Culinary historians widely agree that the world's first restaurant opened in 1765. But they don't have a clue when the world's first takeout meal was served. Odds are it wasn't worth remembering anyway.
Takeout has long occupied a lowly rung on the culinary ladder, just above the frozen dinner and drive-through fast food. It's the forlorn staple of the lonely bachelor, the last resort of the family on the run.
Except in the Bay Area, where a meal to go doesn't have to be a lost opportunity. Turns out you really can take it with you, and not just soggy containers of pad thai or a half-baked pizza. We're talking more like sautéed sole with blood orange salsa, grilled New Zealand lamb chops with cilantro spread.
Not that you can find this food at every storefront. Our search for great takeout turned up plenty of losers: grimy deli cases stocked with soggy pasta salad; "gourmet" outlets that specialized in belly bombs. At one high-end market with exorbitant prices, creamy soup and coq au vin both tasted rancid, and no wonder—according to the date on the bottom of the package, the food had been prepared nearly two weeks earlier.
To spare you the trouble—not to mention the displeasure—of sorting the exceptional from the unmentionable, we tracked down a short list of great takeout places. Not surprisingly, three turned up at the Ferry Building, San Francisco's newest epicenter of good eating. Several of our choices have been around for decades—or even longer—while others only recently put down roots in neighborhoods around the Bay.
Some things never change. Bay Area life remains hectic, hurried. But just because you have to eat doesn't mean you have to eat and run. This is your chance to try it the other way around.
Ferry Building marketplace (at Market St. and Embarcadero), S.F., (415) 399-1155
The Skinny Having your day in order doesn't always mean having your mise en place. The chefs at Boulette's Larder provide the building blocks that you probably don't keep in your own kitchen: stocks, doughs, crèmes, bread and cake mixes, cleaned and prepped organic vegetables. They also sell takeout so delicious you might give up cooking altogether. This is food to go as you've only dreamed of it, prepared with remarkable precision and pristine ingredients, from the duck confit ($6) to the devil's food cake mix ($10) (they prep the dry ingredients; you finish cooking it at home). The menu changes daily and in rhythm with the seasons, ranging from halibut and avocado salad with charmoula ($22/lb.) and braised Moroccan lamb shanks ($18/serving for two) to pork-stuffed cabbage rolls with Turkish tomato sauce ($16/serving for two)—just to give you an idea. Vegetables, from roasted beets to wild arugula salad, are treated with utmost respect. Many of the dishes just need to be warmed; others (quail stuffed with bulgur, $6.75, for example) require some final cooking at home. Not to worry. Knowledgeable servers provide easy-to-follow instructions. The carryout cutlery and packaging is biodegradable, but it won't vanish nearly as fast as the meal you bring home.
Upside Boulette's Larder reminds you why you're willing to pay more for superior food.
Downside Then again, those prices do seem really high.
Convenience Score 9 (on a scale of 1 to 10) Easy-to-carry containers, easy-to-understand instructions for getting everything ready. Call it Fine Dining for Dummies.
Best Bets Butternut squash soup with toasted hazelnuts ($12/qt.); Moroccan citrus, fennel, and radish salad with orange blossom water and toasted almonds ($12); lentils with roasted pumpkin and braised pork belly ($14.50); rice pudding ($6.50/ half pt.); pistachio tart ($6).
Out the Door
Ferry Building marketplace (at Market St. and Embarcadero), S.F., (415) 861-8032
The Skinny As the chef and owner of the wildly popular Slanted Door, Charles Phan keeps busy. He figures you do, too. Hence Out the Door, the newly opened takeout kiosk adjacent to his celebrated restaurant. The stand specializes in Vietnamese street food such as rice noodle soups ($7-$7.50) and porridges ($7), roast pork sandwiches ($6.50), and steamed chicken buns ($3). But it also offers diners a "raw deal": popular dishes from Slanted Door (like shaking beef, pictured), disassembled into their core ingredients, so that customers can prepare them at home. It's all provided for you: the shellfish, shiitakes, bok choy, and chicken stock that go into Phan's plantation shrimp ($14.50/serving for two); the garlic, onions, and lime dipping sauce that add life to his shaking beef ($17.25/serving for two). Every dish comes with instructions that a fourth grader could follow, and nothing takes more than ten minutes to prepare. The chicken clay pot ($11.50/serving for two), which cooks as fast as spaghetti, has the complex flavors of something that's been simmering all day. No excuses. Phan even gives you the cooking oil.
Upside The do-it-yourself approach lets you eat sparkling dishes that wouldn't travel well otherwise.
Downside Disappointing desserts and pots to wash.
Convenience Score 9 Smartly designed packaging filled with ingredients that are easier to assemble than a children's toy.
Best Bets Vegetarian spring rolls ($6), shaking beef, bok choy with baby shiitakes ($6.50).
