Imagining a stroll through the streets of northern Europe, I took a leisurely walk past beautiful Victorian architecture and sidewalk cafes as I made my way to San Francisco’s Union Street District last week. It was Tuesday evening, and the sun was setting on Valentine’s Day. Ah, yes. The streets busied with couples in love making their way to the many restaurants along my path, and that’s when I spotted Gamine. A petite French bistrot just 30 feet or so off the corner of Fillmore and Union streets, its red building aglow through its windows caused me to do a double-take when it caught my eye.
Passing a florist tending to the dozen people awaiting fresh bouquets, I made my way to a little table outside of Gamine. Walking through the small doorway of the restaurant to stake a claim I was greeted by a server with a thick French accent who let me know the table was free. Although after I quickly sat down I noticed a couple dining close by so I asked the server to move my table to offer them a bit of privacy—after all it was Valentine’s evening and I was simply there for dinner. A business trip had brought me to San Francisco.
It was the perfect table and just after 6:00 pm, so the sun was setting. As I settled into my chair and the slightly chilly 60-degree weather I watched the line across the street at the Bud Shop grow. A couple doors down from the florist was a Sur La Table housewares store where a cooking class filled with love birds was just getting started. Tonight San Francisco is a city of love but I could very well be in Paris, I thought to myself as my French server was walking out to take my order. Just five minutes after I had arrived to the restaurant it had started to take a 45-minute wait for tables, and I knew how lucky I was to get one of only two outside.
As I sipped on a glass of Sauvignon Blanc I listened in to my surroundings, and it was then I noticed that I couldn’t make out the English language over the laughter, chatter, and clanking of glasses through the restaurant’s open windows. This made the experience feel all the more like Paris. What’s more, Gamine’s two servers that night quickly brought out glasses of wine to those who ordered, and they wished everyone good health. A sincere santé, which to me is truly a sound of Paris. I overhead a business man comment that the service was great, and yes, I agreed to myself it was.
I thanked the waiter with an enthusiastic merci as he brought out a piping hot dish of Escargots à la Bourguignonne, snails in garlic butter and herbs. It was easy to savor every bit of it with a complementary French baguette. Butter was served with the baguette, but I preferred to use it to soak up the delicious herbs and butter in my dish, a treat was that très bien indeed. I thought to myself as I ate how much I need to take the time one day to properly learn more French. After all, my paternal grandmother was fluent and although I was too young to remember her speak, French was a language that I enjoyed practicing even with the few conversational phrases I knew.
When it came time to order my entrée, I asked the server to tell me about one of the Valentine’s Day specials, Coq au Vin, chicken cooked in red wine. Yes, of course I’d had my share of the dish in Paris—so traditional that it’s almost a stereotype of French cuisine. The other special was steamed mussels, also popular in France as well as Belgium, but I wanted to know what made Coq au Vin at Gamine special.
I learned that the chef marinated fresh rooster in a red wine reduction for several hours; perhaps it was six, but nonetheless that sounded thoughtful enough to me. When I asked if the roasted potatoes from the regular menu were a better complement than the Fettuccine noodles coupled with the dish, he enthusiastically assured me that the pasta was the better selection. Flat noodles are commonly paired with Coq au Vin.
After I put in my order, I continued to people watch. I love to create narratives for the people I see. Inside I noticed a man and woman being seated with their young daughter. Probably about ten years old she wore a curled pink and white ribbon in her hair that was also braided for the holiday. I noticed her mother and father appeared quiet regal in their own festive black and red coats as they sat down to dine. I thought how sweet it was that they chose to eat together on a day when couples usually dined alone.
The Coq au Vin soon arrived tableside, a generous plate of buttered fettucine noodles cooked al dente and garnished with parsley next to a few whole champignons de Paris (common mushrooms), sweet pearl onions, two thighs and a leg of chicken in lovely dark reduction of natural juices and red wine. In fact, the chicken was moist and flavorful in a sauce that wasn’t too salty as the dish can often be. The sweetness of onions was so delicious that I almost wished for a plate of them instead against the savory flavor of the rest of the dish. It was all very good.
As I ate, I noticed the little details that indeed made Gamine seem so charming. The restaurant is named after the French term for a mischievous young woman, and it’s a bit quirky. It’s known as a lively neighborhood spot featuring classic, flavorful dishes of rustic France all made in an open and warm kitchen and served by a welcoming staff.
Lively music and electric characters are features of its relaxed atmosphere. A couple to-go orders made their way past my table and a golden retriever playfully neared my table as its owners stood awaiting their own meals. A woman walking by commented to her companion how much she loved the place because it looked like France—personifying all of France in this little eatery called Gamine.
Gamine is an intimate restaurant that, as quaint as it was, couldn’t have had more than 10 tables inside to go along with a few chairs at the bar, I thought. With the sound of silverware and glasses clanking inside, I saw the tables were close yet every diner was so engaged in their own space and conversation that they didn’t even seem to notice.
Yes, I could see the charm of Gamine as I peered inside, and also as I watched people standing outside happily drinking their wine while waiting on tables to open. I even noticed the little French mailbox on the door as my server came to check on me. Gamine, you are quite charming.
After dinner, I was kindly assured to take my time for coffee or dessert—in other words, this is what I most love about authentic European dining. You aren’t rushed to clear the table even on Valentine’s Day, and can give your own cue for the check. It was now 7:30 pm, however, and I was getting tired given the two-hour time difference from Austin. For ten minutes more though I sat and watched the evening fade into night before making my way back to my hotel, bidding the day of American love goodnight and Adieu.