Food, Bulbous Food

by Rudy Noriega

The Stinking Rose; Photo by Olivier Bruchez

The Stinking Rose; Photo by Olivier Bruchez

If there was one thing that defined my experience of San Francisco, it was the eating. Everywhere I went there were people shoving calories down their throats. It started early too.

The city centre is well served by shops dispensing breakfast and most seemed to be doing an excellent trade in coffee and bagels for the commuter on the move. If you didn’t have a coffee cup in your hand when you were crossing the roads you didn’t fit in, or in my case, you were British. I preferred to sit down somewhere, curse the tea, and watch a hurried world go by.

The scene did quieten down by mid-morning but only slightly as people were just about ready to gear up for lunch.

On my first evening in the city, I dragged my jet-lagged body out onto the street in search of something to eat. It was not the easy task I was hoping for as I managed to pass cafés, bars and restaurants which seemed to be absolutely packed. It got to the stage that when I did eventually discover a place with more empty tables than occupied ones I didn’t go in because I wondered what was wrong with it.

Eventually, I managed to find a small table in a place the size of a ballroom. I can’t really tell you much about its ambience; in my world it was 4am, my ears hadn’t adjusted to being back on the planet and I was prodding my hand with the cutlery to stay awake - if the couple who were on the table next to me are reading this, can I apologise now? I totally failed to find the place again - it's somewhere around 3rd and Howard I think - which is a shame because the only thing I remembered about it the following day was that you could buy a $10 hamburger and drink a $2,500 bottle of wine to wash it down with.

It you wanted a view of a city that seemed to be constantly eating and drinking in microcosm you could do no worse than visit Macy’s department store on Union Square. It has eight floors devoted to conspicuous consumerism. It’s a big place and well laid out with paths taking you around various departments, though in some of them there appeared to be more staff than customers. What it did have was space in abundance but this disappeared the moment you entered that floor’s particular food outlet. Dozens of people would be huddled together in queues and groups waiting for tables to become vacant for coffee, snacks or a full blown meal.

The busiest part of the entire store was the top floor where “The Cheesecake Factory” could be found. Here you had to put your name down before being handed a pager to inform you when a table became free and if you were lucky, it would be in around half an hour. No hardship - cheesecake is a word comprised of my two favourite things in the world.

I lived in Prague in the early 1990s and I briefly shared a flat with a man from California who I think it’s fair to say had trouble adjusting to life in the Czech Republic. This was a world where the customer always came second and it was a distant second too. Waiters were routinely rude and I remember once being told that I couldn’t order any food as the chef was watching the ice-hockey and didn’t want to be disturbed. Two-tier pricing systems existed in some places which meant foreigners paid more and if someone gave you service with a smile you immediately felt suspicious. I was used to it all by the time my flatmate arrived but he struggled from day one. He’d worked in a shop as a student and would tell me at great length what they had to do to make sure each customer was happy with their service, and he couldn’t understand why beers were thrown in front of him by grunting waiters who never smiled. He came to the conclusion that they hated him because he was American, despite me telling him constantly that shop assistants and waiters hated him because quite frankly they hated everybody. He was determined never to revisit a place where he’d received bad service which meant he was almost starving within a month of arriving.

I thought about him again when I was in the Cheesecake Factory, this time with a huge amount of sympathy. That’s because I wasn’t served by a waitress, I was being attended to by my new best friend Georgina who introduced herself and gave me an informative tour of the menu. I had no idea where she was in relation to her shift but if she could keep up that level of friendliness for eight hours she had my total admiration. I send Christmas cards to people who aren’t as amicable. Everything was delivered with a smile and enthusiasm that seemed remarkably natural – if this was typical no wonder my ex-flatmate struggled with the late hangover of communism. He must have felt like he been beamed down onto another planet; in fairness there were lots of times when I thought he had.

The Cheesecake Factory is not all about desserts though there is a reason for the name. There’s an extensive cheesecake list which numbers around thirty different variations and Georgina could always be called upon for advice. In truth you could cross a few of the list easily; when there’s a choice between Hershey chocolate cheesecake and the Belgian chocolate version, there’s quite definitely a runner up.

The early lesson of only going to places which were busy turned out to be a good way of negotiating the food options of the city though I did make an exception for “The Café Med”. I would like to say that it was the layout and the classy nature of the establishment that was the attraction but the fact was that it was a buffet lunch and I was hungry. I was talked through the procedure by one of the regulars. First of all I had to pick up a plastic tray and then I could negotiate a large L-shaped table and put whatever clearly labelled food I wanted onto it. The price I paid depended on how much the tray weighed. So much for my plans to build up the sides of my dish with cucumber – I’ll have to get out of that habit.

“It’s all great Mediterranean food”, my guide added, pointing at a particular bowl, “I recommend the curry.”

Ah yes, the good old Mediterranean Chicken Korma. I could easily forgive the geographical error as the curry was good, as indeed was pretty much everything that was on display. It's not the place to go to impress someone but for simple unfussy dining it's well worth thinking about.

For the really adventurous though there’s only one place to go, but in true city tradition, you may have to book to get in. “The Stinking Rose” has been a fixture in San Francisco since 1991 and it’s a restaurant devoted to garlic. They claim to have the longest braid of it winding its way around the place and the walls are decorated with pictures of the bulbs – they allegedly go through two tons of the stuff a month. It’s incredibly popular though I’m guessing not with people on first dates. I tried to get in on a couple of evenings but eventually made it one lunchtime and left just over an hour later with all the vampire protection I’m going to need for a decade. You may have guessed that it’s not the most elegant of places but that’s not really why you go. It is an experience you don’t forget though.

They advertise with the slogan, “We flavour our garlic with food” and they’re certainly not joking. I wasn’t brave enough to try the forty clove garlic chicken but the meatballs were pretty potent and so was the gnochetti flavoured with garlic cheese. The garlic ice-cream was worth it for the experience, but it’s not going to get a look-in if there’s strawberry option next time round. I had a quick tour around the gift section but didn’t really get an answer to who buys the flavoured condoms on a regular basis. If you can get past a date at The Stinking Rose, I suppose anything may be possible. I wonder if you can do a garlic cheesecake?

A version of this first appeared on Gullible's Travels.

Comments for Food, Bulbous Food

Average Rating starstarstarstarstar

Click here to add your own comments

Hey, Rudy -
by: Suzi

Thanks for another fun story about your experiences in San Francisco, Rudy. Insider Tip: You should have gone for the forty clove garlic chicken - the garlic is roasted and very mild and tasty!! (Sorry, regarding the condoms, I've got nothing) ;D

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to San Francisco Adventures.