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And then there are the neighborhood hangouts -- not particularly fancy places, but not at all scruffy, either -- that serve up brunches so outstanding in quality and invention, they inspire Sunday sluggards to cross the city and join the locals in lines that stretch down the block. The Liberty Cafe is located in Bernal Heights, a neighborhood more reminiscent of a Gold Country village than its location (between the Lower Mission and the Bayshore Freeway) would indicate. This dichotomy is exemplified in the Liberty's food: basic grub informed by big-city elegance and imagination.
Example: the house-made granola ($3.50), a light and lovely semisweet combination of nuts and grains served with bananas and milk. Or the hash ($7.50), a high-class rib-sticker glistening with pungent shards of corned beef, onion, and potato, two perfectly poached eggs adding creamy support on top. Or the French toast ($6.50, $7.50 with fruit in season), made from thick slabs of house-baked challah, a wonderfully buttery maple syrup infusing the whole. The setting is funky and friendly, and there's a bakery out back where you can purchase the breadstuffs and other delights that just went into your memorable brunch.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ella's is a perpetually packed Presidio Heights institution (the line starts forming half an hour before the doors open at 9 a.m.), and for good reason. The setting, a simply elegant wood-burnished quasi-bistro dappled in sunlight, hums with professional acumen, and the food that emerges from the kitchen with admirable speed is marvelously inventive. The chilled fruit on the fresh fruit platter ($3.50 small, $4.75 large) -- strawberries, mango, pineapple, pith-free grapefruit, and orange at our visit -- is not only sweetly, impeccably fresh, it forsakes the usual bowl presentation for an intricate and lovely origami arrangement. The sticky bun ($2.75) is huge, glaze-hard on the outside and buttery-rich within, with crunchy pecans (lots of 'em) adding texture and contrast. The Bloody Mary ($5.50) is potent, spicy with horseradish but not too hot for a gentle Sunday morning, while the Ramos ($6.50) is the venue's one disappointment: too sweet, too orange-flowery, too much taste of gin. (The proper Fizz is like a potable, barely scented pillow.)
But the French toast ($4.25), prepared with bread baked on the premises, is as dense and delightful as a slice of barely sweetened cake, with none of the sog that usually besmirches this breakfast classic, and ribbons of orange rind lightening the whole. And our scramble of the day ($9.50) featured creamy-moist eggs jazzed with bright little capers and generous chunks of briny, silken smoked trout -- a dish at once luxurious, satisfying, and worth lingering over, a perfect evocation of the brunch experience.
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