Noe Valley Voice March 2009

Store Trek

By Lorraine Sanders

Store Trek is a regular Voice feature profiling new stores and businesses in Noe Valley. This month, we visit a store specializing in board games, and a new American-fare restaurant on 24th Street.

Just Awesome! The Board Game Store
816 Diamond Street at 24th Street

Generally speaking, businesses that make a habit of playing games with their customers don't go far. But there are exceptions, like Just Awesome! The Board Game Store, which opened its doors near the corner of Diamond and 24th streets on Dec. 21.

"If we don't know how to play it, we'll learn it with you," says Shane Alan, who co-owns the shop with partner Erik Mantsch.

The pair decided to open the store after relocating in 2008 from Portland to San Francisco, which they first visited during a West Coast road trip last February. As they explored the city, they were immediately taken with the neighborhood.

"I fell in love with Noe Valley. We both grew up in small cities, and we like that this is a small town in a small city," says Mantsch.

Both Alan, a behavior analyst who works with developmentally disabled adults, and Mantsch, who served as a senior airman in the Air Force during Operation Iraqi Freedom, share a love for games of all kinds. But they decided to devote their store to board games and other hands-on amusements, ranging from cards to dice to dominoes.

"There's something about that interpersonal connection that you don't get playing a Wii," says Alan, referring to Nintendo's latest video game console.

The store stocks classic board games such as Monopoly and Parcheesi, and strategy games like Checkers. It also has less well-known games like Mancala, whose African origins date back to the sixth century A.D. There is a section devoted to popular European games, such as the German multi-player board game Settlers of Catan; Pandemic, about stopping the spread of disease around the world; and Agricola, a family farm game ranked number one by the Board Game Geek website.

For kids, the store has a good supply of educational games--some teaching shapes and colors, others facts and figures, and yet others verbal and social skills. Prices at Just Awesome! range from less than a dollar for a pair of dice, to $70 for Agricola, currently the store's most expensive offering.

Also available at the shop is an original game inspired by a chance encounter Mantsch had while serving in Iraq. One day, it fell to Mantsch to escort a teenage Iraqi back to his base. Neither spoke the other's language. While the two waited in silence to be picked up from the side of a deserted road, the boy collected several stones and drew a grid in the sand. Despite the language barrier, the boy was able to teach Mantsch a game to pass the time.

Upon his return to the United States, Mantsch created his own version of the game and named it Thalatha (Arabic for "three"). It features a hand-printed canvas square and a set of small stones, and can be tied up and pocketed for easy transport. A portion of the proceeds from the game go to benefit the nonprofit Operation Iraqi Children.

Other notable aspects of the store include free gift wrap, free shipping to any APO-FPO address, and an open-box policy that allows customers to open and play any game before buying it. A back game room outfitted with tables and decorated with vintage board game boxes offers a spot for group play. Game nights, tournaments, and new-game learning nights are among the different community events Alan and Mantsch plan to hold at the store in the coming months.

A grand-opening celebration and barbecue is scheduled to take place at the store on April 1. During March, the store will hold a contest to benefit local classrooms. The prize is a $25 gift certificate for the winner and a box of board games for the classroom of the winner's choice. The drawing is March 31.

Just Awesome! is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Note that the store is often closed on Thursdays from 1 to 3 p.m., when the owners run the Awesome Games Club at Alvarado Elementary School.

City Grill
4123 24th Street at Castro Street

Local restaurateur Stefano Coppola didn't have to go far to find a home for his second local venture. In fact, he didn't even leave the block.

On Jan. 18, Coppola, who owns Lupa Trattoria at 4109 24th Street, opened City Grill in the adjacent building at 4123 24th Street, in the storefront formerly occupied by Kookez Cafe (and before that, Miss Millie's).

"It's basically a neighborhood grill," says Coppola. "We have a very simple American menu. It goes from steak to pork chops to fish, and at least one fish special every night."

Opening a new restaurant next door to one you already own might seem like a great way to poach customers from yourself, but Coppola says the location next to Lupa was actually part of the draw.

"I am not so sure what got into me in this kind of economy," he says, laughing. "But I think it was a great opportunity. It was right next to me and easy to manage. I love the space, and I love the neighborhood."

Entrees on the dinner menu at City Grill range from a natural Angus beef burger ($11.50) to pan-roasted duck breast with blood orange sauce and garlic mashed potatoes ($18) to an Angus beef New York steak ($23.50). A vegetarian option is also available each evening. In the coming weeks, Coppola plans to add a house macaroni and cheese dish.

During weekend brunch, the restaurant serves all the usual suspects, including scrambles and omelets ($9-$9.50), as well as house specialties like the chilaquiles ($10.50), a concoction of tortilla chips and sauteed onions, eggs, and chicken in an arbol chile sauce. Other standouts on the brunch menu include a starter of mussels and fries ($9.50), Italian sausage hash topped with a poached egg ($11.50), and lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry syrup ($9).

While the restaurant doesn't offer a separate kids menu, Coppola says City Grill will be glad to whip up special dishes for younger diners upon request.

"Whatever we can do for the kids, we will be happy to accommodate," he says.

City Grill is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, starting at 5:30 p.m., and offers weekend brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.