Breeders' Banquet: Dining Out with Kids in SF

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Pacific Catch

There’s this saying about raising kids. If you have kids I am sure some well-meaning but super-annoying person has said this to you. Head cocked, patronizing/indulgent smile on her face (it’s always a her), and then the slow eye blink before intoning stentorianly: “You know, the days are long but the years are short.”

Yes. The days ARE long. Sometimes my days last 20 hours straight, with no break. They are filled with whining and screaming, poop and pee, vomit and snot. They are also filled with laughing and dancing, and drawing and fart jokes, and museums and Beatles songs. As much as I want to punch those people in the throat for mouthing stupid platitudes, I don’t—  honestly, mostly because I wouldn’t have anyone to watch the kids while I went to jail for simple assault.

One thing that makes this whole stay-at-home-mom gig survivable are the other awesome moms and kids I’ve met along the way. Some of you (you know who you are) have saved me from that trip to jail and/or the mental institution, simply by offering to take my kid to the playground for a couple of hours or pouring a shot of Bailey’s into my decaf. These are my co-workers, and unlike some co-workers I’ve had, I enjoy their company— and the company of their great kids— a lot.

Sometimes it’s my turn to return the favor. A couple of weeks ago, the mom of one of the Jaybird’s BFFs needed a little break to take care of some home renovation-related business, so I offered to take BFF off her hands for a few hours. The Doctor was working late and BFFMom’s husband was as well, so we decided to meet at Pacific Catch in the Inner Sunset for dinner after Jaybird and the BFF finished their playdate.

Here’s a secret: playdates are awesome. The kids play together, obviating the need for the adult to play the 203rd game of “Fairy Veterinarian” or whatever nonsense the kids are torturing their parents with nowadays. The Jaybird and BFF spent a happy three hours destroying the house and leaving me to entertain only the Bitz. Convincing them to leave was a more complicated process. Seriously, how can it take 30 minutes to put on four shoes?

Anyway, I finally got all the minors loaded into the minivan and we headed over to the Inner Sunset. Pacific Catch has a small parking lot (VERY VERY SMALL) but all the spaces were taken. We found an unmetered street spot less than a block away on Lincoln, continuing our amazing parking streak here on Breeders’ Banquet.

Pacific Catch is located on a busy corner, but the front has some nice tables for the rare occasion when sitting outside is a good idea in the Golden Gate Park area.

Pacific Catch front dining area.

Pacific Catch front dining area.

I figured trying to wrangle three kids in an unfenced area near fast moving traffic was a poor idea, so we headed inside. The restaurant is basically two parts,  of which one is a sleek bar in front which was packed with UCSF employees in scrubs and other unencumbered young people. The hostess led us to the OTHER side of the restaurant, a dining area replete with booths and a few free-standing tables, as well as a lot of plants. I think they were bamboo.

Main dining room

Main dining room

A helpful busser brought us a high chair for the Bitz and the girls settled into their seats after a minor tiff over who would sit next to the baby. (I would gladly have let them sit on either side of him, but that would almost certainly result in a falling head injury for the Bitz). The hostess stopped by to drop off two chalkboards and two cups filled with bits of chalk! We did not ask for these, but they were a VERY welcome distraction.

Chalkboards!

Chalkboards!

I took my time looking over the menu, which is large and comprehensive. Pacific CAtch bills itself as a “fresh fish grill,” and indeed seafood in its many manifestations dominates (think Asian-American-Latin fusion), but there are plenty of choices for a dedicated carnivore. While I had my head buried in the sushi and salad sections, someone— perhaps our server, but s/he appeared and disappeared so quickly I cannot be certain— dropped off a dish of edamame and pretzel goldfish for BFF and Jaybird! Good thinking, Pacific Catch. Those goldfish headed off a simmering tsunami of hunger in the preschoolers.

Edamame and pretzelfish

Edamame and pretzelfish

It was just around this time that BFFMom arrived. We quickly decided to order some coconut shrimp for an appetizer and some cocktails for mommy’s little helpers. The girls ordered off the simple-but-adequate kids’ menu— fish & chips for the Jaybird and more coconut shrimp for BFF. I ordered the Korean BBQ rice bowl; BFFMom ordered the ahi salad. The kids were just starting to fight over the single piece of blue chalk when the appetizer arrived. The shrimp were tasty, if slightly greasy, and served very hot. Even the Bitz enjoyed them!

IMG_5795

There were more shrimp on this plate when it arrived, but you get the idea.

The drinks came next. Pacific Catch has a full bar as well as a fairly good wine and beer menu, so I had a martini, which was perfectly serviceable. BFFMom had the Berry Pisco Sour, which “tastes like floor cleaner, but in a good way” (Direct quote). The girls had water.

We were still hungry after demolishing all the shrimp so we ordered another round of them. They arrived about the same time as our entrees. The BBQ bowl tasted fresh and quite a bit spicier than I expected and suffered mostly from a surplus of rice. The salad was beautifully presented, but you know— it’s a salad.

Ahi Tuna Salad

Ahi Tuna Salad

Korean BBQ rice bowl

The kids’ meals came with a piece of steamed broccoli and an orange wedge, which I really appreciated. The fish and chips portion was more than generous, and the Jaybird ended up eating only about half of it. BFF ate most of her shrimp. All leftovers were deposited into the gaping maw of the Bitz. Seriously, this kid has to be on a growth spurt or something. He eats more than I do.

Fish & chips

Fish & chips

Coconut shrimp kid’s meal

I must give some well-deserved props to our waiter, who had clearly had a lot of experience serving families and kids. He was patient and efficient and tried to stop me from getting down on my hands and knees at the end of the meal to clean up the food debris left behind by the Bitz.

