I never really expected to dine with Gordon Getty. But there he was, the curly-haired tycoon-philanthropist-composer, down at the end of a long table full of journalists, scions and business people.
I never really expected to dine with Gavin Newsom, either. But there he was, the helmet-haired ex-mayor and current Lieutenant Governor, down at the other end of that long table.
The occasion? A lunch celebrating the 100th birthday of the Balboa Cafe. It was a time for Getty, Newsom and partners Hilary Newsom (Gavin's sister), Jeremy Scherer and John Conover to celebrate and reflect on their empire that began with the PlumpJack wine shop and grew to include the Balboa and other restaurants, a nightclub, three wineries and a pair of resorts.
Gavin Newsom, no doubt the most practiced speech-maker of group, talked about how the Balboa's original owners were superstitious -- so they put the date 1914 over the door as the opening year, rather than 1913. But of course, being a good politician, he went on to speak about his vision for the state of California to focus on sustainability, much as the PlumpJack partners have in their businesses.
I'd taken a mini-cone of tuna tartare out of the cunning little stand that was passed around just before Newsom began speaking. What to do? Hold it gently in my mouth so as not to make crunching noises while I took notes? Lay it down on my bread plate and have all the tuna tumble out?
As Newsom was saying how he thought the next generation should be the "re-generation," I crassly returned my cone to the communal stand, ready to alert anyone that I'd already pawed and breathed on it.
Once the speeches were over, I grabbed my tasty little tuna cone, and also partook of the crispy calamari being handed down the table. The Balboa specializes in classics, and that's OK. Sometimes you just want some calamari, a burger or a Cobb salad - and you want them done right.
I chose the salad because it's just not pretty biting through a burger on a baguette in front of the future governor, the richest man you've ever encountered and a pack of twittering journalists. I couldn't say the last time I'd had a Cobb, but the Balboa does the genre proud. Good for them. Not a speck of espuma or hydrocolloid in sight.
As a nice touch, wines are priced comparably to retail here, and there's no corkage fee if the bottle comes from the nearby PlumpJack wine shop.
Dessert, which looked simple, was a real treat: Dense chocolate cake, with eggy vanilla ice cream that had the texture and telltale touch of salt that comes from hand-churning.
Legend has it, the Balboa saloon once had a butcher shop in the front, which made it easy for the kitchen to start serving hamburgers. And during Prohibition, customers could stash their bottles of hooch in a huge safe in the back room. Renowned Bay Area chef Jeremiah Tower also had a turn in the kitchen, back in the 1980s, when the Balboa was one of the hottest spots in town.
Who knows what history will bring in the upcoming years. A presidential election celebration, perhaps, eh, Gavin?