Sunday, June 25, 2006

No mushroom, but a fun guy nonetheless

They say you never know what you've got until it's gone. These words were never more truly spoken than when it comes to the life of one Warren L. Simmons, who died over the hill in Napa last week.

Simmons is probably best known in the Bay Area for being the mastermind and motivating force behind Pier 39, one of San Francisco's premier tourist attractions. He also founded the Blue and Gold Fleet ferry service, which provides the only transportation to Alcatraz, the former federal prison located on an island in the middle of the bay.

But until I read his obituary, I had no idea that Mr. Simmons also started the Chevys restaurant chain.

I love me some Chevys.

As franchise restaurants go, Chevys is about as good as it gets in the field of Americanized Mexican cuisine. The chain's tagline is "Fresh Mex," and they live up to the slogan, serving food created with fresh ingredients actually prepared in their restaurant kitchens rather than prefabricated. ("No cans in our kitchen!" proclaims the menu.) Chevys makes its own excellent salsa, guacamole, and tortillas right on the premises. In fact, as you await your order you can watch the tortillas springing to life on a giant Rube Goldbergesque contraption called "El Machino," located smack-dab in the middle of the dining room.

You will not be served better chips and salsa in any restaurant north of the Baja Peninsula than you'll get at your local Chevys. The combination of hot, thin, lightly crispy chips and fresh, tangy salsa can be so tempting that you're likely to fill up before your entree arrives, unless you have either a bottomless gullet or willpower like a monk in a harem.

I highly recommend the fuego-seasoned shrimp fajitas. If you order some, save me a doggie bag.

Ironically, there isn't a Chevys on Pier 39. Warren Simmons sold the waterfront complex of shops and restaurants five years before he opened the first Chevys. (He later sold the restaurants too. Chevys today is owned by the Pepsi-Cola Company. Don't even think about trying to order a Coke.) There is, however, a Hard Rock Cafe, assuming you enjoy that sort of thing, as well as a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company that serves some of the most lackluster, insanely overpriced seafood on the planet. If you decide to eat at the Pier — and if you're on a budget, or just hate paying for outrageously expensive meals, I suggest you dine elsewhere — try Neptune's Palace instead. (The most consistently enjoyable and affordable restaurants Pier 39 ever housed, the quirky Alcatraz Bar and Grill and an outlet of the local Chinese eatery Yet Wah, both closed years ago, I'm sad to report.)

Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Simmons. The next time I go to visit the sea lions at Pier 39, or scarf a Super Chevys combo plate, I'll raise my Diet Pepsi to you.

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