the open road.

DINERS IN THE ROUGH

“We’re kind of food snobs,” says Tim Bluhm, digging into a plate of braised short ribs, paired with pinot, at the Cascade Grill, in Jackson Hole, following a late afternoon performance in Teton Village. For once, the band is being fed—well. The night before, it was “the worst pizza I’ve ever had in my entire life,” as Tim put it in Pocatello, Idaho, as he tossed a piece of half-baked crust over his shoulder.

And the morning before that: It was Café Ritz, in Kemmerer Wyoming. Puffing on his tenth cigarette of the morning, Bob, of Bob’s Rock Shop, warns us Café Ritz is expensive. But at six bucks for biscuits and gravy, it’s not the prices that are the problem. It’s the service. Apparently, when you’re the only place in town for pancakes, turning tables is not a priority. Finally, the harried waitress brings over seven mugs of burnt coffee and takes a pen from behind her ear. But then a baby cries. “Uh, be right back,” she says. “I’ve got my two-month-old in the kitchen.” When she returns 20 minutes later with a hot pot of coffee in one hand and, indeed, a newborn—neck dangling—in the other, Tim Bluhm up and bails on his yet-to-arrive waffle. Mike the drummer follows him out the door.

“Tim calls it the Food Desert out here,” says his wife and bandleader, Nicki, digging into her scrambled eggs, which eventually arrive. Cold. “I think it’s the toast that took them so long,” says guitarist Dave Mulligan, holding up a flimsy piece of un-browned white bread.

LIFE IS A HIGHWAY

A four-row passenger van crammed with six band members (half of whom hover around six-feet or taller) and manager, Scotty, behind the wheel, can look pretty lived-in pretty quickly. But apart from paper plates with leftover tamales from the lady in town; a jar of raw cashews in the center console for snacking; and a few Sierra Nevada empties rolling around (consumed during a game of Frisbee when the van broke down in Wyoming), the Gramblers are a relatively clean crew.  Not to mention, mellow. It’s more like a roving college dorm (of 30-and 40-somethings) than a raging party. Conversations over the seats take as many twists and turns as the roads themselves. On one eight-hour drive, they’ll cover everything from polygamy to making pizza to missing their moms to the contorted facial expressions made by Olympic divers mid-air. (Google it. Very cool.) But Van Time also doubles as Quiet Time. Nicki points out all the pretty horses along the side of the road while writing thank you-notes (“I heard Alison Krauss does that, and I thought, that’s so nice.”) Tim reads a book written by his childhood friend Mark Sundeen, Car Camping: The Book of Desert Adventures.  (Apropos as the band was soon headed to the Southwest.) Deren logs onto Facebook before sharing the good news, “Guys, we just broke 16,000 Facebook fans!” (Now, a year later, they’re pushing 30,000.)

HOME SWEET HOTEL-MOTEL

They haven’t made it to the Chateau Marmont (yet), but occasionally the Gramblers do luck out, with a room with a hot tub in Teton Village or an Internet fan’s horse ranch in Washington. More often than not, though, “It’s a Priceline Night,” as Nicki puts it. Which means they wing it, scrolling for affordable rooms on their iPhone app, as they roll into town. (“$40 at the Red Lion Inn, in Boise! Who cares if the elevator wasn’t working, the lobby bartender was.”) It might be a local motel decorated in ceramic owls. Or, the supposedly romantic Black Swan Inn in Pocatello, Idaho, where the band gathered for après-show beers in Tim and Nicki’s “Enchanted Forest Suite,” among faux leafy trees and murals of unicorns. The Applegate River Lodge in Southern Oregon was “idyllic.” But, once in awhile, accommodations are downright disgusting… As Darren recalls: “In Oregon, I once spied a bunch of Saltine crackers mixed with hairballs on the carpet. I called my dad and said, ‘I’m going to law school.'”

