Supping Theatrically

An entertaining bite in the Petit Cafe completes the evening in grand style

Calvin Trillin has a ready answer when questioned about why he and his family chose to live in New York: "We're big eaters." I had a standard response to the same query during the years I lived there, too: "I like things that require tickets." By which I meant museums, concerts, and (most especially) the theater. (God bless the half-price TKTS booth, or I couldn't have managed to see most of what I did.)

But somehow my obsession with tickets (and the experiences they purchase) changed in San Francisco. It's not just that there's much less theater here to see -- and much less importance accorded to it in the city's cultural life. After all, in certain areas my relationship improved: For instance, $10 standing room tickets at the opera, usually available even at the last minute, noticeably upped my attendance there. But for the stage I was used to open-ended runs, and the tight booking in the major local houses confused me. I missed several shows I wanted to see just because I didn't get around to seeing them, if you know what I mean.

There was more going on than just cultural sloth. I lacked companions who were equally eager to drop big bucks in the pursuit of these evanescent pleasures. And though it was easy to find congenial eateries in the Civic Center vicinity for a civilized snack after an event -- which I prefer to rushing through an early dinner in advance, not being a fan of watching the clock, nor of the somnolence that alcohol and food encourages, especially if one is to be seated in dim light for several hours -- I wasn't as happy with the choices available around Union Square, where most of the big theater houses lie.

Over-the-top décor at the Petit Cafe blends 
art nouveau motifs with life-size sculptures.
James Sanders
Over-the-top décor at the Petit Cafe blends art nouveau motifs with life-size sculptures.

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Maker's Mark Manhattan $7.50

Roasted prawns $10

Oysters $2-2.50 each

Grilled chicken $11.50

Onion and Gruyère tart $7.50

Mushroom pizza $9.50

Chocolate dome $7.50

292-0101

Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. until 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight

No reservations

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 2, 3, 4, 27, 38

Noise level: moderate to high

Hotel Monaco, 501 Geary (at Taylor)

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It takes a while to establish patterns and rhythms of use. Although there's a similar discount operation to TKTS here, I never really started using it. I found myself watching a lot more television.

Recently something in me snapped. There were a number of things in town that I wanted to see, and I just went nuts and bought several tickets (good seats, too; I justified the startling expense -- $72 and a $9 "convenience" fee? -- by reminding myself how few ducats I'd bought lately). First I saw David Mamet's adaptation of Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance at ACT, which I found disappointingly thin -- I think I missed the hour or so of subplots and character development that Mamet cut out in order to reveal the central generations-of-con-men plot that likely attracted him to the play.

I wanted to prolong the English feeling that the evening had induced; in London, if I'd been feeling traditional, there'd be Manzi's or the Ivy or Rules. A few oysters would be nice, I thought, or a bird and a bottle. (Oh God, the game at Rules, the only place I've tasted snipe and woodcock!) So I wandered up the street to the Grand Cafe, which I knew had installed a new French chef and was celebrating its 10th year in business, rather venerable in today's restaurant terms (though not a patch on Rules, which served its first oyster in 1798).

But then I clutched. The menu posted outside its doors did mention oysters, but its entree prices were in the mid-20s, and I felt too casually dressed and not quite hungry enough. Also too solitary, like a spinster character in a short story by Katharine Mansfield. I thought of the title of Brian Moore's best book: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. I slunk back to BART, abashed.

I tried again a few days later, after a matinee of As You Like It directed by Peter Hall and starring his daughter, Rebecca. I was better dressed this time. I stared at the menu outside the Grand Cafe, trying to will myself into appetite, until I realized the place didn't start serving dinner for an hour -- an hour I was unwilling to kill around Union Square. Abashed again. But though there were many things on the menu that were tempting, it felt like a menu for an occasion, not a bite after the theater. What I wanted was a chic little unintimidating list.

On my third attempt, after an exhilarating matinee of I Am My Own Wife (Pulitzer and Tonys fully deserved), nothing was going to stop me. I marched right up to the doors of the Grand Cafe and went through. And just inside those doors I found, on a little stand, the after-theater menu of my dreams. Oysters. Cheese. Appealing small plates, including steak tartare, ratatouille baked with goat cheese, and an onion, Gruyère, and bacon tart. A few salads. A few pizzas. And a few entrees, including a hamburger, grilled rib-eye, and (pace Elizabeth David) an offering called "An Omelette and a Glass of Wine." Everything was under $11.50, save the steak, which topped out at $16.

This was the menu of the bar/lounge of the Hotel Monaco, aka the Petit Cafe, and it was exactly what I wanted. I sat down in an exceedingly comfy corner banquette near the bar and asked for a Sidecar and half a dozen oysters, to be followed by a plate of steak tartare and a glass of red wine.

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