Lost restaurants

Mission Creek Café/The Last Supper Club

My grandparents came in from Los Angeles for a visit the other week. Over lunch at Scala’s Bistro (a block from their hotel; rude hostess; good food), my grandmother shared some bad news: a family-favorite German restaurant in LA has closed. “I called to make a reservation,” she told me, “and the machine said, ‘As of March 15, the Black Forest Inn is no longer serving food.’ I was so sad.”

Telling the story spurred my grandmother to recall other restaurants that have vanished out from under her during her long dining history. “I don’t know why it always makes me so sad,” she said.

Fortunately, my grandfather is a psychoanalyst. “It recalls to mind a profound and universal trauma,” he said, “when the first restaurant any of us knew, without so much as a by-your-leave, closed its doors, never to serve meals again.” (This is how we talk about breasts in my family.)

We all have a Great Lost Restaurant. Mine is Radio Valencia, which used to be on the corner of 23rd and Valencia, across the street from my friend Brian’s house. Radio Valencia was a big, sunny room where they served a suite of sandwiches conceived with elegance and wit. Brian liked the turkey pesto, which came hot on focaccia; it danced in the DMZ between sandwich and calzone. I liked the chicken salpicon, which was an upscale chicken salad with avocado, also on focaccia, that was sassed up by the addition of (I think) paprika to the mayo. Remembering that sandwich now, four years after Radio Valencia was replaced by a pitiful Thai restaurant, it’s hard for me to explain why I liked it so much. It was an ordinary sandwich that someone had prepared with care. I always felt good eating it.

Same goes for the Ham Scram at Bitterroot. Bitterroot was an Americana restaurant on 16th between Mission and Valencia. The fried chicken and the chicken-fried steak were both credible, but the point of the place was brunch. Bitterroot was an essential part of the brunch infrastructure—more tables than Dottie’s or Boogaloo’s, better food than Savor or any of the blackboard crêperies. My housemate would get the Spud Bucket, a delicious carb-&-cheese festival. I’d get the Ham Scram: scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, with red beans and cornbread on the side. There’s nothing complicated about scrambled eggs with ham and cheese. I can cook it myself, and I’m a moron. But somehow the Ham Scram transcended its prosaic elements. Part of it was the beans, which savvy brunchers would mix with the eggs to turn the whole thing into a hearty, hammy stew.

Bitterroot wasn’t even closed when the Ham Scram that I loved disappeared forever. All it took was a change of ownership. The new manager kept the decor and the menu, and for a little while we acted like everything was OK. But by the second or third post-buyout visit we had to quit pretending. The Ham Scram was still there: scrambled eggs, ham, cheese, red beans, cornbread. But the eggs were watery, the ham was cheapskate and fatty, there was too much cheese. The beans were fine on their own, but they were seasoned differently and didn’t harmonize with the ham and eggs any more. It was like being weaned from the breast onto a bottle: you keep on sucking, but you know the difference between a rubber nipple and a real one. Pretty soon we stopped going. Bitterroot closed sometime later. Buying a successful restaurant and cutting costs on ham, it turns out, is not a recipe for success.

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A couple years ago someone pointed out to me that Mission Creek, an unprepossessing café on Valencia, serves a sandwich called the Radio Valencia Chicken Salpicon. Try to imagine the complicated mixture of emotions, the hope and sadness and guilt. It was like dreaming about a long-dead loved one: It’s back; it can’t be back; it is.

It isn’t. The recipe may be the same, but the sandwich is ... off, in small, crucial ways. The focaccia is too spongy, not crispy enough; the chicken pieces are larger, which decreases surface area, the parameter that determines how thoroughly the chicken can mingle with the paprika’d mayo. The avocado is too thick: it threatens to slip out of the bread if you bite too forcefully. It’s not a bad sandwich, and I still eat it every now and again for old times’ sake. But it doesn’t display the quality that distinguishes a well-made sandwich, which is what you might call culinary empathy.

To make a good sandwich, you don’t just stack condiments and ingredients on some bread: you imagine what it will be like for the person who’s about to eat it. That’s how your mom (if she was a good mom) knew to make sure the mayo or mustard went right to the corners of the bread. That’s how the cooks at Atlas know just how much turkey to put on their very fine smoked turkey sandwich. That’s the feeling of love you get when you eat any dish that has been prepared with diligent attention: someone has thought about how I feel.That’s what’s missing from Mission Creek’s perfectly likable “Radio Valencia Chicken Salpicon” sandwich, and without it the invocation of the Radio Valencia name is a false promise, a lie, an invitation to imagine that you can go home again.

Bitterroot is now the Pork Store, another brunchcentric Americana place. Last weekend I discovered that the menu includes the “Bitterroot Ham Scram.” (I thought I was the only person with strong feelings about the Ham Scram but it seems to be a cult favorite.) The ham is back up to code, but the eggs are too salty and the beans are underseasoned. I shouldn’t have ordered it.

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A postscript: The pitiful Thai restaurant closed in short order, and the Last Supper Club opened in the old Radio Valencia spot. The LSC, a yuppity steak-and-pasta establishment in the deep Mission, feels like a creature of the dot-com boom even though it opened about a year too late. I ate there once and was prepared to write it off—fine, overpriced, unnecessary—until, at a friend’s birthday dinner, I happened to order the seafood linguini with white sauce. It was one of those meals that make you wish your stomach was twice as big so you could order another one and start over. The white sauce isn’t cream-based: it’s made with butter, garlic, and white wine, and they soak through every atom of the pasta and the shellfish. I would have gotten the red sauce if the waitress hadn’t steered me right. I am forever in her debt.

The Last Supper Club isn’t a replacement for Radio Valencia. It’s a nighttime restaurant rather than a sunny café, and it’s too expensive for everyday use, and I don’t need to eat that seafood pasta twice a week. But I hope I’ll eat it twice a year, maybe on my birthday, as a reminder that growing up isn’t just losing things.