Published in The San Francisco Chronicle.
Illustrated by George McCalman
The Usual // SF Chronicle column
An irregular column about regulars and the role restaurants play in the lives of the people they feed. Illustrated by George McCalman
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.https://playlist.megaphone.fm/?e=SFO5214191157
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!!’”
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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.
George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. Twitter/Instagram: @mccalmanco Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.”
George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. Twitter/Instagram: @mccalmanco Email: email@example.com
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.
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 only times, 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.)
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 are the 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 other church, 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.
George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. Twitter/Instagram: @mccalmanco Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.”
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.
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 stuff. Oh, 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 month, with 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.”