Once our meals were finished, we took a look at the dessert menu. The girls had earned it. We chose a single Mochi ball for each, which were devoured in under a minute each.

Everyone left Pacific Catch happy and sated. It’s nice to find a place that knows how to cater to kids without dumbing it down too much for the parents. While I wouldn’t call the cuisine particularly original or inspired, everything tasted fresh and good, and the relatively healthy options were a nice switch-up from the usual burgers-and-fries type stuff.

It’s wonderful to have good friends who don’t mind sharing their mayonnaise with you, isn’t it?

Good food and good friends!

Good food and good friends!

I’d definitely recommend Pacific Catch to families with kids of all ages. It’s conveniently located less than two blocks from the DeYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, and I can see how it would be a relaxing place to chill out for parents and kids after a long day museum-ing.

THE STATS:

Rating: 7 out of 10

  • Changing Table: YES
  • Kids’ menu: YES
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant high chairs

Pacific Catch 

(NOTE: Pacific Catch also has locations in the Marina, Corte Madera, and Campbell. Check the website for details).

1200 9th Avenue

San Francisco, CA 94122

415-504-6905 

pacificcatch.com

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Brenda’s French Soul Food

The Doctor is a hard working man. In fact, the only man I know who works as hard is my own dad. The Doctor often stays up past midnight plugging away at a particularly Gordian clusterfuck from the office. On weekends he runs his soccer league, does consulting for several other companies besides his own, and manages to be a pretty darn good dad in the meantime.

The Doctor is also a man of particular tastes and desires. His Kryptonite, as far as I can tell, is technology; this isn’t surprising, given that he spent most of his adult life studying technology and the remainder of his adult life working on it. What this means is that there’s no gadget or whatizit or gizmo that we could possible give him that he hasn’t already gotten for himself.

This can be frustrating when it comes to those gift-giving holidays like Father’s Day. The Doctor doesn’t play golf, enjoys grilling but on a strictly need-to-do-this-to-make-this-hunk-of-cow-meat-edible basis, considers cars a necessary evil, and would likely serve me with divorce papers should I present him with a tie, so the typical “Dad gift” categories simply don’t apply.

The Jaybird has decided that because the Doctor drinks a lot of coffee (see the above mention of post-midnight hacking sessions) that he must need a lot of coffee mugs. Given her druthers, she will always— always— find the display of coffee mugs in any store, pick one, and announce, “Here’s a good present for Daddy!” Our cupboard is overflowing with travel mugs, adorned with all manner of childish artwork.

I can’t keep giving my husband travel mugs, so instead we focus on making his “presents” an experience. A trip to the rock climbing gym, a weekend at Stinson Beach, or, as we experienced this weekend, a really kickass meal. Preferably prepared by professionals, though sometimes I do it myself.

This Father’s Day we packed up the minivan and headed to the Civic Center for one of our perennial family traditions: the Sunday Breakfast For Dinner at Brenda’s French Soul Food. Forgive me for the hyperbole, but there is NOTHING better than a New Orleans-style brunch dropped down from Pork-Booze-and-Butter Heaven into a sketchy San Francisco ‘hood on a Sunday evening. NUH. THING.

Brenda's Storefront

Brenda’s Storefront

Continuing with our lucky parking streak, we found a meter spot right in front of the restaurant. (It occurs to me that perhaps we are so lucky with parking because we go out to eat at hours usually reserved for retirees and worm-starved birds). Beware: the meters must be fed. Even on Sundays (GODDAMN YOU SFMTA). And they are hungrier than we were— a quarter gets you exactly five minutes. FIVE. Oh, but that is a rant for another time and place.

We went inside and wrote our names on the large chalkboard by the host’s station, where four other parties were already cooling their heels. The host offered to acquire beverages for us while we waited; the Doctor ordered a Cajun Bloody Mary and I had a pear cider. I’d brought a water bottle for the Bitz and the Jaybird. We found some chairs and sat down to enjoy the music and the decor. Brenda’s is not a big restaurant, though it is twice as big as it was when we first visited several years ago. The walls are painted with vintage-style advertisements for Louisiana seafood and a collection of mirrors hung in antique frames, which reflect the space and make it seem quite a bit roomier than it actually is. The condiments and silverware are set on the tables in empty Community Chicory Coffee tins (which also serves as the house brew). The walls are concrete but the high ceiling allows noise enough room to travel and prevents the restaurant from being intolerably loud. The population of patrons ranged from “mostly clean jeans and a hoodie” to “older lady coming from church” to “when I saw you outside I thought you might be a streetwalker” to—- well, us.

IMG_5765

The waiting area

I didn’t mention the music yet, did I? I am not a fan of live music in restaurants. Usually the bands suck and you can’t hear yourself or your dining companions over the terrible slow jam cover of “Enter Sandman” or whatever post-ironic horseshit the mustachioed musicians are torturing innocent diners with.

Not so at Brenda’s. The band, a trio of gentlemen calling themselves “Gaucho,” played N’Awlins staples like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and gypsy jazz on their upright bass, steel guitar, and accordion at a volume that everyone enjoyed. Even the Jaybird, who normally disdains anything not performed by They Might Be Giants, enjoyed the tunes.

The fact that the music was good helped mitigate the long wait for a table. When we’ve gone to Brenda’s in the past (always before 6 pm) we have never had to wait more than five minutes for a table. On this Father’s Day, there was a party of at least 15 people sitting along an entire wall of the (cozily small!) restaurant. They were finishing up as we arrived and we assumed that we would be seated quickly once they left. Seriously, the entire— and rapidly increasing— population of the waiting area could have been seated in the space being occupied by this one party who Would. Not. Get. Up. And. Leave.

