Far East Cafe, San Francisco, California

In San Francisco there are two Chinese restaurants that claim to be the oldest in the city and both were established in the same year: 1920. There’s the Hang Ah Tearoom, which also claims to be the first dim sum restaurant in the U.S. The food is reported to be good, but the place has zero atmosphere. The other is the Far East Cafe in the heart of Chinatown. In contrast its dining room is spectacular and apparently much of it is original.

 

Far East Cafe

Le Continental couldn’t find any detailed info about the Far East Cafe online. All we know is that it opened in 1920 with its ornate lamps, paintings and other decor coming from China.

 

Far East Cafe

The Bar

 

The Far East Cafe serves traditional Cantonese style Chinese and Chinese-American food, with a sprinkling of Szechuan dishes on the menu as well. They specialize in seafood, so that’s what you should order.

 

Far East Cafe

A unique feature are the private wood dining compartments on one side of the dining room (that matches the wood paneling on the opposite side), which the restaurant says are the last in any Chinese restaurant in the city. Sam’s Grill and Tadich Grill (both in San Francisco) also still have similar private dining compartments. Reservations are REQUIRED to sit in a private compartment (walk-ins welcome for the main dining room).

 

Far East Cafe

The restaurant was freshly painted since the last time I visited but the colors are pleasing, not garish like in so many Chinese restaurants. And check out those beautiful murals and intricate “palace” lamps! I also love the vintage linoleum floor.

 

Far East Cafe

The service was very attentive on my recent visit. The waiters wear black vests with white shirts, black slacks, and red ties.

 

Far East Cafe

 

Far East Cafe
631 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 982-3245
Open daily 11:30am-10pm

Trader Vic’s, Emeryville, California

Recently I heard some sad news that the Portland outpost of Trader Vic’s closed after a fire. The Portland location was the best of the “new” Trader Vic’s in the U.S. which opened in the new millennium. I know it was because I went to all the new locations, with the exception of the Las Vegas one (mainly because the consensus in the tiki community was that the Vegas one was poorly designed – too sleek and not like a classic Trader Vic’s). The closure leaves only two Trader Vic’s open in the country, in Atlanta (covered by Le Continental) and in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco.

 

Hinky Dink's, Oakland - image from tradervics.com

Hinky Dinks, Oakland – image from tradervics.com

 

In 1934 San Francisco-born Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. borrowed $500 from his aunt and opened a tavern in Oakland at San Pablo Ave. & 65th St. called Hinky Dinks. He acted as bartender and cook, serving mainly beer and sandwiches. But in 1938, after traveling to the Caribbean, New Orleans, and Hollywood, where he visited Don the Beachcomber (opened 1933), he decided to convert a portion of his modest bar into a cocktail lounge solely “for ladies and their escorts” called the Bamboo Room, where he served mixed drinks “from all around the world” such as the Mojito, “Cuban Presidente”, “Barbados Red Rum Swizzle”, “Maui Fizz”, Raffles Bar Sling, and the Pisco Punch [source: Oakland Tribune July 28, 1938 via tikiroom.com]. He also renamed his bar and restaurant Trader Vic’s around this time.

 

Trader Vic's, Oakland, c. 1960 via tikiroom.com

Trader Vic’s, Oakland, c. 1960 via tikiroom.com

 

Word spread about the bon vivant host with a wooden leg (he lost his leg as a child from tuberculosis) who was serving Chinese food (he learned to make by visiting Chinatown in SF) and fancy cocktails in Oakland. The new Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939-40 helped business. Herb Caen wrote in 1941: “the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland”.

 

Trader Vic's bar, Oakland - postcard image via SwellMap on Flickr

Trader Vic’s bar, Oakland – postcard image via SwellMap on Flickr

 

In 1944 Victor Bergeron invented the Mai-Tai at Trader Vic’s in Oakland, where he also developed the full-blown Polynesian restaurant concept with tikis, nautical decor, flotsam from around the world, and of course bamboo. In 1948 he opened his second restaurant, The Outrigger in Seattle (changed to Trader Vic’s in 1960) and in 1951 he opened his San Francisco restaurant.

 

Trader Vic's, San Francisco - image via tikiroom.com

Trader Vic’s, San Francisco – image via tikiroom.com

 

The San Francisco location became very popular, frequented by celebrities, politicians, and royalty (Queen Elizabeth visited in 1983) until it closed in 1993. Today the French-Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial occupies the building but you can see Trader Vic Alley as a tribute to what was once there.

