North Beach Journal

A plebian gourmand’s glorious dinner party, faux food, table talk, Gino and Carlo at 75

I’ll be frank here. I seldom dine at San Francisco Michelin-starred restaurants. Nor do I frequent the San Francisco Chronicle’s top-rated selections. Why? It’s because I’m just a plebian gourmand. And I’m OK with that.

But let me elaborate on my shunning of the highbrow, high-roller establishments. Price is a problem, but not the main one. For example, I’ve been known to pay big bucks for an incredible steak or for a few dozen air-shipped, French Belon oysters. But, more important than the price of a meal, is what I’m actually getting for my money.

I won’t name names. Everybody is entitled to his or her own lifestyle choices — whatever turns you on. But, for me, to spend hard-earned bucks for a dining experience that doesn’t turn me on is ludicrous.


Frequently, staff members at these exalted restaurants are impeccable, but there is such a thing as being too impeccable. And that leads to staffers who are brittle and severe, and act as though they are allowing a plebian like me to sample their carefully plated, exactingly curated, faux food.

Sometimes I long for a big bowl of chili. But I never long for an artfully designed bowl of kale salad, topped with salmon roe, dressed with gooseberry vinegar and avocado oil.


Here in San Francisco it appears our culture is in our mouths. We’re dominated by food and foodies. Restaurants have become more important than libraries or bookstores. And who knows what craze will be adopted by the food crazies. We can’t even be sure which way our stomachs are turning — or churning. This new dining scene is like pop culture — it’s highly entertaining. But at the same time, it’s devoid of what makes your belly growl: real, old-fashioned food like a good bowl of chili.


A while back, the New York Times Magazine asked a few famous folks who they would invite to an ideal dinner party, and what they would cook and serve for their guests. Great idea! Wish I’d thought of it first. However, there’s no reason for me not to riff on the concept here where I’m taking on the foodie establishment.

I would have this dinner party for eight (myself and seven guests) in my Telegraph Hill apartment. And I would serve celery root remoulade, gravlax with mustard-dill sauce, roast leg of lamb with white beans, a green salad, and tarte tatin for dessert.

Here are my choices for dinner party guests:

Grace Slick: I’ve always had a yen for Grace. I was thinking of asking her to bring some uppers or downers, but I don’t want my dinner party to get busted. “One pill makes you larger/ one pill makes you small / and the ones that mother gives you / don’t do anything at all.”

Alice Waters: An appropriate choice for a dinner party, I would ask Alice to bring the baby lettuces for the salad.

Elaine Katzenberger: Elaine, publisher and executive director of City Lights, is a formidable woman, knowledgeable, and good company.

Audrey Cooper: As editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, Audrey would be perfect for my dinner party. She’d be a built-in conversation starter. Everyone would want to talk to her about the future of print media.

Charles Lloyd: Charles, soon to be 80, is just about the last of the jazz titans. He’s performed on his tenor saxophone or flute with everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Ornette Coleman. And he’s still performing in concerts and festivals around the world. In my view, his current quartet is the most relevant and artistic small group working today.

Herb Gold: San Francisco’s own Kurt Vonnegut, Herb has a new novel out — When a Psychopath Falls in Love. We would need to talk about this.

Francis Ford Coppola: It would be fun to have Coppola as a guest. I want to ask him how he happened to make his film, The Conversation (one of my favorites). Also, he makes some great wine. I’d ask him to choose a few bottles of red from his Inglenook Estate in Napa Valley, perfect with the roast lamb.




I have a book project I have been working on for several years called Table Talk. Here’s how it starts:

Dinner parties and other occasions, real, contrived, or imagined — with Duke Ellington, Chairman Mao, Coco Chanel, Ernest Hemingway, Eric Clapton, Sir Francis Drake, Dizzy Gillespie, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Johnson, M. Buonarotti, Maria Callas, Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Bob Dylan, Izaak Walton, Aristotle Onassis, Bessie Smith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other friends.

How are those for dinner guests?


My favorite saloon has turned 75. Recently it had a party to celebrate. The North Beach cognoscenti turned up, as well as Gino and Carlo bartenders, past and present — Frank Rossi, Frankie Rossi, Marco Rossi, Orla Nyland, Dan Snell, Frank Colla, Ron Minolli, and Ron. Jr. Most common thing said by the partygoers: “I was here when it opened.” Not me. I was just a whippersnapper in knee pants in 1942.

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