FAST FRIENDS

What’s the difference between a road-tripper and a rock star? No one cares whether you show up, but when Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers roll into town, people are actually expecting them. After a big drive, they can’t just grab a pizza and go to bed; they’ve got to play—sometimes to a sold-out crowd, sometimes to a near-empty saloon. But every time, fans swoon. After the show in Kemmerer, a grown woman in pigtails pulls up a barstool and starts chatting with the band like she’s known them forever. A gaggle of tweenage girls gives Nicki a hug when they see her strolling down the sidewalk. A gray-haired man in overalls walks up to tell her: “You did good.” In less than 24 hours, the band has become local celebs, only to move on to the next town and do it all over again. “We meet cool people,” says Nicki. “Most of the time.”

TOURIST ATTRACTIONS OF A DIFFERENT SORT

Being on tour is like being on the anti-Grand Tour.Yellowstone is out. No time for a hike in Grand Teton National Park either. Instead, sightseeing is more happenchance, fun found en route. Like, say, in Kemmerer: “Look, it’s the JC Penney Mother Store!” says Nicki, snapping an Instagram pic of the circa 1902 store. “Let’s see if they sell swimsuits.” (In the heat of the summer, oddly, they don’t.) Instead she finds a hot-pink “Pretty Woman“-like number in Lava Hot Springs, an Idaho vacation town taken over by bikini-clad tourists toting inner tubes. The next day, the van creeps along Highway 20, as Tim hops in and out between mileage markers, hunting for this secret hot springs among the roadside brush. Finally, he finds it—not a sole in sight. And no bathing suits required.

The San Tung Addiction

It’s Monday afternoon, 4 p.m.—purgatory in restaurant time—and San Tung’s 100 seats are full. Asian-American families sit tweezing spicy green beans and slurping handmade noodles as pods of college kids pile in for pot stickers and old men shuffle out with their walkers, soy sauce stains on their shirts. “I don’t get it,” says manager Frank Chu, sipping black tea. “If they eat now, do they still eat dinner?”

Given the feast that is San Tung, probably not. Anyway, as insiders know, it pays to come off-peak to avoid the sidewalk swarm. On Sunday nights, even takeout orders can take two hours. The kitchen often gets so backed up that the staff just takes the phone off the hook.

Which is why Mrs. Chu—Frank’s mother and the owner of the 25-year-old Chinese restaurant—tends to eschew the media. “She’s turned down all the big Chinese newspapers,” says Frank, who dropped out of college at 18, after his father had a stroke, to help run the Irving Street restaurant that his parents had opened after emigrating from Korea. “We just can’t handle it. We’re too busy as it is.”

Mrs. Chu, who at 60 presides over the register, keeping tabs on the till and her 17-person staff, would rather the focus be on her son. “Take his picture, not mine,” she says, nodding toward Frank, who is 39 and will inherit San Tung when and if she’s ready to retire.

Last year, Mrs. Chu’s youngest son, Charles, opened San Tung #2 next door in an attempt to capitalize on the original restaurant’s overflow. Her other son operates So, in SoMa (and myriad cousins run East Bay restaurants). Neither, however, has achieved the first San Tung’s cult status. “The food is similar, but they’re fancier,” says Frank, “with dim lights and stuff.”

Fancy, San Tung is not. Servers wear white button-downs and bow ties, but the ambience is all fluorescent lights, worn carpeting, and deafening din. One thousand diners a day don’t come here for the atmosphere. They come for the food—though why, exactly, remains a mystery to Mrs. Chu. “Honestly, honestly, I don’t think our food is that good,” she says. “We’re just lucky.”

Back in San Tung’s early days, the dumplings were the draw, so much so that Mrs. Chu and her sons would work until 2 a.m. every night making them. “We’d turn on the radio, make dumplings, and talk,” she recalls. “They were teenagers. They hated me.”

Today, she hires other people to do the cooking. About a dozen staffers toil in the sprawling kitchen (which, Mrs. Chu says, is still too small). Three women pinch dumplings and pull noodles, and three cooks toss woks. And, says Mrs. Chu, one lone man fries, donning a hat, a mask, and gloves to burn through some 700 to 800 pounds of meat a day for San Tung’s signature dry-fried chicken wings.

“Yes, I’ve heard they call it crack,” Mrs. Chu says, smiling when I mention the nickname for the chicken, which is crisp, sticky, and covered in spicy-sweet sauce. “It’s kind of a compliment.”