They never left. The thoughtful host managed to squeeze us into a corner two-top near the band after about 25 minutes of waiting. We quickly scanned the menu and made our decision. There is no kids’ menu per se at Brenda’s, but the menu is stuffed with things that kids love, such as pancakes, fruit, mac & cheese, granola, yogurt, french toast, scrambled eggs, a burger, etc.

Our server was friendly and efficient. Once we had ordered it only took about 15 minutes before our food appeared. We spent that quality time dancing.

Dancing with Daddy

Dancing with Daddy

The Jaybird preferred dancing in her seat, though everyone was refreshingly tolerant of children in general. They got lots of indulgent smiles and several other patrons stopped by our table to ask me how old the Bitz was and if they were enjoying their food and the music.

IMG_5770

The Doctor was nursing his Father’s Day buzz with a pleasant glass of pinot noir and the Jaybird opted for orange juice. I stuck with water, which I shared with the Bitz. By the way, don’t ever share your drink with a baby. They are the WORST backwashers. There’s nothing grosser than taking a big gulp of refreshing H2O and ending up with little bits of floating unidentifiable food in your mouth.

The Party (as I shall heretofore refer to the people who wouldn’t leave) continued Not Leaving. In fact, a pair of them got up and took over ANOTHER two-top that the servers had just cleaned off, presumably to seat some patrons there. The list of names on the chalkboard was growing longer and the staff hovered partly in desperation over The Party, reaching in to their tables every once in a while to clear away the empty food plates. The Party was not taking the hint. I was laying the stinkeye on them as well, at least until the food appeared.

Have you ever seen anything that looked this good?

Pulled Pork Benedict

Pulled Pork Benedict

That’s the Doctor’s pulled pork Benedict with creole hollandaise. My plate held its slightly less-decadent cousin, fried chicken Benedict. Oh. Oh, it was good. The poached eggs melted down into the pork and chicken and mixed with the hollandaise to make an unholy union of deliciousness. The whole thing rests atop a perfectly crumbly, buttery homemade cream biscuit. Cream biscuits are not flaky, they are pillowy and tender with a shattering crust, and these are among the best I have ever had. As if this were not enough, the Benedicts come with a side choice of grits or potatoes. I had the grits, which were pooled with butter, creamy, and perfectly cooked—  bad grits (and I’ve had my share) are gummy and textureless. The Doctor’s potatoes were seasoned with a little Cajun heat and cooked with peppers. In fact, I have to stop writing about the Benedicts right now or I will have to pack the kids into their car seats and drive over to Brenda’s for another plate of them.

The Jaybird ordered a fruit plate and a side of fries to go with her plain cream biscuit. The fruit was fresh and sweet, consisting of honeydew, banana, pineapple, grapes, and strawberries; the fries were warm but not hot, which is actually a good thing for my kid. I snuck a couple fries and they were completely “fine.”

Potatoes, fries, fruit, and biscuit crumbs.

Potatoes, fries, fruit, and biscuit crumbs.

We munched away happily, transported by the amazing food and the lovely music. Full disclosure: I spent several of my more formative years living in New Orleans. While I cannot claim to be an expert on New Orleans food— I am not sure even a lifetime of study could ever make one an expert on NOLA food— I do have more than a passing familiarity with the major flavors and styles. Brenda’s makes the best New Orleans-style food I have ever had outside of New Orleans, and it’s better than many places actually in the Big Sleazy, as we affectionately referred to it in my salad days.

Despite my best efforts not to clean my plate, I did and so did the Doctor. The Bitz helped, especially with the pulled pork, the eggs, and the biscuits. He also ate some of his sister’s fruit and seemed quite sated by the time we asked for the check.

THE PARTY WAS STILL THERE. One of them, a child of two or so, had  taken a nap, woken up to eat a few more bites, and then started ANOTHER nap during the time they were there. Seriously, people. What is wrong with you? Have a little respect, if not for your fellow diners than for the hardworking servers and bussers who need those tables to empty and refill so they can earn the tips they need to support themselves. In my humble opinion, it’s unconscionably rude to spend more than an hour loitering after your meal is over. I counted six two-tops being taken up by The Party. I must give the staff at Brenda’s immense credit for maintaining their cool, resisting what must have been an overwhelming urge to kick The Party OUT, and remaining polite and friendly throughout. The folks in the waiting room were not as composed; I overheard more than one comment along the lines of “get the fuck out of those seats, assholes!”

We paid our bill, leaving an extra generous tip, and gathered the children together to leave. As we were loading the kids into the car, we saw the first members of The Party starting to trickle out the front door. I almost said something, but  I knew to do so would ruin the sense of joy and pleasure we were all enjoying from our experience at Brenda’s French Soul Food. Laissez le bon temps rouler and all that. So I kept my big mouth shut and smiled as they went by.

THE STATS:

Rating: 9 out of 10

  • Changing Table: YES, in the women’s bathroom
  • Kids’ menu: NO, but the menu is filled with kid-friendly dishes
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant high chairs

Brenda’s French Soul Food

653 Polk St. 

San Francisco, CA 

415-345-8100

frenchsoulfood.com

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Green Chile Kitchen

The other day I took the Bitz along with me to the YMCA while I went to work out. They have a fabulous childcare room and I can plug my headphones into the iPad, climb on the treadmill, and watch Lannisters, Baratheons, Targaereyns, and Starks murder each other in increasingly violent and creative ways. What says “mommy’s me time” like 90 minutes of quasi-medieval bloodshed and conniving eunuchs? Nothing, that’s what.

