Fog City Diner: Still a Charmer, but Far from the Forefront

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The second installment in a new series of posts looking into restaurants and food producers that San Francisco has loved for so long that they've slipped into a media black hole.

Believe it or not, I'd never been to the Fog City Diner until recently. Cindy Pawlcyn's diner-which-is-really-not-a-diner was in its prime when I first arrived here almost two decades ago, but then I was too poor to live on anything more elevated than pho and burritos, and by the time I was not too poor it had graduated into the realm of tourist favorites, trading its cachet for economic stability. Any restaurant should be so lucky.

I can't imagine what the view was like in 1985, when the diner opened in the shadow of the Embarcadero freeway, but now it's innocuous and sunny, the bay flashing blue through the gaps between wharf buildings. Unlike most restaurants its age, the place shows no sign of scuffing ― the chrome and checkerboard tiles still gleam, the woodwork is still burnished, the cafe tables don't look like they've weathered a thousand knife cuts.

The lunch and dinner menus read like they blend the California cuisine that Pawlcyn, Jeremiah Tower, and Joyce Goldstein pioneered ― flashy, eclectic, big-boned ― with more contemporary (or at least enduring) elements. For every bowl of Thai curry mussels and every spoonful of mango salsa came a plate of short-rib sliders or a fried green tomato and mozzarella sandwich.

But the food itself, well ... it was fine. A plate of onion rings in Anchor Steam batter took some assertive chomping to bite through, though the curry-laced homemade ketchup tasted as if it had held up to the changing times. Those short-rib sliders were gummy and dry. And while the grilled snapper sandwich and its accompanying fries were perfectly cooked, the mango salsa tasted vague, with none of that bright interplay of fruit, chiles, onions, and herbs that made it a bistro staple from 1986 to 1997.

I can't imagine sending anyone to Fog City Diner these days for a meal representative of San Francisco's food scene, but if they were staying downtown or along the waterfront, the place has more than enough appeal to make a drink at the bar memorable.

Follow us on Twitter: @SFoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.
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