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Going Out to Eat, America’s Patriotic and Gastronomic Duty

Help end the recession: eat out at your favorite restaurant.

One of the best, most accurate and easily understood economic indexes requires no math skills whatsoever. Instead, you can simply walk down Third or Fourth Street in San Rafael and tally the empty storefronts where restaurants with names like Bamyan, Avance, Paradise and others used to live and serve.

American eating habits are no trivial issue. When we are feeling good as a nation, it is evidenced by our willingness to shake loose a little extra walking-around money, which we are happy to part with for a great meal out. In what are perceived as bad times, however, even if your average citizen is earning virtually the same amount, they are going to think once, twice, thrice and then decide to stay home and make do with a Safeway frozen lasagna. This is simply not good for our collective psyche, nor for the millions of Americans who cook and serve food for a living.

I am thinking particularly about my friend, Zoran Matulic, who shuttered his Marin restaurant, the Hamilton Café in Novato, this past Easter Sunday. For Zoran it was a six-year-plus, uphill battle to serve the kind of quality cuisine that runs in the bloodstream of what has been called the “the San Francisco Croatian Restaurant Mafia.”

A server and maitre d’hôtel at legendary places like the Tadich Grill, Enrico’s Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio and Oberon, Zoran is a man who eats and breathes food the way most people imbibe oxygen. In the late ‘90s, and early ‘00’s Friday nights were set aside for Oberon, the restaurant on Lombard and Van Ness where Zoran served the best lamb in the world, and guitarist, Freddy Clarke, wove a musical web of amazing complexity and beauty on what came to be known as “Freddy Nights.”

The place would literally shake with energy with its amazing amalgam of artists, musicians, magicians, venture capitalists, software moguls, rogues and jokers. Oberon didn’t really get going until midnight, when Zoran locked the front door and began serving Croatian Kamikazes, a vicious concoction equal parts vodka and plum brandy.

Oberon was, in fact, one of the few places in the world where Yugoslavia still lived on, at least lived fondly in diner’s and drinker’s memories. Even if Croats were still killing Serbs and Serbs murdering Bosnians, former Yugoslavs of virtually any ethnicity would show up at Oberon and swap stories of kinder, gentler times in the Balkans before the advent of ethnic cleansing.

It was leaving Bosnia where I was covering the war, that I paid a healing visit to the Croatian island of Brac (pronounced “Bratch”), where Zoran’s family owns a hotel and restaurant, and the serious cooking began at 9 a.m. and didn’t finish until the sun was down, everyone was stuffed and it was time to walk down to the waterfront where the gentle Adriatic winds cooled the stone ramparts and the ice cream shops stayed open late.

It was clear from where Zoran’s restaurant genes came, and he made no secret about the fact that his famous moussaka was his mother’s recipe. When Oberon closed down after a stupid argument between partners, it was clear that Zoran would surface with a new idea for another perfectly-wrought Southern European bistro. The times had changed, however, and as the first decade of the 21st century simmered, it was clear that life under Bush II was not going to be as sweet or easy as the golden years of Bill Clinton.

Restaurant-wise, it was no longer so easy to jolly customers into springing for that extra appetizer or second bottle of Pinot Noir, and in Zoran’s case, a lawsuit by a litigious former employee that put the restaurant into the kind of hole that it is hard enough to climb out of in good times.

Not that Zoran didn’t absorb the bad news with his usual courtliness, always sitting in the tiny office, plotting how to pay off creditors and hoping against hope that a return to good times was right around the corner.

Economists don’t like to use the term “double dip” when it comes to these recessionary hard times. Still, there’s something San Raphaelites can do about it. Go out to your favorite restaurant this next Tuesday or a Thursday, and pry an extra twenty out of your purse. Think of it as your patriotic and gastronomic duty. And Zoran, please come back. We miss you.

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