One of the delights of San Francisco is its wide range of eateries, not only in price and presentation, but also in location and surroundings. You can feast on a multicourse, top-price meal of cutting-edge cuisine in a huge soaring space off a hotel lobby downtown (Michael Mina, in the Westin St. Francis) or in a snug windowless spaceship tucked among the strip joints of Broadway (Coi). You can enjoy a matchless view of the bay with a top menu price of $7.05 with free parking thrown in (Red's Java House) or, a mile down the Embarcadero, overlook the water while choosing from menus featuring $90 shellfish platters and $46 New York steaks (Waterbar and Epic Roasthouse, where the valet parking alone is $10).
Charming outdoor spaces are a happy result of San Francisco's generally clement weather. You can hoist a few in the beery, cheerfully bohemian atmosphere of Zeitgeist's backyard patio (199 Valencia at Duboce, 255-7505), or enjoy pricey seasonal modern American food in the quiet back garden at Blue Plate (3218 Mission at Valencia, 282-6777), both hidden from street view. The front patio of the Americano (8 Mission at Embarcadero, 278-3777) seems to host a nightly cocktail party where the hours are genuinely happy outside, clearly visible to all who pass by. Golden Gate Park offers a couple of delightful options: the big, partially shaded outdoor space, part of the de Young Cafe, behind the museum, overlooking the sculpture garden (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden, 750-2614), where you can dine on locally sourced California cuisine without paying museum admission, and Ironwood BBQ, on a patio overlooking the Golden Gate Park Golf Course (47th Ave.. and Fulton, 751-8987) offering excellent ribs and pulled pork.
Every outdoor space has its own feeling. A current favorite is the surprising space tucked, almost invisibly, behind Arlequin Cafe. From the street, the cafe offers up a long room with an ordering counter and open kitchen opposite two rows of wood tables and bentwood chairs that look like the solid furniture in Van Gogh's paintings. The secret garden, reached through glass doors at the back, is larger than you would think, with tall trees arching over sinuous paths lined with about a dozen smallish black wrought-iron cafe tables and matching chairs set atop irregularly shaped flagstones. Some tables cozy up to a weathered wood banquette. The bushes and well-kept flowering plants are a bit of country in an urban setting, surrounded by vintage low-rise San Francisco buildings.
But don't let the simplicity of the setting fool you into thinking that the food here isn't serious. Arlequin, after all, despite the "to go" inscribed on its awning and refrigerated cases full of wrapped sandwiches and bottled beverages, is the sibling of Absinthe up the street. And Absinthe is a classy white-linened restaurant that coddles its customers with the best of everything, from inventive cocktails to sip before its delicious French cuisine to exquisitely garnished cheese plates to linger over afterward.
The cafe's menu is colorfully chalked on wall boards, and the food it offers is as carefully put together, albeit less fancy, than Absinthe's. The quality of the ingredients matches the care of construction. The sandwich stars include a fabulous, enormous grilled cheese (currently a combination of white cheddar and raclette) served with a lightly dressed salad of Little Gem leaves on the side ($10.50); an even lusher Cubano stuffed with pork confit, ham, Swiss, and a swipe of Dijon mustard ($10.50); and one starring smoked Benton's bacon layered with crisp Granny Smith apple and Swiss ($12).
The big, lightly dressed Caesar, dusted with shredded Grana Padano cheese ($8), can be tarted up with sliced moist chicken for an additional $2. There's a rich Cobb salad that adds ham, chicken, bacon, Point Reyes blue cheese, avocado, and hard-cooked egg to Little Gem leaves ($10). The soup of the day ($6) might be a creamy cauliflower swirled with a bit of spicy oil.
Desserts have included a rich dark chocolate pot de crème ($7.50) topped with a puff of whipped cream and garnished with a thin stick of chocolate, and a perfect strawberry shortcake ($5), a homey baking-powder biscuit shining with sugar crystals, split and stuffed with whipped cream and sliced fresh berries.
Starting at noon, excellent hot plates are added to the mix, including a beautifully roasted half-chicken, moist under its golden skin, as good as any in the city ($12). Other entrées might include a barbecue-glazed meat loaf served with mashed potatoes ($12), an Indian-spiced lamb burger ($10), and beer-steamed mussels ($14). Seasonal sides currently feature grilled fresh corn on the cob with lime butter ($5) and sautéed green beans ($5), as well as, always, good french fries ($5). Everything tastes good — which sounds simple, but is still surprisingly hard to find.
It's pleasant to have Saturday or Sunday brunch in the leafy garden — though the breakfast menu, served daily until 11:30 a.m., may occasion moans of disbelief from latecomers. They are missing out on two eggs any style with potatoes, toast, and choice of bacon, sausage, or fresh fruit ($7.50); housemade oatmeal with steamed milk, brown sugar, and apricots ($5); warm polenta with mascarpone, raisins, walnuts, banana, and maple syrup ($5); or the excellent breakfast sandwiches: freshly scrambled eggs on your choice of bagels ($4.50), toasted country bread ($5.50), or house-baked croissants ($5.50) — add bacon, ham, or cheese for an extra buck.
After 11:30 a.m., you can still feast on the extraordinarily good house-baked scones studded with dried cherries or cranberries ($3.25); round, sugar-dusted beignets stuffed with custard, raspberry jam, or plain ($2); or cookies, such as the peanut-butter-butterfinger ($1.50) — washed down with expertly made espresso drinks, including a divinely frothy latte ($3-$3.50) served in a big bowl. Or try a pizza margherita ($12), an Arlequin club sandwich (Benton's bacon, grilled chicken, avocado, aioli, $12), or a deviled egg and crunchy romaine sandwich on pumpernickel bread ($8). There's an intelligent selection of wine and beer, as well as sangria and mimosas: guaranteed to help you relax, although the setting is working toward that aim, too. The free Wi-Fi seems beside the point.
Arlequin is open just late enough that you can dine there before a concert, ballet, or opera Tuesday through Saturday, when its closing time of 8 coincides with the curtains raising around the corner. When we find ourselves wishing it were open later, a rumor reaches us that perhaps this fall — September and October being among the city's warmer months — there'll be a later closing time. Even if Arlequin sticks to its current schedule, there are plenty of hours in its day to enjoy excellent cafe food in one of the most relaxing and beautiful garden rooms in town.