Sunday, May 28, 2006

Floating Free

In true restaurant form, I have suddenly left BOTH of my jobs. I gave two weeks' notice at The Restaurant, with the watertight excuse that I will be heading off to Bordeaux to stomp grapes all summer. I had planned to stay on at The Bistro until I leave, especially since I'm moving just 5 blocks away on Thursday but with the sunny weather today and the fact that The Bistro has chosen to remain open tomorrow (Memorial Day) and I'm scheduled had a lot to do with my knee-jerk decision to leave.

It's not just the weather, though. I only went to work at The Bistro because the chef is amazing and my best guy pal is the head waiter. I didn't realize that it was an elephant graveyard for old, bitter waiters, and I'm just not there yet. The owners tell me they "really like the energy I bring to the place," and offered me more shifts a few weeks back, which I graciously declined. What really made me want to leave is an episode that happened on Thursday night. I was happily covering shifts this week (which meant I worked doubles all week) for a waiter on vacation, because I'm a nice person and a team player, and another waiter broke one of his fingers so there were just two of us.

I was the closer, which meant I came in at 6:30 and was supposed to stay until we stop seating (at 11pm). However, all of my tables were wrapped up and gone by 9:30 and I was absolutely exhausted. I asked the other waiter if he would mind closing, since he'd just been triple-sat and would be there until eleven, no question, anyway. His response, "Fuck no! I've been here since 4pm setting up this restaurant and I'm not closing!"

Not, "No, Restaurant Girl, I really don't want to stay that late. I'm pretty tired myself and you are the closer, after all."

Also, he'd been there since 5, not 4. And I know from personal experience that what he really did was put down about four knives, complain about having to be at work, eat most of the family meal before anyone else even saw what it was, and head over to the drugstore for a soda pop.

I would have closed for him had the situation been reversed. So, it's Carnaval, and I'm heading over to the Mission with some girlfriends, some roller skates, and a bottle of champagne to celebrate!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Bauer's bloggin'

Michael Bauer has started a blog. I like it: I think that Mr. Bauer is a good writer and I enjoy reading what he has to say. I chortle in glee when he scathes a chef I don't like. I gasp in outrage when he writes something I deem to be untrue. I feel that I've already been to a restaurant that he's reviewed, he's so thorough, and I can't wait to try it 'again' and see what I think.

However, I see him becoming the Robert Parker of the San Francisco food world, someone who's got too much influence in a certain sphere. I think that one person's tastes are just that: one person's tastes, and although critics like Mr. Bauer and Mr. Parker are well-educated in their fields and for the most part on top of their game, it doesn't make sense to have one Kaiser dictating what tastes good. I fear that through these daily musings on his blog, Mr. Bauer will be slamming and dunking chefs at whim and ruining peoples' careers. Oh wait, he already does that. How does one person gain so much influence that a few negative words will affect the ebb and flow of what's hot and what's not in this city?

Restaurateurs quiver in fear before the rumor of him, and scarce recognize him when he does dine in. Freelance journalists sting from his pointed rejections and waitresses drop trays as his piercing eyes cut through a dining room full of chatter to see that they are in the weeds all the way across the floor.

I guess people are prone to believing everything they read, which is why blogs are so popular--any jackass can see their opinions in print and feel validated when they garner a readership. But what happens when an already established food writer takes to the open screen? Restaurant Girl waits with bated breath to see.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Underground Restaurants

