Ailene Sankur

Small Business Awards 2008: Small Green Business Award


As soon as you enter the woman-owned Luscious Garage, you know you’re not in your typical stinky, boys-only auto repair shop. The art-lined walls are painted creamy yellow. Plants and open windows — in place of energy-sucking exhaust systems — act as an air filter. The second-hand furniture, all dark wood, gorgeously contrasts with the light walls and green leaves. A corkboard beckons with fliers from other green businesses like Green Cab, which sends its fleet to Luscious for maintenance.

Beauty meets function on the spotless floor made of nonporous cement, not the usual grease-stained epoxy. It won’t absorb toxins, making it easier to clean and maintain. Natural light fills the room with a sunny glow while soft halogen task lighting shines only on the necessary work areas.

More than just the so-called "women’s touch," it is the culture of hybrids, which are exclusively serviced at the shop, that the appearance of Luscious Garage reflects. That culture acknowledges driving as a necessary evil that’s not going to disappear anytime soonbut one that shouldn’t stop us from being environmentally responsible.

The impetus for all this beauty and responsibility came to owner and lead technician Carolyn Coquillette soon after she got degrees in English and physics from the University of Michigan — when her car promptly broke down. "I thought it was stupid that I couldn’t solve the problem because I didn’t have basic car knowledge," she recalls. She began taking auto repair night classes at a community college and eventually took a job at her instructor’s garage. But she was eager to understand more about advanced hybrid technology and followed that interest to California.

Apparently she wants to pass some of that education onto her customers. At Luscious, a technician uploads car information to the shop’s Web site, which customers can access online to track the repairs. Not only does this practice make the services "fully transparent" to the car-illiterate, it allows Coquillette to follow another important green business practice: keeping her garage paper-free.

That’s not all: Luscious Garage brews its own windshield fluid out of vinegar and water and uses re-refined oil in place of crude-refined oil. All linens are washed on site to monitor water, energy, and chemicals, and a gray water system is being set up to water plants. Rags are used to clean residue off the concrete, and a service launders them off-site so that the chemicals are disposed of properly. Containers are refillable and fabrics are repurposed to make durable, reusable floor mats and fender covers.

When it comes to being green, Coquillette sums it up: "People are like, screw it, there’s nothing I can do. But there are small things you can do: make better choices, make greener choices."

Seems like she’s doing some pretty big things too. (Ailene Sankur)


459 Clementina, SF

(415) 875-9030

7 places to BYOB


Remember that old college chant, "Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer; you’re in the clear"? I propose we change that to: "Markups on liquor, never been sicker. Bring your own beer; you’re in the clear."

Seriously, San Francisco is a city that likes its liquor with a side of food, and no one knows that more than restaurant owners — from the outright avaricious to those just trying to stay above their astronomical overhead in this real estate-deprived city. Haven’t you been to a dinner where the bar tab doubles that of the food? And did you know that a martini usually costs the restaurant a tenth of what it charges you?

We’ve rarely been a city to sit by and tolerate injustice. But in this case, there’s no need to go on a hunger strike about it: in fact, quite the opposite. Join the BYOB movement with a sit-in demonstration at any of these restaurants. (Interestingly, many are in the Tenderloin, which makes sense considering that the entire TL is pretty much a BYOB zone.) Refuse to pay ridiculous drink prices and sip the sweet nectar of freedom from bar tabs. It tastes kind of like Charles Shaw.

And remember: bring cash along with your booze. These places don’t have liquor licenses — or credit card machines. But you can swing most of these places at around $10 per person, so I trust you’ll work it out.


Shalimar is the Starbucks of the city’s BYOB Indian places, boasting two locations within eight blocks of each other. I prefer the one on Jones Street. The ambiance is group-therapy-room-at-a-public-clinic: wood laminate tables, green and white linoleum checked floor, institutional yellowed-cream walls. The service is fast, though never brusque. The food? Transcendent. The chicken tikka masala consists of plump balls of good-quality white meat chicken swimming in a delightful pool of clarified butter and masala. The garlic naan is heaven — doughy, buttery, and flavorful. Also delectable is the palak paneer — spinach and cheese sweetly spiced with cinnamon, cumin, cloves, and bay leaf. After dinner, cross the street to speakeasy-themed Bourbon and Branch for the ultimate lowbrow/highbrow evening.

