I have adored two restaurants in the last forty years. One is the Pacific Cafe in San Francisco, a haven of west-coast seafood since I was a young teenager. The other is Las Camelias in San Rafael, a Mexican restaurant on Lincoln Blvd. that has been a part of my consciousness since I wandered in with co-workers for lunch in 1979, a few months after they opened. After 35 years, Carole and Gabriel are considering a change, perhaps selling the restaurant. I will be somewhat devastated when that happens, proving yet again the buddhist axiom that attachment creates pain 🙂
When I first came to the restaurant, a slender college drop-out with long hair and a perverse enjoyment of lederhosen, I was a young programmer at Fireman’s Fund in Lucas Valley on the north side of San Rafael. Las Camelias had an open patio in front, enclosed by a low wall, with a tree in the middle and six or eight outdoor tables. My co-workers and I would come for lunch on Fridays, drink a beer or two, and talk about everything. Gabe’s mother worked at the restaurant, and they rapidly developed some of the most delicious and unique signature dishes that anchor their menu. They started to win Pacific Sun awards, and have anchored their block on Lincoln Avenue as a dozen other businesses have come and gone around them. If you go there, check out the Zincronizadas, which are absolutely stunning.
Their story is quite touching and delightful. Carole and her mother survived the Treblinka internment camp in the Ukraine during World War II, and emigrated to Mexico after the war. Apparently she met Gabe on a bus, and they fell in love though neither spoke the other’s language. There is a photo of Gabe as a young man on the wall of the restaurant, and he is indeed a handsome fellow. Carole is quite unchanged over the years, ever slender, graceful and elegant – she is the woman in dark clothing on the right side of the photo, pointing new arrivals to their table. Gabe and I, meanwhile, are both forty pounds heavier, and I’ve gone from a pony tail to no hair at all in the intervening years. Carole is an accomplished sculptor, and teaches clay work on the side. Her earthy clay artwork decorates the restaurant, and many pieces have great stories.
Carole has been a charming friend through all that has transpired, marriage, loss, job changes, and moves. I’ve helped them with their web site, and they recommended the (awesome) stove that I installed in my house. I have several of Carole’s sculptures in my space. We’ve had fine, long discussions about archetypes, spirituality, food and climate change, artwork and molé ingredients. I still don’t know exactly what Gabe puts into his most excellent salsa, dammit.
It’s odd how a restaurant can become a touchstone, a measuring stick for our life. Coming in for dinner last night, I was delighted to see every table full. The Carne Asada was excellent, as always. And I remembered some of the hundreds of prior visits, with co-workers long gone, with Nancy my first wife and Nancy my second wife. With Pathways workshop participants, fellow Mystery School students, women I dated. I came there when living in San Francisco, Mill Valley, San Rafael, Novato, and while working in Silicon Valley, Oakland, Berkeley. I’m sure I’ve brought every single one of my close friends, some multiple times.
If and when they leave, it will feel as though an epoch of my life is coming to an end. Perhaps someone will keep in going, keeping some of the great dishes, and I will still be able to have Zincronizadas for lunch. And perhaps Gabe will finally share his salsa recipe with me.