Clicking for Food

IF YOU LIVED for the next billion years and ate 13 meals a day, urban legend has it that you'd never have to eat at the same S.F. restaurant twice.

True or false, I haven't a clue. But what's not figured into this culinary algebra is how lazy San Franciscans can be and how often we want the food to come to us rather than vice versa. Until there is a restaurant that lets us eat in silence, watching Friends in our underwear, there will always be a need for food delivery during the dinner hour.

We don't always want the burden of pleasant conversation, wait-staff snootiness, or long lines for a table, and the simple application of pants or hygiene just to get some good grub seems absurd.

"Oh sure," you snarf. "There's pizza delivery." But we both know that not everyone can stomach the boredom or mediocrity that comes with it like a free topping. San Franciscans don't just eat to live; we live to eat. We seek to spit in the eye of the ol' pizza pie and try something, uh, different. Bold. High tech.

Recently a host of local services and dot-coms heard the ka-ching of the hungry tech-heads and thus surfaced with promising options of something scrumptious delivered to your sagging and widening office butt. Some savory investigating revealed who will bring you better-than-average food, for a reasonable price, in a timely fashion.

We gave our stomachs, credit cards, and ISPs a workout testing some of the best delivery options, and the results were delicious but disappointing. Good delivery food, like good cooking, has to be planned. Sometimes several days or even a week ahead. And if you wait until the last minute, the food is cold and the cost a scorcher. Overall, if you wait until you're hungry to order delivered food in San Francisco, it's SpaghettiOs for you.

The sad fact is that food that's delivered can't keep up with the freewheeling, spur-of-the-moment lifestyle we lead. In the meantime, here's what's on the menu:

One week ahead

You can only pester your lover/roommate/neighbor for so long. If whining for someone else to make hot, oven-fresh cookies is too exhausting, rumor has it that these folks will deliver such decadence to your door, along with cold milk and packaged cookies.

Sounds like a sweet deal, but in reality that's not how the cookie crumbles. What the Web site doesn't proclaim is that you have to order a full week ahead of time. And that there must be a minimum of five orders per address for delivery. In short, if you don't have four friends or 50 bucks, you're out of luck. Sorry,


Average of two days ahead

On Monday after breakfast, the next meal Webvan could cater was lunch on Wednesday. That's what happens when you're dealing with the grocery delivery service extraordinaire that everyone is using.

An excellent selection of prepared foods carries the Webvan brand. Lust for hearty glazed pork chops and herbed salmon fillets, homemade soups and flaky pot pies, or vegetarian epicure African-style stews and crisp salads can be satiated here, and in generous portions.

The quality varies, but it seems the hot food was crafted with more effort. The chicken pot pie and havarti and Black Forest ham tart were excellent, the salmon croquettes with mango salsa were "eh," and the sushi was so dated and mushy that even the cats refused.

Generally speaking, for what you get, it's a good deal, even with the $5 delivery fee for orders less than $50 (no tipping allowed). Many dishes pret-a-manger are around $5 each, which may be expensive when compared to groceries, but cheap when compared with restaurant menus. Or, heaven forbid, the hours you'd spend doing the cooking

Jane Peal Cuisinère Gourmet Vegetarian Cuisine

At least one day ahead

Jane's service is a three-course ethnic vegan dinner for two delivered to your door for $25 plus tip. The price is right, and Jane, your chef and delivery gal, is as fresh, delicious, and refreshing as the whole-grain and often organic food she prepares. Such pride and attention to customer service from a chef is a standard to which any local eatery could aspire.

Jane received culinary training at, among other places, Greens, where she had an apprenticeship, and the food she prepares is remarkably similar to Greens' in flavor, preparation, and quality. Egyptian bean vegetable stew with Cairene Bohar spices and Thai Mussaman curry with peanuts, lemongrass, and ginger are as good as they sound. This is one of the best dinner delivery values in town.