The sauce used to be soggier, but one night a regular complained that it was too wet. So Mrs. Chu took out some of the water and added sugar. The customer couldn’t get enough of it—and soon, neither could anyone else. Today, Mrs. Chu hears of copycats all over town. Several years ago, she actually caught one of her employees trying to teach her recipe to the owner of the restaurant across the street. “That employee still works here,” she says. “It’s OK—we all have to make a living.”

After a quarter century of working almost every day, Mrs. Chu is living what most immigrants would call the American dream. “We’ve passed the money-hungry stage,” she says with a smile. “I think we did all right.”

Frank worries, though, about the day that his mother finally retires. “It’s a lot of pressure,” he admits. “It’s one thing to build a successful restaurant from nothing. What if I take over, and it slows down?” Mrs. Chushrugs.“Keep doing what we do now,” she says. “Done.”

 

So You Want Your Kid To Speak Mandarin?

Elizabeth Goumas’s top criterion in choosing an elementary school for her kindergarten-bound son, back in 2009, was that it be within walking distance of her house. “If there were an earthquake, I wanted to know that I could get there,” she says, half joking. School leadership, diversity, and a supportive community were all close seconds. What wasn’t a priority, whatsoever, was a language immersion program. “My husband and I had totally ruled out immersion,” says Goumas, a blond, blue-eyed former software sales executive. “We thought it was too complex, too much to take on.” Chinese immersion wasn’t even on her radar.

As it often goes, though, with the San Francisco public school lottery, the Goumas family didn’t get anything on their wish list. Instead, they were assigned to De Avila, a closed school in the Haight that was due to reopen as a Chinese immersion K–5 elementary. “It was also across from a head shop and kitty-corner to the free clinic,” says Goumas, laughing. “We were like, oh no.”

But then they joined a summer playdate with other newly accepted families and saw their son hit it off with two bilingual Chinese kids. “Our biggest worry had been, how is Nicolas going to find his best friends? Will he be able to find them in those four or five kids who speak English?” Social concerns allayed, they decided to “take a leap of faith.” They also decided not to mention the Chinese thing to their son. “The first day of kindergarten,” says Goumas, “he came home and said, ‘Mom! My teacher didn’t speak any English!’”

Six years later, Goumas’s son (now in fifth grade) and daughter (in third, and about as tall as her Chinese teachers) are fully proficient in Cantonese; De Avila is one of the most sought-after public elementary schools in the city; and Goumas is throwing Chinese banquets out of her lower Pacific Heights home—despite the fact that she herself can’t understand a lick of the language. “Sending my kids to De Avila has been a transformational experience,” she says. She marvels as her nine-year-old chats up Cantonese speakers all over town, from the fiftysomething women fondling fabric at Britex to the waiters at Chinese restaurants. She says, “We feel connected to our community in a way we never would have.”

In 1981, the first Mandarin immersion school in the country—the private Chinese American International School (CAIS)— opened on Oak Street in San Francisco. West Portal Elementary followed three years later, becoming the nation’s first public elementary school to offer a Chinese immersion program. Since then, as China’s role in the world economy has grown, so has the number of non-Chinese parents (and second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Chinese-American parents) who want their kids to learn the language spoken by 1.2 billion people.

This fall, San Francisco will have a total of 14 Chinese immersion programs. Eleven are public, most at the elementary and middle school levels. Half are Cantonese, half Mandarin—and all are in high demand. Some operate as a separate language program within an otherwise conventional school; others, like De Avila and Presidio Knolls, a private K–8 Mandarin school launched in 2012, are full immersion. All in all, roughly 2,700 students are enrolled in Chinese immersion programs in the city.

And more are coming. Alameda County got its first Chinese public immersion school, Yu Ming Charter, in 2011; it receives four applications for every available spot. Next year a public school in Redwood City is introducing Mandarin immersion, and parents are clamoring for Mandarin immersion schools in Menlo Park and San Jose. In total, there are about 50 Chinese immersion schools in California, most of them in the Bay Area.

