This was the year that fast-casual conquered everything in sight. Whether that’s a function of compact menus, the high cost of rent in an industry with low margins to begin with, the tendency for sleek chains and restaurant groups to dominate the category, or whatever combination of factors, it’s just a fact that affordable, lunch-centric spots thrived in 2016 — often at the expense of huge, ambitious projects oriented toward dinner.
After a string of prominent closures — Oro, Cadence, Bon Marché —it would be sensible to assume that those two types of restaurants are polar opposites. There’s a lot of truth to that. But I would argue that the real antithesis to the trend that’s remaking San Francisco’s food scene is actually the hotel restaurant.
Aimed at visitors as opposed to locals, they tend to be expensive, scene-y, and often more formal than they need to be. Based on the interior, they wouldn’t be out of place in London, L.A., or any other alpha global city. With prominent exceptions like Kin Khao, they seldom specialize in any one cuisine, instead mashing together various global influences and watering them down to appeal to a wider range of diners. In short, hotel restaurants are usually an attitude-filled bore — and it’s almost always a long walk to the restroom.
Rambler, the multi-level spot more or less inside Union Square’s Hotel Zeppelin, is not. I wouldn’t quite call it relaxed, but the vibe is comfortable — and it feels like if there were any battle brewing between management and the kitchen, the kitchen is winning. Not every dish is a stunner, but over the course of a brunch, a lunch, and dinner, it’s safe to say this restaurant doesn’t play it safe.
Dinner is best. Start with duck and rabbit rillettes ($10) and make sure to ask for more grilled levain because this pot of shredded meat paste is worth scraping out in full. Equally fatty and wonderful are the cantal and potato croquettes ($10), a trio of fried cheese balls that could have been a bit gooier but had plenty of umami richness, as if they had marinated in true oyster sauce.
Sunchokes ($8), always a chef favorite, come with a black garlic dip that the table found most compelling. Like slightly less substantial fried potatoes, they have enough versatility that you could do almost anything with them — and Rambler does good. But a plate of tagliatelle (with braised rabbit, chestnuts, and celery root, $15) was much too sweet and one-dimensional, and I had a tough time with the foie gras torchon ($20), too. For something whose name means “dish towel,” it’s as elegant as any terrine — and I was glad of the opportunity to have more levain — but pairing it with membrillo and another spread made from dates felt like gilding the lily.
The cassoulet of garlic sausage, duck confit, and white beans, with bread crumbs ($27) was the ultimate seasonal comfort food: a warming, let’s-hope-grandma-makes-us-some kind of dish. It would have been fine if it had been left to homogenize into a rich mush, but it wasn’t, and that level of care deserves recognition. That garlic sausage is as potent as a Hatch chile, so putting it in a strongly seasoned dish was a wise move, too. Regrettably, the cassoulet completely outshone the short rib ($28), a well-cooked but altogether mild piece of beef that came over carrots and baby onions with a generic, pesto-like sauce.
Lunch was where Rambler showed its conservative, hotel colors, in that it felt like an OK-we’ll-stay-open-I-guess obligation. The menu is small and barely deviates from what you’d find at a diner. A $17 burger was fatty and juicy, with a great combination of savory-sweet red-onion bacon jam and white cheddar cheese, but the sub-supermarket-quality bun was crumbly and dry. That’s probably to absorb the juice, but it dominated the whole package. Although everybody craves one from time to time, the roasted turkey club on sourdough ($15) was just that — a roasted turkey club on sourdough.
While brunch isn’t the most creative in town, Rambler’s execution was excellent all around. (In fairness, breakfast and lunch appear on the same “by day” menu, but I’m trying to draw the least arbitrary line between them.) A smoked salmon and fromage blanc toast with pickled red onions, capers, and parsley salad ($16) was very good, but as I always gravitate toward whatever version of a quote-unquote “Hungry Man” there is, I would definitely recommend The Rambler (two eggs, blueberry pancakes, and crispy potatoes, plus chorizo or smoked bacon or pork belly, $18). Its constituent parts are all well-prepared, and it’s the best value. Elsewhere, go sharesies on the $5 buttermilk biscuit with honey butter, or get that biscuit in the form of a breakfast sandwich with scrambled eggs, bacon, spinach, and cheddar ($15.50). This is the kind of stuff that people who aren’t guests in the hotel would be happy to come here late on a Sunday morning for.
Oddly, Rambler’s cocktail list is only four drinks long. Ignoring the $25 gin martini — um, no — I burned through the other three, of which the Bebida de Vida ($12) is best. Like a rarefied tequila sunrise, it’s a gorgeous presentation of Avua Cachaça, Dolin Blanc, Ancho Reyes, grapefruit, lemon, and agave. The Miyata Mule (Shinshu Mars Iwai whisky, yuzu, Bleinheim’s Ginger Ale, and Peychaud’s bitters, $11) may not come in a copper cup, but it’s sufficiently bracing to dodge the sugariness that afflicts so many Mule variations. Hopefully, the powers that be add to it, because this debut cocktail menu — which is also brunch-friendlier than it may sound — shows promise.
As it’s in the space that used to be Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, Rambler is connected to the Zeppelin via a basement fun zone with Skee-ball and basketball hoops and big-screen TVs that looks like it could be a startup lounge or an event space for the demographic that puts in long hours at a startup. The better-lit mezzanine is the sexiest level — or at least the most adult. Like the Hotel Zetta’s Cavalier but without the Anglophile tchotchkes, it’s a lovely first-date spot, good for groups of six or eight, and great for people who don’t want to sip a cocktail surrounded by sweatpants. Sometimes the finer things in life are neither fast nor casual.
Rambler, inside the Hotel Zeppelin, 545 Post St., 415-549-8008 or ramblersf.com