In Praise of the Tried-and-True: Boulevard
Knowledge is a funny thing. You think you totally know your stuff, but the truth is, you don’t know shit. At 50-years-of-age, I’d come to believe that I had a good grasp on quite a few things in my life. However, the more I do and the more I put myself out there in the world, the more it dawns on me how little I actually do know. You think you got it under control and then, out of nowhere, you take a swift kick to the balls and, PRESTO! Instant enlightenment.
Tonight I was reminded why I need to back up now and then and take another look at my agenda and my focus on food and experiences.
Lately I’ve been focusing on looking for what’s new in the world of food—the new dish, the new chef on the block … you know the drill. New is where it’s at, had become my mantra. But what about the tried-and-true? Even the name is beyond cliché. Still, there’s something to be said about a track record, a reason for existence … why people and restaurants survive. Why doing something consistently, results in a “result,” whether good or bad.
So here I sit at Hotel Vitale in my college town of San Francisco with a wide-open agenda. I have no plan, and I’m really fucking nervous because I haven’t done my research; hence, the aforementioned planlessness. To experience my mental state when I don’t have a plan is something like putting Richard Simmons on stage at a Merle Haggard concert. Not pretty (sorry, Richard).
Casually, I spin the wheel-of-options in my head while perusing the Internet for menus of restaurants in walking distance or short Uber ride. I’ve seen all this before! Boring, just boring! Why didn’t I plan?! I’m an idiot!
Then I look out the window, across from my hotel and, wow, there’s an option I hadn’t considered: Boulevard. Hmm, haven’t been there in a while. I’ve driven and walked by this place a million times, but it’s been around since 1993—an eternity in restaurant years—and so my initial attitude is, hey, been there done that.
Frustrated with my indecision, I say to myself, fuck it, let’s do this. Boulevard here I come!
I walk into the venerable eatery and take a seat at the end of the bar. Within seconds the voice of an educated and attentive bartender greets me. “Good evening, sir. Get you a drink?” “Wines by the glass and menu please,” I reply. In that moment, I already know I’ve made the right decision coming here. The smoothly choreographed hustle of the professional staff tells me tells me that this is a fine-tuned operation. The wine list arrives. I smile at the depth of the list and mull over the choice of a glass of Condrieu or Sancerre: high viscosity or sleek acidity. “Sancerre, please.”
As I review the menu something immediately catches my eye:
Hudson Valley Foie Gras
Pan Seared Wild Rice and Black Sesame Crisps, Mimosa Jellies Blood Orange, Honey & All Spice
A ray of golden light shines down upon me, and choir boys began to sing. “Made a decision, sir?” my waiter asks. “Yessssss, Foie Gras, please.” Our eyes meet, and he gives me a mental high-five. He knows. I’m here for the shit! He then turns around and delivers a glass of Sauterne (French sweet wine) and states that this is the best pairing with the Foie Gras.
The plate comes out, and it’s beautiful. With my first bite, I completely lose any sense of table manners. I grab a sesame crisp and dig into the Foie Gras like a tortilla chip going into soft guacamole. The pillowy texture of the Foie Gras reminds me of warm pumpkin pie, followed by a salty/savory punch, and ends with the crunch of the sesame crisp. I immediately follow the bite with a taste of the Sauterne, and the sweetness of the wine intersects the savory component of the Foie Gras, resulting in a heavenly kaleidoscope of flavors. Overcome with pure pleasure, I sit for a second in silent bliss, then dive back into the plate, this time with both hands, like the way a one-year-old eats the cake at his/her first birthday party. I catch myself—whoa buddy, easy now. Use your fork like a good boy.
I’ve had Foie Gras all over the planet, prepared in a million different ways. I’ve even had it at California restaurants when it was illegal! Yep, big-time risk-taker, that’s me! Anyway, suffice to say that this was some of the best Foie Gras I’ve ever had. I sit there for a minute, reflecting, trying to figure out why this is so damn good. And then it hits me—not only was the Foie Gras prepared perfectly; the understated elegance of the restaurant, the attentive bartender, and the addition of the Sauterne have all combined to create this wonderful experience, the type of experience that restaurants with Boulevard’s longevity have figured out how to create.
The restaurant business is a street of broken dreams—a “Boulevard” of broken dreams, if you will. New research shows that 59 percent of all new restaurants fail within their first three years. Imagine investing in a restaurant knowing that there’s a 60 percent chance that it’ll go under within three years! Your money, up in flames. Might as well use it to start a nice bonfire. I don’t know about you, but my inner math geek tells me that the return on that cash would have to be astronomical to make any sense at all. This statistic further supports my assertion that there’s a reason why quality restaurants stand the test of time. (I also realize that many shitty restaurants also stand the test of time because of micro-margin-management or demographic acceptance, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Swirling my wine and leaning back in my chair with a smirk on my face, I embrace the reality that maybe searching obsessively for the new and cutting-edge isn’t how I should be spending all my time. Maybe restaurants that have stood the test of time—with good reason—should be recognized not just for the quality of their dishes, but as places of comfort, where competent management, décor, and talent all come together in some mysterious way to create a life-affirming experience. A five-star experience.
I’m not saying you should forget about the new—perish the thought!—I’m just saying don’t forget about what’s worked in the past and why. When planning your next dinner, look for longevity. Look for history. You might just find that sometimes the old is better than the new. And if you’re in San Francisco, check out Boulevard!
If you enjoyed that story check out one I wrote on Chez Panisse and Alice Waters