A majority of their students, not surprisingly, are Chinese-American or have one Chinese parent. While these schools are international and multicultural in obvious ways, they are not exactly bastions of diversity. At De Avila, 63 percent of students identify as Asian, 18 percent as white, 4 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as African-American. The demographic breakdown is similar at CAIS, where 38 percent of students are Asian-American and 41 percent multiethnic, 19 percent Caucasian, 1 percent black, and 1 percent Hispanic. The student body at a public K–8 immersion school, Alice Fong Yu, is 66 percent Asian and just 5 percent white. (Because they speak the language, some Caucasian students actually self-identify as Chinese.)

What is ‘Asian’ anymore, anyway?” asks Beth Weise, a former parent at Starr King Elementary and the author of A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion, published in 2014. “My daughters’ dad is Asian, so they are half Chinese, but they are being raised by two white lesbian moms.” Jeff Bissell, head of school at CAIS, agrees, pointing to the number of mixed-race couples in the area. “San Francisco is a wonderful mishmash,” he says. “The term ‘Caucasian’ is becoming less and less relevant.”

Semantics aside, interest in Chinese immersion education is on the rise, say administrators like Bissell and De Avila principal Rosina Tong. Parents are drawn to it because they want to stimulate their kids’ brains (being multilingual has cognitive benefits, studies show) and prepare them for the working world. Not surprisingly, a big draw is the traditional Asian emphasis on academics. Chinese immersion schools are invariably high-performing, which makes them attractive. “Take a closed or under-enrolled school and make it Mandarin, and test scores go up, enrollment goes up. You get a socioeconomic mix, and you attract parents who might otherwise go private. Waitlists form,” explains Weise. “It’s a win-win for everyone, the district and the families.” She adds, “I’ve never heard of a Chinese immersion school where it isn’t considered cool to be smart.”

It’s also become cool to be global. Linda Vann-Adibe, admissions director and parent at CAIS, says that what’s attracting parents today is the hope of creating global citizens in an increasingly globalized world—and the desire to give their children a competitive edge. Those goals, she says, were less evident 13 years ago, when she was a kindergarten parent—or even 6 years ago, when she started working in the admissions office. “Parents are more sophisticated now. They used to think: I’m not Chinese; why would I learn Chinese? The new parent thinks: It doesn’t matter whether I speak Chinese. This is the future.”

Patti Huang, a Taiwanese American who is married to a white man, says that she chose Starr King to prepare her kindergarten-age daughter for the competition that she will eventually face from the billion-plus Mandarin speakers around the world. Huang also wanted to spark in her daughter a general love of languages. “The heritage thing is a perk,” she says. “And there’s an element of wanting to make grandparents proud.” The desire to connect with their cultural heritage continues to be a major factor for many multiethnic and Chinese-American parents. “I have always wanted immersion,” says Kim Wong, who is also married to a white man. Their six-year-old son attends a traditional public school and takes Saturday Mandarin classes because he didn’t get into an immersion program. “I regret not knowing how to speak Chinese,” Wong says, “and there’s a loss of heritage. I want my son to at least be able to talk to my grandma if I can’t!”

For Weise, it’s also about creating opportunity. “I’m not telling my girls, ‘I want you to become biotech moguls in Singapore or software engineers in Shanghai,’” she says. “I’m just giving them tools. Maybe they’ll decide to become potters or open a restaurant. Learning Mandarin is about options.”

It’s also about rote memorization—and ridiculously difficult. To be considered literate, one must learn about 3,000 Chinese characters. And when it comes to learning those characters, the younger the better. Prime time is kindergarten and first grade, when children’s brains are like sponges and everything is new—washing hands, tying laces. Why not tack on Cantonese, too?

And these assimilated days, no one has a leg up. Most kids in the immersion programs, whether Chinese-American, multiethnic, or Caucasian, are starting from scratch. Some may have attended Mandarin preschool, but about 90 percent of families who choose Chinese immersion education, Weise estimates, don’t speak the language at home. Families who do tend to be more concerned that their children master English, so they choose all-English programs. And newer immigrants may not even be aware that immersion programs exist.

Income levels skew somewhat higher at Chinese immersion schools, Weise adds. In 2012, for instance, the number of Chinese-immersion students who qualified for reduced-fee or free lunch was around 34 percent, versus the district-wide 61 percent—at De Avila, it was only 17 percent. But that’s by no means universal, says Weise. And for parents who view private school as the pinnacle, getting into a Chinese immersion program is a “golden ticket”—they get an academically strong school without having to pony up $25,000 in tuition.

