Did Julia Child really dine at Tu Lan? A legend rediscovered – San Francisco Chronicle

New hires at The San Francisco Chronicle often begin their careers dining at Tu Lan.

The Vietnamese restaurant is a block and a half from the newsroom in San Francisco, and a time machine when it comes to both décor and price. It’s a Chronicle tradition to appoint a pair of veteran journalists to take new employees to coffee, with a budget of $30. At the 6th Street restaurant, on a block dominated by SRO hotels, it’s still almost possible to stretch that into a sit-down lunch.

The destination has another draw, and it’s completely free: The story of The Chronicle, Tu Lan and Julia Child.

The legend has been repeated in the newsroom, and the rest of the city, for decades. The corroboration is the menu itself; what looks like a photocopy-of-a-photocopy-of-a-photocopy-of-a-photocopy of a truncated Herb Caen column, with no date.

“FACES IN PLACES: Julia Child at Tu Lan on sleazy Sixth, a place with great Vietnamese chow. She contented herself with spring rolls, pork shish kebabs with rice noodles, lemon beef salad, fried fish and Tsingtao beer.”

And yet beyond those details, there’s almost no information readily available to the public. Did the world’s most famous chef really eat a meal on a block reputed for its open-air drug deals? If so, when, where, how and why did that pairing happen? Is this just another Bay Area tale – like the Oakland port cranes that definitely didn’t inspire “The Empire Strikes Back” – that is too captivating to be doubted?

The story was already old and oddly free of detail when veteran journalists brought me to Tu Lan in 1999, after I arrived as a reporter at the Chronicle-adjacent San Francisco Examiner.

A Google search in 2019 reveals no backstory, just one guide book-y write up after another repeating “Tu Lan, which was once recommended by Julia Child … .” Playwright and culture writer Michon Boston questioned the myth in a 2012 blog post, and checked Julia Child’s papers at the Schlesinger Library in Massachusettes. There was no record of a visit to the restaurant.

A search in The Chronicle’s digital archive quickly revealed that:

1. The Caen column was real. It ran on Nov. 15, 1985.

2. Caen’s item was indeed longer than what currently appears on the menu.

“The owner, Thao Nguyen, had never heard of Child, but was pleased she liked the food …,” the item finished.

Julia Child approaches cooking in the swashbuckling fashion that has made her the darling of public television. Julia Child cooking expert. Dated Nov. 11, 1971.

Any remaining suspense ended quickly, during a second search. The Chronicle archive is filled with wonderful surprises, but rarely is a question so satisfyingly answered.

An article in the Sunday Examiner & Chronicle — the papers used to publish a combined weekend edition —written by former Examiner food and wine editor Jim Wood explained everything, in the loveliest prose to come out of the mid-1980s. Here are Wood’s first four paragraphs:

“One of the editors couldn’t believe it. ‘You’re taking Julia Child where for lunch?” I repeated what I’d already said, Tu Lan, a restaurant on Sixth Street in San Francisco.

“If you’re like 99 percent plus of the world and have never heard of, much less set foot on, Sixth Street let me say it’s the kind of street which sometimes evokes the word ‘denizens,’ a bit of dirty sidewalk and traffic jams where the wise walk without jingling their change and to look a passerby in the eye may be regarded as an unconscionable affront.

“But Sixth Street has another side, one I felt sure Julia Child and her former diplomat husband Paul Child would appreciate. It’s a side you used to see at Christmas time when the local liquor store gave out sandwiches to all comers and the porn theaters put up holly and pine boughs (no mistletoe, they weren’t that crazy) and the cops, particularly an old timer named Ed Casazza, were there to help, not punish, unless a person was too out of line – that was the Sixth Street I thought Julia Child, the top cook in America, the successor to James Beard, would appreciate.

“… From the counter, you can see the exhausting work that goes into making a new start in a new world. Tu Lan, to me, is America with its faults and its virtues and the added little bonus you never expect – the food is just fantastic.”

I read this just hours before recording a podcast with new Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho, whose approach is to infuse discussion of race and culture and economic realities into her reviews. Jim Wood, it seemed, was a kindred spirit, writing similar prose several years before Soleil was born.

The rest of Wood’s review was filled with lovely details, proving that the writer’s instincts about the Tu Lan/Julia Child kizmet were correct.

Julia Child pulled up in a black limousine, picked up Wood, and drove a block and a half to the restaurant. A drunk man walked up, bowed and said, “It’s Julia!”

She drank Tsingtao beer and liked it. Paul Child really liked the food, but in Wood’s article, Child’s thoughts about the meal remain vague throughout.

“The meal was wonderful, although I’m not sure that Julia liked it as well as I did,” Wood wrote. “Her husband Paul took seconds, then thirds on the salad and the fish, so I think he really liked what he had.”

On the way out, as Child headed to her limousine, a homeless man approached her, bowed deeply, and offered the chef’s signature line: “Bon Appetit!”

That would be a fine kicker. But like a “Lord of the Rings” movie, or perhaps a good Tu Lan meal over too many beers, there are multiple false endings to this story.

Reporter Carol Pogash and her husband, Jim Wood, both at work on the San Francisco Examiner. They were photographed June 15, 1981, in the elevator on the way up to the newsroom after finding out she was pregnant with their first child.

Jim Wood died in 2002, at age 72, of complications from a stroke.

After sharing these finds on social media last week, I was engaged by Wood’s widow, the San Francisco journalist Carol Pogash, who saw the discussion on Twitter.

She said that the Tu Lan meal wasn’t Wood’s only time spent with Child. The Harvard-educated editor and reporter, who had covered schools, courts and food, had been working too hard. Fatigue caused a journalist’s nightmare to come true.

“One night, he came home and said, ‘I’ve blown it.’ He’d stood up Julia Child.” Pogash wrote in an e-mail. “They’d had an appointment to meet for dinner and overwhelmed with work Jim forgot to check his calendar, Ever gracious, Julia said it wasn’t a problem and that she’d meet Jim and me, his wife, the following night for dinner. Which is how I met Julia. We talked that night about politics and butter, both of which she loved.”

Pogash said there are no photos that she’s aware of documenting either of Wood’s meals with Child; the private one or the Tu Lan lunch. There are no images in The Chronicle archive. But Wood’s family still cherishes the stories.

“Jim was a larger than life, brilliant, worldly and funny man,” Pogash wrote. “I’m sure Julia appreciated that about him.”

I decided after finding Wood’s write-up of the Tu Lan visit to go back and read his full Chronicle obituary, more to honor the man than continue the sleuthing. Jim Wood had become as impressive a figure as Julia Child.

One more surprise awaited. After Wood died, his obituary writer Patricia Yollin remembered the Tu Lan/Julia Child story.

The reporter managed to reach an 89-year-old Child in 2002, as she was traveling down the California coast. The chef remembered Wood. (“It’s awfully young to die,” she said. “He was fun and he was good at what he did.”)

And after all those years, Child remembered Tu Lan. The words that followed are her only published review of the restaurant.

“The food was very good,” Child recalled. “It was a very dirty place, but I enjoyed it and had no ill effects.”

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic. Email: Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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