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On eating at top-of-the-top restaurants

Posted by John Reed on

Gary Danko

My wife and I like to eat at restaurants. Last night, we went to Gary Danko in San Francisco. It is THE number one restaurant in San Francisco according to those who rate such things. You can see its various awards and honors at It has one star from Guide Michelin.

There is another north of San Francisco in Yountville called the French Laundry which is supposed to be hot stuff, too. That one has been rated the best restaurant in the world a couple of times. It has three stars from Michelin—the most you can get. I played baseball a couple of times at the VA home there, but never ate at the restaurant.

We went with one of my college classmates and his wife. They had eaten at Danko before.

When we first moved to San Francisco, we lived at 1000 Chestnut Street at the corner of Chestnut and Hyde Streets. The Hyde Street cable car runs right by there. I used to take it to work in the financial district every morning. Probably the coolest place we ever lived. Dick Van Dyke was living there when we moved out.

Gary Danko restaurant is at 800 North Point Street which is the corner of North Point and Hyde Street, also on the cable car line. Actually, the longest downhill cable car stretch without an intersection that levels out is between Chestnut Street and Bay Street. There is a postcard of the scene from our corner on every postcard rack in the city. It shows a cable car going down or coming up that stretch with Alcatraz and the San Francisco Bay in the background. Here is that photo. One block south of us also on Hyde Street was the top of the Crookedest Street in the World. About once a month, some movie, TV, or commercial scene was shot at our corner and they typically also shot some scenes at the Crooked Street and down the hill at the Wharf.

For a while when we lived there, I rented an office at Leavenworth and North Point, one block east of Danko, which was a different restaurant then. So this is very much our old neighborhood.

Our apartment—14F—was on the southeast corner of the building. If we had dropped a water balloon out of living room window, it would have hit the photographer taking this cable car photo.

You see that intersection at the bottom of the hill where the white SUV is turning? That’s Bay Street. The next intersection beyond that is North Point and Hyde, the location of Gary Danko on the northwest corner of the Intersection. They advertise that they are at Fisherman’s Wharf. Actually, Fisherman’s Wharf, which is on the water’s edge in the photo, is two blocks north of Danko. So it’s in a very glamorous area of The City. If you come to SF and ride the cable car, you will likely go right past Danko. If you make a reservation far enough in advance, you can hop on the cable car and get off to eat there.

‘It’s nice, but…’

My wife and I have a little history with these super high-rated restaurants. When we were dating in the 1970s, we used to go to local places that had pretensions to being fancy. We were intimidated by them, even when they were in some strip shopping center with a 7-11. Often, they would refuse to serve me a Coke.

Then, on our honeymoon in Paris, I called Tour d’Argent restaurant from our hotel room and asked, “Parlez-vous anglais?” “Yes, sir. How can I help you?” said the guy who answered the phone in perfect American English. I made a reservation for that night or the next and we ate there. At the time, it was rated three stars by Michelin. It was the number one restaurant in the world then to many connoisseurs. I see it now only has one star—same as Danko.

It cost $75 for the two of us in 1975 dollars—$332.67 in today’s dollars. Boy, were we intimidated there!

‘A Coke!’

I tried to order Coke. I got a look of disgust and was told they did not serve such a beverage. I’ll bet if I ordered a rum and Coke they would have served it. I wanted to go back there with a can of Coke in my pocket and pop it open after they refused to serve me one. Last time I was in Paris, I tried to book the place in advance. You then needed to book it six months in advance. I had no such lead time, and figured the price would be lost on my traveling companion, my youngest son who was then 21. We ate at the lower of the two Eiffel Tower restaurants instead. Very nice. Great view.

My wife ordered a glass of wine at Tour d’Argent. Later, while eating her salad, she asked where her wine was. The waiter shook his head “no” at her as if a child had started to climb up on the table. We surmise she was ordering the wine at the wrong time in the meal or something. Later, she was allowed to have her wine.


But eating there had a lifelong effect on us for the better. Thereafter, whenever we went to a pretentious restaurant we would say to each other in our best “Thurston Howell III” or “Charles Emerson Winchester III” accents, “It’s nice, but it’s not Tour d’Argent.” As a result of getting really intimidated once, we were vaccinated against ever getting intimidated again. A bargain at $322.67.

How was the food? Okay. I have no special memory of it. How great can you cook a filet mignon and pommes frites, especially 6,000 miles from the world’s greatest beef source?

Some readers will say Tour d’Argent was wasted on Coke-drinking me and my uncouth wrong-sequence-wine-ordering wife. No question with regard to me. I’ll let my wife speak for herself. As far as you implying by the criticism that you are a great connoisseur, I would have to see your credentials as a Guide Michelin inspector—and I would have to care. I have never aspired to be a connoisseur of French food. I think such things are largely subjective.

A famous wine tasting was held in 1976 for the world’s top wine connoisseurs—French guys. It was blind. The wines they rated best were from California. I’m guessing that was the last blind wine tasting. Bunch of bullshit.


In 2006, my wife and I did a sort of second honeymoon in Manhattan. I made a reservation at what was, and apparently still is, the highest rated restaurant there: Jean-Georges at the Trump International Hotel & Tower Central Park. Excellent food and by far the best service we have ever seen. Like ESP. If you just thought about asking for something, it would suddenly appear before you asked. American waiters, too, no one with a French accent. It cost about $375—$443.90 in today’s dollars.