That’s not to say that everyone’s a happy customer. Some white parents just want a more multicultural experience for their kids—and then are shocked by what being a minority in middle school can actually mean. Back in 2003, long before Mandarin was trending, therapist Samantha Smithstein and her husband purposely sought out immersion—any immersion. “Spanish, French, Korean, Chinese…we really didn’t care which one.” They ended up at Alice Fong Yu (AFY). The first few years were wonderful, says Smithstein. “The kindergarten and first-grade teachers were warm and good at gestural communication—my kids loved it. They just soaked up the language.”

But the honeymoon didn’t last. By middle school, Smithstein’s twin daughters were miserable. “Many of the teachers were harsh. Some would publicly humiliate students, make them cry,” says Smithstein. “It was scary for my kids.” Her twins have since graduated, and her son, now in the seventh grade, is doing better than her daughters did. Still, she struggles to make sense of the experience. “I don’t know whether it’s the school or the principal or just a cultural difference. I’d heard stories about schools in China that are intense, and I’d think, is this the price I pay for sending them to a Chinese school?”

Sophie Wallace, a white French woman married to a white American man, has kids in the fifth and eighth grades at AFY. She raves about their experience, academically and socially. “The great plus is that the kids learn early on that they are not a majority, so they can’t be cocky,” she says.

But for Smithstein, AFY’s social structure was a definite minus. Many children have a tough time at that age, but her twins were outcasts. “There was a kind of racism at the school that was not addressed,” she says. “By eighth grade it became clear that the ‘in groups’ were the Chinese and mixed kids, and the ‘out group’ was the non-Chinese. By eighth grade most of the out group had dropped out—maybe only five or six non-Chinese kids were left. My kids told me it was the low point of their lives.”

Still, Smithstein doesn’t regret her choice. “When I step back, I know that it was a really cool experience. I feel good about the academics; they were exposed to a different culture; they are unafraid to plunge into new experiences; they traveled to China. They are two tall Jewish white girls who speak Chinese—so many positive things came out of it.”

One of the biggest positives? “We cannot help with homework,” says Mikhal Bouganim, a founding parent at Presidio Knolls. “And I love, love, love it.”

 

Pass the Pork Belly, and the Joint

SAN FRANCISCO — On a dark corner here in the Mission District on March 31, the doors opened at 7 p.m. for an under-the-radar pop-up dinner. Stationed at the entrance was a man who meticulously carded each of the 60 guests, even two with white hair.

Inside the bar, long tables were set with wineglasses, place cards and something you don’t see much of anymore: ashtrays.

Soon after the party began, smoke wafted through the chandelier-lit room. Servers passed kimchi mini-pancakes prepared by the evening’s chef, Robin Song, of the Mission’s popular ham-and-oyster bar, Hog & Rocks.

A university professor who arrived a little late slid into his seat, saying, “You know, you can smell this place from across the street.”

The dinner was the third iteration of the Luck Pot, a series of get-togethers intended for adult users of marijuana, sponsored in part by a rotating group of medical-cannabis companies based in Northern California. To get in, guests have to present a state-authorized medical-marijuana identification card, made possible by a program established in 1996 by theCalifornia Department of Public Health.

The Luck Pot was started by two 30-something friends who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the hazy legal status surrounding the cannabis industry. (This, despite the fact that the event itself appears to be legal in California: The city’s public health department treats a private party at a public place as if it were in a private home, so medical cannabis at such an event would be fine, according to Nancy Sarieh, a spokeswoman for the city’s public health department; Robert Raich, a lawyer who specializes in medical-cannibas law, concurred.)

That night, a woman in a polka-dot dress welcomed guests with what looked like bar snacks: glazed pecans, pretzels, chile-lime peanuts. Unlike the usual nibbles, each came with a suggested dose. “These are what we call our ‘everyday edibles,’ ” said Lauren Fraser, a 29-year-old former mutual-funds manager and now the president of the Oakland-based Auntie Dolores, a company that specializes in cannabis-laced foodstuffs.

