Deco Dreams

An art show's lingering effects take us on a tour of deco restaurants

Last year the American Museum of Natural History in New York presented a crowd-pleasing show about chocolate (titled, neatly, "Chocolate: The Exhibition"), and, not one to miss a trick, opened a special little eatery (called, with admirable restraint, the Chocolate Café) to tempt attendees who had just viewed pre-Columbian ceramics, European silver chocolate services, 19th-century cocoa tins, and holiday candy molds with the hazelnut chocolate biscotti, chocolate croissants, and triple chocolate cakes of their dreams. (There were even chocolate-covered potato chips and three different chocolate stouts on the menu, not really the stuff of anybody's dreams. Nightmares, maybe.)

I found myself wondering, during two visits to the recently ended "Art Deco 1910-1939" show at the Legion of Honor, just what form a cafe created in the exhibit's style would take. Such an eatery would be a celebration more of form than content, and wouldn't recognize an art deco school of cuisine (though an insistent reverie of gleaming black beads of caviar next to stark white sour cream in the era's silver dishes danced in my head). There was a lot of old-fashioned food served on those modernistic dishes -- creamed chicken and peas in patty shells, for instance. (If it was a show of Italian futurism, that would be different. That would be easy. Its chief theorist, F.T. Marinetti, literally wrote the book -- The Futurist Cookbook -- on that one, and we'd be supping on fennel and kumquats with sandpaper and velvet.) There'd be cocktails, of course; cocktails were quintessential deco. How could a martini glass not be deco? Anyway, it would be all about the setting, everything snappy and shiny. (Not that there isn't room for several kinds of art deco, not to mention disagreement among the proponents of each. An article a few weeks ago in the New York Times, in support of a furniture show called "Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco" at the Metropolitan Museum, allowed as how the Chrysler Building isn't art deco. And if the Chrysler Building isn't art deco, then I'm Queen Marie of Roumania.)

I wished I could visit the now-altered Redwood Room at the Clift, which in its original state was pictured on the cover of Deco by the Bay: Art Deco Architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area, a 1995 book by Michael F. Crowe. Or the wonderfully named Patent Leather Bar and Orchid Room, preserved in gleaming Ansel Adams photographs, the original inhabitant of the space at the St. Francis that became the Compass Rose and is now Restaurant Michael Mina.

Supper Club Time: Bix.
Anthony Pidgeon
Supper Club Time: Bix.

Location Info

Map

Bix Restaurant

56 Gold
San Francisco, CA 94102

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Union Square/ Financial District

Details

Bix

Salmon and potato pancake $11

Grilled marrow bones $10

Truffled hamburger $18

Mascarpone mousse $8

Shanghai 1930

Eel salad $8.95

Glazed pork belly $14.95

Fish on a vine $15.95

Bix, 56 Gold (at Montgomery), 433-6300. Open for dinner Sunday and Monday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday until 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight. Open for lunch on Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet $10. Muni: 10, 12, 15, 41. Noise level: moderate to high.

Shanghai 1930, 133 Steuart (at Mission), 896-5600. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet $12 at lunch, $10 at dinner. Muni: 2, 7, 9, 14, 21, 66, 71. Noise level: moderate to high.

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But I did manage to trip through time for several meals, imbibing art deco atmosphere along with tasty viands that fed our 21st-century appetites. Peter, Anita, and I supped charmingly at Bix, an S.F. stalwart that is the closest thing we have to a supper club, a two-story room smack in the middle of the Barbary Coast and once home to a nightclub that celebrated New Year's Eve every night (just the thought of that exhausts me). At Bix, the exuberance is still there, though considerably more contained. The atmosphere is sweetened by nightly live music (solo piano at the beginning of the week, complemented later by a vocalist; by the weekend, there's a jazz trio on hand), and there's always a lively crowd clustered in front of the massive bar, backed by many shelves of glittering bottles. (M.F.K. Fisher once wrote that you should never eat in a restaurant that features live music, but in this case she would be wrong.)

The upstairs (reached by a dizzying staircase) is ringed with cozy booths. Under a poster of Josephine Baker there's a glass-fronted case displaying art deco cocktail shakers and period books, including the classic Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930, with its iconic cover of a silhouetted man quaffing a drink, its intoxicating path tracing a zigzag through his body. The menu reads like a supper club, too, though filtered through a modern sensibility ("BIX supports local farmers and sustainable agriculture"). There are lots of interesting hors d'oeuvres (not a heading one sees often these days), such as potato pillows with crème fraîche and caviar, listed before first courses such as steak tartare and oysters on the half shell, several salads, and entrees including grilled wild salmon and duck breast.

Our cocktails (mine a perfect Sidecar) arrived in individual silver shakers, given another brisk rumba at the table. Our food was unfailingly luxurious in conception, though the realization faltered a bit: There was nothing wrong with the celery-cured wild salmon with potato pancake and a sprinkling of caviar or with the simultaneously old-fashioned and very of-the-moment grilled marrow bones "St. John" with parsley salad, an homage to Fergus Henderson's London restaurant, and we love love loved the juicy truffled hamburger on rye toast with frites (we'd come back for it). But the tempura-fried Idaho morels were soggy rather than crisp, and the kitchen seemed to have an odd fetish for cherry tomatoes, which overpowered the Maine lobster spaghetti and were very present on the plate of two round patties of chicken hash, a traditional dish that almost worked. Still, it was clear that the kitchen was motivated by the concept of deliciousness, especially when we dived into a bowl of rummy bananas Foster over vanilla ice cream and a caramelized frozen mascarpone mousse over chunks of Blossom Bluff nectarines -- pure genius.

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