Commons Club Is Not That Common

The Virgin Hotels San Francisco that opened with such fanfare has plenty of substance behind it, too.

Lamb rillettes. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

I still can’t decide if art cars jumped the shark forever or if it was simply a really good time with a really good raw bar, but last Thursday’s formal opening to Virgin Hotels San Francisco was about as splashy as events in San Francisco ever get. Billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson (and several look-alikes) arrived sporting a grin that would put Joe Biden’s to shame, and while he disappeared with the other V.V.I.P.s behind a velvet rope that only the wearers of a particular wristband could penetrate, everybody else kept partying for hours. One thing you learn about these sorts of things is that there’s always another echelon above you, if not more.

But the dust has settled, and SoMa now has a large-scale boutique hotel that feels very West Hollywood in its overall level of glamour. It has several spots to eat and drink, from the 12th-floor bar with views of SoMa and Downtown called Everdene to the louche, comparatively secluded Shag Room to the bar-and-restaurant Commons Club to a cafe called Funny Library Coffee Shop. Everdene is a reference to Bathsheba Everdene, a feminist heroine from Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd — I was an English major, and I never read it, either — and if 4,000 square feet of marble-lined cocktails from Trick Dog alum Tommy Quimby sounds like your jam, you’re certain to love it. Charmaine’s in the Proper Hotel on Market Street has the superior view, but Everdene’s nails the indoor-outdoor vibe that makes clinking glasses 120 feet above street level so sexy. Four large-format “garden party” cocktails clock it at $100 each, but even the less exalted drinks betray a waggish sense of fun. Try Her Majesty’s Pleasure, a mix of tequila, mint, and lime, spring-ified with cucumber and snap peas. We know the Queen prefers Dubonnet, but even she could be tempted.

With rivets and a lot of black metal, the bar at Commons Club has more of a steampunk vibe — more Tom Hardy than Thomas Hardy, certainly — and its rear wall has a truly unusual mural that looks as though J.J. Abrams’ bad robot is daydreaming on the grass. I kept expecting the food to be absurdly opulent, but Chef Adrian Garcia stays admirably grounded. Say this for him: The man is unafraid of butter. The menu is very similar to The Vault, Hi Neighbor’s subterranean wine cavern under 555 California St., with duck, lamb rillettes, and Parker House rolls all over — but all of those crowd-pleasers are great, so no one should kvetch too hard about it.

(Peter Lawrence Kane)

As with Everdene’s party-like-a-rock-star atmosphere, if you don’t want to hear a DJ spin Todd Terje while you eat, you may want to come in for lunch or an off-hour, and dinner tends to draw a cosmopolitan crowd. With a handful of Garcia’s small bites available at Everdene and a separate cocktail list at Commons Club, Virgin prudently kept the identities separate.

Among the small plates, the whole smelt in the little fish fries require only a drop of lemon to brighten the batter, while the foam on the fava-laden ricotta gnudi had no influence on their buttery texture or the equally buttery morels within. A bowl of Dungeness crab — more favas, yet more foam — with peas and beguiling shimeji mushrooms was better and more rounded, and it’s fantastic to know we have two more months left in crab season. For dessert, a coffee-inflected blackout cake is the way to go.

At your table, the check might come in a weathered Episcopal Book of Common Prayer; at the bar, it’s an oversized wooden clip. And while that bar has the metal-wire bowl of citrus next to the cruets of bitters and shrubs plus the requisite library ladder to reach that upper row of spirits, it honestly does not feel as though it’s repackaging everything that came before. It’s a fun place to sit by day and order steak frites and sneak a drink before returning upstairs or wherever you came from, because this simply doesn’t feel like SoMa.

That sense of foreignness has a downside, though. A few things about Virgin feel fundamentally contrary to the spirit of San Francisco, even the ruthlessly hyper-capitalist San Francisco that’s causing such internet agita lately. For instance, what is with the concept of “No, you can’t use this door, you have to use that door?” Is there anyone on Earth who isn’t at least slightly put off by being denied entrance to a space and redirected around the corner to a different door that essentially opens on to the same space? Does anyone who’s truly a good person inside like to see security shoo other people away from using a door? Exquisitely class-conscious London has no problem with that kind of thing, but this is (or was and still ought to be) a more egalitarian city.

The weak link is Funny Library, which feels like more like a staged trend dump than a functioning cafe. All the design elements that feel unified at Commons Club come off like an upscale and extremely au courant Spencer Gifts. While the hotel’s other culinary arms don’t necessarily need a San Francisco connection front and center, this one should have done so simply by virtue of its sidewalk-facing location. They’re really pushing the connection to Laughing Man Coffee, Hugh Jackman’s Keurig subsidiary, via bland quotes about how it benefits coffee growers. (He’s a great actor, sure, but does this branding partnership actually excite anyone?) Worst of all, Funny Library is patently overpriced, with a cup of cold brew whose flavor profile might best be described as “non-threatening” going for a stunning $6.19 before you leave your tip. Its cup and lid are compostable, but the straw, of course, is not.

So get your a.m. caffeine fix elsewhere and come to the hotel’s other components to lay down some calories in your system before a raucous evening. Because this is not a Virgin who can’t drive.

Commons Club, inside the Virgin Hotels San Francisco, 250 Fourth St., 415-534-6500 or virginhotels.com/san-francisco

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