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How to Choose a Restaurant: A Rose By Any Other Name

Food Channel Crew in San Francisco

The way you select a restaurant in an unknown town is fraught with pat answers. Take today’s experience:

Asked the cab driver from the airport where to eat. Answer: ‘It’s all good.’

Asked friends who live in the area. Answer: ‘It’s all good.’

Asked at the hotel front desk for great places within walking distance. Answer: ‘It’s all good.’

I’m not joking. It’s as though they were all trained to give equal treatment to all restaurants. And, as we know, all restaurants are not created equal.

That’s why you need a name. A presence. A reputation. Something that makes you stand out.

We did get some good suggestions on Twitter, but they were all too far away for our allotted time.

Finally, a text came in from a friend who knew the area and said, ‘Go to the Stinking Rose. Some friend, we thought. Then we checked it out—sure enough, it was a real place, in North Beach’s Little Italy.

It was the name that did it. You have to check out any place with a name that distinctive. If they can interest you with their name, can they do the same with their food?

Yes, they can.

The place is, by its own definition, whimsical. There are nooks and crannies and hidden booths. There are mirrors, and a great design on the menu—reminiscent of Gypsy Rose Lee-style burlesque. There is the world’s largest garlic braid (bulb after bulb of garlic tied together and strung like holiday lights across the ceiling).

Garlic, garlic, everywhere. And not a vampire in sight.

It’s a place that delivers on its trademarked phrase, ‘We season our garlic with food®’.

We started with the Bagna Calda, described as ‘garlic soaking in a hot tub.’ It actually turned out to be cloves of garlic with a little anchovy, roasted and resting in a light olive oil, ready to smash and spread on fresh rolls that had been lightly dusted with cheese and, of course, garlic.

We shared bites of various house specialties, including the Forty Clove Garlic Chicken (our hands down favorite), which really did have 40 cloves of garlic.

We ate the Zuppa di Pesce with mussels, crab, fresh fish, calamari and shrimp—bib included. We thoroughly enjoyed the Gnocchetti, with garlic gorgonzola and asparagus.

We had the Spicy Prawns, with fettuccine, pancetta, and onions in a red pepper garlic oil. We sampled the arugula salad with garlic dressing and pine nuts.

We finished off the meal with garlic ice cream. Before you gag, just know that the flavor was good enough that the brave soul who took the first bite then clutched the dish and said, ‘OK, you guys. Get your own.’ It’s that good.

Turns out the ice cream comes from Gilroy, CA, home of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, with a little Ghiradelli chocolate sauce added. The mix of sweet and savory really is memorable, and a nice finish—especially for those who want to retain the taste of garlic when they walk out.

Which you probably would, regardless. But who cares, when you all had the same amount of garlic? (OK, maybe your cab driver will notice, but then he’ll remember where to refer the next person who asks, “Where should we go to eat?”).

So, we walked out smelling like garlic, clutching the Stinking Rose cookbook, and wondering how many times we could go back while we’re in town.

When we do go back, we’ll be asking for Andrew.

After all, when you select a restaurant, it’s nice to have a name.

The Food Channel® is in San Francisco as part of the Fancy Food Show sponsored by NASFT. We’ll be bringing you coverage from the show of the latest new products and trends, with a few sidebars of our own culinary experiences along the way.