Pairing: Try a sparkling wine — like Italian Prosecco or Spanish cava — with the dense multilayered spice of Shalimar’s cuisine. Or bring along any of these Indian beers: Flying Horse Royal Lager Beer, Kingfisher, Himalayan Blue Lager, or Maharaja Lager.

532 Jones, SF. (415) 928-0333;

1409 Polk, SF. (415) 776-4642,


The orange walls of Tajine denote a more cheerful atmosphere than Shalimar, but this Nob Hill gem is tiny … er, cozy. I meant to say cozy. If you do BYOB here, make sure you keep it mellow — no flailing, weaving, or expansive hand gestures in this tight space. As for dinner, start with the chicken bastilla to share — phyllo dough stuffed with chicken and almonds and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. For less than $10, the lamb or kufta kebab dinners come with zalook (eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, and parsley sautéed in olive oil), shalada (tomatoes, green onions, and parsley dressed in olive oil and lemon juice), and Moroccan bread. Or try the eponymous tajines — the name for both a Moroccan clay slow cooker and the stews made inside it — which have the same melt-in-your-mouth meat- and vegetable-infused flavor as your standard Crock-Pot dish. The chicken is cooked with lemon and olive; the lamb stewed with prunes and almonds. Tajine warns that if you BYOB, you must also buy a beverage from them.

Pairing: Morocco’s native beer, Casablanca, is hard to find in the States, so opt for a full-bodied, fruity New World pinot noir instead.

1338 Polk, SF. (415) 440-1718,


I’ll give Pakwan, the ridiculously inexpensive Indian and Pakistani favorite in the Mission, this over Shalimar: it has seating right outside. Which, on a sunny Mission day with a six-pack of beer from the liquor store across the street, has a certain allure. And … sigh … I must give Pakwan its due for having tandoori fish on the menu. (But Shalimar has brains! Brains masala!) Pakwan also does justice to Indian standards like saab gosht (lamb curry), bhengan bartha (eggplant), and aloo palak (spinach and potatoes). And its garlic naan gives Shalimar’s a run for its money. But, I keep reminding myself, it’s not a competition if both are supporting the common cause — cheap food and cheaper liquor.

Pairing: The recommendations for Shalimar will work here, but if you’re going with the tandoori fish, try the citrusy notes of a muscadet.

3180 16th St., SF. (415)215-2440,


Two reasons to take the bus to this Inner Richmond favorite: parking is notoriously sparse and, two bottles of wine in, you probably shouldn’t be driving anyway. Tawan’s Thai is named after the owners’ son, whose childhood drawings decorate its walls. On the front of the menu, Tawan (meaning little sun) warns that his mom’s food is "the best, just be sure not to order it too hot unless you can handle it" — and he’s right. Consider yourself warned. Start with the thung thong appetizer — chicken, potatoes, and spices fried in rice paper. Then share the tom yung gung soup, a spicy, sour chicken soup flavored with lemongrass and lime. The gaeng khiaw-warn — chicken, beef, or pork simmered in green curry and coconut milk with bamboo shoots, bell pepper, and basil — also is divine. And for you insane people who don’t like spicy food, you can never go wrong with pad thai.

Pairing: An Alsatian wine, like a Gewürztraminer or Riesling, goes nicely with Thai food. A reliable alternative is a Thai beer like Singha, Phuket Lager, or Chang Lager.

4403 Geary, SF. (415)751-5175


Don’t come to Cordon Bleu expecting its namesake cuisine. Don’t come expecting French food at all. Instead, expect to gorge on this Vietnamese BBQ joint’s highly touted five-spice chicken. Seven bucks will get you half a chicken (not half a breast or leg, half a bird) rubbed with spice and grilled until its blackened, spicy, crisp skin seals in the juicy, tender meat. That comes with "salad," a deep-fried imperial roll, and another delicious enigma — a meat sauce (ingredients unknown, but who cares when it’s this freaking good?) poured over rice. Suggestions: ask for extra meat sauce and lock your valuables in your trunk.

Pairing: Cordon Bleu’s meat-centric delectability needs beer; wine is just not going to cut through the greasy vittles. Try a regional beer such as Singha, Red Horse Dark or San Miguel Dark from the Philippines, or Singapore’s Tiger Gold Medal Lager.

