by Anne Vargas
We have been hearing about, walking past and peeking into tiny Café Jacqueline in the North Beach area of San Francisco for years, promising ourselves that someday we would go there for dinner. Well “someday” finally arrived, prompted in large part by Jonathan Kaufman’s article (some of which is excerpted here) about owner chef, Jacqueline Margulis.
Still at the helm at age 82, Jacqueline has been whipping egg whites into savory and sweet soufflés since 1979 when, at the age of 45, she took over a shoe repair shop and opened what she intended to be a small coffee house/patisserie with occasional light fare. However, her soufflés were in such demand she rapidly realized this was what Café Jacqueline was destined to serve. Soufflés. And she makes every one of them herself, by hand.
Orphaned when her mother died in childbirth, Jacqueline was raised in a convent in the Bordeaux region of France where she learned to cook. Subsequent chapters in life eventually led her to San Francisco. For the past 39 years, she has been whipping up egg whites in an oh-so-French copper bowl with other authentic utensils and bowls around her, including one of those massive old fashioned wooden bowls.
The café is delightfully intimate with only 24 seats and the treasured staff is small. Spending the evening there with them, we knew we were witnessing something special.
Matthew Weimer, the wonderful head waiter (complete with handlebar mustache) greets everyone at the door the moment it opens, politely declining entry to anyone without the necessary reservations. He has been there since 1994; the second waiter, (“the new guy”), has been there for seven years but the prep cook has been with Jacqueline since she opened in 1979.
Not much has changed since then; the walls still a pale green, the scuffed wood floors that were scuffed when she excavated them from underneath a concrete shell. “That’s the thing that people love,” says Weimer, “…to come into the room and see that the room hasn’t changed and the waiters haven’t changed and the chef hasn’t changed and the food hasn’t changed and the salad dressing hasn’t changed. And it’s still great.”
The soufflés are savory and sweet and there are delightful first course options while you wait. I was so tempted by the Escargot but …didn’t. The spectacular French Onion soup is legendary; the salad options all have the same wonderful vinaigrette. Dinner is an event, requiring time to savor and enjoy everything about the experience; not the place to go if you are in a hurry. With every soufflé being created by hand as it is ordered (which is what makes it so special) there is no such thing as mass assembly. That means you are there for several hours.
A quick search on the internet for Café Jacqueline produced a profusion of raving endorsements from patrons describing their dining experience in glowing terms, everyone being certain the soufflés they ordered were the best. Even though we thought we knew what we wanted after reading those reviews, it was still tantalizing to peruse the menu; I counted seventeen options for entrée soufflés and six for dessert. We nibbled a basket of wonderfully warm and freshly baked bread while finalizing our decision.
My husband ordered the Soup du Jour (Roasted Tomato that night) while I opted for the Butter Lettuce salad. We shared the Gruyere and the Fresh Strawberry soufflés, each serving two. There was a bit of “discussion” about the strawberry vs. the chocolate vs. the lemon or the Grand Marnier but what we were served was so extraordinary I can’t imagine anything being better.
A visit to the restroom takes you past the miniscule kitchen where she greets you with a twinkling smile. There is no Café Jacqueline without Jacqueline. Her age is not apparent and certainly doesn’t hamper her. She clearly loves what she does, but one wonders how much longer she will continue.
She is fond of saying “two more years.” Customers sometimes ask the waiters what will happen when she leaves. Weimer’s reply, more resigned than complacent. “It’s like a soufflé. It’s there and there and then it’s gone.”
It took us far too many years to stop talking about eating there and actually do it. It will not take us long at all to go back.
1454 Grant Avenue
5:30 – 11 p.m., Wednesday – Sunday