FOG CITY DINER COOKBOOK

FOG CITY DINER COOKBOOK” by Cindy Pawlcyn did not seem, at first glance, to fit in with my preconceived notion of the traditional 50s type of diner – but I did notice that Richard Gutman included Fog City Diner in his directory of diners still in existence at the time his book, “AMERICAN DINER THEN & NOW” was originally published in 1993 (the paperback edition was published in 2000 by the Johns Hopkins University Press).

If it’s good enough for Gutman, it’s good enough for me!

Cindy Pawlcyn and her two friends, Bill Higgins and Bill Upson, got into the diner business because (to quote Bill Higgins) – they liked to have fun. After working hard at other fine restaurants, they decided to go into the biz for themselves. Since they had no money, they built and ran it themselves. Says Bill Higgins, “Furiously, we blended cement, stain, linoleum, and paint, and threw in a little Chardonnay to keep us going. Cindy cooked nonstop. Bill (Upson) did the grill and the books. I waited tables and answered the phones.”

What they created was the Mustards Grill in Napa Valley but they were on a mission and San Francisco was their target. Bill Upson recalls, “I remember driving back to the Bay area so many times from Mustards—planning, scheming, knowing it all had to come true. WE just had to put the ingredients together—you know—like a recipe…”

Fog City Diner, he remembers, was designed on cocktail napkins. Many of the contractors were “fly-(or something)-by-night.” Consequently, they never knew what, if anything, was going to get done on time. “The date of the opening party (June 16, 1985)” writes Bill Upson, “had been set for months, but the night before the party, the Diner still had no floor. So there we were, on hands and knees, setting tile until four in the morning so the big shots we had invited to the party would have a place to stand.”

He says a well-known San Francisco designer asked him, “How’d you get the floor to look so beat up and screwy, like it’s been here for years?”

Their philosophy was that everyone loves a diner because it’s comfortable and affordable, unintimidating but accommodating. It’s American. It’s colorful and shiny. Their objective was to have everything you could want from a diner plus what’s happening today. The sign on the door says “No Crybabies.” This means anything goes—have a good time, and leave your problems elsewhere. The menu is balanced so there is something for everybody. Half of the menu is what you’d expect—hamburgers, fries, and malts, etc., but updated and thought out using only fresh quality ingredients..”

The other half of the menu is more contemporary with innovative and unusual dishes. And, while the menu does offer sodas and milk shakes, you can also order a beer—Fog City Diner offers over a dozen varieties. Their back bar has one of the largest selections of single malt Scotches in the city. As for cocktails, they have every one you’ve ever heard of including, Bill says, “some that date back to prehistoric times.”

Cindy explains that they wanted the kind of diner that you would feel comfortable in whether you wanted a pre-opera meal or a post-game snack, a home away from home where food was made from scratch with the best ingredients available and served up at reasonable prices. They believe they’ve succeeded—the trio has gone on to open several other restaurants in San Francisco, one in Mill Valley and another in Napa Valley.

Most of the bread served at Fog City Diner is made from scratch, on the premises. Cindy recalls that when she was growing up, her mother baked white bread at home, huge batches of it. “FOG CITY DINER COOKBOOK” opens, then, with a selection of homemade bread recipes that range from Jalapeno corn Stix to hamburger buns; Buttery Leek and Basil Loaf to making your own homemade from-scratch flour tortillas.

Chapter Two is titled “Bowls” and ranges from a variety of soups (Roasted Sweet Red Pepper and Potato Soup to Lobster Gazpacho, Black Bean Soup to Manila Clam Chowder. Cindy advises that all of the soups on their menus come under the heading of “bowls” along with any other dishes that are too soupy to eat with a fork. This, she explains, “includes chowders, stews, and our Sirloin and Black Bean Chili.” She suggests that when you prepare soups, be sure all the ingredients are cut small enough so that they can be easily picked up with a spoon and to provide extra plates for bones and shells, and warm damp napkins and lemon wedges for sticky fingers.