 

Tiki Room, Trader Vic's, San Francisco - postcard via SwellMap on Flickr

Tiki Room, Trader Vic’s, San Francisco – postcard via SwellMap on Flickr

 

Garden Room, Trader Vic's, San Francisco - postcard via SwellMap on Flickr

Garden Room, Trader Vic’s, San Francisco – postcard via SwellMap on Flickr

 

Hong Kong Room, Trader Vic's, San Francisco - postcard via SwellMap on Flickr

Hong Kong Room, Trader Vic’s, San Francisco – postcard via SwellMap on Flickr

 

The Trader Vic’s restaurant chain grew worldwide through the post-war years’ massive popularity of exotic escapism via tropical drinks, Polynesian food, Hawaiian and South Pacific culture, and exotica music. In the waning years of the heyday of Polynesian Pop a new Trader Vic’s opened in the Bay Area, in Emeryville, and the Oakland location closed in 1972.

 

Trader Vic's newspaper advertisement, 1972

Trader Vic’s newspaper advertisement, 1972

 

Trader Vic's, Emeryville - postcard image via hmdavid on Flickr

Trader Vic’s, Emeryville – postcard image via hmdavid on Flickr

 

Some new Trader Vic’s locations opened in the Bay Area in recent years (Palo Alto, 2001-2012 & San Francisco, 2004-2007) but Emeryville has remained the flagship location of Trader Vic’s in the world. The company has its headquarters there and much of the decor from now-closed locations around the country ends up at this Trader Vic’s.

 

bar and lounge, Trader Vic's Emeryville via EaterSF

bar and lounge, Trader Vic’s Emeryville via EaterSF on Flickr

 

The Emeryville location has seen some remodeling since my first visit about 20 years ago. There was an unfortunate remodel of the cocktail lounge several years ago which gave it a white a-frame ceiling and a lighter nautical look. In 2010 it closed for a few months but thankfully came back looking better; a return to the classic tiki bar look with more tikis and traditional decor throughout the restaurant. And the a-frame ceiling over the lounge is looking great again! There is a lot to see so when you visit take some time to look at the items hanging on walls, above, and around you.

 

decor, Trader Vic's Emeryville via K on Flickr

decor, Trader Vic’s Emeryville via K on Flickr

 

tikis, Trader Vic's Emeryville via K on Flickr

tikis, Trader Vic’s Emeryville via K on Flickr

 

The dining room is wonderful, with large windows looking out on the marina and towards San Francisco. Try to reserve a table with a window view for a romantic meal without peer in the Bay Area.

 

Tiki Room, Trader Vic's, Emeryville via EaterSF on Flickr

Tiki Room, Trader Vic’s, Emeryville via EaterSF on Flickr

 

The food has also gotten better since my first visit. Highly recommended are anything from the Chinese ovens (the pork chop and steaks are great). And you have to get a Mai Tai where it was invented! Tip: order an “original Mai Tai” which is made from scratch rather than from a mix.

 

Trader Vic, 1902-1984 (photo taken at San Francisco location)

Trader Vic, 1902-1984 (photo taken at San Francisco location)

 

Sadly, we lost many classic Trader Vic’s in recent years, so the remaining two are treasures to be enjoyed as often as possible. So won’t you check out Trader Vic’s in Emeryville when you visit the Bay Area? Please tell maître d’hôtel Claudette Lum that I sent you.

 

Of all the Trader Vic’s (besides Emeryville) I have visited the following:
Beverly Hills (1955-2007; it used to be my favorite; there is a sleek Trader Vic’s lounge now which is nothing close to the original but you probably can get a good Mai Tai there as I hear some of the veteran bartenders are still around).
Chicago (1957-2005; new location 2008-2011)
London (1963-now)
Munich (1971-now)
Atlanta (1976-now)
Palo Alto (2001-2012)
San Francisco (2004-2007)
Bellevue, WA (2006-2008)
Los Angeles (2009-2014)
Portland (2011-2016)

 

Trader Vic’s
9 Anchor Dr, Emeryville, CA 94608
(510) 653-3400
Open Tue-Fri 11:30am – 11:00pm, Sat 5:00pm-10:30pm, Sun 5:00pm-10:00pm

 

 

Francesco’s, Oakland, California – CLOSED

Last week I heard from a friend that Francesco’s Italian Restaurant, near the airport in Oakland since 1968, will be closing its doors for good soon. The word is they will be open until March or April of 2016. I went back last weekend for a long-overdue return with friends and it won’t be the last time I go back before it closes. The East Bay will be losing perhaps the last family-owned old-style Italian restaurant in the area and that is a real shame. This is a place I was excited to check out about 10 years ago but now I wish I had visited more often. Here are some pics I took last Saturday night.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Dewey Bargiacchi opened Francesco’s in 1968 after running the popular Chandelier in Jack London Square. His mother, known as Mama Bargiacchi, founded the North Pole Club and the Villa de la Paix in Oakland. Francesco’s is now owned by the third generation of the same family.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

the bar - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

the bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

amazing grapes chandelier - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

amazing grapes chandelier – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

our waitress Lisa preparing tableside Caesar salad - it was delicious! -  photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Our waitress Lisa preparing tableside Caesar salad – it was delicious! – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