Underground restaurants are popping up all over the nation. What, pray tell, you may ask, is an “underground restaurant?”
“It’s like having a whole city right in your apartment building,” says Mike Hale, former owner of Manzanita and the Willowside Cafe, who has dined at several of these clandestine spots. “There’s this guy down the hall that’s cooking Bengalese food; someone downstairs is doing chop suey. That’s how I got started in this business—we’d do all of these dinner parties, and I thought getting paid to do that would be brilliant. So I decided to open up my own place.”
One chef believes that the draw to attend an underground restaurant comes less from wanting to have a traditional “dining out” experience and more because diners’ attitudes toward the entire restaurant scene are shifting.
“I think this is part of a trend, even in traditional restaurants, to make the dining experience more homey,” he says.
This change toward wanting a dining experience to be comforting, rather than the highly-formalized restaurant experience offered by such famed spots as the French Laundry, is a welcome one, according to many restaurateurs. Taking a restaurant out of the traditional context, and putting it—quite literally—in a homier context allows people to relax. Providing this type of low-key atmosphere is much easier when running a restaurant out of a basement or a garage, and these illegal dining spots are rapidly gaining cult status.
In an underground restaurant , where inventive restaurateurs don’t pay taxes, social security, or any of the costs of maintaining a full-time staff, this funky, homey atmosphere is created naturally. And chefs aren’t bound by the traditional ‘chicken-and-fish’ menu rules.
The difference between a traditional restaurant with a low-lit dining room, full of comfortable customers enjoying their cassoulet and their Gigondas, always attended by an unobtrusive and polished server; a kitchen full of curses and banging pots—dead silent during the dinner rush, the quiet broken only by the concise sounds of plates being laid out on the line, the grill hissing as another grass-fed steak sizzles its juices onto the wood coals below and an underground restaurant—where you’re literally eating in someone’s living room—is profound.
One of the best things about having an underground restaurant, those who do them say, is the variety of people who come to dine. Because advertising is all word-of-mouth, everyone who shows up enjoys a common thread: either they know the chef one way or another, or they’re in the restaurant industry. But while the clientele may share common interests, they are all very different.
“We get so many kinds of people!” enthuses one underground restaurateur. “All ages, men, women, different sexual preferences, whatever! It’s so great to see all of these people come together through food.”
Another positive aspect of running an underground restaurant is that freelance chefs do not have to invest a lot of money or time. When they started the culinary speakeasy two years ago, two Bay Area renegade chefs had planned to supplement their rent by throwing dinner parties where friends paid to be wined and dined like any gourmands, only without the restaurant structure. But the guys couldn’t find a house with a garage, so they did it in a field. Word spread like wildfire, until “this one night we had Indian food, and ninety-five people showed up,” laughs one of them. “It was way too crazy. We decided if this many people want to show up, we might as well do it.”
A potential downside of running a popular underground restaurant is just that: its popularity. “The amount of people attending just keeps rising,” he says. “We’re turning away like five more people every week. I feel like we’re doing something good for the community and our friends, but at the same time we don’t want to get in trouble for it.”
But underground restaurant might not be so underground any more; they just might be the wave of the dining future. Such once-small venues as Oakland’s “Ghetto Gourmet” have blown up with publicity in recent months; being featured on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday paper as well as National Public Radio, the once-underground restaurant is now in negotiations to film a television show.
One underground restaurateur describes his restaurant as a “speakeasy—a tiny little place with a vibe—a kind of word-on-the-street thing,” he muses. “We’re doing something unique, not run-of-the-mill. I think that’s the best way to live, really. Doing something fun that makes us truly happy. Those are our reasons behind starting the underground restaurant.”

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Sicky Sickerson

Ever notice how when you call in sick to work and you're not sick, you don't feel guilty at all; but when you call into work and you're actually sick, you're wracked with the fear that people are going to think you're faking and hate you? I do, anyway. I'd been trying to get Kevin to cover my shift today so that I could check out the new "Career Waitress" exhibit playing at COPIA, the center for Food, Wine, & Art in Napa and just have a day off for freakin' once. He couldn't do it and I woke up this morning with a terrible sore throat, aches and pains, and general flu-like symptoms. It didn't help that I had to drive the second friend to the airport in a week to take a fabulous vacation (one surf trip to Baja, one glam trip to Miami) and wave a cheerful goodbye as I head back to my seven-day-a-week grind. And although I'm actually quite miserable, I know my co-workers are going to think I'm a faker and Kevin's really bummed that he got called in after all because his family's in town. I feel like such a jerk! Oh well, Valentino's coming over with brandy for hot toddies and some DVDs. He's such a good nurse, which I'm glad for, because I've gotten sick about once a month for the last three months and I've caught them all from him!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

No more miss fancy-pants

I am absolutely exhausted. What seemed like a good idea, going to work in a very prestigious Restaurant, where I could have the possibility to work nights after six months, have insurance at that time, and really feel like I'd chosen a "bonafide career path" is now starting to feel like a huge mistake.

