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Undulant masses of gloved, capped, parka'd people in pairs, trios, and alone edge forward with grim determination. Mounted police stand at the ready. New-millennium mimes in gold or silver or rusted-tin body paint distract and spook the captive passers-by. A weird aural admixture of "Silent Night," street fiddle, Stevie Wonder, and Bavarian techno-punk. The remaining hundred San Francisco Republicans straggle up Geary and protest l'affaire chad with counterrevolutionary fervor. Cabs drop fares above the Stockton Tunnel and back carefully away. Beggars and buskers and department store magnates ply their respective trades side by side. Gimpy-legged pigeons feed off the detritus of it all: just another late-November weekend in Union Square, San Francisco.
1 Grant Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94108-5801
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
865 Market St.
San Francisco, CA 94103-1900
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
Cafe Nordstrom, San Francisco Centre, 865 Market (at Powell), 243-8500. Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Noise level: bustling.
The Cellar, Macy's, 170 O'Farrell (at Stockton), 397-3333. Open Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday and Tuesday until 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday until 9 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Noise level: lively.
Rotunda, Neiman-Marcus, 150 Stockton (at Geary), 362-4777. Open for lunch Sunday through Tuesday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday until 3:30 p.m.; open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Noise level: elegant.
Parking for all venues available at the Union Square and Sutter-Stockton garages. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 30, 38, 45, 76, Powell Street cable car, Market Street buses and streetcars.
Cellar sakatini $5.75
Armani fettuccine $16
Nordstrom Cobb salad $7.25
Rotunda potato-leek soup $7
Rotunda lobster club $19.75
Sausage of the Day $4.25
Giacomo hot chocolate $1.75/small
Only an idiot would shop Union Square on the day after Thanksgiving, but I wasn't there to buy gifts; as usual, I was looking for something to eat. Getting something to eat takes on a singular importance during a hard day of Christmas shopping -- particularly around Geary and Stockton, where high claustrophobia and low blood sugar come with the territory. Luckily for all concerned, the big department stores (microcosms of abundance that they are) provide on-site sustenance in several varieties, obviating the need to (shudder) leave the premises when hunger strikes: a club sandwich is as close as a Hermes scarf. Feeling dizzy? Drop your shopping bags and nosh.
First stop is Macy's basement, aka The Cellar, one section of which has evolved into a sort of high-end international food court. Once you step off the escalator, the gustatory fires get stoked by a fine selection of copper skillets and balloon whisks and pasta machines and Veuve Cliquot and Carpathian caviar and an acre or so of chocolate bonbons from Perugina, Godiva, Neuhaus, Joseph Schmidt, and Ghirardelli. The snacking section itself is a lively gathering spot with illuminated pillars in gold, purple, and green, triangular fixtures of cut metal and gemstones, low ceilings (for that basement ambience), and a full spectrum of neon to guide you to a Ben & Jerry's ice cream cone, a Jamba Juice smoothie, a Boudin Bakery sandwich, or a slice of Wolfgang Puck pizza. The Puck nook is one of the classier cafeterias you'll ever see, with bistro-esque blackboards, elegant black plasticware, a wood-burning oven, and individual sandwich and salad stations. The thin-crusted pizza is rich and tasty, especially the smoked-chicken variety, and the spinach salad is tossed to order before your eyes with fresh baby leaves and strips of red chard dressed in a light vinaigrette. Slices of tart green apple, candied pecan halves, and dollops of goat cheese add their particular accents. Also available is roast chicken by the half and whole bird: moist inside, moderately crisp outside, with pleasant hints of onion and rosemary and, best of all, a hillock of dense, rich, creamy garlic mashed potatoes and a heavenly pan gravy redolent of mustard and tarragon.
Puck also oversees a fun little sushi bar a few yards away, complete with draft beers and a happy hour that runs from 5 to 7 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Though the rolls don't approach the best in town (especially for the price) -- the fish lacks that refreshing, cool texture one associates with exemplary sushi, the rice is too loose and dry, and the all-important presentation is unimpressive -- the atmosphere makes up for a lot. Meanwhile, the sakatini (icy sake and Ketel One vodka, shaken and served in a chilled martini glass) is certainly sushi-friendly. A few steps away is a fine dessert option -- an impressive selection of Tom's Cookies, everything from your basic chocolate chip to sun-dried cranberry-orange-walnut-oatmeal and another variety studded with blueberries and white chocolate.
If the Cellar's ambience is too frantic for your jangled nerves, head a couple of blocks east to Armani Cafe, where the surrounding cabinets of silk ties, cashmere sweaters, and impeccably tailored suits create a more tranquil setting. The monumental ceilings, enormous pillars, and intricately carved folderol of this one-time bank building look down upon a large circular counter where you can lunch in burnished, starched-napery splendor. (You can also take your meal one floor up, at mezzanine level.) The food matches the surroundings: a series of elegantly designed edible mosaics in rarefied Italian. The insalata di gamberi, for instance, dresses its selection of very fresh baby greens in a low-impact vinaigrette enlivened by garlicky grilled zucchini fillets and huge, smoky-sweet prawns. The filet- to panini features sliced filet mignon sandwiched between crispy slices of Italian bread with earthy strips of spinach, strands of sweetly caramelized onion, and a thick slab of melting, pungent Brie. The highlight, though, is the improbably summery fettuccine al sapore di mare -- al dente egg noodles cushioning tender slices of asparagus, sweet little cherry tomatoes, and half a dozen of those big, succulent, grilled prawns, all wrapped up in a light, sparkly white wine sauce.
Simpler fare is available in the San Francisco Centre at (believe it or not) Nordstrom, where the four floors of circular elegance are not unlike some towering, marbled cathedral in white and gold. Up top is Cafe Nordstrom, a sleek cafeteria that's all glass, chrome, track lighting, and hardwood floors. The low, slanting roof gives the room a garret feel that goes with the fifth-floor views up Powell Street to Nob Hill. Unfortunately, the food borders on the perfunctory. The Cobb salad features lots of big fresh greens of various shades, but the avocado's bruised, the bacon bits are positively industrial, and the chunks of chicken are overcooked. The tedious portobello in the portobello burger needs to be marinated in something or other, but the accompanying mozzarella is fresh and tart and there's nothing wrong with the caramelized onions. The spicy, heavy Santa Fe chicken sandwich has that distinctive institutional flavor despite (or perhaps because of) the presence of Jack cheese, roasted peppers, avocado, and something called "jalapeño cheese bread," but the warm apple dumpling is worth ordering for its cinnamon-edged sugar sauce, its soft, buttery pastry wrapping, and its sweet, not-too-soft stewed apple. Skip the gummy lemon bar, though.
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