Ferry Building marketplace (at Market St. and Embarcadero), S.F., (415) 399-9751
The Skinny Who knew that so much meat could roast in such a small place? Whole chickens ($5.99/lb.), racks of lamb ($16.99/lb.), pork loin ($12.75/lb.)—they all turn temptingly behind the counter of this tiny French rotisserie. And they're all served tender, with a choice of sides: Brussels sprouts ($4.99/lb.), ratatouille ($6.99/lb.), roasted squash ($4.99/lb.), and more. With the exception of the chickens, which are sometimes dry, you can't go wrong with any of the meat. But the potatoes, cooked under the steady drip of the rotisserie, top everything.
Upside High-quality, cost-effective comfort food. You can get away with dinner for two for under $20.
Downside Soups ($7/qt.), which should be a slam dunk at a place that specializes in slow, careful cooking, are often bland. Plus, there's no dessert.
Convenience Score 7 Fast service, easy access, and pragmatic packaging. But once it's gone cold, the food can be difficult to revive.
Best Bets Roast pork loin, roast potatoes ($4.99/lb.), Brussels sprouts with pancetta, macaroni and cheese ($4.99/lb.).
3639 18th St. (bet. Dolores and Guerrero Sts.), S.F., (415) 241-9760
The Skinny Patterned after the great markets of Manhattan, Bi-Rite is Zabar's transported to the Mission district. Along with old-world items—look no further for your whitefish salad ($9.99/lb.)—Bi-Rite prepares takeout dishes with a California sensibility, like sherry-poached prawns ($19.99/lb.) and chicken saltimbocca ($12.99/lb.); salmon cakes ($4.99 each) and smoked pork loin ($17.99/lb.). Sides range from macaroni and cheese ($5.99/lb.) to fennel salad ($7.99/lb.). Everything's done well, right down to the housemade pot de crème ($4.95), which isn't surprising. It's made by Anne Walker, once pastry chef at the now defunct 42 Degrees, whose husband, Sam Mogannam, runs the store with his brother Raphael.
Upside This is the kind of neighborhood place you wish existed in every neighborhood.
Downside Good luck trying to park.
Convenience Score It's 10 if you live in the neighborhood;
5 if you don't.
Best Bets House-cured duck confit ($6.99/piece), broccoli di cicco sautéed with garlic cherry tomatoes ($9.99/lb.), scallion mashed potatoes ($4.50/lb.), chocolate soufflé cake ($5.50).
Roberts of Woodside
3015 Woodside Rd. (at Canada Rd.), Woodside, (650) 851-1511
The Skinny A superchic supermarket—think Andronico's on designer drugs—it's been in business since the late 1800s, when anyone using the term "organic salmon" would have been hanged on the highest hill. Roberts uses it now, along with the other reassuring labels ("free range," "hormone free," and so on) that lard contemporary culinary lingo. Despite the upscale trappings, takeout dinners at Roberts are down-to-earth, with options shifting daily from such homespun standards as pot roast ($8.99/lb.) and beef stew ($8.99/lb.) to dishes like grilled salmon ($16.99/lb.). It's the kind of food you'd make at home, if you had the time, skill, and inspiration. And that's the point. In a long glass case, you'll find dozens of sides, from potato salad ($4.89/lb.) to sautéed string beans ($6.99/lb.), and there's an excellent selection of wines on hand. Ask for a recommendation—the employees are so friendly you'd think you'd just given them your Oracle stock.
Upside Why so many smiles? Have you stumbled into Stepford? Actually, the people who work here are just that nice. And the food has the straightforward freshness of good weekend cooking. Translation: a dependable dinner to go.
Downside Pretty pasta salads ($5.99/lb.) that still taste like, well, pasta salads when you take them home. Not to mention the sobering thought that if this is your local takeout joint, you're paying way too much in property taxes.
Convenience Score 8 It's on Woodside's main drag and five minutes off 280 for commuters, with plenty of parking. Food comes in tightly sealed plastic containers for easy transport.
Best Bets Rosemary chicken breasts with Dijon mustard sauce ($4/piece); mashed potatoes ($4.99/lb.); sautéed yellow squash, cauliflower, and broccoli ($6.99/lb.); blueberry pie ($13.99).
2109 Cedar St. (bet. Shattuck Ave. and Oxford St.), Berkeley, (510) 883-1893
The Skinny This is takeout tailored to the Gourmet Ghetto, which means seasonal ingredients assembled with French-accented savoir faire. The menu changes monthly, but a recent sampling ranged from grilled rib eye with tarragon demi-glace ($17) to prune-stuffed pork chops ($14.75). Usually diners can find velvety rillettes ($6.75) and pâté ($6.75). Salads and potatoes appear in several permutations, including the perfect crisp potato puffs ($4.25), which are like lovable curmudgeons: salty on the outside, sweet within. Desserts such as pear mousse with chocolate pearls ($3.75) set your taste buds strolling down the Champs Elysées.
Upside The setting, the service, the style of cooking—a visit is like a brief Parisian vacation, after which you head right home.
