The (Fleeting) Gift of Old

Author Laura Borrman wants all of her readers to appreciate the classic restaurants of San Francisco. Read on to learn more about what inspired Laura’s new book, and a fading San Francisco icon!

By Laura Smith Borrman
Iconic San Francisco Dishes, Drinks and Desserts (August 13, 2018)

The luscious "house cappuccino" at Tosca Café, 2017.
The luscious “house cappuccino” at Tosca Café, 2017. Brandon Borrman.

I live in one of the most popular, forward-thinking, and progressive places in the world: a place where food journalism is as followed as journalism-journalism. A place that celebrates the urban and the natural, where the top social media sites are headquartered, and the tech world is centered. It’s a place where movements are launched and history is made, and where millions of tourists visit each year.
The San Francisco Bay Area is that place, and it is one of extremes: extreme modernity and liberalism, extreme luxury and wealth (or lack thereof), and extreme newness. And in the push for more, more, more, sometimes things can disappear.

Mai tai in a proper vintage vessel at Leo's Oyster House, 2017.
Mai tai in a proper vintage vessel at Leo’s Oyster House, 2017. Brandon Borrman.

Foundations are born to protect the area’s legacy elements - architecture, restaurants, businesses and historic sites. And while they do amazing work, they can’t save everything. It’s up to the people, residents and visitors, to patronize and celebrate these places and ensure that they stick around.
A few weeks ago, a personal favorite classic restaurant - one that I thought had been “saved” by a modern chef-entrepreneur - closed its doors. The place is, was, Alfred’s. A steakhouse of the ages, with blood-red walls to match its blood-red meat, cocktails shaken tableside, the shaker and its ample remaining contents left generously on the table. Cream-laden side dishes, tuxedoed servers, and lifelong careers were hallmarks of the place. I thought the new owner had done a fabulous job honoring what was special about Alfred’s while giving it a subtle, modern sheen. I thought he was committed to keeping it Alfred’s. I thought wrong.

A waiter at Alfred's steakhouse.
A waiter at Alfred’s steakhouse. Brandon Borrman.

Learning of the closure felt like hearing news of a beloved older relative’s passing. I felt heartbroken, angry at myself for not visiting more often, in disbelief, but also mildly expectant. Alfred’s was the sort of place that had a once-a-week lunch “club” - the Buckaroo Luncheon Club - whereby wearing a special button got you instant status, and liquor. The button’s color revealed how long you’d been a fan of the restaurant (yellow for “old-timers” and pink for newbies) and scored a free drink. It also gave you the feeling of being a part of something that had existed before your time. Something that welcomed many generations and professions, colors and creeds - as long as you had enough cash to pay for the two-course meal (about $20 before the restaurant changed hands in 2016). The deal seemed too good to be true - the exclusivity (with relatively easy access) too fun. Eventually, it was.
It is places like Alfred’s that move me to write, and losses like Alfred’s that make me frantic. Vintage things - restaurants and bars, cultural institutions, jewelry, even people - connect us to our past. They provide continuity in a fast-moving world. They remind us of how people lived, made decisions, laughed, loved, celebrated, and mourned before we were here. They help us understand how we got here, and they help us stay connected to the people we’ve loved and lost.

San Francisco's Chinatown at night, with Mister Jiu's, 2017.
San Francisco’s Chinatown at night, with Mister Jiu’s, 2017. Brandon Borrman.

And when things are not just old, but iconic - their vintage quality takes on new import.
“Widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence” goes Merriam-Webster’s third definition of “iconic,” and it’s the one most pertinent for the subject of iconic foods and drinks. These are widely known because they are fantastic, because they are understood to be delicious by many. Because they are unique and uniquely wonderful.
Some of the most enduring drinks were invented - and some arguably (ahem, the martini) - in the San Francisco area. Some of the most delicious, biggest fan-favorite dishes were conceived of here, too (heard of cioppino or sourdough bread?). And many of these foods and drinks are still on offer at some pretty incredible vintage spots - some truly relics, and others remade to suit modern tastes. But they need us - food and drink lovers, revelers in the past and how we honor it in the present - to persist and be there for future generations.

The window of the iconic Tadich Grill. Brandon Borrman.
The window of the iconic Tadich Grill. Brandon Borrman.

My new book is my tribute to a few of these delightful culinary icons, and to the places where they are best enjoyed and celebrated today. And my plea to potential readers is this: experience the classics, relish other-era deliciousness, and devour a bit of history. And be sure to love, laugh, and toast those who came before as you do.

About the Author
California native Laura Smith Borrman is a writer, editor, story gatherer, lover of food and drink and author of two previous books. She has worked in many industries, spanning pastry kitchens, culinary travel, public radio, research and the corporate world. She’s a mother of two and lives with her husband and children in Oakland. She writes about the city and the people who’ve shaped it at and about food memories, recipes and motherhood at
If you’d like to read more about San Francisco restaurants, check out Laura’s new book Iconic San Francisco Dishes, Drinks & Desserts below!

Have you ever visited Alfred’s in San Francisco? Let us know in the comments!