In June 2015, we ate at Izumi outdoors on top of the Four Season Hotel des Bergues in Geneva, Switzerland. Excellent service. Similar price—around $300 US.

So I am not a connoisseur. But I have been to Holiday Inn Express—and Tour d’Argent, Jean-Georges, and Izumi—and now Gary Danko.

I was dreading Gary Danko not out of intimidation anymore, but because I figured it was really expensive, and I was going to get a meal I did not care for—full of “innovative, unique, experimental, novel, fusion, froufrous” pretentious nonsense. But my wife and friends wanted to go so I figured I would be a sport.

‘Mikey likes it!’

I was very pleasantly surprised. The food was excellent. Service was the best we have ever experienced in the Bay Area, and I saw no “innovative, unique, experimental, novel, fusion, froufrous” pretentious nonsense. I had corn soup with local crab, lobster, filet mignon, and vanilla bean ice cream.

I don’t know if they do substitutions. We were afraid to ask. But they do omissions. I asked them to leave out the peppers in the soup, all of the non-lobster stuff with the lobster, and all the non-steak stuff with the steak except the sauce and Bordelaise butter—which they did.

But let me tell you how non-froufrous it was.

We were asked if we wanted sparkling water or tap water. Tap. You could not pay me to drink sparkling water. A reader asked why. Sparkling water is to Coke what ethanol is to wine. Wine drinkers do not drink raw ethanol. I do not drink unflavored carbonic acid. It tastes like very bad tap water.

At the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center, we explicitly asked for tap water and were given, and charged for, some sparkling water. My wife raised hell with the manager and got it taken off the bill. Also saved us the tip. At a number of other restaurants, especially in Europe, we have had waiters push sparkling water too hard on us.

Affectation du jour

I also ordered a Coke and got one. They later asked if I wanted another. I did. I also had no trouble getting a Coke at Jean-Georges and Izumi. Refusing to sell Coke—which I think only happens now at those bastions of affectation—Starbucks and Whole Foods—is pretty passé, but there are probably some pretentious restaurants in America who still think that’s a mark of class. If Jean-Georges, Izumi, and Gary Danko serve Coke, refusing to serve it is nothing but some bush league attempt at faux class. I’m looking at you Starbucks and Whole Foods.

Danko also served us bread and regular butter without our asking. Pretentious Restaurant Magazine must be recommending a puddle of olive oil lately instead of butter because it now seems like we have to ask for butter about half the time. In a lesser percentage of cases, they have butter, but it’s weird froufrous butter. We have to ask for regular butter.

Danko also ignored Pretentious Restaurant Magazine’s recommendation that you put no salt or pepper shakers on the table. They had both. No one came to the table to offer to grind pepper onto our food. Nor did we have to ask for a salt shaker. Nor did we get a little container of salt with a tiny spoon to ladle it out. Or a pile of salt on a saucer to sort of show us how few gauche people like us eat there. Gary Danko has enough self-confidence to recognize that the salt shaker was a nice, practical invention, that tastes vary, that a restaurant is about the diners not the owner, and he supplies them. You do have to turn a salt grinder, though—a bit of BS slipping through Danko’s otherwise utterly self-confident presentation.

Here is one web site’s definition of affectation:

1. an effort to appear to have a quality not really or fully possessed; the pretense of actual possession:
an affectation of interest in art; affectation of great wealth.
2. conspicuous artificiality of manner or appearance; effort to attract notice by pretense, assumption, or any assumed peculiarity.
3. a trait, action, or expression characterized by such artificiality

I’ll give you another classic example of pretension in San Francisco dining: Asian restaurants where the tourists and often local Caucasians use chopsticks while an Asian man sits nearby reading a Chinese language newspaper and eating with a fork. I think sticky rice must be popular in Chinese restaurants because trying to eat non-sticky rice with chop sticks is probably harder than eating it with a knife.

What a good restaurant should be

Like I said, excellent service. Waiters who can kid around when appropriate, not some total stiffs who might play butlers and waiters in a Three Stooges short. You pay by the course at Danko, my wife and I each had four courses—$117 each. The wine and Coke were extra.

They asked if I wanted my steak rare. “Medium,” I said. It was rare. I sent it back. They made it medium.

Will we go back? Probably. It was expensive. It’s hard to prepare food so well as to be worth twice as much as it costs at a good steak house. And we had to book well in advance.

I recommend that everyone go to one of these sorts of restaurants at least once in their lives. It’ll be an experience. And it will vaccinate you against being intimidated by fancy restaurants. And you can laugh at the future puddles of olive oil and salt-shaker-less and Coke-less restaurants thereafter.

I have heard there is such a thing as an adventurous palate. I do not have one. The idea of paying $50 or more for something I may not like seems a total non-starter to me. I suggest the chefs in question offer a sample to me for free in the hopes that I will love it and order it and pay for it thereafter. Sometimes I get lousy meals at banquets and such then have to buy a candy bar at a local 7-11 to assuage my hunger pangs. Not my idea of a great dining experience.

This is my definition of a great restaurant:

• great view when available (no windows at Danko but plenty of views at the Wharf if you take a walk afterwards)

• a low noise level that allows for quiet conversation

• enough light to see the food

• traditional dishes made from the best ingredients according to traditional recipes and cooked attentively and expertly

• not having to wait for a waiter when you want something

• tap water, salt and pepper shakers, and regular butter provided without having to ask or fend off extra charges for unwanted items

• Coke an available beverage

Danko had everything but the view.


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