Few pastimes are more entertaining to chefs, home cooks and other foodies than reading vintage cookbooks, marveling at classic recipes, ingredients and techniques. Actually, we can think of one that’s better: Tasting the dishes made from those retro recipes.
Now you can do both, as the Westin St. Francis hotel on posh Union Square in San Francisco continues to celebrate its 110th anniversary.
Let’s start with some history: Envisioning San Francisco as the “Paris of the West,” railroad pioneer Charles T. Crocker and his monied posse built the St. Francis for $2.5 million – a staggering sum in the day – and christened it in 1904. It quickly set a new standard for luxury and became a social hub for the city’s upper crust. It was widely known as “the heartbeat of San Francisco.”
Two structures now constitute the Westin St. Francis. The best one is the original 12-story grand dame, which underwent a $40 million “transformation” a few years back. It’s loaded with character and charm, and takes visitors on a trip back in time.
Let’s turn the page: The Hotel St. Francis set the standard for city dining, thanks to French master chef Victor Hirtzler. He ruled the dining scene there from 1904 to 1926, and was known as “the Escoffier of the Golden West.”
“The 1910 Hotel St. Francis Cookbook” is his compilation of “3,000 recipes and 1,000 menus for breakfasts, luncheons, dinners and special occasions,” and was published in 1988 (Windgate, 424 pages, $37 at www.amazon.com/books). The original version was titled “L’Art Culinaire,” published in 1910. The hotel does not have the 1988 edition for sale on site because the minimum order would have been 30,000 copies, explained a spokesperson.
Thumbing through our copy, sourced online, we were struck by the gastronomic marvels back then, compared to how most of us cook and eat today. In the old French tradition, fat and calories didn’t count for much.
We found dishes such as Lamb Chops Sauté: “Season eight lamb chops with salt and pepper and fry in melted butter. Then place the chops on a platter. Put two ounces of butter in the frying pan, cook until the butter is brown and pour over the chops. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, chervil, tarragon and the juice of a lemon.”
How about a bowl of Cream Countess: “Make a cream of asparagus soup, and before serving bind with the yolk of one egg for each person. Color with green spinach coloring.”
One of many lunch menus offers this spread: “eggs Celestine, fried chicken Villeroi, flageolet beans, mashed potato salad, French pastry, demitasse (espresso).” The eggs Celestine call for poached eggs, ham, butter, cream sauce and cheese.
Let’s grab a bite and sip a drink: The St. Francis continues its anniversary celebration throughout the year with historic tours, a pre-fixe menu ($45) and complimentary canapes. The dishes are made from recipes in the “1910” cookbook. The hotel’s “Historic Cocktails” program features the Cable Car, the 1904 St. Francis Martini and the Gold Rush.
For more details: www.westinstfrancis.com/110-anniversary, (415) 397-7000.