1574 California, SF. (415)673-5167. Not wheelchair accessible.


The number one reason I could never be a vegetarian: kebabs, those seasoned, juicy, sizzling, glistening, dripping, perfect little skewered morsels of meat rotating hypnotically in restaurant windows, expelling wafts of their spicy, meaty aroma. (Try to wax that poetic about soysages.) If you too hold the kebab in high esteem, count on De Afghanan Kebab House to do it justice. There also are veggie options, like the borani badenjan (eggplant sautéed with tomato, garlic, peppers, and topped with yogurt) — or the borani kadoo (pumpkin sautéed with garlic, peppers, and also topped with yogurt). And De Afghanan Kebab has mantu, those steamed dumplings stuffed with beef and onions topped with (you guessed it) yogurt and a spicy tomato sauce. Yum.

Pairing: The Middle Eastern flavor of De Afghanan Kebab House would do well with the crisp fruitiness of a Sauvignon Blanc or the spiciness of a Zinfandel. An offbeat, oft-ignored, and underrated choice might also be a rosé; its brightness pairs well with yogurt-heavy items and grilled meats.

1303 Polk, SF. (415) 345-9947;

1160 University, Berk. (510) 549-3781;

37405 Fremont, Fremont. (510) 745-9599,


All I’ve heard about Korean food in the Richmond is, "You have to go to Brothers!" Well, here’s why Outer Richmond’s Han Il Kwan might make you want to break free of the siblings’ sovereignty: food so authentic that San Francisco’s Korean Tour Buses make a daily stop here; better ventilation, so you don’t need a dry cleaner to get the funk of smoke and bulgogi out of your jacket; much easier parking than in the Inner Richmond; no wait for a table; and, for the win, you can bring your beverage of choice. It’ll be hard to choose between the wonderful kalbi — marinated short ribs cooked at the table and served with rice, tofu soup, and banchan — and the equally killer bulgogi — tender BBQ beef cooked like the kalbi.

Pairing: Korean food and wine just don’t mix. Maybe it’s the acidity of the kimchi competing with the acidity of the wine; maybe it’s just that the cold bite of a beer is the only thing that’ll make your mouth stop burning. Either way, try the Korean beer, OB Lager, or another East Asian brew — like China’s Tsingtao, Harbin Lager, or Macau Beer.

1802 Balboa, SF. (415) 752-4447 *

Careers & Ed: Degrees of separation



Julia Cosart spends her days attending to San Francisco’s skin woes — unwanted hair, unwelcome wrinkles, and clogged pores — at Spa Radiance. Her calm, self-assured, soothing demeanor is not unlike the atmosphere of the spa in which she works. Which is why it’s hard to imagine her in the fast-paced, cutthroat world of advertising.

But that is where Cosart imagined herself ending up, having graduated in 2004 from the University of Nevada at Reno with a combined degree in advertising and journalism. After college, she tried her new career on for size with an advertising internship. "I realized I hated it," she says.

After working a few other jobs, including a stressful stint at a home for troubled youth, she decided to become an aesthetician by training at Miss Marty’s School of Beauty in San Francisco. Now, she says, "I love what I do. I only work three days a week, but make enough to live in a beautiful San Francisco apartment. Most importantly, I don’t go to a job I hate every day. There is very little stress in my life, and that’s no accident."

Cosart isn’t alone. According to experts like Alexandra Robbins, author of Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice from Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived (Perigee, 2004), Cosart represents a current movement among recent (and not-so-recent) college graduates who are entering jobs that have nothing to do with their degree(s), or with a traditional four-year college at all. Generation Y is not one that leaves college to head straight for the embrace of the corporation that will keep them until retirement; people now in their mid-twenties will most likely change careers several times throughout their life. They are also delaying getting married and having children, deferrals that make it less appealing or necessary to immediately seek out a career-track job.

"I know someone who went to an Ivy League school and then became a mailman," Robbins says. "People are starting to realize that college isn’t a direct segue to the ‘real world.’"


For many college grads following this path, the appeal is both more money and more free time. While their newly graduated classmates work 50 hours per week to earn $25,000–$45,000 per year in typical post-BA employment, grads who take jobs that don’t require degrees (such as in the service industry) can earn much more.

That’s why Bert Ladner slings sushi to the Gucci-clad Financial District masses instead of using his degree in finance from San Francisco State University to be an entry-level accountant. In an ironic twist, he says, "I’ll definitely be waiting tables until I pay off my student loans. It would be impossible to pay those off on an entry-level salary."

