There are venues that are simply so enjoyable to be in, it almost doesn’t matter what the food is like. In the case of Black Cat, Fritz Quattlebaum’s two-level endeavor on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth streets, the surroundings are so louche, such a good combination of highbrow and lowbrow, that you could almost re-enact the smoky scene in Charade where Cary Grant joins a game of passing an orange down a line of people without anyone using their hands, getting up in some woman’s décolletage to a Henry Mancini soundtrack. If the food is merely decent, the cocktails are better.
There’s something about a baby grand with its top open on a stage that’s alluring, and in this basement, you’ll be glad to have no cell service for a change. The Tenderloin Museum is right across the street, and if you’ve ever seen the historic photos on its walls, you know that Black Cat — with its gothic candelabra, cabaret lamps with real candles in them, and Champagne buckets stored here and there — is an updated version of what the TL was like in its neon-flooded heyday: a destination for the smart set. It also feels like a logical successor to the speakeasy trend, which had grown stale and become dominated by the biz-speak set looking to rent out semi-secret bars-within-a-bar. Black Cat doesn’t have a single flatscreen!
San Francisco still has a reputation for being a city where you can’t eat after 9 p.m. Yet at 9:30 on a Monday night, the downstairs was near capacity (and the jazz trio had yet to come on), so clearly this restaurant wants that reputation to change. At three for $13, the “Golden Nugget” oysters — available raw or broiled — are creamy enough, and de rigueur given their environs. But the grapefruit mignonette is a nice touch, more bracing than sweetly vinegared. A little gem salad ($10) was wisely light on the avocado dressing and heavy on the spiced and toasted sunflower seeds, which have the lightness and crunch of chapulines in a grasshopper taco; a touch of anchovy, and it would have been flawless. Just as mid-September coincides with peak Atlantic hurricane season, it also felt like peak Early Girl time at Black Cat. An otherwise unremarkable panzanella salad ($10) was elevated to the stratosphere by some of the most flavorful tomatoes I have had all summer — although that could very well be dumb luck.
My Jewish dinner companion and I agreed about the texture of the salmon latkes ($13): They’re not supposed to be this chewy and greasy. But the combination of salmon pastrami with a zip of shallot cream and pickled radish was deep and complex, like an intensified bagel-all-the-way. Better still was the grilled Monterey Bay squid ($15), a seafood salad of sorts made with baby kale that hadn’t cooked down at all and a flurry of fried couscous. It’s a well-executed dish, with the right amount of chimichurri, that feels like the result of a lot of trial and error. We wondered why it wasn’t a larger plate, especially as the chicken mattone in pan brodo ($16) was flabby and under-acidified, its layer of roasted peppers adding nothing but visual pop in the low lighting.
For dessert, the affogato ($6) was in love with its own presentation — it’s served in a vessel like a mini-tureen, and requires careful scooping — and the espresso was exceptionally bitter. The buttermilk tart ($6) was, in all honesty, ugly, like a slice of pizza in Indiana. But it was as creamy as a cheesecake, and dotted with pistachios, so what the hell, right?
The cocktails, though, are great, and not just because happy hour Manhattans and martinis are $8. Black Cat carves the menu into forgotten classics, classics, nips, and no/low A.B.V. drinks, further subdividing them into “stirred” and “citrus.” There’s a Vieux Carré ($14), that New-Orleans-to-the-core drink made here with Armagnac as well as Cognac, and an even better Widow’s Kiss ($14). Full of liqueurs as they are, they’re intended as aperitifs, but they coasted nicely through a meal full of assertive flavors. And as far as happy hour goes, you could do worse than patatas bravas, deviled eggs, and trout on toast points (all in the $2-$5 range). The only problem is that the cocktail menu should be bigger, to show off the bar’s skills.
I’d also suggest that on nights when the upstairs is closed section and only the basement is open, Black Cat do a better job of telegraphing it. Nothing catches people off-guard like when a host or hostess asks if you have a reservation in that unmistakable I-may-not-be-able-to-accommodate-you-otherwise tone, while all around stands a sea of empty tables. And maybe better conceal the liquor cage backstage so that when the curtain parts, it doesn’t reveal stacked boxes of Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
For some reason, at least one of Black Cat’s single-occupancy restrooms has two toilets, both black. It made me laugh, but mostly because I associate black toilets with bond traders wearing 1980s contrast collars doing lines off of them because the coke is more visible than on a regular porcelain throne. (And indeed, on one visit, a staffer joked with me about finding cocaine everywhere at the end of the night, and I didn’t get the sense he was kidding.)
But overall, I kept coming back to the weathered feng shui, which is great. In spite of its little flaws, Black Cat feels like the product of a thousand tiny deliberations, from the subtle changes in branding between cocktail napkins and coasters to the appearance of the feline form, as end-caps holding up the faux-mantel on the upstairs bar and elsewhere. The art is good; the music is good; you will want to dress up a little. Yes, the kitchen needs to catch up to the bar and the atmosphere in order to make a full meal worth your while, but then again, establishing itself as a place to go for a pre- or post-show drink (maybe with some nibbles) is a viable strategy.
Either way, consider letting this black cat cross your path, and tickle your chin with its tail as it does.
Black Cat 400 Eddy St.415-358-1999 or blackcatsf.com Hours: Mon-Sun, 5:30 p.m. – 2 a.m.