"Italian pot roast" with their homemade ravioli - YUM! - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

“Italian pot roast” with their homemade ravioli – YUM! – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Be sure to look at the memorabilia of the family’s restaurant history at the entrance to the bar and the old photos and articles on the Oakland airport over the years.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Francesco’s
8520 Pardee Dr, Oakland, CA 94621
(510) 569-0653
Open Mon-Fri 11:00am – 9:45pm, Sat 4:00pm-9:45pm, closed Sunday

 

 

No. 9 Fishermen’s Grotto, San Francisco, California – CLOSED

UPDATE: Fishermen’s Grotto was purchased in 2016 and closed for remodeling. As of June 2017 it remains closed.

One of my favorite web sites during the pre-commercialization heyday of the World Wide Web was the Los Angeles Time Machines site (latimemachines.com). It started in 2004 but it had the look of a 90s web site, basic but chock full of great information. Sadly, in late 2011 the author took the web site down for health reasons and it has never come back. There are a few remnants from the site, namely some outdated Google Maps made from the locations that were listed on the site. This map has hours (which may not be correct anymore) addresses, and year opened, while this map just has short descriptions of the sites. For Mad Men fans, here is a Google Map by the latimemachines.com site showing classic restaurants that were used as filming locations in the early seasons of the TV show. Why I bring up L.A. Time Machines is because the site had a list of Top Ten Overall Time Machine Restaurants in the Los Angeles area.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

In the Bay Area, Le Continental’s award for best all around time machine experience goes to No. 9 Fishermen’s Grotto!

 

Mike 'Pa' Geraldi - photo by Fisherman's Grotto Facebook page

Mike ‘Pa’ Geraldi, 1934 – photo by Fisherman’s Grotto Facebook page

 

In 1931 Mike Geraldi, a fisherman from Sicily, started selling the fish he caught at a stand  at No. 9 Fisherman’s Wharf. In 1935 he opened Fishermen’s Grotto, a full service seafood restaurant on the site.

 

Fisherman's Grotto, 1936 - photo by Fisherman's Grotto Facebook page

Fishermen’s Grotto, 1936 – photo by Fishermen’s Grotto Facebook page

 

Although the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood and tourist attraction in San Francisco extends from Pier 39 to Ghirardelli Square, the original wharf where Fisherman’s Grotto is located was created in 1906 from the remains of Meiggs’ Wharf enlarged with rubble from the great San Francisco earthquake. It still acts as a working wharf with many fishing boats operated by the third generation of long-time Italian fishing families. In the early days of the wharf these fisherman would set up stands offering their days catch. Some had large pots to cook Dungeness crab to be sold as crab cocktails in paper cups. Later many stands evolved into restaurants, including Castagnola’s (the stand opened in 1916, but the restaurant opened later), Alioto’s (1925, the restaurant in 1938), Sabella / La Torre (1927, the restaurant starting in the late 1940s), Pompei’s Grotto (1946), The Franciscan (1957), and Scoma’s (1965). Most of the above restaurants have been expanded, remodeled, and updated. The only ones that retain a classic feel are Pompei’s Grotto, Scoma’s (though gradually it is being updated), and Fishermen’s Grotto, which is the oldest and the best-preserved restaurant on the Wharf.

 

Fishermen's Grotto, 1940

Fishermen’s Grotto, 1940 – photo by Fishermen’s Grotto Facebook page

 

Look at the front of the building in the historic photos above and you can see that the Fisherman character was there from the start. It’s still used throughout the restaurant and on many of their souvenir items available in the gift shop. Yes, there’s a gift shop. And they regularly put out vintage items from their old stock that are for sale!

