I’m not a big fan of hotels. When I travel, I sleep even less than I usually do to make the most of being awake and pass out drunk on friends’ couches to save money that I later waste on eating out. On road trips, my boyfriend I camp out or stay in those wonderfully cheesy, family-run places with mid-century signage that dot the landscape. (This usually works great, because I obsessively document kitsch roadside Americana on Instagram, but sometimes, it’s a little hairy. Last year, in Yakima, Wash., we woke up in a murder-motel that I’m surprised we woke up in at all.) And it was only two weeks ago in Mendocino that I ordered room service for the first time in my life.
Hotel restaurants can be dicey, too. While the hours are usually good, they’re often exorbitant, geared toward a captive audience of people who will never become regulars, and specifically designed to look pretty in brochures.
Sometimes, though, they do everything right. The Proper Hotel — truly an inane name, but maybe its worst sin — and its trio of dining-and-drinking components have been a project with a long gestation period, and the decision-makers were wise to take their time.
The first to debut is Villon, a breakfast-lunch-and-dinner spot that’s home to chef Jason Franey’s self-described “geek cooking.” Next up is Charmaine’s, a rooftop cocktail bar, with the more casual La Bande to follow. A few years ago, when the Proper was still the Renoir Hotel, the conversion of its 130 rooms to boutique status led to the ground-floor retail space becoming A Temporary Offering, a sort of proto-food hall with semi-permanent pop-ups and booze. It was a success, but Mid-Market likely wasn’t ready for $400 hotel rooms yet, and it took four more years to get here.
Well, Villon is seductive, and the James Beard-nominated Franey’s food is energetic, with a propensity for audacious flavors. He’s worked at Campton Place, Monterey’s Restaurant 1833, and Eleven Madison Park, none of which is known for mildness. There’s no excuse not to start with the Everything Hawaiian Bread ($8), four fluffy rolls with the same toppings as an everything bagel, only buddied up with butter, nectarine preserves, and a fight-you-for-the-rest-of-it strawberry chicken liver mousse. Then, move on to the tuna tartare ($10), a big, gooey bite on a cracker that’s mixed with deviled egg in lieu of raw egg, for extra flavor.
There need to be more savory custards in this world, and we should start with Villon’s dashi flan ($8). Although the mussels were as chewy as an earlobe, the combination of the clams and maitake mushrooms, with the delicate texture and fearless salt levels, made for a true statement dish. In a surprising fake-out, the baby back ribs ($8) were phyllo-wrapped feuilles de brique made with fish sauce, closer to a paper-thin imperial roll than anything you’d have at Chili’s, and quite good. (A non-negligible percentage of diners will probably hate the deception, but I applaud Franey for taking the risk.)
Even things that show up much as expected, like the $13 beet salad, have an extra snap. The beet chunks were too large for this to be tweezer food, but arranged radially around a scoop of burnt ricotta and over a fluorescent-pink raspberry vinaigrette, they were a labor of love.
A few things suffer from a bit of overload. However beautiful and well-cooked, a preparation of octopus, merguez, and broccolini ($8) cannibalized itself until there was but one savory-bitter flavor to the dish — which is too bad, as it sits in a supernova of mole sauce. Similarly, the skate wing ($25) was lightly fried but ultimately more opulent than delicious, overdressed with lobster bouillabaisse, cauliflower, concentrated grapes, and a kind of pesto until its center of gravity was way off. Look in the mirror and take one thing off before leaving the house, skate wing.
The perfect distillation of autumnal flavor, a kuri squash soup ($11) with sage and chunks of apple had enough brown sugar to bake it into a dessert, but it was still anchored firmly in its vegetable base to whet the appetite. (I don’t want this one to go under-praised. It’s anything but showy, but still very clever.) And the two best entrees were the sunchoke-studded gnudi — always the superior cousin to gnocchi, and with pecorino to add to the ricotta, $21 — and the squid ink tagliatelle, slightly overcooked on one visit, but elevated with just the right amount of uni and bottarga.
Are you seeing a through-line here? The geekiness is palpable, but really, it’s the affordability. You could have 200 Hawaiian rolls for the price of a room upstairs, and even the lone mega-entree, a monster portion of ribeye, is $90. What’s unfortunate, though, is that the drinks sound a lot more ambitious than they really are. BV Hospitality — which owns Trick Dog, and ran Rio Grande during the days of A Temporary Offering — put together Villon’s cocktail schema of seven categories of seven drinks each. There’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor — a Kentucky-bourbon drink is called a Ver Sales, after the local pronunciation of Versailles, Ky. — but also plenty of padding. The category of drinks invented in hotels includes a Vieux Carré, but also a Sidecar and a Piňa Colada, while “7 X the Book” includes commonplace cocktails like the Gimlet, the Mint Julep, and the Vesper.
So Villon is a little in love with its own idea, when a list of 15 unique creations might have done just as well. But better to have a bit of exuberance than its opposite. To the point, I don’t get a whiff of the cynicism that can flow out of boutique-hotel restaurants like a leaky oil pan. Sometimes, you get the sense that dishes on a hotel-restaurant menu were focus-grouped to death by marketing people who don’t especially enjoy eating very much, but who are very keen as to what was trending 18 months ago.
Villon is not like that at all, and the decor is smart, like Ken Fulk without the animal print or animal heads. Black-and-white checkered banquettes trick the eye, and mirrors in the shape of scalene triangles hang on the walls, like something you’d see in a drawing room where the lady of the house cheats at canasta. Since the Proper’s nominal address faces Market Street but the real front door is in the back, I assume the Dantean, high Baroque entryway guarded by the statue of a black dog is a joke. If so, it’s a cool one. In short, this is a sexy place to eat, even if the kind of lodgings you usually stay in is a motor court with an empty pool.
Villon, inside the Proper Hotel, 45 McAllister St., 415-735-7777 or properhotel.com