Touched by an angel

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FIRST PERSON | James DeKoven

On a recent moonlit night in the neighborhood, darkness having descended much earlier than only a few weeks before, some friends were at my place sipping cocktails and examining life’s more contentious issues: individualism versus conformity, true love, the meaning of life. It was all rather intense.

When I tried to lighten the mood by asking who’s better — Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding or Smokey Robinson — I kind of killed the energy of the conversation. So I changed the subject again and suggested we continue the party at Fat Angel.

You might know Fat Angel, an off the beaten path cafe in the Fillmore Jazz District tucked away around the corner at 1740 O’Farrell Street. If you’ve spent any time in Paris, you’ll be familiar with the Fat Angel aesthetic: dim lighting by candles and chandeliers, a marble bar, worn hardwood floors, a space filled with people and lively discussion yet somehow retaining an intimate ambiance. As with those Parisian cafes, most newcomers don’t necessarily seek out Fat Angel. They discover it by chance.

All of us — Cathleen, Tamara, Erin, Clayton, Andre, David and I — snuggled into a corner table and ordered drinks and food to share: wild mushroom and white truffle oil flatbread, gruyere and aged cheddar mac and cheese, garlic chili butter with country bread, duck salami, plus something we had to try called Cy’s salty sweet nuts.
With everyone grazing away, I figured now was the time to revisit the Marvin-Otis-Smokey question. But I kept getting interrupted.

First someone brought up the earthquake a few days before and we spent considerable time trading “Where were you during the ’89 quake?” stories. (Four of us were waiting to watch the first game of the Giants-A’s World Series.) “It’s funny how native Californians just stand there like nothing’s happening,” Erin noted, “but people from the Midwest think it’s the end of the world.”

Then Clayton wondered, “Hey, what’s the deal with the guy who does the walking ghost tours of Pacific Heights?” No one knew.

We needed another round by then, so I ambled up to the bar. Fat Angel doesn’t make it easy to choose — there are all sorts of interesting, unconventional draft beers, even draft wines, plus by-the-glass and by-the-bottle options on an ever-changing list. I don’t know much about wine, but I imagine connoisseurs appreciate how the selections are grouped into categories like Crisp & Refreshing, Aromatic & Lush, Chubby & Satisfying and Bright & Juicy.

As for beer, I got some recommendations from Jason Kirmse, who owns and runs Fat Angel along with Cyrick Hia. They’re both constantly greeting customers, taking orders, pouring drinks, seating a group, having a good time and making sure that everyone else is, too. Kirmse gladly took the time to tell me why I might prefer the Burton Baton to the Hop Riot, and explained the flavor differences between Kasteel Rouge and Bike Lane Brown. Then he gave me a taste of all four.

After living south of Geary for seven years, Kirmse and Hia were inspired to open Fat Angel because they found the area was underserved.

“Most neighborhoods take for granted the abundance of unique eating and drinking establishments they can walk to and enjoy,” says Kirmse. “We wanted to create something for the residents south of Geary that was real: real food, real drink, real environment, real community. From the 100-year-old wood floors to my grandmother’s chicken pot pie recipe, from honest, locally brewed beer to wine served fresh out of a keg from a vintner 60 miles north, everything at Fat Angel is real.”

The realness shines through especially in the building materials, which were salvaged from a defunct 1901 church south of Napa. From the remains of the church they created the flooring, bar, back bar and wainscoting. Even more genuine, in some ways, is the fact that neither Kirmse nor Hia has any formal restaurant training. 

“Everything we know we’ve gleaned from eating and drinking around town and just being curious about food, drink and hospitality,” says Kirmse. “We believe in hearty portions, uncomplicated food and a commitment to making everything from scratch using real ingredients. Plenty of people living here are eager and willing to support quality, local businesses. We just need more like-minded people who are willing to take the leap of faith that we did and have the vision that this part of Fillmore can be a contender, too.”

Walking home from Fat Angel, I considered the merits of each soul legend. Marvin Gaye had the musical and topical sophistication of “What’s Going On,” but people forget about his breathtaking duets with Tammi Terrell. Otis Redding could prevail based solely on his raw emotion and gritty delivery. But for my money, Smokey Robinson’s the guy. You can’t beat that sweet falsetto. “Baby, Baby, Don’t Cry” is possibly the most sublime song ever conceived.

As I came to my own conclusion, I remembered what Kirmse had told me earlier about the meaning of the Fat Angel moniker. “Philosophically,” he said, “it alludes to a being who falls short of its intended, perfect nature.” I think Smokey wrote one about that, too.

Fat Angel website: “Born out of a passion for the Fillmore”