By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
"I hope they still make popovers," I said as Joyce, Hiya, and I walked down Stockton to a ladies' lunch at the Rotunda, the recently refurbished restaurant on the fourth floor of Neiman Marcus. It was our first day back at work after the holidays, and though Hiya said she was experiencing a feeling of unusual optimism, both Joyce and I were suffering from seasonal malaise.
Unlike some of my friends, who dread Christmas excess and feel immediately lighter once the burden of pretending to enjoy themselves has passed, I relish the whole deal -- corny music, hokey icons, economic and gustatory excess, et al. I even had a good time doing some last-minute shopping downtown on Dec. 24. (There were a couple of kid saxophone players outside the Baby Gap on Powell who really knew how to swing.) I especially love the hazy, slow-motion, low-expectations week hammocked in between Christmas and New Year's, and this year we got an extra day of recovery on Sunday, Jan. 2. But the corollary is that I experience a letdown immediately after that week, and it was hitting me with full force that Monday. So I suggested to the girls that we treat ourselves to a meal at one of the few remaining downtown bastions of the old-fashioned department store restaurant.
My grandmother, who lived in the Sunset, used to bring me to the corner of Geary and Stockton when it was occupied by the beautiful old City of Paris store (and I. Magnin was in the white marble building across the street that is now Macy's, sigh, and Joseph Magnin was down the street, and Jimmy Stewart was watching Kim Novak try on gray suits a block away at Ransohoff's. But enough of that). The City of Paris was famous for its stained glass dome, which I'd always thought was installed in imitation of the famous dome at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, except that the City of Paris was built in 1909, and the Lafayette's famous glass-and-steel dome and central art nouveau staircase were built in 1912. (The tea salon at Au Printemps, the equally venerable Parisian department store, has its own belle époquestained glass dome, so perhaps that was the inspiration.)
San Francisco, CA 94108
Region: Union Square/ Financial District
Ahi poke $14.50
Crab Louie $28.50
Filet mignon $29
Crème brûlée $8
Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
Muni: 30, 38, 45
Noise level: low to moderate
In any case, when Neiman Marcus bought the store, it carefully dismantled "The Glass Ship," as the dome is called -- all 26,000 pieces of it -- and had it cleaned, restored, and reinstalled. It's best viewed from the restaurant that's now tucked up right underneath it. But we paused on our way upstairs, distracted by tempting cases full of jewelry and glimpses of those designer handbags priced in the thousands of dollars that are familiar to me only from photographs in Vogue and In Style, in which they hang off the arms of celebrities who, one imagines cynically, usually receive them for free. At a strategically located table laden with Jo Malone perfume samples, we tried several sweet scents, all food-related: Grapefruit, Fig and Cassis, Orange Blossom.
When Hiya suggested checking out the shoes, I said, "After," and we took the escalators to the fourth floor, manfully (womanfully?) ignoring the appeal of the racks of clothing so artfully displayed on every level. (It's not by accident that Zola's wonderful novel about the rise of the department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, literally "At the Happiness of Ladies," is variously translated as The Ladies' Delight or The Ladies' Paradise.)
The Rotunda was reopened after a glitzy renovation, all cream and gold, a couple of months ago, but the rest of the fourth floor was still under construction when we arrived, hidden behind immaculate white drapes. We were early enough to be led to the prime location of the place, the tables clinging to the glass wall above Neiman's entrance, with a stunning full view of Union Square. (For comfort, I'd choose the deep semicircular booths ringing the round room, but you can't beat that view, even though I pointed out that it's now sadly dominated by the uninspiring '60s- and '70s-era buildings that house Saks, Tiffany, and the Levi's store on Post; only the structure that has become the Williams-Sonoma flagship suggests what that block once was like.) Joyce took advantage of our vantage to criticize the fashion choices of the shoppers far below.
I was a little stunned when we opened our menus. I used to frequent the Beverly Hills Neiman (well, if you can call one visit a year "frequenting") for a bowl of corn chowder or a chicken pot pie, mostly to assure myself that the place was still offering its glossy, airy, eggy popovers, a soufflélike bread (not unlike a Yorkshire pudding, Joyce pointed out, without the drippings) that has all but disappeared from the dining scene. I was pleased to see, under soups and starters, that "Neiman Marcus tradition includes hot chicken broth, popovers, and strawberry butter," but what stunned me were the prices: The starters escalate quickly from $7.50 (for the soup of the day, which was three-onion) and $9 for a Caesar salad to $13.75 (for lobster spring rolls), $15.50 (for crab cakes), even $90 (for 30 grams of osetra caviar). And the main courses, which start at $15 for an artichoke, green olive, and lemon risotto, quickly arrive at the giddy heights of $29 (for lobster pot pie).