When I read about Canteen, a tiny cigar box of a restaurant in the theater district, a few months back in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was inevitable that I would fall for its charms. I'm a sucker for small, quirky restaurants with big personalities. My favorite restaurants are all tiny, usually 35 seats or less. They are places where the chef is the sole or co-proprietor, so that his/her vision and attitude are apparent in every detail, from the color of the paint on the walls to the font on the menu to the choice of butter dish.
Let's face it. Like a painter must feel when visiting an art gallery or a classical singer upon going to the opera, every time I go to a restaurant my senses are heightened. I take in every minute detail. At one moment, I'm critiquing the experience (I would've done it like this), in another finding inspiration (what a brilliant idea!).
But mostly, I am in awe. I love to watch the complex ballet that goes on in the kitchen and on the dining room floor. A server with a tray-full of drinks dodges drunken guests and their raucous children. The cook juggles 6 or 8 different pans on the stove and in the oven. When performed gracefully, it's a on par with a
symphony rock concert.
I'm not saying this to romanticize the business, though. It's hard, backbreaking, unforgiving work with little financial compensation. More hours on your feet than anyone who has never worked in a restaurant can even begin to imagine. Try being on your feet for 8 to 10 hours without once sitting down, knowing there's not enough time to possibly finish the million things that need to be ready now (or preferably 10 minutes ago), that you've been dying to pee for the last hour, that the burn you just suffered from the spattered grease will only get worse if you don't stop to treat it, that you're starving because you yet again skipped your last meal, but you know you won't be able to do any of it because there just isn't enough time.
Those are some of the reasons I'm in awe of these people (and you should be too!).
But really, when I go to a restaurant like Canteen, it's not just my senses that are heightened. My emotions go into overdrive. Although it's difficult for me to express (hey, I'm a guy, cut me some slack), I feel a mixture of envy and anxiety and anger and confusion and joy.
I'm envious that this chef has realized his dream of opening a restaurant (yes, a small, charming, thoughtful, interesting, casual yet professional boîte - similar to what I've always hoped to open), while I have not.
I'm anxious that the older I get (I'm in my late 30's), the less likely I am to be able to open my own place. And I wonder if people will come to my restaurant if and when I open it.
I'm angry that I'm having so much trouble finding a good location and that prices are astronomical. And that the space I very nearly bought a few months ago almost cost me my life's savings when I discovered at the last minute that it was improperly zoned for a restaurant (thank God for good lawyers).
I'm confused as to whether I should even still be pursuing this crazy vision of a small restaurant. When I watch someone like Dennis Leary (the chef and, I believe the owner), I'm reminded of how incredibly demanding the work is on so many levels (physical, mental, emotional, financial). I wonder if this is really how I want to spend my precious time on this earth.
Yet, despite all these negative feelings, I mainly feel exhilarated when I go to a restaurant like Canteen. For me, it's an inspiration. Yes, it can be done. And, so long as the food is well-executed, the atmosphere a little quirky, and the service well-intentioned, people will come.
So, congratulations are due to Dennis Leary and the staff (all of maybe 3 to 6 people) for pulling it off successfully. My lunch at Canteen yesterday was inspirational. Smoky eggplant soup garnished with pomegranate and sesame, wilted endive and fig salad (pictured, left), and a sinfully rich chocolate pot de crème.
I immediately felt at home in the old-fashioned diner-like space with its 4 booths and 7 counter seats - is there any other restaurant in this city more adorable than Canteen? Although there was just one server, the service managed to be professional and attentive. And I appreciated the little touches, like filtered water served in a bottle, warm artisan bread and spicy house-made ginger ale.
I honestly can't wait to go back for dinner, which from the menu I read is much fancier. And I implore you to support this restaurant and other small, chef-owned places like it, just as you would support your local farmer by shopping at the farmers market.
Canteen serves 4 dinners per week (Wednesday-Saturday), 3 lunches (Wednesday-Friday) and brunch Saturday and Sunday. They also serve breakfast.