CHOWING DOWN: LUNCH AT THE BELL TOWER
I hadn't planned on stopping for lunch but I came across a little place on the corner of Polk & Jackson buzzing with so much activity I stopped to read the menu. The lunch fare included about a dozen sandwiches, half a dozen salads, and a few pizzas thrown in perhaps as an after-thought. After looking over the menu I decided to stop for a quick bite. Glancing around the room I concluded this was not the place for pizza so it was down to one of the twelve or so sandwiches.
When a server is asked what on the menu is good the wrong response is, "we have a short menu. Everything is good." I don't care how good a chef is but anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows every chef has his or her "duds" on the menu. This first server could have steered an unknowing diner towards the chef's more noteworthy creations. If I enjoy a restaurant experience I am one to wax on about it to everyone I know and will return with friends. That's how a restaurant builds a customer one at a time. But this first server, an Asian girl with very long locks but an even longer attitude, didn't get it. She recited the day's specials to me in robotic fashion even though I wasn't paying any attention. Instead of asking her to repeat them I decided to stick to the menu. I told her I'd need a few more minutes to decide when she asked for my order. Minutes later another server, a spunkly smiling blonde one, returned with a glass of water and to take my order. I asked her what she thought of the pork sandwich. Her entire face lit up at my question to one of her favourites. It was settled for me; the BBQ pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw on Acme bun it would be then.
While I waited for my sandwich I studied the dining room and made a few notes in my big fat journal which if I ever lost I would be hopelessly lost. The dining room, as oddly decorated as it was, had a surprisingly comfortable feel. The bar and the room full of dark-stained wood dominated. Thrown in were some funky B-grade murals on the ceiling, velvet upholstered oversized chairs, and a bit of Gothic to completely confound. On this day the crowd was mostly older. It looked like Senior's Friday at the bar with a cast of silver-haired fellas occupying all the bar stools. From where I was seated, I could see the kitchen through the pass. It was a two-man show with one chef pulling double-duty as dishwasher once the lunch rush passed.
I think food always tastes better when served with a smile so lucky for me my sandwich was brought by the smiling server. The sandwich was filled with a generous portion of pulled pork piled on coleslaw between what I could only guess was an Acme bun. It was nicely toasted, the pork tender and succulent, and the coleslaw not too sharp as it can often be. The BBQ sauce was too tangy for my taste but the idea of the sandwich worked. At the same time as I was eating it, I was thinking how it could be improved with my homemade BBQ sauce. The generous side of french fries were perfectly crisped. As I was taking a pause before finishing my fries, I had to stop the server who not only didn't smile but didn't even ask if I was finished before trying to remove my plate. Then she plopped my bill on the table. I thought they only did this in Chinese fast food restaurants-- giving a bill while one was still eating.
If you sit in a restaurant in America long enough, you soon end up getting everyone's story or certainly bits of it. I learned that the server, the one who doesn't seem to smile, got out of bed at 1130AM. Maybe she's grumpy because she didn't get quite enough sleep the night before. The other server, the one who smiles, is in university studying mechanical engineering. I picked all of this up from their conversations with other patrons not because I wanted to eavesdrop but because anglophones seem to speak so loud that anyone within half a mile can't help but hear too.
Then the strangest thing happened. When I wanted to pay, the other server (you know, the smiling one) told me lunch was on the house when she learned it was my first time at the Bell Tower. She also added because I was so nice. Maybe I'm nice when I'm not grumpy, but I certainly wasn't so nice to merit a free lunch. Whatever I did, maybe I should figure it out so that I can do it more often. I left a generous tip and still a little perplexed but certainly smiling.
Coordinates: 1900 Polk St @ Jackson, San Francisco tel 415.567.9596