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Supping Theatrically 

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

Wednesday, Jun 15 2005
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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.

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.

But it was not to be. I had unwittingly stumbled in on Mother's Day, when a $50 brunch buffet had been set up in the main room of the Petit Cafe, opposite the bar. The staff was busy breaking it down, and the kitchen was unwilling to prepare anything at all for about an hour and a half. The Sidecar was excellent, but still.

The Petit Cafe's menu had inflamed my hungers, and I was back in about 30 hours, having offered my goddaughter an evening of Lennon, which I'd seen on offer at the half-price ticket booth, followed by supper. She politely declined the musical, on the basis of miserable reviews, and we substituted Sin City, thereby saving me about 80 bucks. Which made the gentle prices at the cafe even more appealing, especially in such a luxe, over-the-top setting, which somehow happily blends deco light fixtures with art nouveau-influenced swirling motifs, turn-of-the-century pen-and-ink drawings, and rather kitschy large sculptures, including life-size humans with rabbit ears.

We shared a tasty starter of big shells-on prawns roasted in a wood oven, bathed in sherry, garlic, and red pepper, which in its earthenware dish could have come from a real Spanish tapas bar. Anna, who just turned 21, ordered her second legal drink, choosing a Key lime martini over the more familiar Lemon Drop or margarita, again expertly made. We chatted with a foursome snapping pictures of one another at the next table: I offered to take a picture of them all together, and it turned out that they were up from Los Angeles for the premiere of the play one of them had written, called Down and Out, at the Hip Hop Theater Festival at the Bravo. "L.A. represent!" they cried when they heard that both Anna and I had lived there. "Come to our play," they said, and I wished I could, but I already had tickets for Bebe Neuwirth in Here Lies Jenny that night. (And I knew where I was going to eat after.)

Then Anna tucked into a simple grilled chicken breast with a lemony herbed vinaigrette, sided by mashed potatoes: a little plain for my tastes, but she loved it. "It's the best meal we've had together," she said, nostalgic because it was the last one before she left Berkeley to spend the summer in L.A. I was almost as happy with my grilled rib-eye, chewy and flavorful under its melting nugget of maître d'hôtel butter. I toted a bit of it away, as Anna did half of her rich chocolate-hazelnut dome dessert, an elaborate, delicious cake-and-mousse confection garnished with citrus sorbet and crème anglaise. (The two restaurants offer the same dessert menu.)

I loved our little supper, but I liked the one after Here Lies Jenny, an arrangement of Kurt Weill songs in something of a story arc, even better. Everything fell into place: I had a willing companion in my friend Lee; the Post Street Theater, once an Elks Lodge assembly hall (built in 1924), was architecturally interesting, and we had great seats; the songs were terrific and well sung (and danced to) by the six-member cast. It felt like $50 well spent, and so did the luscious $60 supper (before tip) we shared afterward. Finally I got my oysters, an assortment including local Kumamoto, Hog Island, and Miyagi, and Malpeque from British Columbia and Pearl Point from Oregon. They were perfect with a glass of Riesling. Lee's Manhattan convinced me that the Petit Cafe is one of the most serious bars in San Francisco. I'd ordered the caramelized onion and Gruyère tart with bacon, Lee the roasted mushroom and onion pizza with fontina, and our dishes looked alike. The tiny quichelike tart I'd envisioned turned out to be a version of the French tarte flambé, more like a pizza than a quiche, its flaky crust covered with onions, cheese, and bacon, a little messy and free-form. Lee surprised both of us by eating all of her earthy pizza (I thought she'd take half of it home) and then all of the large portion of vanilla bean crème brûlée that followed. I savored a cup of coffee and relaxed.

Theatergoing in San Francisco had just become infinitely more appealing. I was already looking forward to supper after The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?: maybe a salad lyonnaise or the grilled Meyer Ranch angus cheeseburger, and I really must try the banana cream pie with macadamia shortbread crust. And next there was The Mambo Kings -- maybe then I'd get my steak tartare.

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Meredith Brody

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