Let me say this up front – I truly do LOVE garlic. But, I still wasn’t really sure what to expect from a place that prides itself on being a “garlic restaurant”. The Stinking Rose and their garlic-focused menu are very famous – famous enough that I had heard about them long before moving to San Francisco. I knew that pretty much every item on the menu was going to involve garlic, I was just hoping they’d be able to transform and highlight the featured ingredient in interesting and delicious ways. I really wasn’t sure if this place was actually going to be good or if the garlic thing was all gimmick and schtick. All I knew for sure was that I had to check it out for myself.
As we pulled up, I couldn’t help but notice the iconic, illustrated typography facade hanging proudly over this crowded North Beach restaurant’s entrance. It was brash, gaudy, and showy – clearly either a representation of excitement to come or a beacon designed to draw in stupid tourists. I prayed for the former.
We had made a day-of reservation on Open Table and the three of us showed up two minutes before our slated seating. When we attempted to check in, they seemed completely confused and basically just added our names to the bottom of the handwritten list of walk-ins, quoting us 15 minutes or less for a table. While we stood in the overcrowded, bustling entryway the hostess shouted party names into a booming microphone across the waiting area like a damned cattle auction. These were definitely not good signs, but I remained optimistic.
The restaurant’s decor consisted of a ceiling was draped with garlands of garlic, an array of black & white striped tents, and a variety of other miscellany reminiscent of a low-budget carnival. And every other inch of the walls not smothered with mish-mashed carnie junk was plastered with framed photos of famous film vampires and signed ephemera from the place’s supposed fans. Pretty tacky, but I kept thinking about the totally corny and touristy SF place I do love and held out hope.
Ultimately, we were seated in the quoted 15 minutes though I was pretty pissed that we had to wait at all considering we had made a reservation. I almost wish they had made us wait longer though, because they placed us in the absolute worst table in the house. It was a four-top right near the waiting area, literally jutting out into the restaurant’s active walkway where waiters and busboys constantly darted by. This was a terrible table, one that no one should ever be seated at, but at the time we were just happy to be out of the mobbed waiting area.
As soon as we were seated, menus, a plate of stale dinner rolls, and a garlicky green condiment were plopped down. I ate one out of desperation, though I didn’t enjoy it one bit.
“Did we want drinks?” No, we didn’t want drinks – we needed drinks after that unpleasant waiting area ordeal. Ordinarily, I don’t mind spending over $10 for cocktails, but these “happy cocktails” at The Stinking Rose were not good at all and cost a shockingly high $11.95 each. These were not farm-to-table mixology cocktails, these were poorly balanced mixtures of well liquor, juice, and syrup, but we needed some damn drinks – no matter the cost.
Amy selected the Blood Orange Margarita, which seemed to me like an odd pick at a supposed Italian restaurant. But hey, Amy’s concoction wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be. The drink contained cheap tequila, lemon juice, lime juice, and blood orange juice. It wasn’t particularly well-made, but at least they used real blood orange juice.
My Garlic Martini, on the other hand, was an off-menu order, but it’s pretty well known there so I figured they’d be able to pull one together. The drink was made with vodka (they didn’t even ask if I wanted gin) and shockingly didn’t taste like garlic at all. It was basically a $12 ice cold glass of bottom-shelf vodka with a toothpick garnish.
It wasn’t until I had completely polished the goblet of pure well vodka and pulled out the toothpick that I realized it was the only garlicky element in the cocktail. There was a standard brined green olive and two small bits of hard, pickled garlic on the pick – a combination I couldn’t imagine being more harsh or unpleasant with the cheap vodka. This cocktail was not even in the same ballpark as the extremely well-made, refined WD~50 benchmark – Black Matte garlic martini – that I couldn’t help but compare it to.
At this point, I was ready to experience garlic transcendence, so I ordered the much raved-about starter called Bagna Calda. That’s the elegant way to ask for it. The much trashier name that most guests seem to use is Garlic Soaking in a Hot Tub – a name that truly makes my skin crawl.
