Today’s special: a tour of San Francisco’s dining history

Photo by Laura Del Russo.

Eating and drinking in a library are always forbidden – and with good reason. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot about eating and drinking from going to a library.

That’s especially true now at the SanFranciscoPublicLibrary, which has mounted one of its largest exhibitions ever, using restaurant menus and other artifacts related to the famous San Francisco dining experience. It’s called San Francisco Eats, and Chief Curator Lisa Vestal says:

LISA VESTAL: The point of the exhibition is really to highlight and display and share food history and culture in San Francisco, from the Gold Rush to the present, all the way through SlowFood.

KALW’s Steven Short met up with Vestal for a tour of San Francisco’s dining history.

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STEVEN SHORT:The “San Francisco Eats” exhibit at the Main Library is primarily about restaurants, but Chief Curator Lisa Vestal started our tour with a display of cookbooks that really drove home the phrase “Only in San Francisco.”

LISA VESTAL: There’s this one called the Naked Ladies Lunches: an Orgy of Eating. Another book behind it, TheCookingforOrgies& OtherLargeParties, and this fun little one, I love this, Where to Sin in San Francisco – a little bit of the lighter side and little bit of the subversive side, if you will, you know, often times food and sex, our guilty pleasures.

This carries over to menus, too...

VESTAL: There’s also a copy of the Trader Vic’s menu with Polynesian women in sort of seductive poses.

And that brings us to the main part of the exhibit – those menus. Yes, some have seductive drawings, and all have seductive food listings.

Today you may get the Daily Specials straight off of an inkjet printer, but most of the printed pieces on display here are from a time when “the dining experience” began when you opened the door and were handed a menu. It could be a thick document with tassels, or a couple of pages printed in the shape of a beer stein – which Tommy’s Joynt did – or a sombrero, from the old Fiesta Restaurant at Bay and Columbus. 

VESTAL:In the case of this Coffee Cantare, the whole menu – it looks like a musical score. And then, of course, there’s Roberts at the Beach, where they would often have community sing-a-longs.

And many menus in the past, whether German, Italian, Chinese or Mexican – also still known as “Spanish” in some cases – often included backgrounds on the families who owned the restaurants.

VESTAL: So it’s not just the menu, and the food, but it’s really talking about where we’re from, why we chose San Francisco and how we’ve integrated our culture into San Francisco.

Vestal notes some early menus modified “exotic ethnic food” to appeal to American tastes. Chop suey, anyone? More current menus show an evolution of the items offered.

VESTAL: I feel like we’re almost getting back to some of the really nascent, true origins of some of the ethnic groups – and also interesting fusions of different ethnicities. And people really want that. They seek that out, so they’re adventurous, they want to understand it from artisan grains from Egypt to very localized food, but also mixed with ancient cultures, from all over the world.

But it’s not all evolution. There’s also devolution. The menu for Orsi’s, a noted North Beach restaurant for many years, includes this special service: “Bring in your own game and Chef Orsi will gladly prepare it for you.”

VESTAL: So, you know, you could bring in your own food, not only your own wine – your own game, in this case!

It was probably best to take your own car, too, when using this service. That haunch of venison on your shoulder might raise eyebrows on public transit.

Vestal says she hears lots of nostalgic comments when listening to visitors of San Francisco Eats.

VESTAL: “Oh, I remember that restaurant, and I started going there with my family as a kid,” or, “ That was my first grown-up dining experience.”

But the comment she hears most often is…

VESTAL: “I can’t believe the prices!” You know, “You could get a six course dining experience for two dollars!”

That might not even cover the tip for parking your car today. But you can afford to relive the good old days of San Francisco dining, because the admission price for this exhibit … is free.

In San Francisco’s Main Library, I’m Steven Short.

Catch the SF Eats exhibit until March 20. This story originally aired on February 16, 2011.