From sit-ins to George Clooney’s character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to a Gothic Revival skyscraper in Lower Manhattan, Woolworth’s looms large in the American imagination. Lunch counters and five-and-dimes are virtually extinct — their successors, dollar stores, are on the way out, too — and the appeal of a “pressed ham sandwich” for 30 cents has dimmed in light of all the cuisines available to 21st-century urbanites.
But there’s a yearning for that lost age, and it tugs at City Counter like a child in a mall begging a parent for a toy. Harper Matheson’s salad-and-sandwich luncheonette on Sansome Street updates the classics for modern palates, and in terms of what’s on the plate, City Counter executes it well.
The interior is absolutely baffling, however. Years after the dull ubiquity of white subway tiles peaked, we have a restaurant that seeks to revive the elegance of mid-century excursions to I. Magnin by looking like … mid-2013. Even the command module in the Matrix sequels and the room in Willy Wonka’s factory where Mike Teevee gets shrunk had less white than this. And the lone touch of color, a pink neon sign consisting of nested letter C’s, wants to pop like Mr. Holmes Bakehouse but looks more like the Comedy Central logo. The fact that it’s in the Standard Oil building, across the foyer from a Blue Bottle Coffee and upscale cocktail lounge The Treasury, makes the incongruity stand out all the more. The only visual through-line to Woolworth’s is that you’re probably going to sit at the long counter.
But if you can overlook the laboratory-like sterility, City Counter is a great place for lunch (or happy hour, as it’s open until 7 p.m.) It might be the guilt this carnivore harbors from my elevated carcass consumption these days, but I’m always on the hunt for vegetarian meals that are worth coming back to, and I found it in the $10 Reubenesque, which also happens to be one of the better food puns of all time. It’s not especially curvaceous or voluptuous as some other unhinge-your-jaw sandwiches go, but it’s a delicious combination of smoked beets, cheddar, pickled cabbage, and “Counter Sauce” on toasted rye bread. (I didn’t order it; a friend did, and we swapped halves.) It has just enough fat and heft to cancel out all that nutrition, so I’m on board.
For a proper meat-on-bread experience, try the mezzogiorno (roasted pork belly and loin, pistachio mortadella, cherry peppers, smoked mozzarella, and mustard, $13). It surprised me, too, by the use of regular-old white bread, which is about as maligned as paint chips these days. But the diner dramaturg in me approves, and even though I’m a hardcore Dutch crunch partisan, I respect a kitchen that refuses to let the bread be anything but a load-bearing wall that supports the rest of a sandwich’s ingredients. It’s evenly toasted, and with a little cup of pickles to balance all the cured meats, it’s almost restrained — but without that revulsion for rusticity that spurred postwar lunches to scorn real delicatessen in favor of sad, unreviveable things like olive loaf.
Deviled eggs feature heavily on the menu, from egg salad to an egg salad sandwich to a straight-up plate of three highly garnished salt-cod eggs themselves. But if you’re reluctant to eat somewhere that wants to embody the spirit of 1961, don’t worry: There’s also a tri-tip sandwich ($14), and an excellent roasted carrot salad ($15) that’s straight out of the Alice Waters playbook, with a charred eggplant spread, kaffir-lime-and-tahini dressing, feta, and mint. Pot pies and a small wine list that tips toward whites, sparkling wines, and rosé can rope you in for happy hour.
Once upon a time, Woolworth’s was the pre-eminent American company, a staple of urban living, with the tallest building in the world until 1930. It’s a shadow of its former self, reduced to a subsidiary of Foot Locker — although there’s still a Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Bakersfield. I don’t know that City Counter channels its otherwise long-gone spirit, but the sandwiches are very good.
City Counter, 115 Sansome St., 415-844-0633 or citycountersf.com