Stephen Torres

Fuck the holidays



Despite the cheery tinkling of those silver bells, Christmastime in the city isn’t always something that makes us want to meet smile after smile. Indeed, San Francisco has a reputation for being one of the loneliest cities in the world, with an average household occupancy of 1.3 people (you and the cat?) and all-too-common stories of people lying dead in their apartments until they’re discovered by the landlord two weeks after the rent’s due.

So what do you do if you’re not satisfied with Christmas on KOIT, Old Crow, and a glazed and crosshatched loaf of Spam for you and Ms. Katrina Marmalade Pussycat? Check out our ideas for making the holiday seem less bleak — or at least less boring.


What’s more San Francisco than spending the holiday with former mayoral hopeful (and possible candidate for supervisor) Chicken John Rinaldi? The artist and showman has been putting on a game show gift exchange (Dec. 24, 10 p.m.; 12 Galaxies, 2565 Mission, SF; 415-970-9777, every Christmas Eve for two decades.

If you’re more of a traditionalist, visit Glide Memorial United Methodist Church (Dec. 24, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.; 330 Ellis, SF; 415-674-6000, This beacon for the city’s disenfranchised and left behind hosts a prime rib luncheon every Christmas Eve. Sure, you can volunteer (they always need more help), but if what you need is a warm meal and some company, you can just show up and eat.

A glass of Christmas on the rocks doesn’t have to be an exercise in despair. In fact, neighborhood watering holes like the Gold Dust Lounge (247 Powell, SF; 415-397-1695), the Lexington Club (3464 19th St., SF; 415-863-2052), the Mix (4086 18th St., SF; 415-431-8616), and Sam Jordan’s (4004 Third St., SF; 415-824-0155) will not only be open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but also feature drink specials.


For some people, it’s personal contact, not religious expression, that’s really being sought at the holidays. Why not go straight to the source? Whether you like the Power Exchange (74 Otis, SF; 415-487-9944,, Eros (2051 Market, SF; 415-864-3767, or Steamworks (2107 Fourth St., Berk.; 510-845-8992,, a visit to one of these clubs pretty much guarantees a satisfying alternative to mistletoe modesty.

If you want to try a new spin on the classic Chosen People’s Chinese food–and–movie routine, visit the Jewish Museum’s Free Family Day (Dec. 25, 11 a.m.–3 p.m., free; RayKo Photo Center, 428 Third St., SF; for music, stories, interactive exhibits, and tours, then Lisa Gedulig’s 15th annual evening of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy (Dec. 22 and 24, 6 and 9:30 p.m.; Dec. 23 and 25, 5 and 8:30 p.m., $40–$60; New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific, SF; 415-522-3737, for Jewish-themed stand-up.

For something a bit more pagan, head across the bridge to the Berkeley Partners for Parks’ Winter Solstice Celebration (Dec. 22, 5 p.m.; Cesar Chavez Memorial Solar Calendar, Cesar Chavez Park, 11 Spinnaker Way, Berk.).


Think Clara’s an obnoxious Goody Two-shoes? See the rats’ side of the story at the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band’s Dance-Along Nutcracker: Ratified! (opening gala Dec. 8, 7 p.m., $50; Dec. 8 and 11, 2:30 p.m.; Dec. 9, 11 and 3 p.m.; $16–$24; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF; 415-978-2797,

Another option is the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco’s Christmas Crap-Array, (Dec. 20–22, 8 p.m., $10–$20; Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy, SF; 1-800-838-3006,, a collection of songs and skits that’s the hilarious answer to Christmas clichés.

But best of all is Santacon (Dec. 15, 11 a.m.; location TBA; Don a cheap Santa suit and join hundreds of other disgruntled St. Nicks for everyone’s favorite culture jam. Expect street theater, pranksterism, public drunkenness, and choruses of "Frosty the Cokehead" and "Deck My Balls."

And to hit the final nail in the coffin of Christmas 2007, visit Danger Ranger’s Post-Yule Pyre (visit for details) to watch the incineration of Monterey pines, spruces, and Douglas and noble firs. As the fog is cast in hues of orange, breathe deep the evergreen aroma and whisper, "Finally, this fucking holiday is over." *

Feast: 4 guides to hot wines


Good lord, the grape. Living in a world-class wine region (or rather, living so close to several) literally drenches one in delightful tannins and myriad notes of blackberry, chocolate, tobacco, apple, and plum. But while we’ve definitely forgone our youthful tastes for brown-bagged Mad Dog breakfasts in favor of a late-night glass or two of Lavis Langrein at Bar Bambino ( or a dinnertime flight of fantastically obscure German whites at Cav (, we admit that when it comes to which fashionable corks to pop for fall, we haven’t quite graduated from “oh, whatever” to outright oenophiles. Sure, we dip into the media stream enough to know what’s hip in the bars and clubs these days (rose and sparkling wines are so over; Lambrusco is on its way back), but honestly, if you asked us the difference between syrah and shiraz, we’d probably answer, “Doesn’t one of them have a yellow kangaroo on the label?” So we took it upon our taste buds to go straight to the source, and ask a few of our latest favorite wine bars and stores for the juice on what’s big. Chin-chin!



