★ ★ ★ Mission Beach Café has occupied the sage green Victorian at the corner of 14th and Guerrero since 2007. The tightly-packed space is sophisticated but laid back. Its high-backed chairs and soft carpeting are playfully at odds with the oversized photographic prints of abandoned warehouses that line the walls and the vintage Eames screen that separates the dining are from the kitchen. A single red wall accents an otherwise neutral interior.
To our left a mother and daughter shared a leisurely lunch. Behind us one casually- but well-dressed man earnestly tries to impress another, his blue eyes never breaking contact with his counterpart across the table. It’s unclear whether he’s on a date or a job interview. Behind them two gentlemen in their 90s with papery skin and broad smiles take small sips of coffee and enjoy having nowhere else to be. The lone empty table is soon filled by a young couple—he in sandals and a beard, she in a wrinkled blue dress. Their skin radiates the warmth of their spirit and the energy of captured sun.
Our burgers arrive: two round buns on a round white plate. A thick patty of Prather Ranch ground beef sits atop one of the buns, draped with a melting slice of aged gouda and some caramelized onions. Deep grill marks char the underside of the other bun, on which rests a broad leaf of lettuce. A small pile of golden fries (expertly cooked, by the way) adds a little chaos amongst the order. Finally, a tiny slice of tomato punctuates the scene.
The tomato is an enigma. Singular and no bigger than a silver dollar, it adds almost nothing to the flavor of the burger. When I finally do happen upon a bite, it is a distraction from the otherwise savory combination. We wonder aloud what could be the point of it. Everything about the burger is nuanced—the salted Lost Coast beef, the smokey aged cheese, the zesty garlic aioli, the sweetened caramelized onions, right down to the perfectly grilled bun. And then we realize we’ve misunderstood the tomato’s purpose; it’s not a gastronomic statement, but an aesthetic one. Removed, the plate is uniform and unexciting. It needs a moment of contrast to bring the dish to life. Like a pocket square or Christian Louboutin sole, it is a moment of exuberance that frees form from the strict confines of function.
To see for yourself, visit our Facebook page for a side-by-side comparison. Better yet, head on over to Mission Beach Café and enjoy one of the better burgers San Francisco has to offer.
The Creative Lesson
Beware of slavishly tethering yourself to single interpretation of function. Consider wit, whimsy, joy, and style for their functional dimensions as well.