We arrived a little early so I brought him into the women’s locker room to nurse. If you want to get lots of kindly smiles and unsolicited advice, bring a nursing baby into a room full of naked women in their 6os and 70s. I had more people tell me how adorable the Bitz was today than in the rest of his 10 months of life combined. After the workout I headed over to Trader Joe’s to get some milk and snacks (for some reason watching people get punctured with crossbow quarrels makes me extra hungry), and it happened again. At least five people stopped me to tell me how cute the Bitz was.

Then I realized what was happening. He’s entered the Suicidal Beauty stage. This occurs when babies reach their maximum infant cuteness peak. Evolution has conveniently paired this adorableness with a series of other behaviors that, were said baby NOT so adorable, might drive the parent of this angelic child to near-insanity levels of exasperation. Before he even had breakfast this morning, the Bitz ripped all the cords out of the Doctor’s computer, tried to throw himself off the side of bed, attempted to eat a miniature plastic parasaurolophus, pooped on my arm, tore up three pieces of his sister’s treasured art projects, threw my glasses in the toilet, and almost broke the dog’s leg, right after he tried to lick up the crusty remains of the dog’s dinner from the previous night.

Keeping the Bitz from committing suicide is more than a full-time job. That’s why, last Saturday I threw up my hands (releasing a shower of itty-bitty-teeny-tiny-choking hazards AKA legos at the same time) and said, “That’s enough. We’re going out for lunch today.”

I took the recommendation of a friend and we headed over to Green Chile Kitchen in NoPa (North of the Panhandle). We found parking right across the street from the restaurant’s inviting exterior. (Aside: I think writing this blog has given me some sort of magic Parking Karma. We ALWAYS find parking when we are visiting blog-featured restaurants).

Exterior

Exterior

It was busy for a Saturday afternoon, though apparently this is because of their popular brunch. Copies of the menu rested in a tray on the large wooden table that greets you at the door, next to a mammoth sign indicating the day’s specials and any salient news from the proprietors. There is a small kids’ menu, including tacos, a burrito, or a burrito bowl. The Jaybird ordered a plain cheese quesadilla from the “taqueria classics” portion of the adult menu. Green Chile Kitchen employs the increasingly popular order-at-the-counter-and-be-seated model of service, which was actually quite convenient for us as the Bitz was quite set upon getting his little fingers on the condiments and water self-serve area and I was able to whisk him away from the array of glasses before any damage was done.

Self serve water and condiments

Self serve water and condiments

We had to wait for space to open at one of the communal tables in the center of the dining room; the booths and smaller tables were all occupied. One booth was occupied by these guys:

The Computing Guys

The Computing Guys

All four were operating computers and/or iPads with keyboards. At no point during our entire meal did I see any of them eat anything or talk to one another. I am still trying to figure out if they are roommates who all secretly hate one another, co-workers struggling with an ugly deadline, or a random assemblage of 20- something males who had no prior knowledge of each other.

The Jaybird, the Bitz, and I finally sat down and waited for the Doctor to finish ordering for us. Once he had joined us, our drinks came mere moments later. Behold, one of my new favorite beverages: the green chile lemonade!

Mmmm, spicy lemonade!

Mmmm, spicy lemonade!

The Jaybird also ordered the chile lemonade, which was pleasantly spicy but not so overpoweringly so that her delicate tastebuds were offended. The Doctor ordered a white sangria, which he pronounced “fine.”

Maybe I’m a a weird mom, but I like to feed the Bitz plain guacamole. Avocados are supposedly this amazing superfood for babies, with all kinds of antioxidants and good fats and la la la, but let’s face it: guacamole is their true raison d’etre. GCK’s guac came with a spoon. The Bitz took it straight while the rest of us snacked on  some nicely crispy, fresh, non-greasy tortilla chips. In any case, the guac was fresh, had an assertive lime flavor, and lots of cilantro. Yum!

Guacamole

Guacamole

We attempted to have a conversation regarding our plans for the remainder of the day but it was IMPOSSIBLE to hear one another. Maybe that’s why the computer guys gave up on talking and just whipped out their electronics. GCK’s interior is mostly hard surfaces– wood walls, stainless steel tables, etc– and the sound of the crowd bounced around and echoed unpleasantly. Luckily, we didn’t have long to wait for our food. A pleasant woman brought the the Jaybird’s quesadilla, Doctor’s pork burrito, and my chicken sopapillas within 10 minutes of the drinks. She winked at the Bitz and called him “cutie” while he was trying to dangle off the side of the table, of course.

Sopapillas

Sopapillas

The food was GOOD. Really, really good. The burrito came with grilled summer squash and rice; the sopapillas with black beans and rice. My test of any “Mexican” restaurant is the black beans. These were perfectly cooked– they held together on the fork but melted on the tongue with a pronounced bean-y, not tinny, flavor and just a hint of cumin. I couldn’t spend too much stomach real-estate on the beans, though. I’d never had sopapillas before, but they reminded me of a cross beween Indian frybread and savory beignets, smothered with large chunks of white meat chicken and a green chile sauce. Like much of the food at GCK, they were assertively spiced with a pleasant heat. The Bitz ate several large pieces in between bites of his sister’s quesadilla and my black beans.

I had a bite of the Doctor’s burrito and immediately regretted not choosing the pork for my meat. For each of the dinner plate options you can choose between chicken, pork, steak, or ground beef for carnivores and mixed veggie or red chile tofu. Compared to the flavorful pork, the chicken was bland; the sauce was the real star of the sopapillas.

