Bar: Leo's Oyster Bar

  • By Peter Lawrence Kane
  • Wed Apr 6th, 2016 5:30pm
  • DiningEat
Garden party

Elaborately art-directed bars and restaurants are nothing new, but they tend to get filtered through their respective eras. Witness the kudzu-like spread of the Rainforest Café from the Mall of America in the mid-'90s. (And who didn't want buffalo wings from Ferngully, really?) The late-aughts resurgence of cocktail culture gave us a lot of neo-speakeasies, many of which attracted the exact people who would never be granted entrance to an underground Prohibition-era venue — if they knew it existed at all.

But now, with San Francisco flush with more cash than at any time in the last 15 years, we have an even more open embrace of opulence. This new aesthetic isn't afraid of kitsch or the repurposing of grandma taste (or mobster taste, or postwar suburban chic) as refinement. Bars like Topsy's Fun Lounge and Romper Room cater to our perpetual childhoods with life-sized nutcrackers and ball pits, while tiki bar Pagan Idol is basically a shipwrecked boozehound's adults-only tree house on Rapa Nui. Meanwhile, seven-month-old gin bar Whitechapel — itself a cousin to another tiki bar, the rum-centric Smuggler's Cove — reimagined a derelict London Underground station where a steampunk Jack the Ripper might slit a prostitute's throat before sailing away in a Boodle's-powered dirigible.

Slightly less over-the-top is Leo's Oyster Bar, which initially opened in the former Wexler's a few months ago before adding The Hideaway, a second venue in the back. Leo's is fab: The bar itself, illuminated from within, looks like a warm, honey-colored agate. Like the conservatory in the board game Clue, the floor is tiled black and white and the walls are painted with jungle plants (which match the bartenders' neckties). Some dishes come served on scallop shells. Designed by Ken Fulk, who also designed The Battery and Sean Parker's controversial Big Sur wedding ceremony, Leo's could fit well inside a 19th-century train station — if San Francisco had one of those. But it also looks like the lanai from a certain 1980s TV show about four older women cohabitating in Miami (which is intended as high praise).

But mid-century glamor was also the era of congealed salads and rumaki, so in terms of food, Leo's is only a quasi-throwback. There's sea urchin toast, a King Crab Louie, and an osetra, crème fraîche, and truffled beet pancake — plus a $120 ounce of European sturgeon with all the accoutrements, if you're feeling particularly dandyish. Even among the large plates, with the exception of a stockbroker-wooing braised short rib, everything is light. These bites are really just meant to anchor you to your barstool for cocktails like the Barbarita (tequila, celery, and pepper), the Betty's Morning Buzz (bitters, cocchi, and soda) or the Rob-Roy-and-then-some Office Supplies (scotch, amaro, and vermouth). Before thinking too long on how the 1960s were essentially a revolt against this entire airtight way of life, don't overlook the Mr. Nicholas' Liquid Lunch (a $16 gin or vodka martini with the vegetables served on the side).

I don't imagine that “liquid lunch” was a positive term when it was coined. But like the restaurant where Cate Blanchett took Rooney Mara to lunch in Carol — or more accurately, where Kate McKinnon parodied that “glove lunch” on Saturday Night Live — Leo's has a sense of humor. It has to. You couldn't get away with this level of indulgence in 2016 without being a little tongue-in-cheek. At some point, though, the irony ouroboros eats its own tail like a Bulgari serpent necklace Elizabeth Taylor would wear to places just like this. If Leo's is a throwback, then what's it a throwback to, if not an era when men were men, women were women, everybody smoked, and California had two Republican senators? The GOP primary is a contest among reactionaries who would just as soon bring us back there, and here sits San Francisco's elite, giddily role-playing with five-dollar oysters.

I'm hip-deep into devil's advocacy here, because my bias is always on the side of a good time (although I'm happy about smoking bans). Excellent drinks in a beautiful — and television-free! — space are always welcome, especially when no one cares if you're wearing jeans. Coincidentally, in astrology, Leo is the sign of enthusiasm and majesty, and I find Leo's to be as hard to resist as people born in late July. But that could be the liquid lunch talking.

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