This funky little wine bar in West Portal specializes only in delightful small production wines, but proprietor Stephanie McCardell tells us that in the overall big picture her clientele’s tastes are trending toward syrahs, white Rhônes, Roussanes, and viogniers. (White Rhônes and viogniers are especially attractive to those among us suffering from Chardonnay fatigue.) A current hot seller right now is the Vin Nostro Syrah, grown in Red Hills, Lake County, which McCardell describes as smoky, with dark fruit notes and that slight bacon aspect inherent to most syrahs. Que Syrah also carries wines from all over the world and is currently featuring two from Croatia — Bibich Reserva, a Dalmatian red with a subtle fruit and red pepper quality, whose main grape is a relative of Zinfandel, and a Croatian Malvasia, a dry, crisp white with peachy and other stone fruit characteristics.

230 W. Portal, SF. (415) 731-7000,



Ottimista Enoteca is a gorgeous Italian wine bar and restaurant in the Marina with an outdoor patio to die for and a menu to match. (Hello, fontina-stuffed risotto balls. Hello, nutmeg-sugared ricotta doughnuts.) Ottimista’s Melissa Gisler tells us that requests from her clientele for Sicilian wines have been off the charts lately, and a recent rise in import volume has allowed Ottimista to offer a much wider breadth of options from the region. (Two hot Sicilian labels: Nero d’Avola and Cantine Berbera.) Due to the volcanic nature of Sicily’s soil, these wines tend to have a tang of acid and notes of minerality, but also come bearing a powerful fruity flavor, with a very clean quality. The trend toward Sicilians has been noticeable, Gisler says, because Ottimista usually focuses on Northern Italian wines — like those produced in the Piedmont region, or from areas near the Austrian and Slovenian border — where the days are hot and the nights are cold.

1838 Union, SF. (415) 674-8400,



Carrie Smith of Biondivino, a sleek Russian Hill wine boutique that offers a mind boggling array of labels (yet provides enough comforting atmosphere and information to guide you through it all), has also noticed an upswing of interest in wines from Sicily, especially those from Etna. But another “strange surge” of interest, she says, is in the return to classics from the Tuscany and Umbria regions. A big winner among Biondivino winetasters this year has been the intensely fruity and now near impossible-to-find Valdicava Brunelo di Montalcino (brunello is closely related to sangiovese, another hot grape this year). Smith’s favorite white at the moment is Piedmontese Timorasso — lush and rich, creamy without being oaky or buttery, with a golden acidity. “It’s a good brain slap that makes you think, and want some more,” she says. Her favorite red is Vigneti Massa, from a Croatian varietal. With the power of a brunelo and the structure and elegance of a borello, she says, this wine is dark and rich, with nice-ending tannins.

1450 Green, SF. (415) 673-2320,



“Tiny production California wines as well as pinot noirs and Argentine Malbecs are going to be all the rage this fall,” according to Jerry Cooper, one of the owners of this spiffy wine shop. According to him, the tiny productions most in demand are coming from Santa Barbara and Mendocino Counties. Increasingly popular are organic and biodynamic wines, whose producers employ a holistic, “metaphysics meets Farmer’s Almanac” approach to growing and harvesting. The reason for this popularity? “The qualities of these wines are of an artisan nature, with more flavor. They taste more of the regions they hail from.” Cooper also notes that while Bordeauxs have waned in popularity, Burgundies have maintained their place on the trend roster, especially in anticipation of the arrival of the 2005 vintage. Also hot: South African wines from the Cape. But mostly he sees wine becoming a more localized affair, including the way in which it’s encountered and purchased. “The wine bar has become the new neighborhood institution,” he says.

572 Castro, SF. (415) 864-2262,

Feast: 5 classic cafeterias


When I was a wee lad in the sun-baked Los Angeles Basin, my maternal grandparents fostered what would become a lifetime obsession: the cafeteria. Products of World War II, they were people who appreciated the value of simple food and low prices. Add the fact that they were Roman Catholic and had eight mouths to feed, and their philosophy was pretty much a necessity. This is how I was introduced to carving boards of meat, steaming casseroles, and endless ice trays filled with shiny, multicolored geutf8 jewels. But where, oh where does one find these palaces of economic dining in San Francisco? The LA institution Clifton’s actually had an early genesis here, but it — along with Manning’s and Compton’s — didn’t survive the prosperity of the postwar years. It seems, however, that a strange cafeteria hybrid did: the hofbrau. Frankly, this comes as no surprise — as it really is just a cafeteria that serves booze, and, well, San Franciscans seem to never tire of the occasional nip. I set out to discover if the cafeteria is still thriving anywhere or if the hofbrau is really the answer, intent on experiencing these culinary relics and their gravy-laden wares.


