Last week, Bay Area Bites blogger Stephanie Im called attention to Secret San Francisco’s popular Facebook presence. A few days before Im’s post appeared, I myself joined the group with a few lazy clicks, galvanized into action by the droves of friends doing the same. At least, with its relentless updates regarding their statuses, Facebook made me feel like I was part of a movement. “Is it because we all love a juicy secret? Is it because we’re bored?” wondered Im in her piece. “Perhaps we gravitate to these projects because they exude a sense of authenticity, of being ‘in the know,’ and part of something special and communal,” she continued. “Or, it could simply be…some things are just too good to keep to ourselves.”
Im listed the Iso Rabins-curated Underground Farmers Markets, Mission Street Food‘s feasts at Lung Shan, and all manner of street carts as the sorts of secrets worth shouting around, but those examples might as well be echos — almost old news to studious, Internet-savvy members of the eats-frenzied populous. At this point, despite their youth and D.I.Y. ethos, they are institutions, pillars of the city’s mainstream, well-documented food culture. Still, regardless of your personal familiarity with Im’s suggestions, Secret San Francisco makes its mission clear enough: “Share San Francisco’s secrets! Post any lesser known great places to see in San Francisco. Please give details of how we can locate it and what makes it a hidden gem.”
A certain variety of hard-charging food sleuth elitist loves dropping a rarified knowledge of the city’s unheralded offerings. Another group of elitists takes no less pleasure in heaping abuse on the first for drawing attention to the sneaky little places they covet for themselves. Occasionally, they invade Secret San Francisco’s Facebook page. The best naysayers employ deadpan sarcasm. One suggests Burger King for a great hamburger; another celebrates a little grocery store called Safeway. Some however directly criticize eager posters for sharing too much, operating under the not unreasonable logic that widespread publicity on behalf of something unknown tends to make that thing known pretty well very quickly. What if your favorite bowl of pho suddenly became half the city’s favorite too? Would it suddenly start tasting a little bland and watery? Would you tell yourself that the cook was slipping? Would you maybe start believing that he’d gotten so drunk on the fame Facebook had brought his pho, that he’d — with pungent irony — neglected to keep preparing it with quality in mind? Or would you still love that pho but merely hate the swiftly forming crowds — lines of pho-fanatics at the door, arriving earlier and earlier each morning, leaning against the cafe’s glass windows, poking away at iPhones, waiting for the sign to flip. With their incessant chatter and their rows of white order tickets fluttering in the kitchen window, the people on the sidewalk swarming in — presumably without jobs to attend, errands to run, or any otherwise consuming pursuits — would scuttle your plans for timely lunch-break repasts. You’d stop going altogether. The cafe would start selling its pho at a stand outside the Ferry Building on Saturday mornings. The price would double. Amanda Gold would write about it. You’d find another favorite pho spot, which might or might not be an attention-seeking copy of the one you started out loving in the first place.
To shuffle in a music world hypothetical: If guttural blips, synthetic gurgles, and ambient drones suddenly enjoyed broad popularity, and noise bands displaced Jay-Z, The Killers, and Coldplay at the top of the charts, would the bands’ old fans — Aquarius Records employees, mostly — take solace in the Black Eyed Peas, by now a fringe retro-pop act struggling to pack Bottom of the Hill on forays through the Bay Area? Probably not, but people stressing out over the decreased edginess of what they consume — whether it be music or a bowl of pho — tend to be overly concerned with how their consumption patterns reflect upon them as people — at least, no less concerned than those who fire up the laptop every time they trip over a good sandwich.
In a comment to Im’s post, Haggie (one name, like Madonna) accused Secret San Francisco of catering to “lazy suburb dweller[s]” trolling websites for cool food scenes to muck up. While it’s pretty far-fetched to claim that “anyone…[living] in San Francisco knows about the secret spots” already, Haggie does have a point, albeit one couched in excessively feisty lingo. Since witnessing a half-block line curling along the pavement outside of Lung Shan on a Thursday evening at 5:35 p.m. nearly eight months ago, I have not even tried to go to Mission Street Food — not because I think popularity has dulled the value or coolness of the operation’s goals in the slightest, but because I don’t like to wait. Waiting might not be a problem anymore. And I could always make a reservation, I guess, but just remembering the line makes me think of crowds, which I don’t like — and suddenly the idea of going starts feeling like an ordeal to weather.
One problem with Secret San Francisco’s Facebook page is the fact that restaurant owners post on it about events happening at their own establishments. That is sort of lame, just on principle. I won’t mention any of the names I recognized, but I have seen a few things written by a few people probably largely interested in generating business for themselves, not spreading the wealth of shared experience. Likewise, incidentally, some of the exuberant laudatory posts regarding bands I have never ever heard of come off as plants by members, friends of members, or girlfriends or boyfriends of members. The thing has been around for a few weeks and it’s already nearly as tainted as Yelp, that dinosaur of a site plagued by posters grubbing for freebies by way of harsh critiques — many of which seem far-fetched. On Yelp, after all, a reviewer might give a pupusa place two stars and claim a general deep-seated aversion to pupusas as sole cause for the expressed discontent.
The Internet insists on constantly providing us with new ways of searching out, organizing, and assessing the stuff we like to do in the city. Restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and street carts enjoy an absurd amount of attention on Twitter, Chowhound message-boards, assorted iPhone apps, Tablehopper (along with less ubiquitous electronic bulletins), and of course, now Secret San Francisco. The subjects are not necessarily new, but the channels of communication are configured differently with each innovation and trend. I don’t want to blame them for all of the potential problems associated with the rampant sharing of the city’s secrets. The real problem is that people have too much time on their hands, and they’re choosing to spend it online, telling everyone they can about what they like and do not like. In addition to actually working at work, getting exercise, and playing with their kids, people should walk around and physically see the city for something other than a flickering stew of html, updates, messages, and links.
As a writer who masquerades as a blogger, I frequently fall prey to the tendency. On a daily basis, I must look for fresh topics to cover, and sometimes that leads me to rely too much on the Internet’s ever-changing spectrum of social networking possibilities for inspiration. Someone reports something — a secret, maybe — and it ricochets off of other websites. It’s linked, and re-linked, Tweeted, and re-Tweeted, posted, and re-posted. Writers here and there lackadaisically re-write the news as fresh content for a site, and the process starts again and again with slightly different slants each time. Within 24 hours, the secret is out like a light, nearly all bases are covered, and the story is as dead as a slab of fish on ice — all thanks to the publicity pinball machine.
At times, I wonder how my very minor contributions to the maelstrom affect restaurants and businesses. I’ll walk past a restaurant and think: Wow, I’m here, for the first time; I wrote about their egg salad special last week — I wonder if they’re selling more egg salad now. I’d just as soon turn off the computer and poke around the city and write about what I uncover. When content is required to circulate so rapidly, that vein of information-gathering is inefficient. Though I do my best, I wouldn’t have time to do laundry if I relied upon it solely. At the same time, it’s much more satisfying that way. When I moved here in 2002, San Francisco was a different city. That wasn’t long ago, but the way I learned the city then — specifically food to seek out — was through people I met at parties, book club, work, and pick-up basketball games. I read the newspaper food sections and hit up Yelp from time to time, but I also just talked to people and visited the restaurants they recommended — places like El Zocolo and the now-defunct Lorca. Doing so made me a more social person. It made me attack the city so as to eat what I heard was worth eating. The secrets I’ve amassed that way have stuck with me the longest, probably because I have faces, stories, and voices to go with them. They are ones I share with others — in conversation, whenever possible.