Dolce Far Niente

Absinthe; David's; Ella's; Garden Court; Liberty Cafe

Each day of the weekend has its own ethos. Friday is Friday, thank God, the night to forget the week's myriad disappointments with a post-vocational program of alcohol, bar food, loud music, and other spiritual unguents. Saturday is the day to get things done: laundry, gardening, a trip to the dump, sowing the back 40. It's immediately followed by Saturday night, a genre unto itself, the night to dress up, go out, and frolic far from the constraints of the workweek.

And then there's Sunday. The day of dolce far niente, late slumber and unplanned languor, newspapers thick with color supplements and crossword puzzles, lovingly brewed cups of coffee, mellow sunbeams, and Antonio Carlos Jobim drifting out of the stereo: how sweet, indeed, to do nothing. Brunch is the perfect protein for this day of rest. It doesn't have a rigidly settled place in the culinary cosmos -- too indulgent for breakfast, too sprawling for lunch, it exists as a sort of special-occasion hybrid, its unformed complexion ideal to a day of procrastination and indecision. It was invented just about a century ago, when circling the world took 80 days, making a phone call was a sometime thing, and there was no hurry, no hurry at all.

Absinthe has the whole leisure-genteel Edwardian atmosphere down pat. Nestled along blossoming Hayes Street within overture distance of the symphony, ballet, and opera, the restaurant can get frantic just before a matinee, but its dark-paneled brasserie elegance, redolent of chilled Lillet and Toulouse-Lautrec, is conducive to lingering conversation and good digestion. And the food is exemplary, an array of dishes that add wit and high spirits to the already lush nature of the brunch experience. Start things off with one of the venue's fine cocktails (c'mon, it's Sunday!) -- a French '75 ($8), perhaps, named (for cause) after the World War I firearm, a pleasantly tranquilizing, highly sippable concoction of gin, lemon juice, sugar, and champagne.

Absinthe has the whole leisure-genteel Edwardian atmosphere down pat.
Anthony Pidgeon
Absinthe has the whole leisure-genteel Edwardian atmosphere down pat.

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Absinthe
398 Hayes (at Gough), 551-1590. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. Muni: 21. Noise level: pleasant.

David's
480 Geary (at Taylor), 276-5950. Open Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to midnight. Reservations unnecessary. Wheelchair accessible (except bathrooms). Parking: Union Square garage, two blocks to the east. Muni: 38. Noise level: cheerful.

Ella's
500 Presidio (at California), 441-5669. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Brunch reservations accepted for parties of eight or more only. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. Muni: 1, 3, 4, 43. Noise level: bopping.

Garden Court
Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery (at Market), 546-5010. Brunch served Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Reservations necessary. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. Muni: 5, 6, 7, 9, 15, 21, 31, 38, 66, 71, F Market streetcar. Noise level: refined.

Liberty Cafe
410 Cortland (at Bennington), 695-8777. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. Muni: 24. Noise level: bubbly.

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The polenta ($5.50), an out-of-this-world version of breakfast cereal, is creaminess exponentialized, infused as it is with mascarpone cheese and maple syrup. Another eye-opener, granola ($6), is equally transcendent with its huge pecans, fresh berries, and chunks of musky-sweet papaya. The croque monsieur ($8.50) is, in essence, a really good ham and cheese sandwich, with pungent Gruyère melting into smoky Madrange ham while a dollop of Dijon adds a creamy little kick. And the omelet ($12), prepared in our case with a hint of the Creole, bursts at the seams with plump, sweet Louisiana shrimp and a devilish combination of fresh herbs. The scones ($2) are, of course, buttery and terrific.

Outdoing Absinthe in the elegance department is the Palace Hotel's Garden Court, one of those Old San Francisco icons you have to experience at least once in your lifetime. A few years ago the 130-year-old restaurant was painstakingly returned to its former luster, and the result is absolutely dazzling: a dozen crystal-dripping chandeliers illuminating brocades, statuary, and potted palms in tasteful abundance, marble pillars with memories of Enrico Caruso, Warren G. Harding, and other past tenants, and the venue's crowning glory -- a towering vaulted ceiling of lead glass intricate in its prismatic variations. Here the classic all-you-can-eat buffet brunch ($36 per person) is prepared and served every Sunday, and as a veteran of these affairs I can say it offers all the eclectic triumphs and disappointments of the genre.

On the one hand there's predominantly taste-free fruit, dull sausages, and boring ham, thick, stupid French toast, cold, hard polenta, overly rich and salty scalloped potatoes, gloppy spinach-stuffed chicken breasts, and a too-sugary tiramisu; on the other hand there's a terrific smooth-jazzy Ramos Fizz ($7), nice smoky bacon, moist salmon fillets, and tender whitefish with saffron, a simple, terrific ahi salad in a light vinaigrette, a fine selection of fresh oysters, nice little meaty spareribs, marvelously silky blintzes, an exemplary crème brûlée, and a terrific moist, lemony pound cake strewn with fresh raspberries. Bonus: the talented, Gershwin-versed pianist adding to the ambient gentility at stage center.

The gluttony-inducing buffet is one classic version of brunchtime satisfaction; another is the Upper West Side menu of lox and bagels, usually consumed en casa with the Sunday Times. There's nothing like the original version here in the Bay Area (one of the best things I've ever tasted was the smoked sturgeon on pumpernickel at Barney Greengrass at Amsterdam and 86th, but you'd have to head 400 miles down the I-5 to find anything close to it), but David's, across the street from ACT, the Curran, and other Broadway-esque establishments, gives it the old college try. Most of the elements are present and accounted for: the big Formica counter, the lore-filled menu, even Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic ($3). The lox platter ($17), enough for two people, is, however, David's pièce de résistance. This here is the best smoked salmon in the city -- creamy in texture, thick and supple, without a trace of saltiness, it's imported from Scotland, perfectly filleted, and served with really fresh sliced tomatoes and red onions, good, spiky pickles, a mound of velvety potato salad, and -- the unfortunate part-stale bagels. Solution: Stop at the Bagelry (2134 Polk at Vallejo, 441-3003) on your way to or from David's and you'll have yourself a hamper worthy of Sunday morning.

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