We “finished” our meals— the portions are so enormous we all had leftovers to bring home. I ate the rest of the sopapillas, rice, and beans for lunch for two days in a row. We also wanted to save some space. You see, just down the street from GCK is their sister restaurant, Chile Pies and Ice Cream.

HOME OF THE PIE SHAKE. Oh, you know what that is, don’t you? It’s an entire piece of pie mashed up into a milkshake. You KNOW you want one.

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Overall, we really enjoyed the food and general ambiance of GCK. The only real complaint was the noise and the lack of a changing table in the restroom. It’s VERY child-friendly and the service was quick, efficient, accurate, and pleasant. I’d highly recommend it for anyone with a hankering for down-home style New Mexican food and a family in tow.

THE STATS:

Rating: 7 out of 10

  • Changing Table: NO
  • Kids’ menu: YES
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant high chairs

Green Chile Kitchen

1801 MacAllister St.  

San Francisco, CA 

415-440-9411

www.greenchilekitchen.com

 

 

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Absinthe

At any given time, there are at least three blue IKEA bags filled with clean, unfolded laundry sitting on the floor in our living room. Now, by San Francisco rental house standards, our place is fairly large; however, the floor occupied by laundry represents a sizable chunk of real estate. Every once in a while— when the planets align, the Doctor is out for a business dinner or soccer game, the kids are asleep, and the laundry bags form a barrier that I can no longer step over with confidence in reaching the other side upright— I sit down in front of three month-old episodes of “Project Runway” and watch bitter queens claw and bitchslap their ways to fashion glory while I fold and sort what must be 20,00 pairs of underwear and desperately try to match socks into mostly-wearable pairs.

The life of a stay-at-home-mom is SO glamorous, yes?

All this is to emphasize the incredible gift bestowed upon our family by the Doctor’s parents, who visited us last week. Some people don’t like their in-laws, or find them difficult houseguests. Not me. I have the best in-laws in the world. They are lovely, highly intelligent human beings who enjoy playing with my children while I shower or blog. They find their own breakfasts. They cheerfully read “The Dollhouse Fairy” time and time again. They change diapers without complaint. They helped make the Doctor into the person I fell in love with and married.

And, as if all that weren’t enough, they do laundry. OUR laundry. They did so much laundry that I actually had more clean clothes folded than I had space to put them (note to self: time to give away the oh-so-comfy-yet-highly-unflattering-maternity-pants). I nearly wept with joy when I saw the towering piles stacked at the foot of our bed. That will buy me a week without having to drag 500 lbs. of damp smelly clothes down to the basement!

The OTHER great thing about Avou and Avoa is that they are enthusiastic, adventurous eaters. As thanks for all of their kindnesses, we decided on the last day of their visit to take them out for a “nice dinner.” MIL is a professor of early childhood development, so they are quite conscious of and accommodating of the limitations placed upon the concept of a “nice dinner” when a preschooler and infant are involved. I have a theory that all restaurants are open game for families as long as they are seated and eating before 6:00 pm, so we made a 5:30 reservation over the phone at Absinthe (note: they do not accept OpenTable reservations for parties larger than 4, but will accept them over the phone).

Before we were encumbered blessed with children, the Doctor and I had several transcendent meals at Absinthe. Actually, the food might have been totally mediocre but the cocktails were so deliciously potent that we didn’t notice. I thought a cocktail might not be unwelcome to both the grandparents and the Doctor. So we packed up everyone into the minivan and headed to Hayes Valley.

Exterior

Exterior

Possibly because it was so early, we found parking within a block of the restaurant; later on parking becomes quite difficult in this area so be prepared. The Doctor had arrived a couple of minutes before us and was already seated at a round table in the window of the dining area. Absinthe is split into a bar with seating on one side and a quieter, dining-only area on the other side of a wood-paneled wall. Presumably they put us on the dining-only side so as not to scare away the childless Beautiful People who were rapidly filling the bar with their lithe, high-heeled, perfectly-coiffed bodies and unstained-with-spit-up clothes.

A busser saw me heading toward the table with the Bitz strapped to my chest and stopped to offer me a high chair, which I gratefully accepted. The server filled our water glasses as soon as we sat down to peruse the menus.

photo (4)

We only had about five minutes to decide on cocktails, but that’s all we needed. Manhattan, martini, Pimm’s Cup, and a rye thingy for the doctor; the Jaybird ordered a Betty Boop.

Everything on the menu sounded good, so we quickly agreed to share everything and order a lot. The Jaybird asked for the garlic pretzels with cheese sauce as an appetizer and the macaroni and cheese side dish as her entree. Remember what I said about the carbs last week? Yeah. We should probably work on that.

Service was very— French. As I recall, the servers in Paris were efficient, courteous, and responsive; they were not, however, particularly friendly. I have no problem with that. As long as there is mutual respect between the server and the patrons I see no reason for my waiter to become my BFF for the duration of dinner. I’m pretty sure the “friendly server” is an American invention, much like encumbering them with pieces of flair. In any case, the service at Absinthe was brisk, unobtrusive, and skilled but not, again, particularly friendly. I mention this not as a criticism but merely as a warning to others who might be expecting more “American-style service.”

Fresh sliced pain au levain and butter arrived shortly after the drinks. We had just annihilated the bread when the garlic pretzels arrived. The Jaybird, who usually abhors anything remotely garlicky, ate them quite happily doused in the warm cheese sauce. The small piece she deigned to give me was more “Parker House roll” than “pretzel”  in flavor and texture, but quite tasty nonetheless.

