By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
Some anonymous sage once noted that San Francisco, like any great city, isn't a homogenous municipality at all: It's a collection of small towns, each with an ambience and sociocultural attitude that distinguishes it from the other 39 towns within the city limits. Some of these towns have remained the way they are for a century or so (Nob Hill's been, well, Nob Hill since the 1870s), others have evolved (the Mission's gone from Irish enclave to Latino precinct to hipster's haven in just 50 years). These neighborhoods are so distinct, so singular, uttering their names conjures up certain flashcard associations that just might be sensually accurate: Sunset = fog, Haight-Ashbury = clove cigarettes, Sea Cliff = the sound of jingling currency.
But oftentimes it's the sense of taste that distinguishes one district from another, with a neighborhood's restaurants saying at least as much about its character as its bookstores and corner saloons. Is there anything more casually Good Life than Cow Hollow's three-block stretch of Balboa, Betelnut, and Bugatti's? More espresso-fueled Old World than North Beach's Il Pollaio, L'Osteria, and Mario's? More schizoid-delectable than the Mission's cell phone-friendly Bruno's, Flying Saucer, and Slanted Door -- so close to earthy La Taqueria, Los Jarritos, and El Farolito?
The Financial District is a good case in point: Its entire reason for existence is indicated by its name, with its restaurants catering to the denizens of those omnipotent beehives that teem with humanity by day and stand, dark and empty, through the night. As a result, the surrounding eateries are mobbed at noon, the traditional hour for protein-fueled power parlays; again at dusk, when the stresses of masterminding the nation's economic meanderings demand a post-vocational scotch and soda; and less so into the evening, when the overworked struggle in for some basic sustenance before heading home.
While other segments of the city's populace devote themselves to the practice of art and medicine and music and meditation, with a corresponding diet of mizuma and chardonnay, these foot soldiers of industry require more primitive fare to maintain that global-consortial bloodlust: red meat, hard liquor, and thick, fragrant cigars. There are many places tucked into the long shadows of Wall Street West where the junior executive can sip and gnaw with impunity: Alfred's, Morton's, Original Joe's, John's Grill, and, if you like your protein briny, Sam's and Tadich's. Most of these places have been around forever (especially the latter three, which date back, respectively, to 1908, 1867, and 1849), serving simple food and drink ideal to the goal-oriented gestalt of argonauts, speculators, and dot-commers across the ages.
The Gold Coast has the old-San Francisco steak 'n' saloon look down pat. There are the brick walls, the plank and marble floors, the brass coat hooks. There are the curtained mahogany booths in which you can lunch in power-broker privacy. There's the hand-carved mahogany bar complete with life-size Irving Sinclair oil painting of a reclining and undraped blonde. There's the upper floor common in such long-ago establishments, "respectable family restaurants on their lower floors," to quote 19th-century-high-life aficionado Lucius Beebe, "but devoted in their more elevated precincts to private apartments where captains of finance might bring ladies who were patently not members of their family circle." There are delightful accouterments from many phases of our local history: The bar's from the Palace's Pied Piper Room, the painting's from the old Domino Club, the very cool World War II-era phone booth just inside the entrance comes from the Presidio, and the daily specials are framed in a box that once hosted the Haight-Ashbury Post Office's 10 Most Wanted list. Back toward the restrooms are several fascinating mementos of the 1939 Treasure Island International Exposition, and vintage snapshots of frolicking movie stars hang alongside framed Vargas nymphs and tough guys like Hemingway and William Jennings Bryan. Despite the expanse, it's all very clubby and cozy, with Adolph Sutro likely to sweep in at any minute.
But unlike Alfred's and Tadich's and Sam's, the food isn't very good here; most of it's on the perfunctory side, dry and overcooked, with an aversion to spice and zest perhaps demonstrative of the locals' booze-deadened taste buds. The split pea soup ($3) was lumpy and bland, even with a dollop of salt and pepper. The Caesar salad ($7.50), advertised though it is as "classic," was crunchy and tasteless, lacking even a smidgen of garlic or anchovy to link it to Alfred's truly classic version. The hearts of romaine salad ($4.95) had really good caramelized pecans sprinkled alongside, but there were only four of them, leaving the rest of the platter to glop around in a white-flavored dressing only occasionally enlivened by a shot of blue cheese. But a fourth starter, the wontons ($5.50), had something going for it: the crispness of the fried cracker played against the creaminess of raw ahi and the bite of wasabi, offered up canapé style.
One lunch entree, JB's Sandwich ($13.50), described on the menu as a steak sandwich with blue cheese, ought to have been described as a blue cheese sandwich with steak: Although I love my blue cheese, I'm not sure I want so much of it in a sandwich whose alleged star ingredient is a tough piece of meat skinnier than Ally McBeal's forearm. Among the dinner entrees, the thick-cut pork chop ($14.50) was absolutely taste-free (although the accompanying applesauce was nice), the pasta of the day ($14.95) -- a penne with tomato sauce -- was overly peppery in one bite, bland in the next, and the tri-tip ($14.25), scattered with mushrooms and served in a zin-based jus, was tough, chewy, and dull.