It’s hard to track a server’s average "salary" — pay varies widely from restaurant to restaurant (and temperament to temperament) — but it’s estimated that a server could make $60,000 per year in a high-end restaurant. Ladner makes as much as $50,000.

Even better, he says, the lack of a set salary provides greater control over how much you make. "Need more money? Pick up an extra shift," Ladner says.

These jobs also provide more freedom about how you spend your time. Servers, aestheticians, and massage therapists all have control over the balance between money and time — and many seem to value the latter even more than the former.

"Quality of life is the top priority for the new generation for twentysomethings," explains Robbins. "It ranks higher than salary or prestige."

Some say this proves that Generation Y, widely considered to be navel-gazing, fun-loving, and responsibility-shirking, isn’t self-indulgent and lazy. It’s just that they’ve abandoned a Gordon Gecko-esque pursuit of status for a greater sense of equilibrium in life.


Another reason that service jobs seem to appeal to grads more than office jobs do is the increased level of human interaction.

"A trend I see a lot is students joining us after a few years in an office," says Rocky Hall of the San Francisco School of Massage. "In those jobs, they get tired of communicating electronically through e-mail, phone conferences, et cetera. They crave a genuine sense of connection with other people, which they find through massage."

Michelle Hamer, director of admissions for Miss Marty’s School of Beauty, agrees. "In a corporate world, it’s all done over e-mail and phone. There is an electronic wall between people. We are the last profession to touch people."

And even if grads aren’t actually touching people, they are meeting, talking to, and potentially spending social time with people they wouldn’t see in office jobs — both the clients they meet on the job and the friends they have more time for afterwards.

Riley Salant-Pearce says this is the benefit of waiting tables (he declined to name the restaurant). After earning his degree in biology from University of California, San Diego and guiding tours in Ecuador for a year, he found himself serving when he moved to San Francisco. Now, it’s hard for him to imagine doing a science job.

"I love the freedom of a restaurant job. I see my friends in 9-to-5 engineering and science-related jobs, and it’s too restrictive. They’re not having any fun. I make an equal amount of money, but I only work four nights a week," says Salant-Pearce, who estimates he makes about $40 an hour. "I make enough to live comfortably in San Francisco. Better than that, I can take time off to enjoy it."

He also likes the social environment of working in the service industry. "The restaurant was a great way to meet people," he says. "We all go out together when we get off. I realized I’m just too social to work in a lab."

Another selling point is that the interaction in these types of jobs tends to be of a happier, more relaxed sort. More often than not, those in the corporate world are stressed-out people dealing with other stressed-out people during work hours. The service industry sees those same corporate drones, but with their ties loosened at the bar or completely removed at the spa. Waiters and beauticians are salespeople, true, but they’re selling you something you already want. People want to buy drinks, eat lavish meals, enjoy massages, haircuts, and facials. This makes these industries sustainable.

"Beauty is a recession-proof industry," Hamer says. "People are always going to get their hair done. We maintain every other profession."


Yet many of these twentysomethings are consumed with self-doubt about "wasting" their college degrees. "Guilt does cause conflict for twentysomethings," Robbins says. "How do I weigh doing what I love with making enough money? A big part of that is image, thinking people judge them. It can take a big leap of faith to say, ‘You know what? This is how I’d like my life to be.’"

Christine Hassler, author of 20 Something Manifesto (New World), has been there. "After graduating from college, I became a successful Hollywood agent. By my mid-twenties, I had my own assistant," she says. "Agents are salespeople, and I don’t like sales. I was a nerd in high school, and the entertainment industry was the adult version of the popular crowd. I didn’t feel passionate about what I was doing. Now that I’m older, I realize that passion doesn’t come from external circumstances. But back then, I just felt lost."

So she decided to become a personal trainer.

"But I still felt lost. With all that education, I was counting to 12 in a gym all day. When people would ask what I did, I’d say, ‘I used to be an agent in Hollywood.’ I didn’t give value to personal training because it was frowned upon," she said.

Experts say part of getting over the guilt of having nondegree jobs is understanding they’re not just fun, easy, and carefree. Succeeding in them may not require a traditional degree, but they do require a certain amount of smarts and/or skill.

"Cosmetology requires an artistic background. You have to know people’s face shapes and what colors work on them," Hamer says. "Aestheticians approach skin from a medical perspective; they nurture and heal people with bad skin. And not everyone can do it. To be good, you have to be articulate and speak well to sell your product."

