SF Eats: It Sure Did, and Still Does

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Anyone who has lived in San Francisco — or eaten in San Francisco — for a decade or more may feel pangs of nostalgia at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch at Civic Center these days.

The exhibition, San Francisco Eats, on display through March 20, traces the history of the city through its food-obsessed culture.

Long before the term “foodie” was coined, people were crazy about eating in San Francisco and this exhibit shows why.

Who couldn’t resist Fisherman’s Wharf when it was lined with crab shacks and fishermen eating elbow to elbow with the locals? Or more elegant places to dine, such as the Fior d’Italia, Trader Vic’s and the Cliff House?

The displays of old menus, historic photos and cookbooks are nicely shown in two areas, the Skylight gallery on the library’s top floor and the Jewett gallery on the bottom floor.

The Jewett exhibit focuses on ethnic neighborhoods — the Mission, North Beach and Chinatown — and the impact of immigration on San Francisco dining.

The top floor gallery has a large collection of old restaurant menus, which are charming for their delightful graphics and interesting for their content. It looks as if calf brains (a nickel for a plate) and frog legs were standard menu items back in the late 1800s and that it was common for a fish restaurant to have a section on “casseroles” — which seemed to consist of fish baked in a cheesy au gratin style.

An old Fish Grotto menu lists dishes such as Baked Barracuda and the meager cheese selection (only five choices, two of them are Swiss and Monterey cheese) made me pause and appreciate living in the 21st century.

There’s a lot of attention paid to San Francisco restaurants that have passed the 100-year mark (the Fior, Tadich, Sam’s, among them). The earliest menu is from a restaurant called The Ward House from 1849 and one of the non-menu items on display is a roasted peanut wagon that the Houtalas’, the Greek immigrant family that first managed the Cliff House, operated along Ocean Beach in 1906.

The library has scheduled San Francisco Bites, food-oriented movie screenings and panel discussions in conjunction with the exhibit.

The next presentation is on Tuesday, Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. when a panel of local food bloggers will talk about the city’s neighborhoods, the foraging phenomenon and today’s changing food culture, followed by a Q&A session.

The main library is at 100 Larkin Street at the corner of Grove. The phone is 415-557-4277.

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