Sometimes you eat when you're wet.
Hair streaming, garb soaked, skin slick. Your feet slosh in your shoes if you are even wearing shoes. At home or in a restaurant you would never do this, never place an order sopping wet and carry it away, droplets leaving a telltale trail.
But at snack bars, you do.
Heart racing from a wipeout or a round of Marco Polo, you eat when you're wet because you've just worked up an appetite, because you trust the sun to dry you off before you're through.
At snack bars you eat when you're wet because you can.
A doughty standby for decades, the snack bar flanking Tilden Park's Lake Anza was closed for nearly four years before relaunching last month. Now lakegoers line up for hot dogs, ice cream ... and espresso.
Of course. Because this is the latter-day snack bar in the post-Food-Network world. Festooned with blow-up beach gear, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head toys, and vintage outdoor photographs, Lake Anza Beach Club stands mere blocks from the Gourmet Ghetto, albeit vertical blocks. So from its two takeout-only windows — one inside the lake's paid zone and the other outside, adjoining the parking lot — comes locally sourced, sustainably grown, single-origin coffee. Cosseting real meat and real cheese in made-to-order sandwiches, Semifreddi sourdough baguettes taste fresher than the breads found in many delis downtown. The dishware is compostable. Of course.
Eyeing the then-shuttered snack-bar space two years ago, Daniel Bergerac and Eddie Lundeen asked park administrators to let them restart it with a new name and new menu. The pair had already created Point Isabel's popular Mudpuppy's Tub & Scrub and Sit and Stay Cafe, where dogs are bathed as their owners eat and drink. Five years at Point Isabel, Bergerac says, have demonstrated what does and doesn't work "in a really small space where we can't cook anything, but we can add value to food that's already cooked." Thus the jalapeño-studded beef-and-black-bean chili, prepared for the partners by a San Francisco company, is more heartily homemade-tasting than you'd ever dare to expect. And your choice of plain, poppy-seed, or cheese bagel stacked with lox, cream cheese, sliced vegetables, and capers, although a bit steep by snack-bar standards at $7.55, is hilariously urbane served under soaring pines as screaming children bellyflop. But this is how it is now: Serve food anywhere and you must serve gourmands. Someone will ask you where the bell peppers grew. Gourmands are freakin' ubiquitous. So: chai latte. Biscotti. Ginseng tea.
And, for the rube or the nostalgic dreamer or the child, Coke and chips and candy bars and chili dogs, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and nachos splotched with salty squirty cheese as yellow as a road sign. To nibble such nachos outdoors is to mainline memories of beaches, pools, piers, stadiums: It smells like sunburn.
As we tuck into ours at closing time, accompanied by a huge sweet watermelon-flavored Anza Ice — Tilden's answer to slushies — the sand resounds with bouncing balls, Spanish, and Mandarin. Kids lurch out of the lake, shaking their hair. This is the forest, and as close as Berkeley comes to a beach.
Bergerac was born into the restaurant business: "I grew up with a crazy French chef who was my father, with a crazy four-star French restaurant on the Monterey Peninsula. That was my training ground." Yet he retains a healthy respect for humble fare. "I have an affinity for any type of dipped cone," he confides: His mother used to reward his good behavior with these when he was small. "The fact that we had room to put that monster soft-serve machine" into the Anza space was, he says, a triumph.
I order mine in a cup so as to make it last longer. But the first rule of snack bars is that soft ice cream will not last. Whether shelled in hard chocolate or not, it melts as you race to devour it — like summer itself. Come November, Lake Anza Beach Club will be shuttered for the winter, its bright signs ghostly in the storms.
Snack-bar food was not conceived to make you savor it but rather as a respite from oppressive heat and cold, fuel for sport or flirtation, sops for screamers who can't otherwise be persuaded to stay. It is made to be downed fast while distracted. Yet here at the lake, you notice that your spoonworthily thick caramel Frappee Freeze is made with real coffee from Richmond's Catahoula Roastery. You notice that the corn in your chili is fresh, and that the mustard on your sandwich is tongue-searingly tangy Dijon. You swallow. Pause. This is subversive snack-bar food.
Partway across the park, another snack bar serves the Tilden Park Golf Course. Between the ninth and tenth hole but accessible from the parking lot, this snack bar adjoining the venerable Grizzly Bar & Grill served only beer/burger basics for decades, but lately its menu has bloomed to include artfully composed scrambles, salads, burritos, and other made-to-order selections named for local landmarks, à la the "Telegraph Avenue" chicken-tenders sandwich. Lee's Cheddar-chicken quesadilla, sliced neatly into fifths, comes with salsa and guacamole. Tuffy orders the "Tilden Wrap," but with veggie burger replacing the ordained ground beef rolled into a chipotle tortilla with bleu cheese and Romaine. Most patrons carry their purchases out onto the course to eat while playing: It's a drive-through but with golf carts, not cars. We bring our orders to a table on a concrete terrace that is partly covered, partly not. From here we see sweeps, miles wide, of emerald grass and cloud-combed sky and spiky pines and, past the county line, leonine chaparral. It's the best view in town, with curly fries.
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