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Friday Food: Goodbye to Another Time, Another Place, Another City

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Flickr: cassoulet sf
Flickr: cassoulet sf

To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. I wandered over to the Sfist website to see what my friend Brock was up to, and there it was: Sam Wo's is closing. I could feel my shoulders droop and I reread the sentence just to make sure, Yep, it was that Sam Wo's.

At this point everyone probably knows about it, evidenced by the mass of people that were outside the door of the restaurant last night around 10 p.m. That in itself was a little surprising, because traditionally Wo's doesn't start filling up until close to midnight when other culinary options start to go dark. Well, that is not really true. The reason we all went to the place was because it is one of the most gloriously perfect dive restaurants in the city. And we are a city that used to specialize in those.

Nothing about Wo's is right. You walk through the kitchen to get to the dining rooms. Half the things you expect in a restaurant are not available. The staff is surly. And oh yeah, the food is great. And by that I mean it is great, bad food. It's not haute cuisine. It certainly is not good for you. But damn, some great nights ended with a group of us slurping up noodles and doing everything to fight the dawn.

Wait, wait, I know I have those rose-colored glasses around here somewhere... ah... there they are.

Thinking of hitting Wo's late at night made the memory banks hum to life, and suddenly I am back in the '70s in San Francisco. It's funny how we are suddenly on a nostalgia kick around here. You can't pick up a paper without black and white photos of the earthquake, and articles asking about what it means to be a San Franciscan (which Beth Spotswood gets credit for doing first). This week we were talking beer signs in San Francisco, which sharp-eyed readers will remember was a discussion in this space a while back.

So I have changed my mind; off with the rose-colored glasses, and on with the cool retro sunglasses boys and girls, because we are going to discuss something far more fun: rites of passage. Growing up in the 49-acre woods, we all had a checklist -- a set of deliverables we had to accomplish before we could truly consider ourselves adults in this town. And some of it wasn't pretty, folks.

Let's start high-brow: Trader Vic's. Yes, that name makes us natives get all misty-eyed, and I still can't see Le Colonial without also seeing The Captain's Cabin. See, when Vic's was in that location, the main dining room was called the Captain's Cabin. All the grown-ups ate there without the kids, and it had a mythical connotation since we all got shunted into the small dining room off the entrance known as "Siberia." One of the great rites of passage was when Mike the captain would sweep up his armful of menus and lead you ceremoniously for the first time into that room. You couldn't help but smile, feeling your chest swell in your little navy blue blazer from Young Man's Fancy.

And now we go low-brow. I find all the battles over the Jack in the Box out on Geary rather amusing, because for us growing up it was a destination called "Tokyo Stop," a sort of fast food meets bento boxes mashup. And it stayed open late. And there is no way to put this other than the way it happened. The game was to exit the bars in the Marina, and make it to Tokyo Stop before it closed at 2 a.m., which meant you had to drive like a lunatic through the Presidio to cut the distance down. Where the military was. More to the point, where the military police were. The legend was that the MPs could only go as far as the gates to the base, so the approach was to drive as fast as you could so even if they saw you, you were through the Arguello Gate before they nailed you. I never knew anyone who actually tested this theory, but a certain friend of mine got the time down to single digits. Since we are both fathers now, this memory terrifies me.

And then there was Wo's, which will always remind me of a certain time in my life. And yes, this will sound all snobby, but Wo's reminds me of cotillion season, back in my high school days. I know, who cares, but the subject is rites of passage, and that certainly counts. The cotillion season also kicked off scads of parties, and as we stumbled out into the fog in our rented tuxedos on many a night, the same thought would enter our deranged minds: Noodles! We must have noodles!

And so we would start trudging our way from some fancy downtown hotel towards Chinatown. Often times the person with the fake ID would duck into a store on the way and emerge with Henry Weinhard's (our marching drink of choice), and then we would confidently march through the kitchen resplendent in our tuxedos and set up shop upstairs. And there we would talk for hours. We were the adolescent Algonguin Roundtable. We were men, gathered around the table late at night, solving the problems of the world. We were in our town, with our friends, playing at being grown ups. And in a way, as we slurped our noodles, that's how we learned to first think of ourselves as adults.

So goodbye to another time, another place, another city. It's sad to see Sam Wo's go, but I hope that somewhere out there tonight, a group of cocky kids will find some other greasy table to gather around and push out their chests a bit too much, talk a bit too confidently, and think that they have finally become adults. And they will invisibly check off another rite of passage before they walk off into the fog.