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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Save Our Faves 2007: Clown Alley

In general, I don't do memes.

Not because I have anything against them (although some of them are rather blah), but because I usually don't get asked. Now that I've mentioned this, please don't take this as an invitation to tag me, especially if it has anything to do with catblogging or lists.

But when Eric over at The Short Exact Guide tagged me for Save Our Faves 2007, a meme in which you write up your favorite "mom-and-pop" restaurant in danger (whether real or perceived) of closing, I figured it was right up my alley.

Ahem...Clown Alley, to be exact Eric.

Clown Alley is a venerable North Beach restaurant founded by Enrico Banducci, whose other venture – the hungry i – once was a legendary nightclub that propelled the careers of Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, Bill Cosby, and even Maya Angelou. In the 1950s and 60s, Banducci was one of the visionaries who made North Beach the epicenter of nightlife in the city and put it squarely on the map in San Francisco's cultural lexicon.

Clown Alley in (left) 1964 and (right) 2007

Banducci's other endeavor, Enrico's Sidewalk Café, closed late last year after 48 years in business while the original hungry i exists in name only; it's been a tittybar for decades. 10 years ago, Clown Alley closed for a 2-year stint in an attempt to sell the place. The longtime owners, the Pailhe family, eventually decided to hold on to the place and reopened it, albeit with a few touch ups. Doing so, they remained faithful to the original concept and spruced up the place to the delight of long-time Clown Alley regulars. Clown Alley's famous burgers and late business hours were retained and the clown décor continued to terrify coulrophobes everywhere.

As of February 1, 2007, the restaurant has finally come under new ownership - but with the potential of causing some of its regulars to begin singing Tears of a Clown.

The San Francisco Chronicle announced on January 31st that the current owner of Myth and the Myth Café, Tom Duffy, has purchased the restaurant and intends to make some changes, or in his words "a facelift". However, in my humble opinion, there is something rather stupid in trying to fix something that isn't broken, simply because you now own it.

Uh-oh. You can probably see where this is going.

On any given day, Clown Alley is packed with everyone from guys in suits, low-key office workers, construction/blue-collar types, and of course those wacky (and I actually do mean wacky) Scientologists from the "church" next door. Clown Alley's tent is big enough for everyone, and practically everyone at one time or another has gathered under it – everyone except the clown-hatin' snobs you'd expect to find at, say, a certain Café a few blocks away.

Long before krump, there was punk, and before that - there was the Clown. In the 1980s, there was a San Francisco hardcore punk band named Clown Alley featuring Shirley Temple Black's daughter (yes, the Shirley Temple), Lori Black, on bass. While there's nothing punk about today's Clown Alley (the restaurant), the size of the burgers are pretty hardcore.

Clown Alley is all about the burgers (okay, well mostly) and they certainly make one of the best in, if not the City, North Beach/FiDi. Hamburgers, Double Hamburgers, Cheeseburgers, Double Cheeseburgers – it doesn't matter, all you need is one. Each one is made to order by the friendly guys waiting to throw a burger on the grill for you as you stand in line to pay. Often, your order is ready to pick up before you reach the cashier.

The fries are great, if you can finish them (usually you are too full from the burger). For the most part, I stick with the burger and if I'm with someone, we share the fries. Here's a double cheeseburger I happened to have macked on yesterday.

One of the best parts of the Clown Alley experience is clean up guy.

I'm not kidding.

There's this guy who works there who, basically, kicks ass at his job – although, sometimes it's enough to make you laugh. He's the guy in charge of clearing the tables. Often, he non-chalantly hovers near your table, just itching to pick up your empty trays and garbage. Sometimes he's there to grab your garbage as soon as you've swallowed the last bite and dropped the last napkin. Don’t get me wrong: He doesn't do it in a way that makes you feel rushed. Rather, he does it because (it seems) he loves his job.

And that's what I like about the Clown: it has enough charm to fill a big top.

How much of that charm will be retained under the new ownership, we will see. Frankly it doesn't bode well when the new owner immediately says he wants to give it a face lift. It would be okay if that new owner was, say, Dr. Biggles. But unfortunately, that ominous figure of speech comes from a guy who sells butternut squash soup and duck confit for a living – not your typical Clown Alley fare.

What's most perplexing is that, according to the SF Chronicle article, he wants to include new items on the menu – items like "Chicago-style hot dogs".

Uh, what.

What the fuck does Chicago-style hot dogs have to do with San Francisco? This isn't Chicago. Why would anyone come to San Francisco to eat a Chicago-style hot dog? Wouldn't you just go to Chicago? And what sense to does it make to serve them anywhere other than the "Windy City", which unless your talking about the Upper Market/Van Ness Corridor, doesn't describe Frisco at all. Besides Sufjan Stevens who blew through on a US tour a few months back, how many Chicagoans actually are there in the Bay Area?

Frankly, I doubt such a city called "Chicago" actually exists! I haven't seen it. Should I have faith that it's just there? Or that this hot dog with the neon green relish and sliced tomatoes is supposedly indicative of the local cuisine? In his book, The Areas of my Expertise, John Hodgman suggests that Chicagoans are actually a nomadic people whose lost home exists only in their minds ("and in the glowing crystal memory cells they all carry in the palms of their hands") – and I'm likely to agree.

I guess I shouldn't be so quick to judge. The guy does say he plans to "live in the environment before making any changes". Clown Alley has a way of growing on you like, well, a clown – and hopefully its natural charm and excellent burgers will persuade Duffy to retain it's homegrown character. If it doesn't, well, I guess we all should treat ourselves to a heartfelt rendition of Pagliacci and wait for the next act.

However, you still have time to enjoy the show while it lasts. It may not be the greatest show on earth, but it certainly is on the corner of Jackson and Columbus.

That show: whose next curtain call may very well soon be its last.

Send in the Clown.



At 12:26 AM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Well done.

At 12:04 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

Awesome post, Kevin. The back story and historical perspective is great -- one of my favorite things about your blog. I really hope the Myth folks don't mess things up at the Alley.

At 7:54 PM, Blogger Sam said...

sheer and utter brilliance and an education thrown in for free. Your readers are a lucky bunch. I hope they know it.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Passionate Eater said...

I agree with Eric and Sam. I started weeping when I read this post. . . It is just that good! I've gone into Clown Alley before for a coffee, but I never knew the rich story behind it. It sounds like a story worth saving for future SFers.

At 7:06 PM, Anonymous kudzu said...

Let an old lady like me tell you that Clown Alley was a lifesaver back when my kids were small and we were hanging in SF on leave from Manhattan. It was also great for stopping for fuel for a ride across the bridge after a night out, once we moved to Marin. Thanks for the memories (as the song goes) and I'm lighting a candle for the landmark. You did a great job of splainin' why it should stay the same (and wouldn't it be fantastic if Biggles became the burger king?)


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