Downside And head straight home you'd better. Many of the dishes aren't built for reheating.
Convenience Score 7 Great packaging, in elegant eight-sided boxes, and efficient service (fax or call in your order and grab it on the go). Parking, though, can be tricky.
Best Bets Grilled bavette steak with balsamic vinegar-poached shallots ($15), potato puffs, mâche salad with Point Reyes blue cheese and toasted walnuts ($5.50), carrot bread pudding ($3.75).
1585 Solano Ave. (bet. Ordway St. and Peralta Ave.), Berkeley, (510) 558-8600
The Skinny Low fuss, low frills. That sums up Lola's, a spare-looking place that deals largely in pizza ($15-$18) by day but turns out oven-roasted chicken ($13) at night. You can get focaccia ($4), too, stromboli ($5.95), and calzones ($5.95), variations on a theme all based on beautiful, lightly blistered dough. The roasted birds come out of the oven crisp on the outside, moist on the inside. They're seasoned with lemon, rosemary, and garlic. The two sides never change: roasted potatoes ($5) and sautéed chard ($7). But you can add some extra spice with an order of housemade mango chutney ($12/pt.). Lola's also offers a changing menu of "take-home-and-bake" dinners, packaged and ready for reheating. On a recent Friday night, it included chicken potpie ($6.95), macaroni and cheese ($6.50), and yellow-split pea soup ($9/qt.). Wonderful baked goods, both sweet and savory, also emerge daily from Lola's ovens. They range from Swiss chard and butternut squash pie ($6.95) to polenta and Fontina torta ($6.50) to Bosc pear galette ($18) and bittersweet chocolate cake studded with almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, and orange zest ($22 whole, $3.50 slice).
Upside Elegantly executed California cooking.
Downside Even with the ovens cranking, service at Lola's can be chilly.
Convenience Score 8 Everything's boxed in easy-to-carry containers. Pizzas and calzones take time, so order ahead.
Best Bets Roast chicken, roast potatoes, sautéed Swiss chard.
335 San Anselmo Ave. (bet. Woodland Ave. and Tunstead Ave.),
San Anselmo, (415) 454-9840
The Skinny Comfortable? Sure. As long as you feel at ease in crowds. They come in droves to this restaurant-catering business, which also operates as a bustling takeout stand. At peak hours, it takes some elbowing to see your options, which include Korean-style short ribs ($15/lb.), turkey meatloaf ($8/lb.), roast pork with cranberry chutney ($9/lb.), and panko-crusted cod sticks ($13.90/lb.), to name just a few on the seemingly endless list. Soups ($7.95/qt.)? Potato leek and white bean with bacon. Sides? Sesame-seasoned broccolini ($7.50/lb.) and baked potatoes stuffed with Fontina, rapini, and pancetta ($4/lb.). Customers with no time (or patience) often grab cartons of Chinese chicken salad, crunchy with almonds and deep-fried rice noodles and brightened with a spirited rice vinegar-sesame dressing ($9/two qts.). It might be the best choice of all.
Upside Tremendous variety often means terrible quality. But Comforts is consistent across the board.
Downside The hectic crush of the lunch and dinner rush.
Convenience Score 8 Street parking can be scarce, but the service is prompt and personable. Food that requires reheating isn't served in packages that can go into the oven, so prepare to dirty some dishes.
Best Bets Baby back ribs with housemade barbecue sauce, garlic-sour cream mashed potatoes ($5.50/lb.) or Parmesan polenta triangles ($6/lb., pictured), fresh-baked dinner rolls
($1), salad of jicama and Sonoma greens ($8.50).
Tomales Bay Foods, 80 Fourth St. (at B St.), Point Reyes Station, (415) 663-8478
The Skinny A mini Ferry Building come to the country. Outside, it looks like a rustic barn. But inside it's a fashionable market, with local purveyors of fresh, seasonal food. This is where Cowgirl Creamery makes its cheese. It's also where Indian Peach puts out top-notch take-home dinners, some of which travel better than others if you have far to go. Roast chicken ($10.75/whole, $5.50/half), beef stew ($10.75)—they work on the road. But seared sea scallops ($14.75) are best eaten on your way out the door. Salads ($6.75), drawing on ingredients from local growers, are consistently spectacular: beet and celery root, pear with blue cheese and toasted walnuts. Thursday night is pizza night, with pies ($16-$18) ranging from winter pesto to Niman Ranch salami with San Marzano tomato sauce and parsley. Order ahead, as they sell out fast. On a quick breeze around the rest of the building, you'll find all the nuts and bolts for a meal.
Upside Beautiful setting, beautiful products. Yes, it's filled with daytrippers from the city, but it feels like a natural outgrowth of the land.
Downside The winding drive home.
Convenience Score 8 Ideal if you're picnicking nearby. Not so ideal if you're bringing dinner back to Potrero Hill.
Best Bets Grilled pork chops ($13.95), roasted potatoes ($6.75), pear salad with blue cheese and walnuts.