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Sang the Swan Song
In the latter part of April, 1906, when the fire-swept streets presented their most forbidding aspect, and when the only moving figures to be seen after nightfall were armed soldiers guarding the little remaining of value from depredations of skulking vagabonds, a number of the old Bohemian spirits gathered at the corner of Montgomery and Commercial streets, and gazed through the shattered windows into the old dining room where they had held many a royal feast. On the blackened walls might still be seen scarred pictures, fringed by a row of black cats along the ceiling. They turned their steps out toward the Presidio, hunted among the Italian refugees and there found Coppa - he of the wonderful black cats, and it took little persuasion to induce him to go back to his ruined restaurant and prepare a dinner, such as had made his place famous among artists, writers, and other Bohemians, in the days when San Francisco was care-free and held her arms wide open in welcome to all the world.
It was such a dinner as has been accorded to few. Few there are who have the heart to make merry amid crumbling ruins of all they held dear in the material world. The favored ones who assembled there will always hold that dinner in most affectionate memory, and to this day not one thinks of it without the choking that comes from over-full emotion. It was more than a tribute to the days of old - it marked the passing of the old San Francisco and the inauguration of the new.
It was Bohemia's Swan Song, sung by those to whom San Francisco held more than pleasure - more than sentimentality. It held for them close-knit ties that nothing less than a worldshaking cataclysm could sever - and the cataclysm had arrived.
The old Coppa restaurant in Montgomery street became a memory and on its ashes came the new one, located in Pine street between Montgomery and Kearny streets, and for a number of years this remained the idol of Bohemia until changed conditions drove the tide of patronage far up toward Powell, Ellis, Eddy and O'Farrell streets. At that time there grew up a mushroom crop of so-called restaurants in Columbus avenue close to Barbary Coast such as Caesar's, the Follies Cabaret, Jupiter and El Paradiso, where space was reserved in the middle of the floor for dancing. Coppa emulated the new idea by fitting out a gorgeous basement room at the corner of Kearny and Jackson, which he called the Neptune Palace. It represented a great grotto under the ocean, and here throngs gathered nightly to dance and eat until the police commissioners closed all of these resorts, as well as Barbary Coast.
Coppa became financially injured by this venture and was forced to take a partner in his old restaurant, and finally gave up his share and went beyond the city limits and opened the Pompeiian Garden, on the San Mateo road, and there with his heroic little wife tried to rebuild his shrunken fortunes, leaving the historic restaurant with its string of black cats and its memorable pictures on the walls to less skilled hands. He struggled against hard times and at the time of this writing he, with his wife, their son and his wife, are giving the old-time dinners and trying to make the venture a success.
In the old days it was considered a feat of gormandizing to go through one of Coppa's dinners and eat everything set before you for one dollar. Notwithstanding the delicious dishes he prepared and the wonderful recipes, the quantity served was so great that one would have to be possessed of enormous capacity, indeed, to be able to say at the end of the meal that he had eaten all that was given him.
In his Pompeiian Garden Coppa still maintains his old reputation for most tasty viands and liberal portions, and if one desire to find the true Bohemian restaurant of San Francisco today, one that approaches the old spirit of the days before the fire, he need but go out to Coppa's and while he will not have his eyes regaled by the quaint drawings with which the old-time artists decorated the walls, nor the hurrying footsteps along the ceiling to the famous center table where sat some of the world's most notable Bohemians on their visits to San Francisco, nor the frieze of black cats around the cornice, nor the Bohemian verse, written under inspiration of "Dago red," he will find the same old cooking, done by Coppa himself.
We asked Coppa what he considered his best dish and he gave us the Irishman's reply by asking another question:
"What do you think of it?"
There are so many to choose from that our answer was difficult but we finally stopped at "Chicken Portola." It was then that the old smile came back to Coppa's face.
"Ah! Chicken Portola. That is my own idea. It is the most delicious way chicken was ever cooked."
This is the recipe as Coppa gave it to us, his little wife standing at his side and giving, now and then, a suggestion as Coppa's memory halted:
Chicken Portola a la Coppa
Take a fresh cocoanut and cut off the top, removing nearly all of the meat. Put together three tablespoonfuls of chopped cocoanut meat and two ears of fresh, green corn, taken from the cob. Slice two onions into four tablespoonfuls of olive oil, together with a tablespoonful of diced bacon fried in olive oil, add one chopped green pepper, half a dozen tomatoes stewed with salt and pepper, one clove of garlic, and cook all together until it thickens. Strain this into the corn and cocoanut and add one spring chicken cut in four pieces. Put the mixture into the shell of the cocoanut, using the cut-off top as a cover, and close tightly with a covering of paste around the jointure to keep in the flavors. Put the cocoanut into a pan with water in it and set in the oven, well heated, for one hour, basting frequently to prevent the cocoanut's burning.
A bare recital of the terms of the recipe cannot bring to the uninitiated even a suspicion of the delightful aroma that comes from the cocoanut when its top is lifted, nor can it give the slightest idea of the delicacy of the savor arising from the combination of the cocoanut with young chicken. It is not a difficult dish to prepare, and if you cannot get it at any of the restaurants, and we are sure you cannot, try it at home some time and surprise your friends with a dish to be found in only one restaurant in the world. If you desire it at Coppa's on your visit to San Francisco you will have to telephone out to him in advance (unless he has succeeded in getting back to the city, which he contemplates) so that he can prepare it for you, and, take our word for it, you will never regret doing so.
Coppa has many wonderful dishes to serve, and he delights so much in your appreciation that he is always fearful something is wrong if you fail to do full justice to his meal. He showed this one evening when he had filled a little party of us to repletion by his lavish provision for our entertainment, and nature rebelled against anything more. To us came Coppa in tears.
"What is the matter with the chicken, Doctor? Is it not cooked just right?"
It was with difficulty that we made him understand that there was a limit to capacity, and that he had fed us with such bountiful hand we could eat no more. Even now when we go to Coppa's we have a little feeling of fear lest we offend him by not eating enough to convince him that we are pleased.
Coppa's walls were always adorned with strange conceits of the artists and writers who frequented his place, and after a picture, or a bit of verse had remained until it was too familiar some one erased it and replaced it with something he thought was better. We preserved one written by an unknown Bohemian. We give it just as it was:
Through the fog of centuries, dim and dense,
I sometimes seem to see
The shadowy line of a backyard fence
And a feline shape of me.
I hear the growl, and yowl and howl
Of each nocturnal fight,
And the throaty stir, half cry, half purr
Of passionate delight,
As seeking an amorous rendezvous
My ancient brothers go stealing
Through the purple gloom of night.
I've seen your eyes, with a greenish glint;
You move with a feline grace;
And when you are pleased I catch the hint
Of a purr in your throat and face.
Then I wonder if you are dreaming, too,
Of temples along the Nile,
Where you yowled and howled, and loved and prowled,
With many a sensuous wile,
And borrowed the grace you own today
From that other life in the far-away;
And if such dreams beguile.
I know that you sit by your cozy fire,
When shadows crowd the room,
And my soul responds to an old desire
To roam through the velvety gloom,
So stealthily stealing, softly shod,
My spirit is hurrying thence
To the lure of an ancient mystic god,
Whose magnet is intense,
Where I know your soul, too, roams in fur,
For I hear it call with a throaty purr,
From the shadowy backyard fence.