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Choosing a hangout is one of the most important things to do when you're settling into a new neighborhood. While finding the closest movie theater and the nearest purveyor of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Crunch is of nearly comparable magnitude, a hangout provides a measure of comfort in a largely uncaring urban landscape. Of course, finding a haunt suited to one's temperament is a bit trickier. The primary qualification -- the mood -- is individual and amorphous. It could be any sort of public gathering place (coffeehouse, bookstore, bar, or bistro), but comfy seating and friendly vibes are vital. It has to be within walking distance of your new home; you can't take a bus to a hangout. And if it serves vittles along with its java and joviality, it should offer the timeless comfort food the city dweller can return to again and again.
Street, a 7-month-old Polk Gulch bar/ restaurant, boasts several attributes of a fine hangout. I moved into the neighborhood a year and a half ago, and after extensive research in the field had just about given up on finding a place where I could straggle in after a soul-grinding day of wage-earning and relax among my neighbors. There are several saloons along my stretch of Polk, but most of them are drenched in the sullen glam endemic to the neighborhood; the one or two bars moody enough for my purposes serve only beer and wine. (The possibility of an ice-cold martini is one of my personal hangout prerequisites.)
You can get a martini -- or a Manhattan or a Mojito -- at Street's fully stocked bar, but that's only one reason for dropping in. The reception is so friendly that after a couple of visits you'll feel like a treasured regular. The long, handsome counter behind which the drinks are prepared is ideal for single diners and spontaneous conversation. The pleasantly dusky lighting creates an intimate mood, broken only rarely by the high acoustic level. The changing menu of classic American bites served with care and unexpected flashes of wit is good enough to warrant repeat visits.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 6 to 10 p.m.
Noise level: loud
The joint is located across the street from Real Foods in the former home of the Wa-Ha-Ka and Sweet Heat "world wrap" establishments. A curvy, 12- seat bar situated toward the back dominates the lengthy, narrow space; several small tables line the walls up front. The room's cool-industrial confluence of exposed pipes and rough cement is warmed here and there by splashes of forest green and deep cranberry, sparkly little cobalt light fixtures, and the occasional landscape painting. The ambience switches back and forth from cozy to lively on a moment's notice, and after a pleasant evening of sipping, supping, music, and chitchat you'll feel right at home.
Chef/owner John Lamkin, who can be seen presiding over the open kitchen most every evening, serves comfort-food classics with plenty of panache. Dining there as I do once or twice a week, I can report that the food is consistently good, even surprisingly good, as well as moderately priced and generous in proportion. Especially popular is the Sunday evening spread of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, and corn bread: the restaurant's mission statement in a tasty microcosm. The thighs and drumsticks are juicy and tender, with a buttermilk crust that's all steam and crunch, and the bed of spuds is as creamy and dense as it should be. The coleslaw is contrastingly crisp and spiced with garlic and a hint of citrus, and the sour cream corn bread (which costs an extra $1.50) is like a thick slab of polenta -- rich and decadent.
On a cool autumn night it's best to begin your meal with a bowl of soul-soothing soup. Perhaps a thick brew of roasted butternut squash, mascarpone cheese, a hint of maple, and crunchy pumpkin seeds would do, or better yet, the corn chowder with roasted red pepper and bits of chicken and andouille sausage, a startlingly good, satisfying bowl. The Caesar is as bland as all the other modern renditions around town, but another salad tops its peppery mixed greens with a lusty tapenade-laden crouton and a warm, delicate custard of cloudlike goat cheese. The fried calamari is considerably lighter in texture than most of its competitors, while the hummus platter with grilled eggplant and pita triangles is serviceably garlicky.
Fresh seafood is a Street specialty. The king salmon is especially light and moist, served with a dab of tomato butter, mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, and string beans. The dreamy grilled ahi is also served with mashed Yukons, but it takes on an entirely different flavor thanks to its accents of toy box tomatoes, arugula, dill, and sevruga caviar. Best of all are the sweet, plump Gulf prawns served in a saffron-scented lobster broth poured over the establishment's buttery, thick, house-made pasta. If red meat is what you're craving, there's always the exemplary grilled-sirloin Street Burger, served on a fluffy kaiser roll with your choice of apple-smoked bacon, fire-roasted onions, Gruyère, pepper jack, or (my favorite) sharp white cheddar from upstate New York.