As the November nip in the air matures into a full-on chomp, we Bay area residents pack up our shorts and tank tops and migrate away from the light Floribbean fare that sustained us through the sweltering summer. Maybe it's the time change. We're no longer eating amidst a resplendent Gulf of Mexico sunset, but by the light of a harvest moon. Though we don't deal with the climatic somersaults of our neighbors to the north, our sub-tropically thinned blood still begins to crave the warming foods of the season — soups, roast meats, thick goulashes and filling stews. Whether you're a Southern native or a Northern transplant, there's no debating that months of mango chutney have given way to the season of apple pie. As the holidays march in, dining out suffers due to consumption of a different nature — otherwise known as the Season of Giving. Hope you've been saving your pennies, folks, because iPods and/or laser printers don't come cheap (hint hint, Santa). Given that gift budgets can put a major crimp in eating-out allowances, I turn our appetites toward Three Coins.
Three Coins is the first restaurant my family ever visited upon our arrival in town nearly 20 years ago, and I thought it only fitting to visit with them in tow. The restaurant's longevity and most-favored-diner status among area culinary types give the eatery a street cred unsurpassed by most local greasy spoons — Chef Marty Blitz of Mise En Place sang its praises in our recent Best of the Bay Issue. The comfort-food menu is peppered with all-day breakfast items, a few local faves and a smattering of Greek specialties. Picture windows, flowered curtains and cozy lamplight provide a homey atmosphere, and the servers always want to be your friends.
Like any self-respecting diner, Three Coins has Greek salad on the menu, and like most, you should only be caught ordering the large portion if you have a phalanx of Macedonians to feed. Though described as "original Greek salad" on the menu (small $4.05/large $4.95), Three Coins offers the Tarpon Springs version with a scoop of potato salad added to the usual mix of lettuce, olives, tomatoes, onions, feta and a hot, pickled saloniko pepper. I imagine most folks around here think a Greek salad without potato salad is like a Christmas television lineup without It's a Wonderful Life. The homemade dressing doesn't deliver any surprises either, though I found it thicker and tangier than the same item at similar establishments.
The restaurant makes two soups daily. During my visit, the choices were chicken noodle egg drop and vegetable soup (free cup with most entrees, or cup $1.55, bowl $1.95). The chicken noodle egg drop was deceptively simple. Thin-cut spaghetti noodles and frayed wisps of egg were all that floated in the delicious savory broth, but one hardly noticed the lack of meat chunks. The soup was a perfect example of how far well-executed chicken stock can take you. The vegetable soup was chock-full of summer squash, zucchini and broccoli as well as the usual lineup of onions, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and celery in another excellent broth.
Three Coins has dinner specials every night, and it behooves every visitor to take a quick gander at the white board near the entrance, as we learned when we ordered one of the evening's specials: beef tips with noodles ($7.95). Tender pieces of beef with a few token vegetables in thick, hearty gravy were poured over a skillet of egg noodles. My father, who bucks the trend by being a meat-and-noodles kind of man, was in high heaven. I decided then and there that one of my New Year's Resolutions would be to incorporate more goulash into my life.
My mother stuck with a quintessentially November dish and ordered one of the house specials: roast turkey with white-gravy dressing and cranberry sauce ($6.95). When the waitress asked her what sort of potato she would like with her order, she replied, "Mashed, of course!" Unfortunately, it wasn't the best option, as we learned that their mashed potatoes are fake. I'm sorry to have to report such a shocking discovery and hope that it is quickly rectified. Roast turkey needs a side of real mashed potatoes. Fortunately, the tasty bread stuffing filled in the gap, though everyone at the table agreed that the dish would need a more flavorful gravy and real mashed potatoes before it was Pilgrim-ready.
The real standout of the meal, however, was the braised lamb shank (a steal at $7.95). Like a Greek version of the Italian osso bucco, the dish featured an enormous hunk of perfectly cooked lamb — so moist and tender that it fell from the bone at the slightest touch — in a pool of thin but richly seasoned tomato sauce. I chose a side of crunchy home fries to go with the meat, and this simple but effective starch blew the mashed potatoes right out of the water. If you're looking for a bit of spirituality this season, this feast of lamb is where to get it.
Just as every entrée comes with a cup of soup or side salad, all of our dinners included a limited selection of pudding and ice cream desserts. Of the three homemade puddings we tried (butterscotch, chocolate and rice), we liked the chunky rice pudding with its topping of cinnamon and whipped cream the best. For a few more cents, indulge yourself with a slice of apple or cherry pie, "just like mom used to make" ($1.35), coconut or lemon meringue ($1.95), or splurge the $2.35 for a slice of French silk or the $3.45 for a banana split. Since there are very few items on the menu that top eight dollars, it doesn't break the bank to think about dessert. Even draft beer and wine is available for $1.75/glass or $6.45/pitcher (though when we asked about the possibility of buying a pitcher of wine, our waitress' eyes got wide).
There's nothing fancy at Three Coins. The dishes are simple and filling, the formica-topped tables are homey, and the waitresses have a predilection for calling people "hon." It's all part of the charm and genuine warmth imparted by a meal at this local institution. Besides, when three people can drink and eat with gusto, and still walk away with a thirty buck tab, 'tis truly the season to celebrate. Whether you're re-creating Thanksgiving, looking for a holiday feast or in need of a good after-party breakfast, Three Coins has what you need — for minimal silver and gold.
Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.