Mandi Bateman, a 38-year-old pony-tailed Pilates teacher who had driven in from Sausalito, Calif., seemed uneasy. “I guess I still have that lingering fear you could get arrested for smoking pot,” she said. Getting high with a bunch of strangers was not her main motivation for attending this night. “I thought I might meet some hot men,” Ms. Bateman said. “But then I realized, wait, I don’t want to date a stoner.”

Her odds were decent. The male-to-female ratio was roughly two-to-one, and this was hardly a scruffy “Dazed and Confused” kind of crowd. Tickets were $120 each, and among those in attendance were software engineers, organic chemists, lawyers, authors, Stanford M.B.A.s and tech types from Google, Pandora and Salesforce.

Also in attendance were several “potrepreneurs,” who seemed poised for 2016, when marijuana is expected to become legal in California. Among them was a co-sponsor, Mike Ray, 35, a former Wall Street trader who is now the director at Bloom Farms. Asked about the differences between finance and the nascent pot industry, Mr. Ray said, “The people are much nicer” in the latter.

For Arianne Simone, 28, a Reiki master with a perfectly coifed Afro, the evening was a total surprise. “My boyfriend said, ‘We’re going to a dinner tonight with lots of weed,’ and I was, like: ‘Yea! Yea! Yea!’ ” Scott Samuelson, 42, a commercial television producer, said that he was there for the food. “I’d heard it was the Korean pop-up,” he said. “The pot was just a bonus.”

One of the Luck Pot’s co-hosts, clad in a blazer, welcomed people to their seats. “On your tables is the first of three joints,” he said, acting as a kind of pot sommelier. “Tonight we’re showcasing flower grown by a Sonoma collective of 10 farmers with a total of 150 years’ combined experience in artisanal indoor crops.”

A professionally rolled fatty lay in each ashtray. The first joint of the evening was a strain called Girl Scout Cookies. “It’s an indica-sativa mix, 59 days flowering,” he said. “You’ll taste sweet evergreen with light hints of pepper-spiciness.” He touched on an aspect that wine sommeliers do not discuss, the effect. “This should make you feel focused and relaxed,” he said. “A little heavy-headed. So spark up. Eat. Enjoy.”

As people wrapped pork belly in lettuce cups and blew puffs of smoke, they were asked to sum themselves up in four words. “Kyle,” the Reiki master’s boyfriend said. “I like Afros.” “Justin,” another man said. “I hate cancer.” “Husband home with kids,” said Celine Schafer, a 37-year-old mother of three.

The talk turned to how, exactly, they had procured their medical-marijuana cards. “I told the Skype doctor I had trouble sleeping,” Ms. Schafer said. “He told me to ‘hit the vape.’ ”

“Everyone says, ‘I have insomnia, I have anxiety,’ ” griped Andrew Bock, 34. “I’m like, ‘I have Crohn’s, I’m legit!’ ” The chitchat covered standard topics: bad UberPool experiences, soaring housing costs, the Bay Area versus New York. “I was miserable in Manhattan,” said the good-looking Mr. Bock, who was seated across from Ms. Bateman. Her glassy eyes widened when he said he lived in Sausalito, too. “I’m a block from the beach, I drive an electric carand I just bought a paddleboard,” he said, mocking himself as the California cliché.

“Please pass the joint,” the professor said, as if it were the pepper.

It was heartening to see that, even in these Purell-crazed times, people are willing to share joints.

The man named Justin didn’t want to give his last name, out of fear that he could get into trouble because, he said, he grows marijuana in the house he rents and sells it for recreational use, paying his unwitting 94-year-old landlord in cash. But in this smoky space, his career choice was not something he had to keep secret.

Michael Koch, 38, a father of two and the owner of an online advertising agency, spoke more openly. “I was an indica guy in college, when I’d just lie around,” he said. “But now that I have a job and kids and responsibilities, I smoke sativa. It works for me.” (Indica marijuana tends to have a calming, sedative effect on the user, while sativa is more uplifting and energetic.)

The servers began whisking away the plates. A panic set in. “Wait, is that it?” one guest asked. “There’s got to be more food,” the professor said. “It’s a pot dinner.”

