Hanging Out in Rockford: California dreaming: Dream on

The next morning, I awake early. Actually, I get up at about 6:30 a.m., Rockford time. I’ve only had a few hours sleep, but the thought of being in San Francisco is energizing. Summer is still sleeping. I shower and head down to the Wharf. When we left Chicago, it was beautiful, warm and in the 80s. Here, it is like the weather we’ve been having of late: cold and spring-like. I didn’t bring a jacket because I didn’t have one that was appropriate, so I go looking for one.

Evidently, everyone who comes to San Francisco needs a jacket because they are abundant and cheap. I pick out a sort of windbreaker for only $20. I really like my new jacket. I head back to the hotel. Summer is finally moving about, and I tell her I want to wait having coffee at the breakfast place across the street from the hotel. A sort-of street person works the door to the restaurant, talking people in and handing out the menus. I chat with the owner of the restaurant, who has been in business at this location for 16 years. He says the tourist business is slow.

Summer shows up, and I talk her into walking down to the Wharf before having a cup of coffee. She wants to get a jacket, too, and we do that and buy presents for people back home, including her son, Alex, and my cook, Troy. Then, we walk down Fisherman’s Alley, and pick a place to have something to eat. We find one we like the most (I unfortunately cannot remember the name), and we order up a crab and a bottle of chardonnay. I try to call Gerlinde to let her know we are following her instructions, but she doesn’t answer.

On the way out on the plane, there was an article about Alice Waters in the Northwest Airlines magazine. Alice Waters was my mother’s maiden name, but this Alice Waters is another Irish woman. She looks a lot like my mom did when she was her age. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, she opened Chez Panisse in 1971. She has received the James Beard Award as Best Chef in America (1992). Her restaurant was named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine in 2001. Ruth Reichel, the editor of Gourmet magazine, who formerly wrote my favorite food column in the world, “Dining Out In New York,” says that she is the most influential woman in American food. She probably is, now that Julia Child has died. She started the whole California food thing with its emphasis on freshness and quality of ingredients.

Summer and I are sitting in the little café on Fisherman’s Wharf eating cracked crab, drinking chardonnay and trying to decide what to do with the rest of our day. I make a try to get us into Chez Panisse, but to no avail. Included in the Northwest magazine were seven other restaurants that evolved out of Chez Panisse. One of them is Zuni Café, owned by Judy Rodgers, who stood next to Alice and cooked in the kitchen in the early days. Summer and I have been talking about what special I should run on Sunday at the Irish Rose. One of the items we discussed was roast chicken. Zuni has been called the best restaurant in San Francisco. They specialize in roast chicken. We decide to go there for dinner. We call for a reservation. The earliest we can get in is 10.

We sit there drinking chardonnay at 11 in the morning. We sit there thinking about what it is we want to do with our day and talking to the bartender who is part owner of the restaurant, the restaurant whose name I cannot remember. We decide to drive up the coast. Summer says that is one of the things she really enjoys with her dad when they go somewhere together—the driving. We head out. Summer navigating—she is a good navigator—and I driving. Before you know it, we are crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Summer, who has never seen the riches of northern California, is knocked out. Anybody would be. We wend our way over to the ocean. The little Honda rental car is a joy to drive on the winding road. Before long, we are looking at thousand-foot vistas, and then views of the ocean only seen in postcards.

I want to drive all the way up to Jenner. I want to drive through Bodega Bay, the place I think is the most beautiful place I have ever been. I want to show it to my friend, Summer, but it is farther than I remember, and too far for today. Instead, we stop in a little restaurant in Olema. We have wine and some mussels and clams. The mussels are Prince Edward Island mussels. We sit on the extreme West Coast of the United States, eating mussels grown on the extreme East Coast. Then, we cut over to 101 and head back to the city. We have to go to the City Lights bookstore. We have to get something for Elise.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the May 24-30, 2006, issue

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