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Friday Slide Show: Lunch At Scoma's Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

22 May 2015

Life is full of surprises. But you have to get our of the house to experience them. So we grabbed a camera and hopped on the 43 Masonic to ride through Haight-Ashbury to the Marina.

Finding Scoma's. Right up the alley.

The bus is always a show looking for a stage. The cast changes every time. And you never know if you're going to see a comedy or a tragedy. Sometimes a hero arrives, sometimes just a clown. You can get off at the next stop, but you never want it to end.

On this ride a rather disturbed middle-aged woman who had pushed an older woman out of her way was threatening to make it unpleasant for everyone. Fortunately the French couple and their adult son who inadvertently sat next to her didn't understand what she was saying as she brought up a number of unpleasant subjects.

But then the hero arrived. A small child taking a trip with his grandmother mollified her. The disturbed woman sat quietly with a peaceful smile on her face, absorbed in the child's antics until her stop came.

We had no particular destination in mind, so we took the bus a stop from the end of the line and walked over to Fort Mason. It was Bay-to-Breakers weekend, mobbed with people here for the race. And plenty going on.

We didn't stop but kept walking, over the hill to Aquatic Park, where we snapped our panorama. Then, dodging weekend bike riders trying to get up the steep hill without falling over or semi-pros weaving down through the crowd at twice the speed of sound, we realized we had survived and were now hungry.

There's no shortage of places to eat at Fisherman's Wharf.

There's no shortage of places to eat at Fisherman's Wharf. And we seem to have a new favorite every time we go there (we've reprised below an old story from 2011 about another lunch we enjoyed at the Wharf).

But we do avoid the places offering nothing but fried food, french fries and catsup with soft drinks to wash it all down. Don't go there for the fast food. Please.

So where to eat?

Sometimes, like with the bus, you have to take a chance. And for lunch that meant going down a little alley and across the docks to Scoma's.

There are signs but they're easy to miss.

Nevertheless an awful lot of people seem to know where the place is. It's always packed. Reservations recommended, especially for dinner. But we were there just before the Preakness was about to start and got a table for two in half an hour. Just enough time to sit on the dock, take some photos of sea lions and have a drink at the bar, looking over the Preakness field.

Scoma's can be frightfully expensive. The 3/4-lb. crab louis, for example, can run $55 at dinner. But there is a lunch menu with more than few options under $20. Which is why we only go at lunch once in a decade.

The place is an institution, though. And your fellow diners are having a ball. The waiters are particularly sociable, so it can be more like a party with everyone at separate tables than a romantic table for two. It's a wedding reception without the bride and groom.

Our waiter Tim was something of a comedian. But when we asked about the spumoni, he poured out his soul to us.

Scoma's used to serve Lucerne's, he told us. But the list of ingredients was full of unrecognizable things, he complained, sounding a bit like Mark Bittman.

Now, he proudly announced, Scoma's is serving spumoni made by The Latest Scoop in Berkeley. They make it from natural ingredients like milk and sugar. About five of them and pistachios and dried cherries were two more of them.

We were sold. And appreciative. But Tim couldn't stop there. He brought us a dish of what looked like vanilla. "Go ahead. Try it. Try and guess what it's called."

We tried it. Delicious. And unusual. He smiled, no one had ever guessed. "Sea-salted caramel," he announced as if he were telling us the winner of the Preakness.

Sometimes you walk down an alley and something wonderful happens.

First Choose a Fish

There we were, the two of us, alone again. We had decided against taking a trip to Santa Barbara and accepting an invitation to travel to Germany. The stars simply had not been aligned.

But we didn't think of it as being stuck at home again. Because home just happens to be San Francisco. And the sun was shining with the temperature rising, so we threw a few things in a camera bag and took the streetcar down to the Embarcadero, like any other tourist. It's our way of simulating international travel without leaving home. The world comes to the Embarcadero. You just have to wind your way through it.

So we walked the wide Herb Caen Way, dodging the bike riders and joggers and strollers, past the Ferry Building, where the Farmers' Market was in full swing, ducking into the Promenade behind the odd-numbered piers to Fisherman's Wharf, taking photos when the view struck us.

