Steak Out

When you crave a big hunk of meat, Alfred's is the place (since 1928)

For the first week or so that I was in Russia, enjoying the food, some familiar (three versions of chicken Kiev; many diverse cabbage borschts; terrific blini, whether served with caviar, smoked salmon, or farmer's cheese and preserves), some not (manitschki, baked perch fillet with cabbage, cheese, and sour cream; cream of celery soup with shrimp; pork stew in onion-marjoram sauce with bread dumplings), I had a re-entry plan in mind for San Francisco. I would visit a couple of Russian restaurants on Clement Street (mourning the absence of my old favorite, the Miniature Bakery-Restaurant, and its stroganoff, pelmeni, piroshki, and tea served in glasses with an inch of cherry preserves), and do a kind of compare-and-contrast.

But as the weeks wore on, my plan changed. I knew what I wanted to have -- no, needed to have -- as my first restaurant meal when I got home: a thick charcoal-grilled steak and a baked potato.

Not that I couldn't have found something approximating that on my travels. The numerous McDonald's dotting the landscape (some with signs in Cyrillic, but most just reading "McDonald's") have been joined by T.G.I. Friday's, and there's a Hard Rock Cafe on Old Arbat Street in Moscow, steps away from the Literary Cafe frequented by Mayakovski and Yesenin in the 1920s. Hell, sitting on the Parisian-feeling terrace of a small but cosmopolitan Georgian restaurant in Kiev, I read the following entry: "American Steak." And now, a week later and 6,000 miles away, I think it might have been interesting to find out what their idea of an American steak was, but I ordered chicken livers and onions and chicken on the bone sautéed with an amazing quantity of minced garlic, and was certain I had stumbled upon one of the best restaurants in Kiev.

Mirrors, dark wood paneling, plush carpets, and red 
leather upholstery create a gentleman's club look.
James Sanders
Mirrors, dark wood paneling, plush carpets, and red leather upholstery create a gentleman's club look.

Location Info


Alfred's Steakhouse

659 Merchant
San Francisco, CA 94111

Category: Restaurant > Steakhouse

Region: Union Square/ Financial District


Margarita $5.25

Mixed green salad with blue cheese $8.50

Twenty-ounce porterhouse $28

Bone-in New York $29

Béarnaise sauce $3

Fried crème $4.75

Cappuccino $2.75


Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10.

Reservations accepted.

Wheelchair accessible.

Parking: validated for 2 1/2 hours at the Holiday Inn lot on Kearny.

Muni: 1, 15. Noise level: high.

659 Merchant (at Kearny)

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Back in San Francisco, I wanted an old-fashioned steak dinner, so I chose Alfred's Steak House, in business since 1928. I enlisted my parents as companions: They were willing, even though my mother is convinced that my father is evolving into a vegetarian (this is because, when she asks him what he feels like for dinner, he'll sometimes answer, "A vegetable stir-fry," thinking he's requesting a nice simple dish, not realizing how much more work slicing and dicing a number of vegetables is, as compared to throwing a chop in a pan or sticking a chicken in the oven). As we drove across the bay, my father was unsure if he'd ever been to Alfred's before. "Is it on Broadway, near Van Ness?" he asked, and I said no, it's on a little alley off Kearny: "It's been there forever," I said, blithely. "When we moved to San Francisco, it had been here forever," Dad said, dryly.

"Forever," at the Merchant Street address, turned out to be eight years, when Alfred's had moved from the Broadway location that Dad remembered, however vaguely (it was perched on top of the Broadway Tunnel). Doris Muscatine, in her 1963 A Cook's Tour of San Francisco, says that for years the steakhouse was known as the 886, its address on Broadway. The Alfred of the title was Alfred Bacchini, a veteran of many other San Francisco restaurants. Alfred's birthplace in Cattolica, Italy, explained the presence on the menu of homemade ravioli, as well as the prosciutto mentioned in my 1958 copy of Duncan Hine's Adventures in Good Eating, and the antipasto (or relishes) of olives, peperoni (sic), salami, Italian ham, and stuffed celery cited in the 1937 Eating Around San Francisco, in which the restaurant is still known as 886 Broadway, and its décor is "modernistic": "soft and clean-appearing color scheme of cream and blue ... curtains at the booths are of natural colored burlap ... Venetian blinds add to the up-to-date air."

Venetian blinds and natural-colored burlap might have been up to date in 1937, but today everything old is new again, and Alfred's has gone the well-worn route that often is said to look like a gentleman's club: mirrors, dark wood paneling, plush carpets, red leather upholstery. We're led to a deep, comfy booth toward the back of the main room; my father's eyebrows are raised, almost immediately, by the cutting voices of the fivesome sitting at a round table close to us. "Don't worry, Dad," I say, "it looks like they're on dessert," an observation validated by one woman's loud appraisal of her cappuccino mud pie, which she thinks is delicious. She's so happy she ordered it. I am somewhat less so.

A girlfriend of mine had mentioned how shocked she was that Alfred's offers meat graded Choice rather than Prime, which one usually expects at a classy steakhouse. The restaurant rather cutely tries to confuse the issue, a little, in its description of its meat right at the top of the menu: "Alfred's exclusively uses aged (4 to 6 weeks) primal cuts of specially selected, certified BLACK ANGUS cattle, USDA Choice Grade or higher." Just what is a "primal cut," anyway?

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, after all, and I am excited in anticipation of my main course: the 20-ounce porterhouse ("The Prince") grilled over mesquite charcoal. (It's the smallest of three porterhouses on the menu; "The King" is 32 ounces, "The Kingdom" is 60 ounces -- and a discreet "1 hour" after its name on the menu lets you know how long it'll take to cook, though the number it could feed would be more useful.)

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