People rejoiced when the second course arrived: a potato stew with pork neck and a joint made with a strain called Fire OG. “Twenty-one percent THC,” the co-host said. “It’s sweet and earthy, slightly woodsy. This’ll give you a mental uplift and a full body mellow.”

Perhaps too mellow. Suddenly, a chair toppled over. “Woman down!” someone yelled. Three guys helped the laughing lady to her feet. As dinner progressed, conversation regressed. “My grandmother used to use these for cashews,” said Mr. Bock, gesturing toward a glass-ridged ashtray.

“My grandma put al-monds in hers,” someone else said, pronouncing the first syllable so that it rhymed with “pal.” “It’s ahhl-mond,” Ms. Schafer chimed in. A number of guests began to chirp the word “almond” over and over again, and the table broke into hysterics.

Accompanying the third course was Holy Grail, the final pot of the night and the strongest. The co-host walked around with a Ziploc bag, distributing. “Does everyone have a joint that wants one?” he asked, like a preschool teacher passing out snacks. “Oh, my God, there’s actually too much pot,” Mr. Koch said, pointing to several half-smoked joints still in the ashtray. Ms. Schafer smiled and tucked one into her purse. “For my husband,” she said.

The Comfort Food of Strangers

At first I think we might have come to the wrong address. When my cousin Dave and I ring the bell of a Bartlett Street duplex right on time, minutes pass before the door opens—revealing a blue-haired guy in a white V-neck T-shirt with a toddler hanging all over him. “Hi,” he says, as we size each other up. The presence of a cute, soon-to-be-crying little person catches me off guard. It’s one thing to have dinner with my own children or those of friends, but eating elbow-to-elbow with some random kid is not really my idea of a night out. Then again, this is more of a night in.

We slip off our shoes, climb the old Victorian’s carpeted stairs, and are fumbling with the baby gate when Eden, the guy’s wife and our host for the evening, ushers us in. On Feastly, a new San Francisco–based meal-sharing site, she’d advertised the dinner she’s about to serve us as a “hearty Thai family supper”—but standing awkwardly around her stove making small talk, I’m wondering what I’ve signed up for, exactly.

It was only a matter of time before the sharing economy took over the home kitchen. In the last few months, startups like Feastly, EatWith, and Cookapp have arrived in San Francisco, luring locals hungry for the next big thing into the homes of total strangers who like to cook and hope to make a few bucks, maybe find some new friends, and perhaps, if they’re lucky, gain a following.

Eden’s Mission rental is nowhere near as hip as the restaurants near it. Plastic toys are strewn about; toiletries clutter the split bath. Stacked against the dining room wall are boxes of bulk diapers, draped with purple gauze to minimize their intrusion. But the table is lovingly set with carved-wood chopsticks and floating elephant-shaped candles.

I’m half wishing that I were at home watching Homeland and eating Lers Ros takeout when I catch a whiff of fresh lemongrass and ginger. After my first sip of tom yum gai—and some gratis sauvignon blanc—I’m feeling soothed. And soon enough, I’m laughing with a table of six strangers over pumpkin curry and the cow-tipping of Smart cars.

Eden spent just “three days, once” in Thailand, she says, but she worked for several years under a Thai chef in Austin and ghostwrote a Thai cookbook. Because this is her first Feastly supper, the company’s chief operating officer, Leigh Goldstein, is at the table too, making sure that all is kosher, figuratively speaking. As it turns out, the $40 meal’s pacing is off, the two curries lack kick, and the dessert is plastic-wrapped mints—but overall, the meal is pretty good. Not Lers Ros good, but more fun than sitting at home—which for some is a huge part of the appeal of this weird new breed of dining experience.

“We see the dinner table as the original social network,” says Feastly founder Noah Karesh, who conceived the company after he and his girlfriend were invited home for supper by an avocado seller during a visit to Guatemala. “The meal was magical,” Karesh recalls. He wanted to re-create that authenticity here and, in doing so, build a community. “Someone may have 5,000 Facebook friends, but still eat dinner alone,” he says. “We want to bridge the divide between offline and online.”

It seems to be working. What were once considered underground supper clubs are inching toward the mainstream—at least in urban areas. In June, EatWith founder Guy Michlin moved his headquarters here from Tel Aviv to be closer, h