Pretzels (with empty beet & kale salad plate in the background. Oops!)

Pretzels (with empty beet & kale salad plate in the background. Oops!)

The adults overwhelmingly preferred the kale and beet salad with radicchio, speck ham, and whipped fromage blanc. I personally thought the macadamia nuts provided just the right salty crunch to the salad to elevate it above the usual.

Here’s a quick overview of what we ate and my impressions thereof:

  • Beef tartare: Oh, how I love beef tartare, especially with just the right amount of capers, parsley, and a delicate little raw quail egg perched on top. Perfection.
  • Tuna tartare: Tuna tartare gets a bad rap for being “ubiquitous” on menus, but you know what? It’s ubiquitous because it’s fucking GOOD. Well, at least at Absinthe  it is. It’s served with plantain chips rather than bread, which I can’t support given my loathing of all things banana-related, but eaten plain with a fork was just fine. Even the Bitz consumed it with relish. Not literal relish. He liked it, I mean.
  • Lamb Shank: fall-apart tender and artfully plated, but SALTY. I love salt. When I say something is salty, it’s salty. I think it was actually the gremolata that was salty, because some bites were less salty than others. It didn’t stop us from eating it all, however. The Bitz really enjoyed the fried polenta cubes and asparagus that came with it dipped in the juices.
  • Potato-crusted Arctic Char: this was my favorite. You could crust a twenty-year-old Goodyear tire in potatoes and I’d probably eat it if it was nicely plated. If I had a criticism (and don’t mind sounding like that douchebag Tom Colicchio on Top Chef moaning about “respecting the protein”) I’d say it was ever-so-slightly overcooked. It wasn’t dry, per se. It was just that it wasn’t as moist as it could have been.

Throughout this feast the Jaybird was happily occupied with her macaroni and cheese, which unfortunately for us came topped with breadcrumbs, which are OK in her book, and parsley leaves, which are adamantly NOT. I scraped most of them off with my fork– “accidentally” scooping up some pasta and cheese in the process, which I was then FORCED to eat— and that was good enough for her.

Almost done!

Almost done!

The bussers were beginning to remove the plates when the Bitz hit his limit. Despite the excellent pacing of the meal, a little guy can only last for so long (in this case, about 90 minutes from sit-down to get-up) in one place before he starts rubbing his greasy hands all over the crystal-clear window next to his head. Also, his butt kind of smelled. At this point I gathered him up and headed for the bathrooms, where I was chagrined but not surprised that there was no changing table. I decided I’d change him when we got to the car. (In my defense, with the grandparents around it’s not like the dirty onesie would be sitting in a hamper for two weeks as usual!)  We took a little walk up Hayes St. while the Doctor, Jaybird, Avou, and Avoa finished up with the bill, where I happened upon this:

Bread pudding parlour!

Bread pudding parlour!

Instead of ice cream, they serve scoops of bread pudding. GENIUS. We will be back. Stay tuned for that review.

After leaving Absinthe we pushed our luck and fulfilled an earlier bribe made to the Jaybird by heading down Octavia St. to Smitten for ice cream. Parents should know that there is a little park with a climbing structure and grass about a block from Absinthe, which would make a great pre- or (in our case) post-dinner activity for kids. If you are lucky, you might get to enjoy the musical stylings of the Brass Liberation Orchestra. Who doesn’t like to end their meal with a little tuba?

Brass Band

Brass Liberation Orchestra

In summary, I would highly recommend Absinthe for the food and ambiance, especially if you go early and have an extra pair or two of grandparental hands to help out with the kids. I firmly believe in teaching kids how to comport themselves in a fine dining atmosphere, and Absinthe is a fine introduction to that experience without being too daunting for parents. The menu offers plenty of kid-amiable options (there’s a hamburger that’s widely considered to be one of the best in town) while simultaneously providing discerning adults with a variety of well-executed French brasserie-style food with a distinctly California accent.

THE STATS:

Rating: 8 out of 10

  • Changing Table: NO
  • Kids’ menu: NO
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant plastic high chairs

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar

398 Hayes St. 

San Francisco, CA 94102

415-551-1590

http://www.absinthe.com

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Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack

You know what makes me insane? When people say they “don’t eat” an entire category of food. This is especially rampant in San Francisco, where the entire gluten-sensitive population of the lower 48 has apparently settled to make life hell for chefs all over the city. I understand that many folks have legitimate gluten “issues,” but let’s be honest here: a large percentage of the grain phobics walking hungrily among us clutching their bags of spelt flour and agar-agar are not actually suffering from celiac disease. They are often the same kind of people who gave up butter for margarine in the 1990s and visited the Battle Creek Sanitarium for grape-nut enemas in the 1890s. I hope for the sake of real celiac sufferers that the “gluten-free” craze dies out soon, because it’s making it hard to separate them from the poseurs who Never. Stop. Talking. About. the food they CAN’T eat. I love talking about food. Hell, I’ll listen to someone talk about food for-evah as long as he or she is actually eating said food.

So obviously I’m kind of defensive about carbs. I love carbs. Mmmmmm, carbs. You know who else loves carbs? EVERYONE under the age of 10. For twelve months, between the ages of 1 and 2, the Jaybird would eat kale, avocado, quinoa, purple carrots, dragonfruit, kohlrabi, you name it. Then, magically, on her second birthday, she decided the only edible foodstuffs in the world were white carbs, preferably with butter on them; nutella is an acceptable alternative.