And it did strike us. Looking right to the water or left to the city, there was always a view worth focusing on.

How many times have we lined up a shot of Coit Tower in how many viewfinders? And yet, we just happened to turn our gaze toward it when it was framed by two palm trees that apparently had never been there before. So we did it again. Lined up Coit Tower, zoomed in and made our exposure.

When we were satisfied we'd gotten the shot, we turned around and saw a line of fellow tourists ready to take the same shot. Some of them posed members of their group with Coit in the background, improving on our composition.

Not that we were being followed. But it made us wonder if maybe we should have organized a photo walk.

It's flat but a long trek to Fisherman's Wharf, so we were hungry by the time we got there. It isn't really the best place to take out your wallet. And you do have to know what to order (what fish is fresh, avoiding the fast food) no matter where you go. But for years we've been going to Capurro's near the Dolphin Club. It used to serve fresh fish at a reasonable price and while the prices have gone up, you can still find something freshly frozen on the menu.

In fact, you can have your fish prepared any way you want. "First Choose a Fish," the menu recommends, "Then How It's Prepared." There's salmon, sea bass, petrale sole, sand dabs and snapper to be sauteed, poached, grilled, blackened or charbroiled. You decide.

Our diminutive but gracious host sat us in a comfortable booth. And we had our lunch, a light one. A shrimp louie very nicely dressed and a glass of sauvignon blanc.

When the plates had been whisked away and we were enjoying the last few sips of our cool white wine, we noticed a party of four through the restaurant side window. An older couple and a younger one. Saying goodbye, apparently.

There's a rule of physics, we suspect, to confirm that when you can see people through a window, they can't see you. And, conversely, when you can't see through a window, you can be observed. They were oblivious to this rule, but we were not. So we watched them without fear of discovery.

We can't help imagining who the actors in these little street dramas are, even if we know we're never right. So we quickly presumed the older couple were the girl's parents from their warm and quick embrace. Mom first and then Dad.

It was the boyfriend, though, who most amused us. He stood behind the parents as they lined up to hug their daughter, fumbling with a red digicam to take one last shot of the three of them.

But what a lot of fumbling! What was the problem? A stuck lens cap? A flash popping up insistently? A dead battery?

Before we could tell, the poor guy went down, straight to the ground, out of the window frame (except for the top of his head). Did he drop something? Had something happened to him?

The father and mother moved quickly aside and the girl bent over, her hands flying up to her cheeks.

An emergency, no doubt. The guy must have collapsed.

But the trio around him seemed paralyzed. No one called for help.

Then, suddenly, the girlfriend nodded vigorously and held out her left hand. A second later, the boyfriend sprang up and gave her a huge hug and a kiss. More than one, if you count these things.

Miraculous recovery? No, it was a marriage proposal.

A completely unexpected marriage proposal. When she had recovered from the shock, the girl burst into tears, overcome with emotion. Her mother wrapped her in her arms as her father, who had the presence of mind to take out his camera, continued to take momentous if embarrassing photos.

And then, after another hug and kiss for the boyfriend, perhaps a grateful one, the girl gave him a little closed-fist punch to the shoulder. The sort of affectionate thing royal couples never quite permit themselves.

There were hugs and kisses all around then, congratulations and best wishes. They stood there until the girl regained her composure, which she indicated by punching her new fiancee once more in the same shoulder as they walked away.

We finished our wine with a toast to the newly-engaged couple.

Meanwhile two tall fellows were led to the table opposite ours by the host. "Italian?" he asked. "French," they said. He explained that the cioppino was really bouillabaisse and wished them a good meal. No punches thrown.

We finished up, paid the bill and continued our adventure up the steep hill to Fort Mason and on to the 43 Masonic, our carriage ride home. A long walk that began with a proposal of its own. You may need to know enough to ask for cioppino when you want bouillabaisse but you can be quite happy calling a foreign land home or home an exotic destination worth a few photos.

"Forty-three Masonic to Munich and Geneva," the recording announced as we boarded the bus. And who knows, we thought, on a magical day like this we might still make it to Germany and even Switzerland.

With our camera sufficient luggage for the journey.

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