San Francisco 1962

“Rice-a-Roni – The San Francisco Treat” – remember that perfect slogan/jingle?

The salty “sauté and simmer” side dish is the concoction of a local pasta maker. It first showed up on store shelves in 1958. Roni, of course, is short for macaroni. The Rice-a-Roni TV commercials first introduced me to the sights and sounds of the City by the Bay when I was just a wee tot.

This week I had the pleasure of visiting the city that brought the world Rice-a-Roni. Lucky for me, James, my tireless tour guide, knows the city well. He really had me huffin’ and puffin’ as we walked up and down those legendary hills.

I rubbed elbows with beatniks at the City Light Bookstore, ate “the best meatball sandwich in the world,” according to Julia Child, at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Café in Little Italy, then dripped the most delicious chocolate ice cream I ever had on my new shirt at Ghirardelli Square.

In the 70s-sci-fi-vision-of-the-future lobby at the Hyatt I got vertigo riding the elevator. Then strolling through the bevy of upscale food boutiques at the newly restored Ferry Terminal Building 1 got queasy after sampling rare mushrooms and smelly cheeses. In Chinatown I stopped dead in my tracks to marvel at spectacular detail on the theme-appropriate 1920s street lamps.

Visiting the Palace of Fine Arts I learned that the spellbinding neo-classical dome and colonnade isn’t really the last remaining structure from 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, it’s a 1960’s replica. By the late 50’s the original was falling to pieces and had to be replaced. A quickie trip to the Cable Car Museum was even more educational. We saw the guts and powerhouse of the entire system which began in 1873 and is today the last of its kind on earth.

It then only seemed appropriate to do what Tony first sang about in 1954, when he left his heart in San Francisco – ride a cable car halfway to the stars.

Actually it delivered us far beyond the stars – it delivered us to the Tonga Room just in time for Happy hour. Tucked away deep inside the famous Fairmont Hotel, this high 60’s Polynesian dream-of-a-restaurant and bar is by far the cities kitschiest and most Disneyland-like tourist attraction. Complete with an often reoccurring lighting and thunder storm, it even rains over the pool which is left over from the days when the enormous room housed the grand hotel’s indoor plunge. After a couple Lime Daiquiris and a plate stacked high with sweet and sour ribs, egg rolls and won tons it was all I could to keep from letting out a primal scream of pure joy. I like Rice-a-Roni just fine. But to me The Tonga Room is the real San Francisco treat.

GOD BLESS AMERICANA and San Francisciana