Cosart, who has been an aesthetician for three years, says she is "just now getting to the point where I’m really proud of it, where I’m not a little ashamed that this is what I’m doing with my college degree."

At the same time, Cosart is realizing that if she ever does want to rejoin the career track, it’ll take more than a BA to get her there. Since bachelor of arts degrees have become a dime a dozen, many twentysomethings feel pressure to get more advanced degrees to earn the prestige a BA might once have given them — and to distinguish themselves from the bachelor’s-holding lumpen. Cosart figures she’ll eventually go back to school, though she’s not sure what she’ll focus on. But if she does, she knows she’s learned a valuable lesson from this time outside the white-collar world.

"I’m grateful to have figured out early in life that in choosing a career, you must decide what you want your life to feel like, not what you want it to look like," she said. "Some people live for stress. I know because I listen their Blackberries buzz in their purses every 30 seconds even as I meticulously work the stress out of their pores and their shoulders. I’m not cut out for that, and I often wonder if they are."

Fune Ya


HUNGER SET SAIL I must confess: I wasn’t planning to go to Fune Ya. I wanted to go to Namu, but couldn’t get a table (thanks, Paul Reidinger). Then I wanted to go to Burma Superstar, but after driving around the Inner Richmond for 45 minutes trying to find parking I wasn’t in the mood to wait twice that amount of time for food. So after buying a bunch of Peek-a-Poohs and Pocky from Genki’s Crepes, I walked a few doors down and saw a big banner in Fune Ya’s window: "Sushi Boat! $1.95 Rolls Special Promotion."

I love sushi boats for their interactive quality. We’re taught as kids to wait patiently; as adults, we’re taught that serious dining is a process of patience, of conversation in between plates. The whole point of a restaurant is to be served. But sometimes, as I walk starving through the restaurant to my table, I just want to grab food off the server window. I not only want what I order, but to pick off what everyone else ordered. Hence the sushi boat: you see, you want, you grab that shit. Ah, instant gratification.

Sushi boat sushi is never that good. It’s only decent when the restaurant is busy and the sushi is constantly replenished. On this visit, it was a Friday night, so everything was fresh. The shrimp tempura roll was delicately crunchy — not oily and soggy — and the shrimp was juicy and sweet inside. The spicy tuna with creamy sauce on top was delectable, as were the California rolls and other sushi standards. It was when we got into the nigiri that the quality severely dropped. The octopus was way too chewy; the salmon was fresh, but sorely lacking the high-grade buttery flavor.

A nice touch at Fune Ya normally missing from sushi boat establishments, though, was having the makings of a full meal via nonsushi items: appetizers (such as edamame) and dessert. The dessert was deep-fried tempura banana drizzled with sweet strawberry sauce. It was incredible. I am ashamed to say that my friend and I grabbed four plates, all of which were newly fried — warm, mushy banana in a crunchy, still-sizzling cocoon.

If you find yourself in the Inner Richmond (hopefully, you’ve taken the bus or ridden your bike), stop by Fune Ya. The cheapie promotion will last a few more months.

FUNE YA Mon.–Thurs., 11:30a.m.–3 p.m., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., 5:30–11 p.m.; Sat., 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., 354 Clement, SF. (415) 386-2788,

Seafood soup for the soul


IT TAKES A VILLAGE Chuck chicken noodle soup. Forget pho. When I’m sick, I need the warmth and sinus-clearing spice of hot and sour soup, or in a pinch, Top Ramen with lots of Tapatio. But the last time I was sick, in an effort to explore my new Outer Sunset hood, I decided to take my chances on the offerings at the almost-year-old Tofu Village.

Now, I’m all about immediate gratification. So I was happy when, 30 seconds after I sat down, steaming tea arrived. Then, 30 seconds after I ordered, came little plates of banchan: seaweed salad, vinegar-soaked bean sprouts, stewed potatoes, kimchi, and fish cakes. And 30 seconds after that? A whole fried fish. (I know it’s a delicacy, but I usually hate when my meat looks like what it used to be — except for cow-shaped steaks, which are fun. In this case, though, the crispy skin and tender flaky fish made my hesitant bite worthwhile.)

