More than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, San Francisco is a brunch town, and I love it for that. The culture of day-drinking means it’s perfectly acceptable to throw back the equivalent of a bottle of Champagne — measured out flute by flute, and concealed with however much fresh-squeezed juice it takes to make you feel OK about it — then pick up a 12-pack of Tecates and hang out in Dolores Park for the balance of the afternoon. Even if you’re closer to 55 than 25, it’s fine — the truly antisocial behavior is leaving your empties on the grass.
Additionally, if I may traffic in stereotypes about my fellow LGBT San Franciscans for a moment, brunch is the best thing about being a homo. I know I’m not alone here; sodomy is a distant second. So when the first stirrings bubbled up that Top Chef contestant and buddy of Rachael Ray Ryan Scott was going to close Market & Rye and open Finn Town on Market Street between Sanchez and Noe, I figured the only meaningful metric by which to judge it would be brunch.
I’m only slightly exaggerating, but on that score, it passes. Dinner, too. Outside of drinks, Finn Town isn’t always the world’s most imaginative endeavor — here you will find the usual deviled eggs, chopped salad, and $18 burger — but it gets high marks for competence, execution, and atmosphere. In taking few risks, it’s the opposite of Nomica — a sushi-free Japanese spot just down the block that was the Castro’s other big debut of 2016 — but considering how the neighborhood perpetually lags behind its peers in the overall dining department, Scott parachuted in at the right place, at the right time. Accessibility is key.
I try not to start brunch off with something sweet, because it usually fouls up a cocktail like a Bloody Mary, but I gave in and ordered doughnut holes (served with vanilla cream and chocolate sauce, $7), which are worth sugaring the tongue for. A few sips of water and it was time to hit that Bloody Mary, along with the Red Hot Mama, presented as part of a “Pepsi challenge” by the mixological sorceress Gillian Fitzgerald.
Proud Mary, which Fitzgerald makes along with Kelly McVicker of McVicker Pickles, constitutes the Bloody Mary’s base — and its bracing stiffness was really no comparison with the Red Hot Mama, a milder mix of balsamic vinegar, sesame seed oil, and beet Bloody Mary. (Disclosure: Fitzgerald is an industry veteran, and we’re friends.)
There is avocado toast here, but it’s worth getting “Ryan style,” with melted white cheddar ($9.50), which makes it a Welsh rarebit variation on buckwheat. Sensuous and comforting, it could have benefited from a dash more pepper, but it gets high marks for gooiness. A lobster eggs Benny ($16) was more and less than what met the eye: a savory-salty treat with a little-gem-and-pomegranate salad and a fist-size potato cake. Delicious, and massive, but what of the lobster? If I didn’t know better, I would think I was eating a vegetarian patty. Dredged but not drenched in lemon curd and huckleberry syrup, the silver dollar pancakes, at $8 to an order, are also surprisingly big: less like Susan B. Anthonys and more like the giant limestone discs the Yap Islanders used as currency. Pancakes are pancakes, maybe, but these were spot-on.
The house-cured salmon ($16), an exploded pumpernickel bagel-and-lox situation, was fancifully presented around curlicues of shaved fennel, the little spheres of pumpernickel light yet sturdy enough to do heavy scooping duty. A bone thrown to the abs community, of which I will never be a part, the conspicuously healthy chia pudding with flax seed ($10) is also good. I flared my nostrils at the idea, tried some, then ate several more spoonfuls. (Look, Ma, I’m responsible on rare occasions.) When it was time for another round of drinks, we gravitated toward the refreshing Bel Canto, with its cucumber-and-gin axis, and the even better A Sunday Kind of Love, made with coffee, falernum, and a scorched, clove-stuck orange peel.
It’s simple yet creative, and rooted in the idea of the hair of the dog, so why aren’t more things like that on brunch menus around town?
Dinner includes an entirely separate $12 cocktail menu, which is commendable. In spite of the hopped IPA syrup and VSOP Cognac, I was underwhelmed by the draft Old Fashioned. The ingredients felt listless and palate-dulling, as if they’d sat in a vat too long, and although it was advertised as being not too sweet, it was. Combining two martini garnish philosophies into one, the Baghdad by the Bay (gin with pickle-spice-infused dry vermouth and Meyer lemon essence) was much better, an aperitif par excellence.
Although Finn Town’s name sounds like an ode to the Castro’s Nordic past, it’s not. But Finn Town has a fin bar, with Oysters Rockefeller ($13 for three) made with creamed chard, leek, fondue, and breadcrumbs and served on nuggets of fool’s gold. As with the pancakes on the brunch menu, nobody reinvented the wheel here, but they did buff the tires. Elegantly fried and mashed with potato puree, the three lobster and truffle cigars ($17) were a solid follow-up, but nothing beat the Fanny Farmer rolls ($7), a plump pixie ring of dough that approached monkey-bread levels of satisfaction even before slathering it with maple-bacon butter. It’s a wow. But the crispy quinoa cakes ($9) were more like what I imagine health food in Santa Monica in 1978 to have been, only oilier, with virtually undetectable flavors of avocado and piquillo pepper — plus the radicchio-heavy garnish felt cribbed from the earlier cigars.
If you’re an In-N-Out partisan, Finn Town’s burger will look very familiar: It’s basically a Double-Double with better fries — much better fries, and many more of them. The beef is higher-quality and the pickles are great, but it’s as overdressed as an Ike’s sandwich — and on both buns. I’m glop-averse, so like a carb-phobe, I just picked them off. I applaud Finn Town for making the effort to have more than just a couple desserts, of which the subtle madeleines and their decisively un-subtle espresso-laced chocolate fondue are pretty great.
At one point my boyfriend asked, “Is this Lime?” in a tone that might best be described as “fake fake-horror.” He was referring to that long-gone brunch vortex and the prospect that it might contaminate us. (It is not. Lime was next door, at what is now the LGBT sports bar Hi Tops.) And Hi Tops appears to have successfully expunged its predecessor’s bad juju, the spectral blur of which I recall mostly as an assembly line of incredibly intoxicated women running out the door to vomit in the gutter, before noon.
It’s a reminder that, historically speaking, the standard for brunch in the Castro hasn’t always been set that high — and when it comes to bottomless mimosas, management should reserve the right to find the bottom. So it’s great that there’s a place to get a lil tipsy while also eating heartily.
Overall, Finn Town threw the dart and landed it right where it should.
You can easily get quite a buzz here. There’s even a homemade version of Fireball, which Fitzgerald trotted out with a gleam in her eye on my very first visit. “There’s so much Everclear in the basement, you’d swear it was a meth lab,” she said.
Finn Town Tavern
2251 Market St.
415-626-3466 or finntownsf.com