Mama’s on Washington Square: Worth the Wait?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

It’s the end of summer in San Francisco. While tourist season is winding down, the streets are still clogged with double-decker tour buses, and Haight Street is still filled with gaggles of shivering tourists dressed in shorts asking, “But why is it so cold?”

Inspired by the dedication of tourists determined to have fun, a core group of fellow medical students and I decided to put on our sightseer hats and test a tried-and-true tourist establishment: Mama’s on Washington Square.

Located on the periphery of Washington Square Park in the North Beach district, Mama’s always seems to have a line coming out of it that stretches a block long. It’s a breakfast and lunch restaurant that all tourists seem to have a sixth sense about. Despite the restaurant’s almost godly reputation amongst out-of-towners, none of us had ever eaten there, even though all of us had lived in San Francisco for quite some time.

The days of skipping class for breakfast sadly behind us, my group of hardy taste-testers had to settle on trying the place out on a Saturday. Mama’s opens its doors at 8 a.m., and to avoid waiting in the rumored hours-long wait, we decided to arrive as soon as it opened.

We timed our arrival —perfectly — rounding the street corner a few minutes before 8 a.m., only to discover the line was already halfway down the block. Flabbergasted, we dutifully took our places at the end.

Half an hour later, as the line moved incrementally forward, we decided to curb our hunger with a piece of focaccia from Liguria Bakery across the street. This was a fantastic decision — the enormous piece of warm and garlicky bread melted on our tongues.

We also learned (from the Liguria cashier) that people had started lining up for Mama’s at 6:30 — an hour and a half before the restaurant had even opened. The four of us looked at each other. Was this going to be worth the wait?

Two hours later, the taste of fresh focaccia long gone from our mouths, we finally reached the front of the line. As our party was let into the restaurant (finally!), we were shuttled into yet another line — this one leading straight to the cashier.

We ordered from an enormous wall-menu, paid and were told that a table would be ready for us momentarily. Hungry and giddy with the prospect of finally experiencing Mama’s food, we didn’t question the system.

Soon after we were seated, our orders arrived. Two plates were piled high with the French Toast Sampler, made with pieces of Cinnamon, Banana and Cranberry Orange bread, and real maple syrup ($12.95).

Another plate was steaming with the good smells of a Washington Square Omelette:  spicy Italian sausage, bell pepper, tomatoes and hot Pepper Jack cheese ($10.95). The Mama’s Children’s Favorite Omelette also looked spectacular: fluffy mounds of egg filled with sautéed mushroom, green onions, roasted tomatoes and Monterey Jack Cheese ($9.50).

With great fanfare and gusto, the four of us dug in. After a few inaugural bites and the obligatory passing-of-plates-around-the-table, we paused momentarily. Was this it?

Chewing silently, we stared at our plates. The food was good, but it wasn’t jaw-droppingly good. Not four-stars on Yelp good. And definitely not wait-in-the-cold-for-two-hours good.

The French Toast wasn’t so much French Toast as it was fried pieces of various quick-breads. Where was the custardy goodness of Nopa’s signature dish? The omelettes were standard fare: we could have probably made the same thing at home.  We silently apologized for even thinking to cheat on the eggs at Zazie, the Cole Valley French bistro beloved amongst UCSF students.

Overall, we decided that the best things about our Mama’s experience were 1) the pieces of spicy Italian sausage inside the Washington Square omelette, 2) the complimentary raspberry jam, and 3) the focaccia we had in line while waiting.

Not a very good track record, seeing as none of those items are actually available on the menu. Considering the wealth of other delicious breakfast options that San Francisco has to offer, we ultimately decided that we’d leave Mama’s — and the wait — to the tourists.