Fog City Diner was an Embarcadero fixture for nearly three decades, an iconic local restaurant featured in a 1990 Visa commercial and 1993's So I Married an Axe Murderer, with a once-cutting-edge global menu from Cindy Pawlcyn. Earlier this year, another well-known restauranteur and chef, Bruce Hill (Bix, Picco, Zero Zero), bought the space, shortened the name to Fog City, and embarked on a serious remodel. Gone is the '90s vibe and chrome diner-kitsch, and in its place is an airy, bright room with recessed ceilings, a muted color scheme, a gleaming open kitchen, and a large, glowing yellow bar that comes to a point like the bow of a ship. It's a beautiful space, but something about it feels a little impersonal, like it belongs just off the lobby of a hotel. The crowd, a bland, well-heeled group straight from central casting, does not seem to be there for the food, which is maybe the point. Though everything is technically excellent, well-balanced, and made with quality local ingredients, the dishes never quite soar. The menu is so perfectly a reflection of the Northern California culinary scene that it feels inconsequential.
The heart of the restaurant is the wood-fired grill, which takes up most of the open kitchen and makes its smoke-scented presence known throughout the dining room. Most of the dishes make use of the oven in one way or another, like the whole wood-grilled chicken. It's ballsy to serve a whole roast chicken in this town, if only because comparisons to Zuni Cafe's legendary version are inevitable. Fog City's chicken isn't a serious contender for Zuni's title, but it's very nice in its own right. The spatchcocked (one of the more delightful cooking terms out there, meaning flattened with the bones removed) 3-pound bird has taut, crisp skin and juicy, flavorful meat. It's delivered to the table in an attractive cast-iron skillet surrounded by fingerling potatoes and half-ears of corn. It's more affordable than Zuni's ($29 versus $46) and because of its cooking method — Hill's patented Chef's Press weight, sold at stores like Williams-Sonoma — it takes a third of the time to roast. The final product, though, falls short of transcendent.
The burger is probably the most likely to become one of the restaurant's signature dishes. Hill says he started developing it back in June: a thin, Chef-Pressed patty, house-made buns, house-made American cheese, and a smoky tomato aioli. It's meant to be a smaller portion than the other $14 burgers of the world — "As a group we decided we wanted a burger that was balanced [and] didn't make you want to die after you ate the whole thing," Hill says — but it left me underwhelmed. The patty was a little tough (it's impossible to order less than medium; mine seemed well-done); the aioli a tad too smoky; the bun a bit too sweet. It reminded me of an In-N-Out burger, one of Hill's inspirations, but didn't leave me with that deep, satiated happiness like an animal-style Double-Double.
It's hard to find many flaws in the kitchen's cooking, though — dish after dish was well-composed and nicely executed. A Berkshire pork cheek entree had meltingly soft, pliable shreds of pork among mushrooms, hatch chilies, and polenta; it was a woodsy entree that spoke of fall and the fog rolling in. Sake butter, padron peppers, and wood smoke masked the briny taste of clams in a dish of them, but the overall flavor was pleasant, and the clams were tender without being rubbery. Lunch brought an open-faced hot brown sandwich, a Kentucky take on a welsh rarebit or croque monsieur, layered with roasted turkey, thick bacon, oven-dried Early Girl tomatoes, and creamy Mornay sauce. My only quibble was the substitution of crusty sourdough instead of white bread. More San Francisco, to be sure, but it made it harder to cut.
Fog City's busy at lunch, with a crowd that seems half power-lunchers, half tourists. But it's really humming at happy hour, when there's a well-dressed after-work crew letting loose. That's when the ingenuity of the bar snacks shines. Fog City's fries are fantastic — twice-fried in rice bran oil, and in a smart twist on garlic fries, topped with a dusting of furikake (umami-rich Japanese rice seasoning), though served with a too-small ramekin of garlic aioli. (The bartender happily provided another upon request.) Another solid bar bite was the deviled eggs, zipped up with a bit of bacon and crispy quinoa. And for dessert, the crullers. Twisty and drenched with citrus syrup, they come to the table still warm from the oven.
Two areas where the restaurant had room for improvement: inconsistent service and a high noise level. One dinner dragged on past the three-hour mark, becoming a comedy of errors where everything that could go wrong with service seemed to. Three hours is a long time to be shouting at each other. But at lunch the waiter was as professional and accommodating as one could hope, and the noise was down to a pleasant murmur. It was nice to sit in a booth and watch the streetcars rattle by on the Embarcadero, a corner of the Bay Bridge in the distance, a perfectly San Francisco moment captured at the edge of the city where the tourists roam. Fog City might not have the spark to ignite the hearts and minds of locals, but it's at least good enough for someone else to write home about, and it's definitely of-the-moment enough to star in another Visa commercial.