"We're the first ones here," our 6-year-old son noted on a bitter cold Saturday evening as we entered Bethesda's San Francisco East Co. "We're the only ones here," he further noted.
It was, in fact, the first time this gourmet cafeteria had stayed open on a Saturday night, and we had the place entirely to ourselves - a large room of many tables lit with a red glow by many candles, the walls decorated with colorful turn-of-the-century beer posters, and plants aplenty hanging throughout the place. Classical music from a hidden radio completed the peaceful setting.
And the food was generally if not uniformly good, notably different and surprisingly cheap. Our entire outing for three came to only $8.53.
It's not apparent why the restaurant is named after San Francisco. It's more French than Californian in its limited menu. In warm weather, there's a brick patio in front where eaters may linger, reminiscent of the Champs Elysee.
There is no children's menu here, although there are booster seats for kids. What this means in terms of offering is that there are wines, beers and sodas but no milk.
The menu is posted on a blackboard outside and, inside, on the wall behind the serving line. There were three varieties of soups, $1.20 for a small (actually, fairly large) bowl, $1.85 or $2.95 portions; French Canadian meat pie, 95 cents per slice, or $1.05 for a turnover; quiche, at $1 a slice; $1.60 turkey pot pie; a small lettuce salad for 50 cents; and a choice of three deserts, at 65 cents each.
The lettuce in the salads did not look especially fresh, so we passed them up. The choice of soup was difficut: I wanted to order all three. There was cheddar shrimp, split pea with ham chunks and gumbo. My wife and son each took the cheddar shrimp. I settled on the gumbo, a thick soup of vegetables, chicken, barley. A French roll came with each bowl of soup.
The cheddar shrimp soup was thick and creamy with small bits of shrimp. My wife and I like it.
Having filled himself that afternoon on a neighbor's birthday cake and ice cream, his culinary interest seemed to be limited mainly to his roll and coke.
My wife had the quiche, which she rated excellent. I had the French Canadian meat turnover. The pastry shell was good and flaky, the filling a mild concoction of chopped beef, onions and other less diecernible ingredients.
For dessert, my wife had pineapple upside down cake. She said it was very rich but good, with brown sufar on top. Our son had decided to order the Mexican flan. "I don't really like it that much, but it's worth tasting," he said. My wife and I tasted it and agreed that the flan was heavier than it should have been.
My dessert was French moca pie, which I thought was excellent. It had walnuts, real whipped cream and a maringue crust.
We had a pleasant table against a brick wall, and I had a plant dangling over my head. Our son was impressed by the fact that wall pictures were hung "on solid brick," and by the grated red-tinted windows. His coloring book, brought along for use in case of a wait, was left untouched for another night in a crowded restaurant.
Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. No credit cards. Parking nearby on streets and in lots.