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Read Text Only: Dine
Eating Out
by Mark Holland


In a year where San Francisco attempted to bridge the gap between clever food and timeless tradition, I find myself in awe of the donut and afraid for the pig. Whoever thought that a pork belly popsicle would transcend year after year might know a lot about popsicles and less about dining.
I appreciate playful, but if the nod to tradition is lost in the name of ego and some grand inside joke that started back in the smoking section of a B List culinary school, leave me out of it. Eggs for dinner, lobster corn dogs, bacon desserts, Pop Rocks, the list goes on. There are masters who can get away with just about anything. But for some of us, who grew up on classic southern fare like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, you better nail it or not bother at all.
Chefs love taking food off the dining tables of the poor, stuffing it with truffles, frying it in duck fat and serving it in the lofty dining rooms of some of the city’s finest restaurants. These blue collar staples may transcend decades for a reason, but in a town where popsicles have found it onto the menu in lieu of real deserts and some waiters still get a chuckle out of rich out-of-towners eating lobster corn dogs, who laughs last? Where I come from, you would be lucky if the average person thought a truffle was a chocolate, least of all a rare Italian mushroom sniffed out by a pig or a dog.
The best restaurants don’t respond to trends but rather set them. Setting these trends doesn’t rely on hunches and pop culture, but real genius, real originality. It’s not about market share, or about how much space a restaurant occupies in a given landscape. It’s not about market research and answering that call, conforming to a trend. It’s about creating your own market with something so fantastic; it makes no apologies and asks for no exceptional indulgence on the part of the diner.
There are always going to be people who flock to restaurants for their clever cuisine, but the goal of these diners is to satisfy that ironic whole in their heart, not the carnal one in their stomach. As a bartender, I have found the best way to assess a chef’s dish is often by putting it in front of some hillbilly or out-of-towner. A local know-it-all like myself might sneer at a particular presentation or philosophy. A less apt diner is worried about one thing, is it delicious? If you are splitting hairs about which biodynamic farm your squab came from, how could you truly enjoy it? If you are less familiar, you might think this $20 pigeon is pretty tasty, and perhaps that’s good enough.
My favorite foods are those that taste great before you do anything to them; the relationship is simple, pure. Shellfish may be the finest example of a food group that needs little to no help from the kitchens of the world. A chef that rises to fame on the back of a steamed lobster we should keep a close eye on.
Where is San Francisco dining heading? The street is the answer. If your food needs a clever twist, serve it out of a bike basket or a converted ice cream truck and you are part of a rapidly growing food scene. With San Francisco rent on the rise despite it all, food professionals are taking to the street with their goodies and finding plenty of watering mouths. With guerilla style dining popping up all over town it’s no wonder chef’s are trimming the fat and hitting the streets. Seems as though what these chefs are really saying is that the pretension of restaurants is essentially the restaurant itself. The coat check, marble floors, concrete bars, ostrich bounds chairs, can’t eat any of that.
Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows that chefs don’t give a damn about the leather and the marble; they hope that people are here for food, their food. So street food is the chef’s answer to the business of restaurants. Chefs typically hate the front of the house staff anyway. After all, many of us work half the hours, make six times the money and have a fraction of the food knowledge of the average line cook, so if they can cut us out, they are happy to do it.
If you hear venom in my voice, it is actually the bridled excitement in my heart to see what San Francisco turns out in 2010. My prediction is that the chemistry sets of molecular gastronomy will be put away and the vegetarians may have even fewer places to eat in the New Year, even in a town like San Francisco. Swine reigned supreme in 2009, but it seems everyone has finally figured out that pork belly is really just bacon and that restaurants are sometimes just a big show that ends with tasty meal. If we are going to cut out the fat in 2010, I think we can start with leather booths and finish eating dinner out of our hands on the street, where San Francisco dining may feel the most authentic.

The Best Classic Restaurants
Swan’s Oyster Depot
Tadich Grill
The Brazen Head

Street Food Players:
The Creme Brulee Cart
Soul Cocina
Lucero, Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dog Lady
Wholesome Bakery
Bike Basket Pies
Gobba Gobba Hey
El Huarache Loco
Chaac Mool Yucatecan Food
Chez Spencer on the Go
Liba Falafel
El Tonayense
The Tamale Lady