Then came the seafood tofu soup, in a basketball-size, steaming ceramic bowl. I ordered mine spicy (out of four options, this was the third hottest), and it was almost too much even for my heat-inured taste buds. The concoction was full of silky tofu, clams, and oysters — leading to my next triumph over a squeamish moment with unshelled prawns (carapaces, antennae, and pleopods — oh my!). The rice was kept warm in a similar ceramic bowl — a traditional touch — although the server didn’t offer to mix it with green tea, as is custom. The bulgogi, served on a sizzling ceramic plate, was flavorfully marinated and tender against the fresh pop of green onion.

Like a mother — a brisk, efficient, multitasking, slightly hovering mother — Tofu Village left me happy, stuffed, and still sniffling but feeling better. The best part? Getting all that food for just under $20.

TOFU VILLAGE Mon.–Thu., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m. 1920 Irving, SF. (415) 661-8322

A la Turca


TURKISH TREAT Lebanese, Syrian, Greek — a craving for Mediterranean or Middle Eastern can be satisfied at a number of Bay Area restaurants, yet what if you want the one cuisine bridging the two? Inexplicably, Turkish restaurants are sorely missing from an otherwise all-inclusive food scene.

But deep in the cracked-out heart of the Tenderloin resides the consistently delicious and ridiculously affordable A la Turca. It’s a virtual Xanadu for any aficionado of the Byzantine: flat-screens showing Turkish channels, an all-Turkish waitstaff, hard-to-find Turkish dishes like fried carrots in yogurt sauce, a swarthy Turkish chef in the window shaving glistening slices of doner off a spit, the potent Turkish tea served in the traditional diminutive tulip-shaped glasses, and Turkish wine selections. Add the smell of diesel, cigarettes, and that ubiquitous lemon cologne, and I would swear I was in the back streets of Istanbul.

And thankfully, the food is incredible. The lahmacun (Turkish pizza) is perfectly crunchy on the edges and covered with a thin mixture of flawlessly seasoned tomato and ground lamb. The doner is divine. But I would go to A la Turca for the manti alone. Manti is Turkish comfort food — meat and onion ravioli in a spicy tomato and garlic yogurt sauce (bring Altoids). I’ve never found it outside Turkey, but A la Turca has a delectable version available only on Sundays (I’ve always thought the mark of a great restaurant is that it can make demands on you).

The desserts were surprisingly bland, but the rest? Çok güzel.

A LA TURCA Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–11 p.m. 869 Geary, SF. (415) 345-1011,

G-Spot: Waiter, I’ll take the (status) check!



There’s something smug and even a bit embarrassing about going out to celebrate Valentine’s Day as a couple: you’re in public with all of the other twosomes, participating in an orgy of self-satisfaction.

But being a twosome is rarely a definite "you are" or "you aren’t" thing. It isn’t a static state but a constantly evolving condition. Going out on Valentine’s Day announces to both yourselves and those around you the current status of "the two of you," making it the perfect impetus to assess what stage of development you’ve reached so you can celebrate accordingly.


As a rule, never begin dating in January. At one month, the relationship has a heartbeat but is too nebulous and vulnerable to endure a holiday based around the act of coupling. If you do find yourself in a new relationship when Feb. 14 rolls around, it’s probably a good idea to just ignore Valentine’s Day completely — but that, of course, is impossible. The next best thing is dining at a place where you can celebrate the day while not having to acknowledge the fact that you’re doing so. Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack (18 Virginia, SF; 415-206-2086), the funky, cozy Bernal Heights eatery, is dimly lit enough to encourage playful flirtation but doesn’t smack you in the face with romanticism. The well-crafted Italian comfort food is as flavorful as the decor. And the übercool, jeans-clad staff aren’t likely to ask "Aww, how long have you guys been together?"


At this point the relationship is still in the novelty phase. You’ve formed rituals — pizza and American Idol on Tuesdays, harassing the tigers at the zoo on Sundays — you e-mail each other pictures from, and you have yet to have a dull conversation. Why ruin the fun with a stilted, overly formal Valentine’s Day dinner? Instead, try Cha Cha Cha ( in either the Haight (1801 Haight, SF; 415-386-7670) or the Mission (2327 Mission, SF; 415-648-0504). The Spanish-Cuban small-plates menu means there is no timetable: tapas encourage lingering. Twenty-dollar pitchers of sangria inspire the disclosure of fascinating new tidbits ("You lived in a pygmy village?"), and the collaborative selection of each dish mimics the sense of shared adventure you still enjoy.