On our latest foray into the Breeders’ Banquet we decided to indulge our actual and inner preschoolers and test drive Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack. I’d heard good and bad things about the place from a parental perspective. So one hectic Thursday evening we picked up the Doctor from the BART station and headed over to Bernal Heights to get our pasta on.

Parking was mildly challenging, as it often is in La Lengua , but we managed to find a metered spot about 2 blocks away. A colorful mural and well-placed sandwich board made Emmy’s easy to find, even for those of us who can’t quite read yet.

Sidewalk sign

Sidewalk sign

The interior is quite dark and decorated– well, let’s just say completely. It’s completely decorated with aprons and kitschy pictures and bumper stickers and a chalkboard display listing the available wines, beers, and specialty cocktails available at Emmy’s.

Let’s back up a moment there. Yes! Emmy’s has a FULL BAR. One cannot underestimate the value of a full bar to a weary parent on a Thursday evening.

Kitsch! Kitsch everywhere!

Kitsch! Kitsch everywhere!

An apathetic hostess seated us at a cozy booth and offered us a high chair for the Bitz, which I gratefully accepted. A dish of foccacia bread and olive oil/balsamic vinegar as well as a couple of pages ripped out of a Toy Story coloring book and some crayons appeared without us having to ask. We demolished the bread in under two minutes though no more was forthcoming. A young man in a flannel shirt eerily reminiscent of one worn by a certain college boyfriend of mine in 1992 ambled over to take our drink order from the hand-drawn menus in frames hanging from the wall above our table.

DID SOMEBODY SAY SHIRLEY TEMPLE??

DID SOMEBODY SAY SHIRLEY TEMPLE??

The Doctor opted for the spicy manhattan, which was basically a manhattan with cinnamon-flavored whiskey. It sounds weird, and it kind of was. It was also delicious. I chose the sauvignon blanc and the Jaybird went wild with Shirley Temple. Flannel College Boyfriend ambled away and we got down to the business of deciding what to have for dinner. The menu was fairly limited, but we were here for the spaghetti and meatballs, so that fact didn’t bother us much. I’d heard that a single order of the S&MB was sufficient for two people, but the Doctor went ahead and ordered the pork chop special anyway. The Jaybird ordered—WAIT FOR IT!— plain pasta with butter and parmesan cheese.

Adult menu

Adult menu

Kids' Menu

Kids’ Menu

Bitz peruses the menu.

Bitz peruses the menu.

Shortly after we ordered our food the drinks arrived. Then, we waited.

And waited.

And took a trip to the bathroom. There’s no changing table or stool for the sink, by the way.

And played a game of “I Spy with My Little Eye” (which was good fun due to the plethora of weird random objects in the restaurant).

And waited.

And started giving the stinkeye to College Flannel Guy.

And waited.

At this point we stepped into what one might call “the parent time dissonance.” This phenomenon occurs when parents are so boggled and frazzled by the stress and anxiety of maintaining a socially-acceptable level of noise and activity among their offspring that they can no longer accurately judge the passage of time. During the time dissonance a minute of “normal” time can stretch into what feels like a dozen minutes for the parent. It is an unpleasant place to find oneself.

I’m pretty sure it took at least 45 minutes for our food to arrive, but given the time dissonance situation I am willing to concede that it might have been more like 30 minutes. In any case, the children and the Doctor were starting to get hangry and make noises about ordering more spicy Manhattans. Luckily, Flannel 1992 College Guy delivered  the plate of buttered pasta first, which headed off the incipient howling from the Jaybird. The plate of spaghetti and meatballs followed. Three or four minutes after that, the pork chop was placed in front of the Doctor and we all dug in.

Emmy's 9

The good news is the spaghetti and meatballs were all they promised to be. The sauce was tomato-ey, with a fresh, not tinny taste, and the pasta was cooked perfectly al dente. The portion was enormous– three giant meatballs placed under a Mt. Tam-sized pile of noodles. I ate one meatball, fed half of another to the Bitz, and took the rest home. The buttered pasta was just that; no complaints from the Jaybird there.

Buttered pasta

Buttered pasta

The pork chop was sadly overcooked. It reminded the Doctor of  how everyone cooked pork chops in circa 1983 Iowa, where the threat of trichinosis caused all pig products to be charred into the taste and consistency of MDF particleboard chunks. The accompanying purple potato puree easily eclipsed the protein for taste and ease of digestion. The Doctor mentioned the issue to Flannel Guy, who apologized but made no effort to replace the offending dish.

We gobbled our food quickly; bedtime was rapidly approaching and the Bitz was reaching the end of his ability to successfully move a noodle from his fist to his mouth. Flannel Guy brought our check promptly and we were relieved to see he had comped 50% from the offending pork chop’s cost. I wiped up the debris field on the floor surrounding my children, left a generous tip to Flannel Guy out of misplaced nostalgia for my (in truth kind of asshole-ish) college boyfriend, and we decamped from Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack.

Overall, I would recommend Emmy’s to families with older and/or particularly patient children. If you are in need of a serious carb fix, stick to what they do best— drinks and spaghetti— and you can’t go wrong. The atmosphere is fun, casual, and tolerant. There were several other families there that evening; our kids were definitely the youngest. Get there early as it filled up fast after 6 p.m.

THE STATS:

Rating: 5 out of 10

  • Changing Table: NO
  • Kids’ menu: YES, mostly pasta options
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant plastic high chairs

Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack

18 Virginia Ave.  

San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 206-2086

http://emmysspaghettishack.com/

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Readers’ Suggestions

These are restaurants that have been recommended as “kid-amenable” by our friends and readers. Please note that this list is for reference only; none of these have been fully vetted by the Breeders’ Banquet Tasting Team.