Little introduction is needed for this city icon, and it has no lack of fans, from the late Herb Caen to Metallica. It’s famous for its sandwiches and roast, as well as the décor: a mishmash of historical paraphernalia and signs screaming Where Turkey Is King! Tommy’s is equally fervent in the virtues of its buffalo stew and lists them accordingly. In addition to the myriad brews it has crammed behind the bar, it also serves liquor — and you can pretend you have the means for a three-martini lunch when they come priced at $3.75 each.

1101 Geary, SF. (415) 775-4126,


Having been credited with discovering Joe DiMaggio and bringing baseball to Japan, O’Doul was that consummate old-school, bigger-than-life personality. So before the Bruce Willises, Sylvester Stalones, and others bestowed us with their culinary "treasures," O’Doul gave us this combination cafeteria–<\d>sports bar–tourist trap. The macaroni and cheese and the German potato salad are caloric bombs of goodness. And gnawing on a slice of American beef while staring at a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe is an experience vaguely reminiscent of listening to the Who’s Tommy.

333 Geary, SF. (415) 982-8900,


The closest to the sweet memories of my youth, Chick-N-Coop serves up all the goods while little old ladies prattle on about coupons over coffee and bowls of rice pudding. The Taraval location, with its early ’80s country atmosphere, boasts cheaper prices. But the best grub and experience is at the Excelsior location. Either way, the claim to fame here is the chicken, and the Chick-N-Coop does, indeed, know how to roast a bird. Sides are tasty, like the Greek-style spaghetti. And — be still, my beating heart — it has beautiful, beautiful Jell-O.

1055 Taraval, SF. (415) 664-5050; 4500 Mission, SF. (415) 586-1538


One thing I learned during this search was that many of the old-timey joints — such as Manning’s, which used to be next door to the Emporium — were bought by Asian immigrants during the ’70s. Hence, today we have a proliferation of Chinese food to go and the ever-delicious Asian buffet, but that’s another tale. Top’s does, however, meld its former life with its current one, with interesting choices like lasagna and salad, Mongolian beef with shrimp, or Korean noodle soup. It wins big points for employing the linoleum-and-Formica aesthetic and for providing strange but lovely choices for low prices. Where else can you find a four-course meal for $23? Be ready when you approach the fair maiden at the counter, however, for the minute she claps her hands, you must know precisely what you want — and she waits for no one.

66 Dorman, SF. 415-285-2461


The word canteen in the name of this medical lunch room — the closest most of us get to a cafeteria these days — had me expecting the Andrews Sisters to greet me at the door, but alas, no one was rolling out any barrels. But the place wins, hands down, in the economy department: you can get a plate of fried chicken, pudding, and a Coke for three bucks. But this is a government institution, so leave your taste buds at the door. The dining room is an exercise in bright aqua and purple tones as only the late ’80s could have provided, but what keeps this establishment afloat above other like contenders is its magnificent view of the Pacific and the Marin Headlands. Though no destination, it’s still a cheap alternative to the Cliff House.

4150 Clement, Bldg 7, SF. 415-221-4810*

Careers and Ed: A life of death



A kid gets killed in the cross fire of a shooting. Someone digs up a human skull while planting begonias. An elderly woman dies in her sleep in an apartment no one has visited in years.

In all these cases, somebody — or somebodies — has to examine the scene and, well, the bodies to find out what happened. And as any fan of hard-boiled detective stories, CSI, or Quincy, M.E. knows, those somebodies are the forensic team, perhaps most prominently the coroner.

It’s a mysterious job with macabre connotations, imbued with a mix of excitement and dread. A new show on Spike purports to show armchair detectives what it’s really like, with Grand Guignol bravado, but I always wonder, is that really how it is? So I decided to find out.


I start with our own fair city of night, only to discover that the subject of coroners is more complicated than I thought. What TV often portrays as one or two jobs is often many different jobs. And San Francisco County doesn’t have a coroner — a position defined as an elected or appointed government official who deals with deaths that raise questions. Instead, it has a medical examiner, whose office is headed by an MD or doctor of osteopathy. The difference may seem like semantics, but it’s an important distinction for people in the field.