The trio didn’t care for the word “starters” (they thought it was too trendy) and they didn’t like “appetizers” either – that, they thought was too stuffy. They settled on “Small Plates” which is technically an offering of Hors D’oeuvres although the name “small plates” reminded me of Dim Sum in some of the Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles. (Waitresses walk along pushing carts with small plates and different kinds of Dim Sum, – if you see something you like, you point and get a plateful of that dish. At the end of the meal, they just count up the number of plates and charge accordingly.) But I digress!

Small Plates at the Fog City Diner (and consequently so named in their cookbook, include a wide variety of mouth-watering dishes which range from Quesadillas with Hazelnuts and Tomatillo salsa to Crab Cakes with Sherry-Cayenne Mayonnaise. Or, think: Buffalo Chicken Wings with Stilton Bleu cheese Dip, or Spicy scallops with Chile Mayonnaise.

The menu for sandwiches includes Diner Burger, Cobb Sandwich and Diner Chili Dog but there is also Reddened Snapper Sandwich with Guacamole and Pork Piccata Sandwich with Caper Vinaigrette.

And, although the chapter titled “Salads” sounds simple enough, the recipes sound wonderful. You can choose from (among other offerings), Caesar Salad, Crab Louis with Thousand Island Dressing, or BBQ Pork Salad with Creamy BBQ Dressing.

Since the appetizer chapter was called “Small Plates” it made sense to the Trio to call the entrees “Large Plates”. There is a wide variety of recipes from which to choose, ranging from Grilled Salmon with Peas and Asparagus to Lamb Stew with Sweet Potatoes and Bell Peppers. “We put our own twist on them” Cindy explains, “a little curry in the chicken pot pie, barbecue sauce in the braised short ribs, succotash over rabbit…”

Because they are within a stone’s throw of the Bay and partly because they are concerned with weight and health, they serve a ton of seafood. At the restaurant they have two fish specials every day that are not printed on the menu. The recipes in “FOG CITY DINER COOKBOOK” under “Large Plate” include recipes for grilled tuna, mahi-mahi, halibut, swordfish and salmon.

As for Desserts, Cindy writes, “We’ve probably stayed closest to the traditional American diner fare with our desserts. They’re all big, gooey, and fattening, with lots of powdered sugar sprinkled over everything to top it off..” Her philosophy of desserts is simply, if you’re going to eat them at all, then make sure you eat the real stuff—real butter, real eggs, real vanilla and so on….” And, I have to agree on this point. We only use real butter in my house, and I buy real, not imitation, vanilla, in big bottles at Smart & Final, a kind of warehouse grocery chain here in the Los Angeles region. I agree with Cindy; I’d rather have a small brownie made from all authentic ingredients than a fake low-calorie one ten times its size. The Dessert recipes in Fog City Diner make me swoon just reading the names—chocolate pecan brownie a la mode with chocolate sauce, Gingerbread (made with real ginger) with applesauce (and the applesauce is homemade, too), Apple Dumplings, Banana Cream Pie, Caramel Nut Tart and more. There is Vanilla Caramel Custard and Chocolate Orange Crème Brulee, Tapioca Pudding with Fresh Fruit (one of my favorite comfort foods) and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies.

An added bonus at the end of the book are – mixed drinks! Along with the mixed drinks are recipes for hot toddies and vanilla shakes…something for everybody. Under a chapter titled “Basics”, Cindy has thoughtfully included recipes and directions for making stocks, vinegar, your own spice blends, croutons, and seasoned nuts. She also provides cooking tips, with directions for peeling garlic or tomatoes, grating ginger, roasting and peeling peppers and chiles.

“FOG CITY DINER COOKBOOK” by Cindy Pawlcyn has something for everybody and although it was written by a fine chef, it is a cookbook for home cooks. “FOG CITY DINER COOKBOOK” from Ten Speed Press was published in 1993 and originally sold for for $21.95 (soft cover).

As I surfed and scanned around on Google.com, I found prices ranging from the reasonable to the absurd. Ok, you can find a copy of Amazon.com starting at $3.25 for a pre-owned copy. On Barnes & Noble.com you can find a copy starting at $3.26 and a new one at $139.11!!! (yikes!)
Powell’s, the fantastic used bookstore in Oregon has “three left” at $12.95 each – and finally, at Half.com, you can find a cop for $3.76.

Review by Sandra Lee Smith

ISBN 0-890815-999-7

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