Congratulations! You’re officially a couple. No need to keep giving noncommittal answers to your friends’ questions about your status — you are now together. Time to make your grand debut at Luna Park (694 Valencia, SF; 415-553-8584,, a favorite V Day convergence point for other young, hip, hot couples in the city. Nod to them as you nosh on highbrow reinventions of American classics. Take note of their knowing expressions as you’re led to one of the curtained booths in the back (ask for it when you make reservations). These are your peers now. Welcome to the club.


You haven’t seen each other wearing anything but pajamas for months. You haven’t shared a meal that doesn’t involve Tostinos Pizza Rolls in who knows how long. Engaging conversations and lusty sex alike have dissolved into Seinfeld reruns and holey underwear. Whereas last year Valentine’s Day was just another night out, now it is the night out. Dinner at Absinthe (398 Hayes, SF; 415-551-1590, should inspire you to dress up, while the selection of classic rare cocktails — such as the Sazerac and the French ’75 — will give you the feeling of having traveled back to a more romantic era. Plus, imbibing a bit of the establishment’s namesake elixir can bring danger back to any relationship. Imagine how close you’ll feel after you’ve both thrown up in the cab on the ride home.


You know when you’re there: Your significant other’s adorable half snore becomes your every sleepless night. You’ve heard all the stories a million times ("Enough with the fucking pygmies!"). You know it. Your SO knows it. It’s over. But neither of you has the heart to put your doomed union out of its misery on the most romantic day of the year. Ryoko’s Japanese Restaurant (619 Taylor, SF; 415-775-1028) in Nob Hill provides the perfect distraction from your imploding relationship. When a DJ isn’t spinning, there’s loud ’80s music. The sake bombs offer a satisfying outlet for aggression. And if you need something even stronger, you’re in luck: Ryoko’s is one of the few sushi joints in town to also feature a full bar.


When engaged in an illicit affair, road-trip! Put a bridge, a tunnel, or any of the Bay Area’s other engineering obstacles between your significant other and your significant other. "Baby, I’m not embarrassed by you — I just know this great little Italian place in Crockett." Try Barolo (404 San Pedro, Pacifica; 650-355-5980, for private pasta, Graffiti (101 Second St., Petaluma; 707-765-4567, for surreptitious seafood, or Petals (639 First St., Benicia; 707-748-5695, for furtive Asian fusion.


When having an anti–Valentine’s Day dinner with another recently single friend, you need tequila! Nothing says "I’m so over it" more than shrimp tacos and Cazadores with a totally platonic friend. Playa Azul (3318 Mission, SF; 415-282-4554) has a wide enough selection to keep the shots flowing all night. And if your hands meet, for an instant, in the chip bowl, well …



BREAKFAST OF BLANDNESS Brunch is a vulnerable meal: you’ve probably just woken up, and you might be unshowered or hungover. Regardless of your daring at dinner, brunch requires only consistency.

My friend gets that from Venus in Berkeley. I can see why: the coziness of the brick walls, lined with local artists’ work; the long wait and bustling interior that allude to the establishment’s popularity. She swears by the chicken sausage scramble with the morning glory muffin. The scramble is decent, a good balance of sweet and salty, while the morning glory is an ostentatiously named bran muffin that, while moist, lacks, well, flavor.

Which is fairly representative of the problem with Venus. I really want to like it, but I always leave vaguely dissatisfied — full, but not satiated. The Harajuku scramble, with tofu, shiitake mushrooms, and other veggies, is as uninspired in execution as it is imaginative in concept (Gwen Stefani would not hollaback). The Indian brunch — curried carrot-zucchini-parsnip pancakes with akoori scrambled eggs — is lackluster. How, I ask, can curry be bland?

The cocktails are overpriced. The coffee is good — smoky and rich — but refills are few and far between. And then there was the Sunday I went. I ordered a Diet Coke; the server brought me organic diet cane cola. Now, I understand her forgetting to ask "Is Pepsi OK?" — but to bring me that flat, syrupy concoction (with a faint tinge of rum) was the last in a series of letdowns.

A weekend morning demands a dependably satisfying meal; Venus is reliable only in that it will disappoint me. (Ailene Sankur)

VENUS Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–2:30 p.m. (also Tues.–Fri., 5–9:30 p.m.); Sat.–Sun., 8 a.m.–2:15 p.m. (also Sat., 5–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.). 2327 Shattuck, Berk. (510) 540-5950,