I also learn that it will be next to impossible to meet San Francisco’s medical examiner, Dr. Amy Hart. Unlike her predecessor, Dr. Boyd Stephens — whose media accessibility and subsequent scrutiny led to controversies about the reuse of needles, improper ventilation against dangerous pathogens in autopsy rooms, misappropriation of funds, and sexual harassment — Hart is fairly shy when it comes to the media. Public controversy can be a downside to the job, whether it’s over the contested findings of Los Angeles’ fabled "coroner to the stars" or the unpopular study by Marin County’s coroner of suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge.

So I get the basics about the job from Hart’s deputy administrative director, Stephen Gelman, at the ’50s-era Medical Examiner’s Office on the grounds of the Hall of Justice. Gelman, a middle-aged, white-haired former special agent with the Department of the Treasury, explains the makeup of the office: 32 people, including forensic pathologists and anthropologists, toxicologists, chemists, investigators, and administrative personnel.

And becoming part of Hart’s team isn’t easy, especially since forensic-themed TV shows and the office’s involvement with UC San Francisco managed to attract 160 applicants during a recent call for three positions. Preference is given to those with a background in medicine and, at the very least, the funeral industry.


But those are just the facts. My experience at the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau, an art deco, cream-colored building on the outskirts of Chinatown, is much more visceral.

Inside I meet the genial Lt. Jason Arone, who explains that the bureau has been under the jurisdiction of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office since 1989. That gives Sheriff Gregory Ahern the title of chief coroner, but on a day-to-day basis, Arone is the guy in charge. I also meet Mike Yost, a former detective who is now a public administrator, which means he handles the belongings of decedents, from pets to hidden stashes of money.

Downstairs, the morgue is pretty much what movies would have you expect: cold metal and antiseptic green tile. Arone pauses at the sound of a saw — we can’t go inside if there’s an autopsy under way. But it’s just carpenters fixing a door. Inside, I’m struck by the lack of sliding-drawer coolers — bodies are identified by photograph these days and are kept in less-obvious storage rooms.

Then I meet autopsy technician Smiley Anderson — sometimes referred to as "the bullet finder" by resident pathologists. The 25-year veteran started working in his family’s mortuary as young man in the South — much the way many in coroner’s offices got their start. But Anderson says the field is changing now. Crossover careers are rarer, and he says the best way to get in is through an education in medicine.

As I sit at his desk outside the autopsy room, I notice what Arone calls "the meat-locker smell." It’s neither the smell of embalming fluid that I associate with funerals nor that of decay — just a stale, permeating reminder of what’s inside.


It’s midafternoon when I meet Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau detective Eric Larson, who’s agreed to show me the other side of the job: going out on calls. I wait with the jocular thirtysomething until two calls come in.

One is a follow-up from the night before. A young girl and her brother were at the house of a family friend, which also serves as a rehabilitation facility; soon after dinner both fell ill. The brother recovered, but the young girl died. Larson decides to ask some questions, though the toxicology report is still pending.

The other call is a notification about a suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Sometimes Alameda County representatives will handle calls for Marin County if the next of kin is in the East Bay.)

Larson puts on his flak jacket as part of his routine, and we get into one of the department’s cars. Since it’s not a pickup, he says, we won’t need one of the vans.

The first stop is at a sagging west Oakland house. The man who answers the door is barely coherent but sends us to Children’s Hospital. When we get there, I’m amazed to see the little boy we got the call about bouncing up and down, chewing on a french fry. When he sees Larson, he starts singing, "Bad boys, bad boys …" Larson laughs and says, "That’s my favorite song, buddy." The child’s hale liveliness is heartbreaking with the knowledge I have of his sister.

Larson asks the family friend, who’s at the hospital, for any information on the night before. It’s unclear whether he’ll get answers, and he tells me that sometimes he never does. In fact, that’s one of the hardest parts of the job. "It doesn’t matter how much science you throw at it," he says. "Sometimes it comes out undetermined."

It’s getting late as we head to the home of the suicide victim’s sister in Castro Valley. No one answers the door. Larson checks with the Marin County Coroner’s Office for another address, then stops by a dispatch office to get directions. Notification is important to Larson, as people may otherwise never hear about the fates of their loved ones.

We arrive in a quiet, ’70s-era housing tract in San Leandro, at the house of the victim’s mother. Again, no one is home, but a neighbor with emergency keys checks the house, determining that the victim’s mother has gone for a walk with her dogs. We wait at the house.

When she arrives, she knows what Larson’s going to say before he opens his mouth — but the news is no less brutal. When we leave, her neighbors are sitting beside her on the couch, friends from happier, simpler times.

It’s late when we return to the office, and Larson is supposed to work another swing shift tomorrow. But he gets a message from home. The son of a friend died in an accident. The funeral is tomorrow.*