A recent piece by ex-San Franciscan Kim Severson in The New York Times, "Is the Entrée Heading for Extinction?," deliberately overstated its case in its first line: "The entrée, long the undisputed centerpiece of an American restaurant, is dead."
Having gotten your attention, Severson's declaration was immediately modified in the second sentence: "Okay, so maybe it's not quite time to write the entrée's obituary. But in many major dining cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, the main course is under attack." We're well aware of the change in San Francisco dining habits, having added a new Tapas/Small Plates section to our online dining guide when it seemed that all new restaurants had at the very least a section of their menu called "small plates."
Apparently people are shocked, shocked to find out that, after years of eating mezze, tapas, sushi, and dim sum, people are bored by the idea of eating (or "committing to," as the Times piece has it) a big, protein-heavy entrée. But we've been down this path before. In the 1980s it was popular to call this kind of small-plates eating "grazing." Gael Greene wrote in New York magazine in 1985, "Yuppies do not eat. They socialize, they network, they graze or troll. Tapas at a bar or a pizza to share is perfect grazing fodder."
I tend to agree with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who stated with devastating honesty in the Times article, "It's easier for me to please you with three or four bites," something I call the Thomas Keller effect. As much as I admire Keller's food, you don't have enough time to get tired of a dish if it disappears so quickly — especially if several people are trying to get their forks in.
A subspecies of the snacky menu place is what I'm happy people no longer seem to be calling a "gastropub" — my feeling is you can only have gastropubs where you actually have pubs — but is really a bar where you can get some food. I've been to the lovely Wood Tavern on College in Oakland, self-proclaimed gastropub. People, it's a restaurant; a nice, noisy restaurant with a bar. But I don't think the Wood Tavern people would be at all happy if you came in at 5:30 p.m. and attempted to settle in at the corner table with a pint. Three of us grazed on a shared charcuterie plate, followed by a pork-belly starter, a main course of braised pork shoulder, a burger, a side of brussels sprouts, and a lovely quivering panna cotta set atop crushed pistachios.
At the new Bar Johnny, there's a subtitle on the cover of the small menu that sets you straight: "Drink kitchen." What is now Bar Johnny was once the considerably posher Tablespoon. The same chef, Roland Robles, is manning the stoves, but the decor has changed, replacing the rows of tight-linen-topped tables with a high leather banquette facing the bar and a row of narrow marble tables. There are huge, striking drum-shaped lights hanging over the bar, partially obscuring your view of an abstract street-scene mural. A couple of normal-height tables are set in the big window on Polk.
The two-page menu is divided into four sections: Bites, Salads, More, and Sweets. There are about 30 dishes, all told, but as you look more closely, the numbers seem to fall: the bites really are just bites. There are smoked habañero potato chips, a plate of olives, and housemade pretzels. You can get one cheese, or three cheeses. When I was last at Tablespoon, entrées topped out at about $20; at Bar Johnny, the top tariff is $16 for tuna or flatiron steak, and most of the plates run from $2.50 to $11.
On the first visit, we tried a potent sidecar and a rather beguiling elderflower-and-champagne tipple from Bar Johnny's specialty cocktail list, dining perhaps just a touch frugally on three shared plates and dessert. From the salads section came three seared scallops atop a thick slice of oddly tasteless grilled golden beet, garnished with frisée in a citrus vinaigrette. Seared ahi loin came with another salad, called Thai, with a sweetish dressing. Neither of these rather straightforward dishes were particularly compelling; the one appealing offering was the not-particularly-alluringly-named chanterelle mushrooms, beans, and rice. They came in a steaming, fragrant, buttery-tasting hillock, which we finished with alacrity. The berry, pear, and pistachio cobbler we ended with was nicely topped with a cookie crust, but I found crunching down on whole nuts in the midst of the hot, sweet fruit a bit alarming. The frugality did not extend to the check: With a cup of coffee and a glass of Pinot chosen from the extensive, interesting wine list, we were out almost eighty bucks before tipping. Still, we'd had a nice, relaxed, girly evening, chatting away in the warm, pleasant room.
The second meal proceeded much like the first as we perched at the high table, grazing on two dishes from the Bites section, two from the More. The grilled pizza was, of course, not really a pizza at all (beware any menu's offering of a single-size pizza). Our server had used the misnomer "crisp" for what was really a puffy flatbread ("It's like a pita!" my companion said), topped with crumbled housemade pork sausage, green olives, capers, pickled onion slivers, manchego cheese, and a last-minute sprinkling of cress. Barely warmed, the ingredients had no chance to meld, and I wasn't enamored of the combination anyway. The housemade charcuterie plate was also a bit of a disappointment. It featured the same pork sausage, this time in chunks; a few slivers of duck prosciutto; and a tasty, if grayish, round of chicken liver pâté, our favorite of the three offerings. The plate was garnished with sliced baguette, jam, a smear of whole-grain mustard, and some lightly dressed frisée. Three barbecue pork sliders (sliders of some sort are an essential signifier of the small-plates menu), the meat obscured by an abundance of sweet sauce, came with a mountain of really delicious crisp garlic-truffle french fries. The lamb braise on toast had an odd element of bitter greens, and I found myself wishing the toast were mashed potatoes or polenta.
This seemed more like discomfort food than comfort food, especially when the housemade marshmallow pie we ordered for dessert, which we had envisioned as a big, sloppy moon pie, turned out to be two chilly underflavored little cookies side by side. "This isn't really scrumptious," my pal observed. We were much more taken with our drinks, a cachaça-based Ipanema and a wintry maple-syrup-and-bourbon concoction.
When I've struck out at a place, sometimes I first blame myself, forgetting that we'd tried a good third of the menu, and that when so few dishes are on offer, they all ought to be good. The guy and gal sitting next to us seemed to be enjoying their flatiron steak and caesar salad; she even put down her cellphone when the food arrived. Plump cheeseburgers wrapped in greasy paper looked delicious as they passed by, destined for other diners. I ordered one to go, taking a bite of the thick, hand-shaped patty encased in a good brioche bun as we walked down Polk in the rain. It was indeed a good burger, better than most of what we'd grazed upon. It came with the same great fries that were the other really good thing we'd eaten that night. I bet Bar Johnny makes a really good Bloody Mary, too.