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Gold Coast

Wednesday, May 3 2000
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.

For dessert we headed upstairs to the Rod & Gun Club, an air-filtered cigar lounge that recently hosted the Financial District's version of a political rally: an event titled "Save the Cuban Cigar." In addition to the six breeds of stogie ($7.50 to $18 per), there's a small bar, a pool table, comfortable chairs, and a shabby-around-the-edges elegance, with more memorabilia -- paintings, fishing tackle, a framed 4-yard-long cigar -- adding to the ambience.

Unfortunately, the food once again failed to live up to the surroundings. The Jack Daniel's pecan pie ($4.50) came to the table so hot from overwarming it was charred on top, which was at least a culinary relief from its bland, pecan-heavy filling (you need at least a little sugary glop in any pecan pie). The coconut crème brûlée ($4.50) was, by contrast, absolutely tepid, with none of the dish's signature hot-caramel spark and an overly sweet, lumpy, seemingly cream-free crème underneath. The deep-dish apple pie ($4.50) featured overcooked, oversweetened fruit in a cardboardlike crust. The chocolate-espresso cheesecake ($4.50), on the other hand, was the best dish we ordered over the course of two visits: dense, rich, creamy, and imbued with the sort of chocolate that is thankfully available without prescription.

The Gold Coast's 66-item wine list is, appropriately enough, mostly red in hue and California-oriented, ranging in price from a Christophe sauvignon blanc ($20) to Beaulieu's '68 cab ($350), with most bottles in the $20 to $40 vicinity. Answer-ing to the needs of the neighborhood, the Gold Coast's spirits arsenal is impressive: 20 single malts, 17 small-batch bourbons, 14 brandies, and 13 tequilas (including El Tesoro's Paradiso at $16 a shot), as well as a wide variety of rums, gins, vodkas, and liqueurs.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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