But (and here's that "but" you could smell dangling in the air), convenience is exchanged for quality. Jane only delivers on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and food has to be dropped off between noon and 4 p.m. Though you may get lucky trying for dinner same day, almost all orders have to be placed at least a day in

Waiters on Wheels

An hour and a half

I'd never ordered from Waiters on Wheels for two reasons: (1) the $7 delivery fee and (2) the delivery men dressed as Orville Redenbacher in a polyester bow tie and a painfully embarrassing short red vest.

Navigating the company's Web site could take longer than delivery itself. However, if you can hack the design and are able to place your order, you're on your way to dinner delivered in an hour. Sort of.

After you click in the meal you'd like to eat at some point in the future, Waiters on Wheels calls back to confirm the order and location information. On a Thursday during the dinner hour, I was told I wouldn't see my meal for an hour and a half. I started gnawing on my keyboard as an appetizer.

In truth, the food arrived in an optimistic hour and 10 minutes. The sushi, ordered from We Be Sushi in the Mission, was very tasty, but chosen as a good option for delivery because we didn't have to worry about it getting cold. Oddly enough, it arrived warm.

Though we ordered conservatively, the bill was as rich as the hamachi – around $45 for two people after the cost of the food,
gratuity, taxes, and delivery fee.


One hour?

Film and entertainment geeks and lax late-night snackers are already fully aware of Kozmo's video and DVD rental service featuring deliveries in less than an hour, as well as its generous offer to fatten you up 24-7 with Pringles and M&Ms on request. The only thing Kozmo doesn't deliver is the bong and the stuff to fill it, and that accounts for its popularity in the first place.

Kozmo gets bonus points because it is the first online retailer to even attempt to satisfy my need for Now. Selection is limited, but did you know Kozmo will bring breakfast, lunch, or a dinner of light fare like salads, sandwiches, bagels, Tom's Peasant Pies, and frozen pizza? The prices are marked up, but there's no additional delivery fee. Sure, it's no fancy schmancy feast, but it works … most of the time.

It didn't work the day we called. I tried to order my Firecracker Ham Sandwich during the lunchtime rush, and unfortunately Kozmo's server wasn't up to the challenge. Unsure if my order had been placed or not, I phoned customer service at (877) GO-KOZMO (ever notice there's no "Z" on the phone?), which also wasn't up to the challenge.

After almost 10 minutes on hold, I discovered my customer-service rep couldn't place my order either. With a straight face, she offered to call me back when my order was placed, either that evening or the next day.

"But I'm hungry now," I whined.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Sigh. "Call me back if it can be ordered in a half hour."

And I never heard from them again.

Ton Kiang

One hour

The computer-dependent will be sad there's no online component here, and if you want to get some of the city's best Chinese food delivered to your doorstep, you've got to deal with not only the telephone but also the attitude and quick dismissals of employees who know they don't really need your business. I called three times, once to place an order, once for my total, and once again to find out how long until we would eat. Despite two requests to include a menu with the meal, it wasn't in the delivery bag dropped off as quickly as a bomb.

Nor did I ever see an itemized bill, and somehow hot and sour soup, shrimp and walnuts, and two orders of vegetables cost $45 with tip. I have no idea if there was a delivery fee. The food arrived tepid but intact, and, as a result of all the curt rushing, 10 minutes ahead of the hour Ton Kiang projected.

North Beach Pizza

45 minutes

Frustrated and hungry after nights of dinner disappointments, you're guaranteed to taste crow when ordering a pizza. The simple, round, flat pie is chock-full of the crucial ingredients every other local food delivery service lacks: convenience, speed, and reliability.

I swallow hard and punch in the URL for the Sure Thing. Sure, it's boring, just one step above a peanut butter sandwich, but on this night my laziness for people chow wins out over epicurean lust.

In 25 minutes we had dinner for two in our hands for less than $15. No other delivery option, online or off, even comes close in value or convenience.

North Beach has an online menu featuring such exotic fare as pasta and meat dishes, salads and sides, and beer and wine, but having never seen any of these items at my local North Beach location, my instincts told me to stay basic. The medium pepperoni showed up ahead of schedule, hot, gooey, and above all else, here.