 

Venetian Dining Room postcard - caption reads "Gaily decorated first and second floor Venetian Dining Rooms of Fisherman's Grotto give visitors a view of world famous Fisherman's Wharf and fishing fleet." - by Ashleyanne Krigbaum's Flickr

Venetian Dining Room postcard – caption reads “Gaily decorated first and second floor Venetian Dining Rooms of Fisherman’s Grotto give visitors a view of world famous Fisherman’s Wharf and fishing fleet.” – by Ashleyanne Krigbaum on Flickr

 

Venetian Dining Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Venetian Dining Room today – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

The original building’s dining room is called the Venetian Dining Room, which is festively painted in gold and has padded wooden booths with striped poles like those on Venetian gondolas. Some even have lamps at the top, and all have hat/coat hooks. This is one of my favorite historic dining rooms anywhere and it’s kept in perfect shape! Make sure you look at all the historic photos lining the walls, as well as at the views outside to the harbor. Originally there were Venetian dining rooms on both the first and second floors, but now the remaining one is on the ground floor.

 

Venetian Dining Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Venetian Dining Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Fishermen's Grotto, 1950 - photo by Fisherman's Grotto Facebook page

Fishermen’s Grotto, 1950 – photo by Fisherman’s Grotto Facebook page

 

In 1953 Fishermen’s Grotto expanded on the north end of the building, purchasing and incorporating the Vista Del Mar restaurant next door, which opened in 1951. The swanky Fireplace Cocktail Lounge and beautiful Florentine Dining Room opened upstairs, commanding sweeping views of the harbor.

 

stairway to upstairs Fireplace Lounge and Florentine Dining Room

Stairway today to upstairs Fireplace Lounge and Florentine Dining Room

 

Fireplace Lounge, 1950s - photo by Fisherman's Grotto Facebook page

Fireplace Lounge, 1950s – photo by Fisherman’s Grotto Facebook page

 

Florentine Dining Room, 1950s - photo by Fisherman's Grotto Facebook page

Florentine Dining Room, 1950s – photo by Fisherman’s Grotto Facebook page

 

Also added around this time (on the first floor) were the gift shop and the Grotto Tavern, a cozy small bar with the Fisherman etched in the glass doors, wonderful tufted red vinyl high-backed bar stools, blonde wood ceiling and walls, and a large mural of an Venetian scene.

 

Grotto Tavern entrance - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Grotto Tavern entrance – note the old sign from the crab stand with such low prices! – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

closeup of Fisherman - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Imbibing Fisherman – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Grotto Tavern, 2005 – cash register has since been replaced by computer terminal – photo by Dean Curtis

 

Gift Shop - photo by Dean Curtis, 2012

Gift Shop – I took this photo of part of the gift shop in 2012 when they were renovating it. Thankfully the gift shop is still as beautiful as ever. – photo by Dean Curtis, 2012

 

In the 1960s the Fireplace Lounge and Florentine Dining Room were remodeled a bit. The lounge received new blue vinyl chairs, blue tufted-vinyl, high-backed bar stools and new carpet in the fisherman motif, but the rest of the lounge remained the same, including the honey-stained wood walls with diamond-shaped panels, the stained glass windows, also in a diamond pattern, the coffered wood ceiling, the light sconces, the curving wood bar, and the back bar with decorative carved wood treatments and a statue of Poseidon with (perhaps) Amphitrite, one of his many mates. This is the way it looks today. Absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, a TV was added sometime around the early 2000s (I don’t recall its presence when I first visited the bar in the late 1990s). But the fish tank is still there to distract you from the TV, and the fireplace is as well. The last time I visited on a recent weekday summer night the fireplace was lit, though it may not be every night through the year. On my recent visit we were told that the Fireplace Lounge is staffed only on Friday and Saturday nights, though we were served a drink in the bar after we asked nicely.

My phone photos are very dark since I didn’t want to use a flash, so they can’t do justice to the beauty of the room. But hopefully they can give you some idea. Compare them with the B&W photo above of the Fireplace Lounge in the 1950s to see how little has changed.

 

Fireplace Lounge - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Fireplace Lounge showing fireplace and fish tank – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Fireplace Lounge - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Fireplace Lounge – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Fireplace Lounge bar - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Fireplace Lounge bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Fireplace Lounge - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Fireplace Lounge – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Fireplace Lounge bar - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Fireplace Lounge bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

The Florentine Dining Room also has not changed much since 1953, with the exception of new carpet, chairs (which don’t look much different from the original ones), and chandeliers which look like they were added in the 1960s. The gorgeous open beamed ceiling and wavy wood treatments back-lit by recessed lighting are still there in all their glory, as well as picture windows galore, with views of boats in the harbor in the foreground and the city and the Golden Gate bridge in the background.

 

Florentine Dining Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Florentine Dining Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

The dining room is huge, so it can accommodate the summertime tourist crowds (it seats 265 diners). As you make your way into the dining room there is another bar (three in one restaurant!) that is a real novelty in San Francisco. The back bar is sunken below floor level so the patrons can drink and dine while seated in lounge chairs instead of bar stools. A brilliant bar concept! The only other sunken bar I recall is the one that was in an old Italian restaurant in Hayward, CA, called Banchero’s, which closed in 2012. I really miss that place!

