*** UPDATE on the Slanted Door here***
The problem with being a restaurant whore is you tend to fall a little in love with some of your tricks. Alas, today's post is about our long relationship with the famed Slanted Door
Jon and I began going to Slanted Door when we moved to San Francisco in 1998 and lived four blocks away from the original Valencia Street location. We were immediately smitten, and went at least once a week, often more frequently. As time went on, we got to know the staff. We knew most of the waiters and kitchen staff by name, we had a direct line to a member of the Phan family for reservations.
We loved that it was a neighborhood restaurant run by a family that had worked so hard to get where they are. Charles Phan, the owner, had created something truly amazing and his whole family was right there with him.
Slanted Door took very good care of us. Always loyal, they'd bend over backwards to get us in during busy times and we always saw at least one comped item.
We loved this restaurant for several reasons. First and foremost (even above the exsquisite food) was the people. We just loved going to a restaurant and feeling like we were surrounded by good friends. We would buy the staff Christmas gifts -- indeed, we just recently bought one of the chefs a wedding gift. We got invited to several parties thrown by members of the staff. We felt that when we went there, our souls as well as our bodies were nourished. We always took out of town guests there and celebrated important occasions with them. On our second anniversary (at the Brannan St. location), a chef friend of ours ordered and cooked us lobsters. They took very good care of us, and in turn, we them. We left large tips (always above 20%, one time, when we were comped several dishes, we tipped 50%).
And of course, the food. Who can resist the crispy imperial rolls or the refreshing spring rolls? We delighted in seeing how the menu would change so we could try something different on every visit. Jon, who hates tofu, would look forward to going there just so he could order their lemongrass tofu. There was never a bad dish. Special mention goes to the desserts. So many diners seemed to skip them, but we couldn't wait to eat our sticky black rice pudding or thai basil panna cotta.
And as Reisling lovers, we loved that wine list. And giggled every time some jackass asked for a glass of Chardonnay (there are none -- it doesn't go with the food).
We were thrilled when we heard they were going to expand. They had purchased the building next door, and the Valencia location was going to undergo a huge makeover. We couldn't wait to see it. Originally, they were planning to shut down for 6 months and then re-open. It was decided that they didn't want to lose the great staff they had, so they moved to a temporary location on Brannan Street. On their last night on Valencia Street, we ate dinner there and toasted, with the staff, to a bright future.
With the move to Brannan St., there came big changes. We tried to write it off as "new space, working out the kinks," but it soon became apparent that the Slanted door we knew and loved was changing. The addition of a full bar and the new Embarcadero location drew in a different set of customers. Instead of Mission locals and diners who were willing to trek from other areas of the city for good food, we began to see investment bankers dining for business, yuppies trying to impress their dates, and a large crowd of people who all felt entitled to eat there (fairly, so did we, but we had a history).
We also noticed that the staff was not as happy. Instead of "Oh we're so happy to see you guys", it became "Thank God, you guys are here, we don't want to deal with our other customers." They looked labored; they complained of how difficult the new location was to navigate, and were clearly glad it was only temporary.
The staff was still wonderful to us and worked hard to get us a table whenever we came in. Because the restaurant was bigger, the staff grew and there were times we didn't know who was waiting on us. We didn't mind this, we'd simply introduce ourselves and move on. On most occasions, they had already been told who we were. Then came our birthdays.
Jon and I have birthdays that are three days apart so we usually celebrate together. On these particular birthdays, we went with eight friends to celebrate. We left devastated. We did the prix fixe menu (parties of 8 or more must do this). We were comped nothing even though it was our birthdays (for some perspective, the last time we went for a friend's birthday, the comped us five desserts for four people). They also, for the first time ever, charged us corkage. Despite the fact we had mentioned it in our reservation, no one said happy birthday. On our way out, one of our favorite waiters was horrified when he heard it had been our birthdays and no one knew. We were hurt; we felt we had been so incredibly loyal through everything, and this just added insult to injury. We didn't go back for two months. The reason why this sucked so much was not because we didn't get special treatment, it was because on EVERY other visit, we had been treated one way, and now on our birthdays, they totally dropped the ball.
Then came the news they were moving to the Ferry Building. This closed the door on Valencia, although they still claim that they will be opening a street food restaurant there (we'll see...). We were invited to a pre-opening party for the new, swank, sexy location at One Ferry Plaza.
We have never felt so special as we did at this party. I came late because I had a show, but Jon was allowed in the kitchen, given special drinks, etc. When I arrived, they poured me champagne even though the bar was closed -- in fact, the bartender said "I don't care if I get fired for this, I have to do this for you." We had a renewed hope.
And boy, do we still love those people. But it's not the same. We can't get in; it's packed with tourists, farmer's market visitors, more of those investment bankers and stock traders and yuppies trying to impress their dates. They will still accomodate us if we call and ask for a favor, and they will do it happily, but who wants to be that asshole? And when we do sit down, we get the same friendly service, we get comps (but not consistently), we get the love. The bottom line is, however, if we want to eat there on the spur of the moment we simply can't. There is too much hype now.
In addition, we know several of the staff who are so miserable they've either left or are thinking about it. We visit them now at other restaurants. The place is so huge now, half of the staff are complete strangers to us.
And it pains me to say this, but the food is slipping. The menu has hardly changed since they moved, despite the palatial kitchen. And maybe we've just eaten there too often, but nothing seems that exciting to us anymore (except the desserts -- you go Mutsumi!).
It's now HUGE. Charles is so famous, as is the restaurant. People come from far and wide to eat there. And we feel proud that they have been so successful, but sad that what we loved about it had to suffer.
It may just be sour grapes, but I don't think so. It's a different restaurant than the one we fell in love with and that's OK. We'll still eat there, just not as much. What made it so special to us, no longer exists and we've accepted that. We've gone through a twelve step program for it and everything :). Our neighborhood restaurant is now a ultra hip eat-here-now dining establishment that doesn't cater to regulars.
So for now, we sneak in when we can so we can see the people we miss, and when we can't, we just swing on over to Taylor's Refresher, also at the ferry building. And we became very aware of how our affection for Slanted Door has waned when we weren't sad that we had to do so last night. We went into Slanted Door, said hi, saw they were busy and were happy to leave the "I'm-so-much-cooler-than-you" crowd to go to Taylor's.
And you can get a damn good meal for $20 at Taylors...I'll fill you in on that tomorrow.
"To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art."