A Visit to Berkeley and San Francisco (December 2012)

27 Dec

claremont1

My home base for this brief 3-day visit was the historic Claremont Hotel in the hills of Berkeley. What a beautiful property. The views off the back of the property were simply amazing. You could watch the sunset over the bay with the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF city skyline in the background. Stunning.

gilroy

I arrived late and quite tired on the first night. I decided to stay close and dine at the hotel restaurant. The food turned out to be pretty good. I especially enjoyed the Gilroy Garlic Fries, but boy did my breath stink afterwards. Had to brush and rinse several times that evening. It was all well worth it.

napa smith

Napa Smith Lost Dog Ale was my beverage of choice that first night in town. It was mighty fine — and mighty powerful. The brew’s 7.2% alcohol content (I had 2) knocked me for a loop, especially after traveling all day. I decided to call it a day and head for the rack.

grocery

I was in Northern California for a conference, but was able to bust loose during a long lunch break one day for some exploring beyond the walls of the Claremont. I walked about a mile (pretty much all downhill) to the first signs of commercial and culinary civilization. The first spot of interest I encountered was the Star Grocery. A classic corner grocery updated for the modern age. It had something of a hippie, granola vibe to the place — totally what you would expect for Berkeley.

star bakery

Star’s bakery goods looked impressive. So much bread, so little time!

sandwich

I ended up grabbing lunch at a place called Southie — a very hip little California bistro. The atmosphere was contemporary with a menu full of fresh and healthy local fare. My Roast Turkey with Applewood Bacon sandwich really hit the spot. The focaccia bread was obviously fresh and the sandwich was completed with locally grown romaine, sliced avocado, and a totally on-point rosemary aioli. It all was quickly polished off. It came with a bag of chips, but I chose not to consume them. I was saving room for the far more interesting treats that lay ahead.

nom nom

The next day was even better. The conference concluded before noon, so I bounded down the hill once again and grabbed the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) for San Francisco’s Financial District. Shortly after I got off the subway, I spotted the famous Nom Nom truck (best known from its time on Food Network’s THE GREAT FOOD TRUCK RACE). The line was rather lengthy, but I took a deep breath and plunged into the cue.

viet sand

Service was actually pretty swift and my Vietnamese sandwich (aka “Banh Mi”) was a tart, tangy joy. The price wasn’t bad either.  The pickled vegetables and green leaves of cilantro were a perfect match for the chunks of grilled chicken and the crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside bread loaf. I added a little bit of Sriracha for some added zip. It was a chilly day in the City By The Bay and the bright red condiment warmed me to the bone.

tadich ext

Determined to eat my way across town, my next stop was the Tadich Grill. It is also known as “The Original Cold Day Restaurant.” And now I know why. It is a warm, welcoming spot — a favorite in this town since 1849. All the restaurant seating was occupied, so I bellied up to the bar.

tadich nap

I ordered a bowl of chowder, a pint of Sierra Nevada, and took time to check the old place out. The servers look they they have all worked here for quite a while. Most were well north of 5o years old and all were decked out in classic white smocks. My bespeckled bar attendant was super friendly and very attentive. He even gave me some strong touring tips — the best one being to avoid walking the city’s steep hills and to purchase a day pass for the cable car system.  Thank you, sir!

chowder

My Clam Chowder (New England style) was rich and creamy, the brew just the right flavor note and temperature. Yet it was the bread served alongside my soup bowl that was the real revelation at this stop. My server told me the rustic looking loaf was baked daily by the legendary Boudin Bakery of San Francisco. He added that it was a proprietary recipe only sold to area restaurants and not the same as the Boudin Sourdough bread found all over town and in the local airport gift shops. My day was humming along nicely.

china ext

My next stop on the trolley line was Chinatown.

china

Chinatown is nice for sightseeing. I was tempted, but not ready to eat again.

trolley

After wandering about Chinatown for a half hour or so, I jumped on board a cable car headed for the intersection of California & Polk. The trolleys are a great way to get around town — even on a brisk day. I chose to sit in the car’s open air seating to get the full ambiance of city sights, sounds, and smells. A bum approached me for some money and I was in such a good mood that I flipped him a couple bucks and wished him a Merry Christmas.

depot

The Swan Oyster Depot was featured in Tony Bourdain’s The Layover TV series.

swan2

Their display of fresh local seafood lured me inside.

swan cala

The marinated squid salad looked like something out of a Japanese horror flick. But it tasted like the gastronomical equivalent of a Shiatsu massage. That alone should have been enough. The accompanying Anchor Steam beer and more fresh-baked Boudin bread had my taste buds singing like another famous Tony — Tony Bennett.

colin

Later that same evening, I met up with my childhood friend, Colin Jewell (pictured above). Colin and I had not seen one another in over 40 years (yes, we’re old). I believe I was about 10 years old or so the last time we crossed paths. We grabbed a beer or two and started catching up at the Tadich Grill. The reunion continued over a great Greek meal at Kokkari, an Italian biscotti in the North Shore neighborhood, and a nightcap (“Surfer’s Punch”) at the world famous Tiki bar known as the Tonga Room.

atonga2

The “room” (shown in picture above) is actually cavernous and includes a full-size swimming pool as a focal point. Precisely timed thunder and lightning cracks are occasionally heard over the Tonga Room’s sound system. That is immediately followed by a faux tropical rainfall that is thankfully confined to just the pool and not the bar tables and hightops along the periphery. Pretty cool, huh?  

boudin

And yes, I did end up buying some Boudin sourdough bread to take back to Alabama. Sure, it’s a very touristy thing to do. It is also a very wise thing to do. The bread in the SF Bay Area  is truly amazing. Foodies who live around here are extremely fortunate. As for me, I’ll soon be inquiring about any Bread of the Month Clubs that might exist for poor suckers like me who can only visit once in a blue moon. What a wonderful town San Francisco is. I may not have left my heart there, but I surely left my bread  there.

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