“Herb Caen once noted that the Blue Fox served radicchio salad 35 years before it became trendy”
When I was very young, my parents took the family to The Blue Fox restaurant in San Francisco. It’s long gone, but at the time it was considered one of the better restaurants in the United States. Looking back, I can’t imagine what they were thinking taking children to a restaurant like that, but some 30-odd years later I still remember the meals or at least the important details. The restaurant advertised itself as “the restaurant across from the morgue. From the SFGate.com obituary of Mario Mondin,
“They came for the swank decor — gold-leaf walls, chandeliers and red carpet — as well as specialties like vitello tonnato, pheasant baked in clay and strawberries Armagnac. [columnist]Herb Caen once noted that the Blue Fox served radicchio salad 35 years before it became trendy.
I tried my first Frog Legs ($1.75), then Escargot Bourguignonne ($2), and expanded my experience with Caviar ($6 – 2 oz.) at the restaurant – important accomplishments for a ten-year-old. Even more surprising, I still remember the food from that evening and smile at the memory. [For some great photos, check out this link]. The fanciest dish at the Blue Fox was Island Duckling Flambe aux Cerises Noir ($13.50 for two).
Food is a lot like music: one bite and you are transported back in time to a particular moment in time.
When a steaming plate of escargot is put under my nose I am catapulted to a night at The Blue Fox. When I see the waiter carrying the snails across the room, I know how they should smell and what the texture should be like. One rarely sees frog legs these days but when the thought of them passes through my mind I flashback to telling my father in a disappointed tone that they taste like chicken. “What? He exclaimed. I didn’t fly you 500 miles for you to tell me that! You aren’t trying!”
In M.F.K. Fisher’s book Serve it Forth1, she wrote that for many people it is “because they have never been taught to search for differentiation of flavor”.
When most people eat, they pay attention to the first bite or two and then continue their conversation without really noticing the food. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to eat at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, you know that Thomas Keller firmly believes that people quit tasting after the first couple of bites. For this reason, he serves meals with many small dishes. People in the know get the Chef’s Menu – his choices for the day. We are talking up to twelve courses here. This may sound daunting and it is, even when you take into account that many plates are only a few bites, some literally in a spoon nestled in a napkin, propped on a dish. Second mortgage applications are available at the door.
In the 60s my parents would leave us in the arms of the babysitter while they escaped to a nirvana of a restaurant called Papa DiCarlo’s.
Legend has it that Mr. DiCarlo, an Italian immigrant, was driving into Los Angeles with his wife looking for a place to live. Stuck in traffic, she finally declared, “Take the next exit. We are getting off this damn freeway!” As an intelligent man does when faced with such a demand, he pulled off the road, and that is where they stayed, opening a restaurant the likes of which Los Angeles had never seen before. It was also one of the best-kept secrets in the area.
Papa DiCarlo’s was ahead of its time. It was a small restaurant on West Manchester Avenue. There was no menu- you got what papa decided to cook that night. Meals were multiple-hour affairs with many courses of fine Italian food coming in waves over the evening. It was secret and critics never reviewed it; you had to know someone to get in, and even then you had to be part of a group. With only one seating a night, it took months to get a reservation.
On my 12th birthday when it was my turn to go, I remember being delighted by the cloud of smells that poured from the kitchen every time the waiters came through the big swinging doors. All through the 14-course meal, Dad would remind me not just to eat, but to taste. If I talked too much he would hush me and point to the food. That is the first place I ever had Tuscan-style pork, and when traveling through Italy years later, I still compared similar dishes to that experience. I remember everything from the sommelier with his oh-so-courant silver cup, to the many bruschettas, my first veal, and the funny vibrating belt exercise machines that guests would get up and use halfway through the meal to shake things down and make more room. Papa DiCarlo’s was the beginning of my real education about food. From an LA Times mention in 1964 –
…there were the most delicious pickled grapes you ever tasted. Then came a meat broth in which floated a giant ravioli. The hors d’oeuvres consisted of mashed spinach on toast, tomato siiccs smothered in mozzarella cheese, and ceci beans. Somtwliere in there were succulent slices of pizza bread. Then came artichoke halves laced with garlic oil and served with a melted cheese sauce that had a mild bite. Then, shelled-shaped pasta. Then, small lobster tails blanketed with a sensational raisin sauce. Then, stuffed baked clams served in the shell. Then, sautitd real slices with snappinghj fresh green beans. Afttr inte nnission and a fresh air stroll in the patio, there aire three kinds of sherbet pineapple, peach end (get this!) licorice.
By the way, the cost of the meal for four was $30.
These days when my friends introduce me to new people, the conversation most often includes something to the effect of, “He ruined me for cheap food! Before I met him I could have chicken nuggets at McDonald’s. Now I am picky about everything.” That makes me feel good. I love sharing the experience of a good meal.
Most of you who are reading this are passionate about food. You know how to taste, to pay attention to the lingering finish of a bite, to the texture and consistency of the food. Lead the blind from the darkness and share your knowledge. Teach your children how to behave and take them to restaurants. Inspire your family, your friends, and everyone that will listen. Promote great restaurants. You’ll leave a heritage of love and memories that only sitting around a table groaning with food will bring.
My Dad died many years ago but he left a legacy in what he taught his family and friends about food and wine. I like to think that our love of food is infectious, that after we are gone people we crossed paths with during our lives will think back to meals we had together, a smile crossing their faces, a memory crossing their palate.
1Pity the Blind in Palate was a wonderful essay written by M.F. K. Fisher in Serve it Forth, 1937. She was one of the greatest food writers of our time and is still a wonderful read.