Wednesday Food: Bay Area Round Up
When you are jobless and not particularly keen on settling back in to long term employment, you must be open to temporary situations that allow you to maintain the status quo. This is how I ended up in the Bay Area for the last month trying to teach a two-year-old how to cut butter into flour for pastry dough.
Her culinary apprenticeship was enthusiastic though I doubt many of the techniques were retained. But fun was had by all and throughout the weeks there were pretzels, pot pies, and bread for noshing.
My first trip up to the city I took the Caltrain from mid-peninsula arriving at AT&T Park. By now you can anticipate my priorities, and Toronado topped the list. Whereabouts unknown, I ventured through the ever-glamorous SoMa neighborhood happening upon casual drug deals and prostitution that was less than discreet. It’s not that Chicago is without vice or that I live in some saccharin bubble, I just usually know better than to walk through an area like 6th and Mission alone, wearing a cardigan, consulting my smart phone.
And so I walked hastily toward Toronado. 24 years ago a clever and tasteful guy named David Keene bought the Toronado (it really is ‘the’ Toronado but everyone seems to drop the article) and stocked it with what domestic craft beer was available– Anderson Valley, Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada. He also provided Chimay, the greatness of which Michael Jackson had only recently heralded to thirsty readers. The bar gained renown for adhering to quality, variety, and for anticipating a beer movement no one really expected.
A Jacobins Rouge in hand and a claim to the last seat at the bar, I made some observations. Apparent was the post-punk atmosphere, tight quarters, and black denim-clad clientele who wanted to drink well, and not make a big thing of it. Happy hour is very affordable and prime time prices are reasonable, there are always a few casked ales and around fifty domestics and imports on the chalkboard– you’d hardly know it because every other person orders Pliny. I was unusually intimidated at first, like I was on a blind date I’d been looking forward to for years. But Jennifer behind the bar took a liking to me and being alone had its benefits (like the owner’s wife buying you beer).
Serving food isn’t the only disparity between the original establishment and its San Diego sister. Besides a significant age difference 24 v. 3 years, I’d say the main difference between Toronado the elder and Toronado the younger is an attitude amongst patrons. At the sprightly San Diego shop drinkers are eager to out-order and out-talk one another: big beers reign and conversation reflects location. San Franciscans have no need of boasting. They know what they have, it’s no big deal. And they sit on a piece of information they don’t have to improve upon: that it simply doesn’t get better than their nook in Lower Haight.
Not every venue glows with the adoration of a journeying beer monger. Steelhead Brewing, which was walking distance from my place of employment was one such place. A tired menu delivered food that was nasty and fresh only from the can or package out of which it was poured. The beer list was limited to what they brewed in house, about six choices. Everything on the list was average except the double IPA which was strong, tasty, and cheap. A shame, it’s so beautiful from the exterior but everything inside feels like a collaboration between Chili’s and Anheuser-Busch.
I was back on the shmancy brewpub wagon with dinner at Magnolia Pub and Brewery. My experience with the menu was limited to the fried pig ear appetizer– a gamier, greasier piece of pig– and the bacon chicken sausage. This dish isn’t a full entree but it was a decent portion, gently spiced and sweet and didn’t taste exclusively of bacon. The beer was the best part of the menu, a chalkboard provides the choices including size, ABV, IBU, and price. That last part is key– if a board provides details but excludes price it’s because they’re tacking a buck or two onto competitive prices. I especially liked the Proving Ground Pale. The atmosphere was to be expected for anything with ‘gastro’ in the subtitle– they had the whole post-hipster hipness thing happening.
Across the bridge to the east I met friends at Barclay’s in Rockridge. This place is a bruiser of a beer bar. Most of the waitstaff and patrons are a little rough around the edges. Pitted against the customers at Magnolia’s they would win a bar fight in a second… or just send the others running for their Bon Iver tracks. Therefore, it’s a welcome surprise that the beer list should accommodate those of us with an occasionally snobbier palate. It was here I also learned that many Bay Area bars offer half pints. How novel! They’re like little fairy cups.
The last bars I visited in sequence just yesterday (hence the delayed posting– Wednesday Food is a category, not a deadline, dammit!) It was at Beer Revolution that I found my Northern California ‘neighborhood bar‘– the place I would most likely be a regular, with a selection that would never tire and a casual enough atmosphere to feel entirely at home. Remember our discussion of bottle shops? Add another to the list. Coming in under two years old, this one also has a sensational assortment of drafts, bottles, and Souley Vegan next door will walk food over to you. I must doff my cap to the outstanding staff as well. Dealing with attitude from employees at beer bars is so par for the course I don’t even notice it anymore. On the contrary, it turns out you can wear a Ramone’s shirt, pour a gueuze, and not be a total ass!
And finally… The Trappist. Belgian beer, intimate setting, lots of dark wood and low light. Brilliant pickles and gooey, sharp grilled cheese. You will be smitten when you see Russian River’s Supplication on tap. This is where you take someone you love, who loves beer. They will love you back.
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