Class Act

Falling in love again with Rubicon, still at the top of its game after a decade

Some tastes are acquired, but sometimes we fall in love immediately. Such was the case for me with the writing of Geoff Dyer, the music of Elvis Costello, the plays and movies of David Mamet, the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, the cooking of Tom Colicchio -- to name just a few that spring to mind. Once the die was cast, I would follow these artists wherever they chose to go, whether Dyer wrote about D.H. Lawrence, jazz, or yoga; whether Costello performed with the Attractions or the Brodsky Quartet; whether Mamet covered gangster con men, Secret Service con men, or Hollywood con men. And in the dicey and expensive realm of keeping up with culture, my affinity for these artists cuts the odds: Buying a ticket (in the form of a book or a meal) to their world is almost a sure thing. I don't have to wait for the paperback or the DVD; investing whatever it costs translates to pure pleasure, and then some. I can feel my world expanding as I get a glimpse into theirs.

Such was the case many years ago when I first heard a concert performance by William Bolcom and Joan Morris. I knew vaguely that Bolcom was a composer of classical music, but I bought a ticket because I love American popular music, and a friend had played for me his first joint album with Morris, After the Ball, subtitled A Treasury of Turn-of-the-Century Popular Songs. I was immediately entranced by their classy double act: He played the piano, immaculately attired in a dinner jacket, and she swept onto the stage in a strapless ball gown that, as I remember it, matched her red hair. There was witty patter, at the same time educational and charming, between the heartfelt performances of the songs, drawn from many decades and styles. It was the kind of evening that sends you out into the night air tingling with delight; life seems to hold more possibilities than it did before.

I know I sound a little goofy, but that's what falling in love does to you, whether it's with art or an egg salad sandwich. After that first concert, I knew that Bolcom and Morris were a guaranteed good time, whether I spent money on one of their many albums, devoted to the music of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, or others much more obscure; books (Bolcom wrote, among others, Reminiscing With Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, with Robert Kimball, as part of his fascination with and reinvigoration of ragtime); or concert tickets.

Drink It In: Rubicon was one of the first 
wine-driven restaurants.
James Sanders
Drink It In: Rubicon was one of the first wine-driven restaurants.


Duck charcuterie $14

Seared foie gras $21

Pork tenderloin with polenta $31

Duck breast with rhubarb $32

Bleu de Basque and pear tartlet $10

Frozen milk chocolate mousse $10

2001 Kracher Eiswein $22/glass


Open for lunch on Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: valet, $10

Muni: 1, 10, 15, 41

Noise level: low to moderate

558 Sacramento (at Sansome)

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If I'd been more fanatical -- or just wealthier -- I could (and would) have traveled all over the world to see premieres and concerts of Bolcom's numerous classical compositions, from chamber music to song cycles to symphonies, including several operas. So when I found out that Bolcom and Morris were doing a series of three free lecture-concerts at UC Berkeley, during his tenure as visiting professor, I was there for every one, feeling privileged. So privileged, in fact, that after yet another free concert by the duo, in the dazzling new SOMA space of the Piedmont Piano Co., I asked them out to dinner. It seemed the least I could do.

We agreed upon a night, and I drove up into the Oakland hills to pick them up at their temporary abode, the house of a well-known Bay Area harpsichordist. The living room was dominated by his gleaming black-and-gold instrument, its maker's name and location and its manufacture date emblazoned in red on a gilt background above the keyboard: John Philips Berkeley 1997. Resting casually on it was an original score by Couperin, dated 1717. "Signed by the author," Bolcom said, equally casually, and sat down and played a movement. "Sight reading!" he said triumphantly as he stood up.

I hadn't even had a glass of wine yet, and I was already flushed and a little unsteady. I was thinking about wine, however, because we were heading to Rubicon, for many years one of my two or three favorite San Francisco restaurants, which I hadn't visited in a long time. The sole local eatery of famed, flamboyant New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent, Rubicon was one of the first wine-driven restaurants, with a book-length wine list exquisitely delineating the attractions of 1,700 or so vintages, under the stewardship of Larry Stone, one of the most honored sommeliers in the business. (I noted, as we drove across the bay, that I knew Stone's name and that Traci Des Jardins had been Rubicon's celebrated opening chef, but not who Rubicon's current chef was.)

We find a parking place a block away, one of the pleasures of the Financial District after dark, and walk to the restaurant, an erstwhile firehouse with a discreet entrance. I love the way Rubicon looks: exposed brick walls, snowy white napery, comfy classic bentwood chairs, and an explosion of glass art from the dean of American glass blowers, Dale Chihuly, like Bolcom a Seattle native. (Morris is from Portland; she met and married Bolcom in New York City.) We're early for our 8 p.m. reservation and linger at the pleasant downstairs curved bar, Bolcom sipping a glass of 2003 Stolpman syrah from the Santa Ynez Valley, chosen from a collection of bottles clustered at one end, me enjoying a glass of 2003 Lois Grüner veltliner off the by-the-glass list, and Morris having a shot of Fernet-Branca on the rocks, to settle the aftereffects of a dodgy shrimp consumed earlier.

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