Love among the ruins
Where misanthropes and paranoiacs go for Valentine's Day dinner.

By Paul Reidinger

THE MISANTHROPE FINDS holidays of whatever stripe a trial (possible exception: Halloween), but Valentine's Day, with its saccharine imagery of togetherness, is especially difficult. The theme is love, and love is attachment, and attachment means that at least one other person must be involved, and so the alarm bell sounds. Attachment yields many joys and pleasures, of course, but it also exposes lanes of vulnerability, of being cheated on or used or dumped or not dumped. The idealist – the optimist, the lover – accepts this arrangement as part of the wider proposition that all life's choices carry costs, some of which are worth paying. You never get something for nothing, even in America, even if you are America. The misanthrope, on the other hand ... wonders. It is a quirk of temperament, perhaps genetic.

Lately I have been wondering about my love affair with America. There has been, by the other party, morphing of the most unpleasant sort, as in one of those teen horror movies in which the object of desire somehow transforms itself into a ravenous, flesh-eating space alien, occasioning many pillow-muffled screams. Or as in many a long-running marriage, when one or the other of the conjoined awakens one morning and does not recognize, or fancy, the person on the other side of the bed, the one with the flabby body and the bad breath. Yes, the ways of alienation, of intimate ruin, are many and varied. Where there is attachment, there must also be detachment. There is public ruin too: what sweet land of liberty is this, with its concentration camps and unprovoked war-launchings and crooked elections and assassination attempts on (admittedly dreadful) foreign leaders?

Misanthropes, it must be said, are not entirely unfamiliar with love – if no longer for country, then for someone whose long presence has brought, like a gentle sun, light and warmth – or with hunger. One is not necessarily hungrier on Valentine's Day than on any other day of the year, but one is not necessarily less hungry, either. The great bloating meals of the holiday season are now many weeks past, and it is still cold, dark, and damp enough outside to whet the appetite and feed the demand for real sustenance.

Eating at home, or at any rate in somebody's home, is always my preference, on Valentine's Day and every day. Food is love, and food made by someone we know – or love – is food no restaurant can ever match. Also, there is less stress all the way around, from making reservations to getting there to dealing with crowds. Crowds consist of people, and we know how the misanthrope feels about people, let alone scads of them noisily gathered in the same cramped space. Also, one doesn't worry so much about the cost of the wine.

Still, going out to restaurants does have its claims, and they are a lot like the claims made by travel. Travel is actually a fair amount of work, but it does refresh the senses as no other endeavor can. Restaurants too restore our feeling for what is possible; they shake up routines and rearrange the pieces of reality. They are windows on worlds that might be.

As the world that is seems, at the moment (presidential boasting to the contrary), notably less safe and far nearer to ruin than at any other moment in my lifetime, one has a different sense of what might be the nature of the perfect Valentine's Day restaurant. The desire for intimacy shades into the need for a cocoon. We don't absolutely have to eat underground, as at Shanghai 1930, which resembles a plush bunker, but we do want that sense of enclosure. Two of the city's oldest fish restaurants, interestingly – Tadich Grill and Sam's Grill – have wonderful booths, relics of a more formal and privacy-minded past whose snugness translates nicely to the terror-minded present.

Bruno's has good booths too – high-backed and horseshoe-shaped, which helps in keeping an eye out and defending one's turf – but the food (mostly pasta now) has gone slightly downmarket for V.D. purposes. Aziza boasts excellent, and sumptuous, booths, along with a dearth of windows – one does like the security of a wall – and superior north African food.

Brick bespeaks sturdiness. Of course, in earthquake country, that sturdiness is an illusion, at least if the brick has not been reinforced. At Jardinière it has been reinforced, with heavy steel beams; love-minded skulkers, moreover, can take a table behind the sweeping staircase for that cozy, nesty feel. Comparably fortresslike, with a comparably festive feel – and virtually no windows (are you sensing a pattern yet?) – is Bix. Here you want to climb the stairs to the mezzanine, which commands a view of the grandly shadowed main floor and is also narrow enough to give the feel of an opera box. The food is said to be better now too, with Bruce Cost in command, though I thought it was quite good under the previous regime.

In the mid 1990s there was a place on Bush Street (near the Sutter-Stockton garage) called Rendezvous du Monde. It was narrow and deep and felt as if it had been built by tunneling back into the hill, though of course it hadn't been, since, among other things, the hill sloped the wrong way. Still, if you sat at the very rear, the sense of being nestled in a grotto was powerful (and augmented by the trompe l'oeil stonework on the wall), and the food was superior. I mourned when it became a sushi bar reeking of scorched fish oil; I don't know what it is now.

But if that effect appeals to the safe-within-close-walls freak in you, then you might feel quite comfy at Alma, which has a small second dining room behind the main one, with its huge windows looking two ways onto a busy intersection. The main dining room is not for the shy, no, not for the reticent; these delicate persons will be much happier in the rear dining room, far from (or at least not upsettingly near) the madding, preening crowd. No trompe l'oeil back there, just attractive pastels of a vaguely eastern Mediterranean flavor, and, front or back, Johnny Alamilla's tremendous pan-Latino cooking.

I like the out-of-the-way table, the cozy table, but less from fear of suicide bombers or car bombers or the other shadowy threats of our strange times than from the desire to be able to talk to the person or persons across the table without having to shout and gesticulate like a third-base coach. Valentine's Day, of all days, should be the day we consecrate to talking, to understanding and being understood.

Food, of course, whether prepared with our own hands or by others, is the greatest of lubricants in this respect. People talk over food, I suspect instinctively – hence the injunction against talking with your mouth full – and I wonder if we don't sometimes eat more than we should, at times when we're not really hungry, because what we're really hungry for is a conversation with somebody, or Somebody.

The many-hued blossom we call love is both fragile and hardy. The one insult it cannot withstand is silence – the failure to hear and be heard. That way ruin lies. Love needs, it feeds on, human exchange, whether whispered, giggled, proclaimed, or argued, whether in private or in public, over beers or sushi or croissants, or – if you're really sleazy – all three. Table for ... two? Under the staircase, if you can manage it.

Restaurant information

Shanghai 1930.133 Steuart (at Mission), S.F. (415) 896-5600.

Tadich Grill. 240 California (at Battery), S.F. (415) 391-1849.

Sam's Grill. 374 Bush (at Belden Lane), S.F. (415) 421-0594.

Bruno's. 2389 Mission (at 20th St.), S.F. (415) 648-7701.

Aziza. 5800 Geary (at 22nd Ave.), S.F. (415) 752-2222.

Jardinière. 300 Grove (at Franklin), S.F. (415) 861-5555.

Bix. 56 Gold (at Sansome), S.F. (415) 433-6300.

Alma. 1101 Valencia (at 22nd St.), S.F. (415) 401-8959.

February 11, 2004