I was speaking with a dinner waiter who had to work a lunch shift last week (poor him!) about what it was like during the dinner shifts at The Very Prestigious Restaurant where I work, and he said this:

"Honey, I took this job to pay off credit card debt, and it's been six years!"

And he's still the "new guy." I'm scared this is going to happen to me. Also, I don't really gel with the people I work with on the floor (the kitchen staff is *great*), and it makes me miss the camraderie I had with my coworkers at the last place I worked in (so much camraderie, in fact, that I wound up sleeping with two of them. Hey! At least it's been four months and I'm still sleeping with the second one...).

Working seven days a week has made me come to some conclusions rather quickly, the most prominent one being: I don't want to be a career waiter. It seems I'd rather deal with the bullshit that comes with working in a relatively disorganized restaurant and not have to think about said restaurant when I'm not there. As it is, I spend so much of my spare time studying the wine list, the ever-changing menu, and the service standards outside of work that it's almost all I think about. I have waiter-anxiety dreams almost every night (and any waiter can tell you how awful these can be!), and it's just not worth it. I thought when I gave up one of my two jobs it would be the Bistro, but I'm planning on giving notice at the Restaurant tomorrow.

It will be interesting to see how one survives living in San Francisco on three restaurant shifts a week. A waitress I know screened herself a t-shirt that reads, "Help me, I can no longer afford the lifestyle to which I've grown accustomed!"

I might be ordering one of those.

Friday, May 05, 2006


The tiny little Bistro Florio on Fillmore Street at Bush has been serving up unpretentious food on ugly plateware for eight years, and it couldn't be better. Beloved by Pacific Heights locals (like the CEO of Visa and the owner of the Forty-Niners)and visitors (Mick Jagger and Sharon Stone always stop in when they're in town) alike, Florio manages to consistently get everything right.

I dined with two girlfriends in the window table, and was warmly welcomed by the staff, including owner Doug Biederbeck (who also runs Bix and the MarketBar). We began our meal with martinis, of course (two dirty Ketel Ones for them, for me a French Blush: Grey Goose vodka shaken with Chambourd and served with a twist), a small bowl of mixed marinated olives (with some beans and garlic floating around in there) and a plate of chicken-liver crostini. A little too much liver and not enough crostini, but the braided sourdough that is delivered directly on the tablecloth (hey, it's a Bistro! they don't mess around with bread baskets)helped.

A grilled asparagus salad, resplendent with aioli and extra-virgin olive oil came next, as did an ooey-gooey artichoke and egg dish, cooked over the open stove flame in a cassoulet dish. Both were good, and true to what seems to be the Florio credo: fresh food, prepared unassumingly and with skill.

A pasta course followed; ricotta stuffed pansoti and garganelli, which I especially liked. The hand-rolled and -folded pasta was complemented by plain brown shell beans, fennel, and shrimp. No sauce, none needed.

Mains were steak, steak, and more steak. I ordered the bavette and my two friends shared the steak for two; a gigantic piece of ribeye; both served with pommes frites, the ribeye with a side of spinach. Both steaks were disappointingly cold, perhaps they'd been sitting in the window as we finished our pasta course. The bernaise sauce that accompanied the meat was no bueno either, much too sweet and overly-cardamomed. But I've had the steak frites before (it is, after all, what Florio is known for) so I knew this must've been a fluke.

Service was friendly and attentive; we especially admired the busser, who appeared with a steak knife nanoseconds after I dropped mine on the floor.