In Praise of Neighborhood Restaurants


Lane Wallace

When San Francisco restaurateur Alice Waters talks about local food, she's referring to where ingredients are grown. But there's another kind of local food that deserves equal mention: the gem known as the neighborhood restaurant.

I've eaten in many wonderful restaurants, from the French Laundry in California to Le Bernardin and the Gramercy Tavern in New York. But although it's fun to dress up every now and then, there's also something nice about places that invite you to kick off your shoes and enjoy the familiarity of home. Attitudinally speaking, of course. Places that are unassuming and decidedly not trendy, where regulars come from the immediate area, the staff has a casual air, and the owners—or even their children—often put in an appearance among the guests.

I was reminded of this again recently, when I found myself in an unlikely corner of the Mission district of San Francisco, looking for a new restaurant called the Heirloom Cafe. As I walked the three blocks from my car to the address I'd been given, I began to wonder if I had completely misunderstood the directions. It was a residential neighborhood. Trees. Old houses. Even when I got to the corner where Heirloom was, I almost missed it, it blended in so well.

Where, in this increasingly private world, are we supposed to find and build face-to-face community?

The restaurant has an old, Victorian design with tall windows and a creaky pine floor. Like most neighborhood restaurants, it is small, seating only about 40 people, with an open kitchen. Dining there feels very much like eating in the large living room of someone's home. Matt Straus's home, to be exact. A couple of years ago, after going to culinary school and working at several restaurants, he was waiting tables in San Francisco and saving money and wine for his own café, which he opened three months ago. I know this, you see, because Matt came by to chat and see how we were enjoying our food. Which is part of my point.

The Heirloom Cafe would have been lovely even if the food had been ordinary. The fact that the food melted in the mouth (I highly recommend the prosciutto and pole beans over mashed fig and Parmesan) just made the find all the more special. And Matt says more than half his clientele comes from the immediate area.

The same is true for my favorite restaurant in Palo Alto, California. It is on the same street where I live, less than a dozen blocks down. Like the Heirloom Cafe, St. Michael's Alley is a tucked-away place that, until recently, seated only about 40. Its menu is wonderful even though it doesn't change all that often.

The owners, Mike Sabina and Jenny Youll, recently opened up a new addition around the corner, but the inside still looks like someone's home. And when I had lunch there recently, their young son came wandering around the tables, collecting and distributing napkins as he saw fit.

Mike and Jenny aren't the original owners of St. Michael's Alley. But the original owner, Vernon Gates, can still sometimes be found having a drink at the bar. Because unlike the Heirloom Cafe, St. Michael's Alley has been a neighborhood hangout for a very long time. Back in the '60s, it was a bit more colorful and earthy, hosting local music acts like Joan Baez (who went to Palo Alto High School), Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead. Clearly, St. Michael's has settled down a lot in the years since. But so have a lot of the Baby Boomers who followed the Dead. The point is ... the place has character and history that even the trendiest new restaurant in town could never match.

While walking through a local bookstore the other day, I was struck by how much the Internet has accelerated the isolation that two-car garages and backyard decks had already started. Once, we mingled with our neighbors as we walked home, shopped at local stores, or paused in front of their front porches to chat. Especially during the warmer summer months, when people lingered outdoors more often. Now, we not only sit on secluded back decks—we also don't need to go out to do our browsing or shopping anymore. So where, in this increasingly private world, are we supposed to find and build face-to-face community?

Clearly, we have to work harder at it. But local restaurants, whether simple taquerias, coffee houses, or culinary temples, are an important mechanism for maintaining some ability to connect casually with neighbors, form new connections, and build a common sense of neighborhood. If the food is memorable, that's an added treat. But local flavor goes beyond the taste of an organic strawberry harvested that morning from a nearby farm. And it's just as important as the food itself.