 

Florentine Dining Room

Florentine Dining Room looking towards the west – the sunken bar is just out of view to the right

 

powder room

 

Near the host stand and the ladies’ powder room (yes, it’s still called that in this time machine) there is a table with some souvenir pamphlets you can take home, and a display case of other souvenirs available in the gift shop downstairs (ask when it closes so you don’t miss the gift shop). And check out all the memorabilia on the walls downstairs, inside and outside).

 

memorabilia

 

The menu is seafood, of course. Their Boston clam chowder recently won a local award. I recommend any of the Dungeness crab dishes, such as the crabcake, crab Louie (my favorite), and the whole or half crab roasted in olive oil, garlic, and lemon. Local Dungeness crab season runs from November until the summertime, but the season normally continues in Oregon and Washington until mid October, so it’s fine to order it here year ’round. Dungeness crab is currently a sustainable seafood resource. There are also pasta and meat dishes on the menu. My friend recently tried the filet mignon and it was excellent. I would not recommended the dishes with bay shrimp, which are usually frozen in most restaurants, or the seafood dishes with heavy sauces that tend to overpower delicate fish. As in most seafood restaurants order with care so you get the freshest local seafood possible. It’s easy to ask the server “what was locally caught today?”

 

FG map

 

Fisherman’s Grotto is still owned by the Geraldi family, after 80 years! Take that, Bubba Gump! Forget the national chain restaurants in Fisherman’s Wharf. Instead take your business to a locally owned, family restaurant like Fishermen’s Grotto, Scoma’s, Alioto’s, or Pompeii’s Grotto. When I moved to the Bay Area in 1992 many locals told me to avoid Fishermans’ Wharf. It’s full of tourist traps, they said. I went anyway, and discovered Fishermen’s Grotto. So, sometimes it’s better to ignore locals’ advice and check it out for yourself!

 

FG fishermanI was surprised to see such low scores on Yelp for Fishermen’s Grotto. I always take Yelp with a pillar of salt, but it seems that people either ‘get’ classic restaurants or don’t. One of Le Continental’s rules on classic dining is to lower your expectations a little. Go to this incredible time machine with the goal of dining as they would have in the 1950s: have a martini at the Fireplace Lounge or sunken bar, dine on some crab and spaghetti, soak in the views listening to some Sinatra or Dino that plays softly in the background, and be thankful that you still can have such an experience. Then go have an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe.

 

Fishermen’s Grotto
2847 Taylor St, San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 673-7025
Open Sun-Thu 11:00am – 10:00pm, Fri- Sat 11:00am – 11:00pm
They validate parking for up to two hours at the garage at the north end of Taylor St., just past the restaurant.

 

Le Chalet Basque, San Rafael, California

A quick post today because I have to pack for a trip to Austin and San Antonio!

Recently a friend suggested we meet for dinner at Le Chalet Basque in San Rafael. I had no idea this restaurant existed (or it was so long ago when I visited that I forgot)! I’m a big fan of western U.S. style Basque restaurants (and Picon punch) and I work in San Rafael, so I have a new favorite local spot!

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Hidden away between the Marin Civic Center and China Camp State Park, Le Chalet Basque opened in 1962 and is now owned by Roger Minhondo from Irissary, France, who was chef at the restaurant in the 1970s and previously owned The Normandy and Guernica restaurants in Marin. The menu includes many beef, lamb, chicken, seafood, and veal dishes, and French and Spanish Basque specialties such as Rabbit Chasseur, Tripes a La Mode, Sweet Breads Financiere, Lamb Shank with Beans, and Frogs Legs. You will even find some Italian dishes if you’re in the mood for that. Dinners come with homemade soup or salad and for a little extra you can get a family style dinner that includes pâté and delicious rice pudding or ice cream.

 

Sirloin of Lamb Bordelaise - photo by Dean Curtis

Sirloin of Lamb Bordelaise – photo by Dean Curtis

 

There’s a full bar with vintage bar stools, lots of outdoor seating on a lovely patio, and the classically simple dining rooms in white and burgundy linens with mid-century stained wood, open-beamed ceilings and many windows throughout.

 

Le Chalet Basque
405 N San Pedro Rd, San Rafael, CA 94903
(415) 479-1070
Open Tue-Fri 11:30am-10:30pm, lunch served 11:30-2:00, dinner 5:00-9:00pm
Sat-Sun 4:00pm-10:30pm, dinner 4:00-9:00pm