San Francisco's waterfront is home to a motley crew of bars and restaurants, no doubt about it. The Hi Dive and the inimitable Red's Java House have never lost their spark, and the projected redevelopment of Crane Cove Park in Dogpatch is slated to include new outdoor space for the equally inimitable Ramp. Meanwhile, Sinbad's is gone — although not for lack of trying — and South Beach's Caputo failed to catch on, while the Ferry Building added outdoor food stalls this spring. Upscale chain steak joint Chart House opened up on Pier 39 earlier this year, Pier 29 could become a coffee and microbrewery mecca if the Telegraph Hill killjoys don't thwart it, and Coqueta and Distillery No. 209 are doing their thing, as always.
Now we have ATwater Tavern, a spacious, indoor-outdoor seafood restaurant on Pier 50 that's primed for a brisk business before, during, and after Giants home games, but also shrewdly aimed at Mission Bay biotech workers. (Morning coffee is coming. Between ATwater and the four-month-old Reveille Coffee on Long Bridge Street, even that synthetic polymer-chain of a neighborhood is looking practically livable.) Replacing the former Jelly's nightclub, which breathed its last in 2010, ATwater takes its name from old-school telephone prefixes — à la PEnnsylvania 6-5000 or KLondike 5, hence the spelling — but apart from keeping some of the 1923 structure's bones intact and assembling a menu from the days when no one ever fretted about sodium intake, it's not a rotary-phone kind of place.
Rather, with 180 seats on two levels, executive chef James Versfelt's ATwater is an arrow drawn across the bow aimed straight at Mission Rock Resort, the equally enormous and oyster-centric bay-front restaurant six blocks to the south. On sheer variety of offerings, the upstart may have the slight edge. Both restaurants serve Shrimp Louie, Kumamoto and Marin Miyagi oysters, and a Dungeness crab roll, but only ATwater has cioppino — and a lot more al fresco seating to eat it at. I expect a long, simmering rivalry.
Ignoring the raw bar, we went with Coos Bay barbecue oysters ($14 for three), which come dressed up in garlic Sierra Nevada butter, herb ancho chile, and adobo. That sounded as appetizing as can be, but I found them unbalanced and overly peppery. A Dungeness crab cake ($18) was indeed a single patty in which any substantial crab flavor was buried deep, but the fennel slaw that went alongside it performed the acid-enhancement trick that the one-dimensional oysters couldn't execute.
From “la plancha,” we went with the Half Moon Bay sand dabs ($18). Although you get tortillas, salsa, and some beautifully cooked white beans on a separate platter, apart from a lemon wedge, the fish arrived all alone on their plate. You've got to use your imagination to make that stripped-down presentation come alive — sheesh, how about a little green or something — so I used the remaining adobo from the barbecue oysters to make tacos, and that felt like a victory.
The land-loving mains were better. Bone-in lamb frites ($33) came entombed under a monster pile of fries — this is me nodding vigorously in approval — and a rosemary glacé that captured my heart for only penetrating superficially into the meat, leaving the medium-rare interior distinct from the satisfying crackle of the outside. The definition of a homey square meal, the pork chop (a special, $26) came with potatoes, green beans, and plantains that — combined with a stridently sweet, chunky tomato sauce — might have been the boldest move on the menu (or off it, as the case may be). Perhaps the most sophisticated way to conclude a meal yet developed by humankind, the cheese board ($14) could have benefited from some contrast in the form of Roquefort or something pungent, but the seasonal simplicity of the Santa Maria strawberry tart (with rhubarb and chevre cream, $9) was even better, its cream fresh and thick, and topped with a sprinkle of the greens that the sand dabs lacked.
The wine list is pretty good and the cocktail list has a lot of personality, with 209 Gin featured prominently. There's an Old Fashioned named for Bauer's, the limo company that shares Pier 50. (It's definitely Bauer's, and not that other Bauer.) There's even a Between the Sheets, a love-to-hate-it throwback to the era when drinks were mostly crappy permutations of base spirits and fruit juices. And the check holder came in something that looked like a prop from the climax of The Fifth Element.
Overall, though, I'm not sure about ATwater Tavern, which feels like a conservative establishment wrapped in some trendy packaging with some poke and sunchoke mash on the side. The art of restaurant criticism is probably never more arbitrary than when concocting rationales like “Place X is as good as its best/worst dish,” but I'm a little hamstrung on how to judge a pricey, risk-averse restaurant that hitches its wagon to the seasonal doings at a stadium in lieu of standing on its own. I was drinking Mas Fi Cava and a Sauvignon Blanc from Simi Valley in a sunny spot on a warm weekend afternoon that in any other month of the year would qualify as evening — which is about as comfy as one can be without a fireplace and a friendly Labrador for an ottoman — and yet some aspects of ATwater are hard to overlook. It's expensive. Several of the starters were misses. The draft beer selection is iffy. There were cops in uniform present, which weirds me out to no end. All things being equal, I'd probably go to The Ramp, warts and all, for dollar oysters instead.