It takes a very long time to open a business in San Francisco, but at Howells, it was the bar itself that took nearly as long. Owner Nate Welch’s father took six months to carve it, and the result is a commanding yet flowing piece that looks as though it were carved from a single tree. Behind the bar, a similarly styled cabinet conceals an electrical panel, while behind that, a millennial-pink wall is one big sound dampener.
Avoiding the feedback loop, endemic to small or narrow spaces, in which the volume of ambient conversation causes people to speak louder and louder, is always a shrewd move. Although Howells isn’t library-quiet, it is on the quieter western edge of Chestnut Street. But it’s fun, as befits Welch’s 10 years’ experience managing the more retail-oriented bar California Wine Merchant a few blocks east. A former Greek restaurant between Scott and Divisadero streets called Mezes, Howells relocated its predecessor’s staircase to push the bar closer to the front, making for better flow and a more engaging atmosphere.
The name has a certain upper-crust connotation, possibly owing to Gilligan’s Island, whose millionaire characters Thurston and Lovey Howell shirked their responsibilities to let the other castaways perform every task — and who also slept in separate beds. But this Howells has a smart wine list, apportioned out in three- and five-ounce pours, plus full bottles. (Refreshingly, any of the two dozen-plus options is available in any amount.)
With a glass of 2016 Henri Bourgeois Sancerre in hand, you can head upstairs to the mezzanine lounge to nibble through Chef Sarah Galloway’s seasonal menu of “comfort food with a Midwest influence.” (There is table service up there, and a private tasting room as well.) Cheese and charcuterie — think Bellwether Farms’ San Andreas and Point Reyes Toma alongside mortadella, chili fennel sausage, and mortadella — give way to light dishes like a Cobb salad or a BLT and heavier items like a short rib stroganoff and a braised stuffed pepper.
Weekend brunch is coming, as is a back patio. Really, there are worse places to be marooned for an afternoon, even without a movie star, a professor, or a girl-next-door type.
Howells, 2373 Chestnut St., 415-814-2150 or howellssf.com