Now, I’ll admit, this appetizer was actually a pretty tasty substance – apparently made by oven-roasting a mess of whole garlic gloves with extra virgin olive oil, butter, and a hint of anchovy. The menu claimed that it was “a wonderful treat for spreading on our house-baked focaccia bread” though I’m not sure it could exactly be considered spreadable. They also claimed that it would be “served at your table in an iron skillet.” I certainly didn’t even taste a hint of anchovies – just garlic, olive oil, and butter and that “iron skillet” was definitely not an iron skillet at all. It was clearly a stainless steel skillet positioned directly over the table’s small-wicked candle. I couldn’t believe they actually thought that the tiny flickering table flame would be strong enough to keep this stuff hot?
And house-baked focaccia? Try the same gross, stale, freebie, dinner rolls that had already been plopped on the table when we arrived. I thought for $8, they were gonna at least going to provide some specially designed focaccia to pair. But no – it was the crappy, free stuff. I also found myself wishing that they had done anything beyond simple roasting to transform the garlic. How about some actual anchovy flavor or putting in the minimal effort of mashing the roasted cloves into dip form so we could actually spread it onto that awful bread? Instead, we were forced to precariously balance those lukewarm whole cloves on top of those stale crusts like a bunch of schmucks. What a joke.
As an entree, I ordered the much raved-about dish called Forty Clove Garlic Chicken. And while I was happy that it came out lightening fast, the only reaction I could muster was “Um, WTF??” They fire-roasted the chicken decently, but they befuddlingly served the meat next to a heaping pile of 40 practically raw, inedible, garlic cloves and a completely unseasoned mound of mashed potatoes.
Guys, I didn’t want chicken AND forty garlic cloves – I wanted the chicken roasted and artfully combined with the forty garlic cloves. Who on Earth would actually want to eat a dish like this? At a minimum, I thought the mash might have been loaded with garlic and I’m not talking about adding that pile of raw crap to it myself. Come on, get it together. For a $22 chicken dish, I expected a hell of a lot more.
As another main, we also ordered the Neon Ravioli, which they claimed had a potato and cheese filling and a garlic basil alfredo sauce topping. This was another truly pathetic showing by The Stinking Rose.
The bland noodles were stuffed with a cottony substance that barely resembled potato and the sauce was neither thick and creamy like an normal alfredo nor garlicky as we had expected. There certainly wasn’t enough of that pathetically weak sauce to make those horrible bundles of yuck edible – even a blizzard of grated parmesan couldn’t save them. Hell, at $23, even Chef Boyardee is rolling in his grave with this one.
And in what we thought should have been a safe decision, we also ordered their Fresh Made Spaghetti & Garlic Meatballs. Wrong again. Fresh made? These guys are really gonna push that lie? Hardly – unless their definition of fresh is dumping dry pasta into a pot of boiling water.
Those skinny angel hair noodles were cooked to oblivion and slumped in that bowl limper than a wet dog. They were floating in the most watery tomato sauce I’ve ever seen and came with meatballs that were both completely unseasoned and drier than the 1930s dustbowl. I added heaps of salt, parmesan, massive spoonfuls of the table’s green garlic condiment, and the remaining Bagna Calda cloves to add any semblance of flavor to this $23 plate of pitiful pasta. None of that could save it.
All I can say is – what the ever-loving fuck? This is the exact reason North Beach gets such a bad reputation. This meal was extremely expensive and obscenely bad. The bagna calda was the only thing I got any sort of joy from and even that was an utter disappointment. And if the meal wasn’t expensive enough, they have the nerve to tack on an additional 4.5% charge for the cost of “business & government mandated expenses”? How is that even legal? Gross, I’m embarrassed to even have spent this much money on such terrible food.
So, why does this place even exist? It’s become completely clear to me that this is a place that stays in business solely because everyone’s tasteless, visiting relatives insist on going there when they’re in town. Tourists are keeping this expensive and absolutely horrible shit-hole in business. Here’s a hot tip: stay home, roast an entire head of garlic over low heat, dip the worst bread you can get your hands on into it, light a pile of money on fire, strangle an Italian grandmother to within an inch of her life, then punch yourself in the face. Congratulations, you’ve now experienced The Stinking Rose from the comfort of your own home.
Is there any place you think is worse that The Stinking Rose in San Francisco? Let me know in the comments below.
The Stinking Rose
325 Columbus Ave. San Francisco, CA 94133