Blue Jay Cafe

Boulevard Cafe

Cafe Fiore

Grand Puh Bah

Green Chile Kitchen

Pacific Catch

St. Francis Fountain

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Greenburger’s

When we first moved to San Francisco, we lived in a lovely little house in Glen Park. It had a cast iron spiral staircase and over 30 stairs from the sidewalk to the front door. At a mutual friend’s party in Duboce Triangle, I was discussing the new house and location with our friend Barry.  “Glen Park?” he said, nodding. “It’s all puppies, kittens, strollers, and lattes over there!”

We don’t live in that lovely little house anymore– that charming spiral staircase practically had TODDLER DEATH TRAP welded into its double helix– but what Barry said about Glen Park has always stuck with me. It WAS all puppies, kittens, strollers, and lattes over there. Which brings me to one of the Axioms of San Francisco: when you want something specific, you need to know exactly which neighborhood will have it. Need a pair of assless chaps and a cake shaped like a giant penis? Go to the Castro. Need a pair of $400 pants in size zero? Go to Presidio Heights. Need a taxidermied wolverine and some artisan beef jerky? The Mission is the place for you. How about a used syringe and the best breakfast in town? Tenderloin time!

This axiom explains why we so rarely venture to the Haight (usually divided into the Upper Haight, a.k.a. Haight-Ashbury, and the Lower Haight, a.k.a. Haight-Fillmore). Well, that and the parking, which is terrible. The Haight can meet all of your steampunk-velvet-cape, pit-bull-gutter-punk, and strange-Japanese-toys-with-big-eyes needs; we, whether fortunately or unfortunately, rarely find ourselves lacking in those items.

Which is kind of a shame, because I’d like to come back to Greenburger’s again. We went there on a Saturday afternoon lark with both kids in tow. The experience began with rock-star-parking right out front, with 14 minutes left on the meter. Thanks, parking karma!

A wall of glass with reclaimed wood accents marks the entrance to Greenburger’s, a motif which continues inside. The ceilings are high and the dining room is airy and well-lit. We walked down a gently-sloping ramp to the cash register, where a smiling young woman took our order and handed us a number.

IMG_5472

The dining room.

The menu featured pretty standard burger-joint type fare, elevated in that San Francisco way: the meats and produce were organic and locally sourced, the fish sustainable, and the baked goods from Bakers of Paris, a San Francisco bakery. The children’s menu was pretty standard as well, offering mac & cheese, a small burger, grilled cheese, or a hot dog. The kids’ sandwiches come with fries, though I wish there was a vegetable alternative like salad or baby carrots.

We sat at a four-top near the ice cream bar. The Jaybird was mildly diverted by the crayons and paper she was given at the counter, though she gave more rapt attention to the condiment bar featuring housemade ranch dressing, “fry sauce,” and ketchup as well as fresh lettuce, onions, and tomatoes nestled in hotel pans on a bed of ice.

IMG_5476

The condiment bar.

A large chalkboard map of the United States was painted on the wall cattycorner to the condiment bar. A sign encouraged patrons to add their favorite culinary delicacy from their home state to the map so that Greenburger’s might consider their addition to the menu. Being from Florida, I wrote “beer-battered deep-fried hot dog” but maintain little hope for its future at Greenburger’s. I plucked a standard wooden restaurant high chair from the pile in the corner and returned to our table.

IMG_5473

The chalkboard map.

Our food arrived hot within 10 or 12 minutes and we dug in. The Jaybird’s grilled cheese was toasted rather than fried, which I appreciated; the brioche bread was plenty rich enough for her taste. Naturally, she went straight for the fries, declaring them “OW TOO HOT!!” while simultaneously shoving them into her mouth after introducing them to the ranch dressing pooled on her plate. Preschoolers are nothing if not completely, maddeningly, contradictory. My cheeseburger was perfectly medium-rare and served on a glistening brioche bun that had clearly spent some quality time on the griddle, probably rubbing up against some butter. Mmmmmm. The housemade “fry sauce” proved an excellent accompaniment to my sweet potato fries, which were slightly too thin and underseasoned for my general taste but crispy and not at all greasy. In any case, I ate them all.

Cheeseburger on BRIOCHE BUN.

Cheeseburger on BRIOCHE BUN.

The Doctor’s pulled pork sandwich was also quite good, with some of those crispy bits falling out of the brioche bun (shut up. There is nothing not to love about brioche!) and a slight heat to the sauce. The Bitz managed to eat a considerable portion of my sweet potato fries and at least a quarter of his sister’s GIANT sandwich. Seriously, that was a huge grilled cheese. So huge that we decided not to get any ice cream after all, even though the sundae specials looked insane. Salted caramel fudge sundae? Uh, yes please.

The ice cream bar

The ice cream bar

While we were eating, a man, I assume the proprietor,  in whites and clogs came out to the dining room. He checked the satisfaction levels of several tables around us before disappearing back into the kitchen. It was nice to see that. It really was. Well done, sir.

We will be back to besmirch your spotlessly clean restaurant and partake of your delicious burgers, and, perhaps, some ice cream. I may need a velvet cape or a bong shaped like a skull sooner than I thought.

THE STATS:

Rating: 7 out of 10

  • Changing Table: YES
  • Kids’ menu: YES, standard burger/grilled cheese/mac & cheese options
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant wooden high chairs

Greenburger’s 

518 Haight St. 

San Francisco, CA 94117

415-829-2491

http://www.sfgreenburgers.com

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