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Climbing the Hill 

Il Pirata

Wednesday, Sep 11 2002
Now that the 2002 baseball season has been preserved and the Giants just might be headed for the playoffs, it's especially crucial to find an amiable little bar where there's Red Hook on tap and stat chat can be exchanged with equanimity. San Francisco neighborhood saloons are an admirable and dwindling species that should be protected as vigilantly as any Alamo Square Victorian or Crissy Field flamingo. A good neighborhood saloon is a place where a round of drinks is as close as the nearest dice cup, the bartenders are old enough to remember the 1962 World Series, highballs outnumber Cosmos 9-to-1, and a person can be as sociable or as lonesome as she wants to be. Familiar forms grace the barstools, local gossip is the lingua franca, and good music dips and floats above the conversation and the sports scores. Potrero Hill's Il Pirata is such an establishment.

Thanks to an adjacent and newly revamped dining area and patio, this diversified venue is also a popular dance club, an alfresco rendezvous spot, a second-millennium salon complete with art shows and the occasional film festival, and a restaurant that has recently veered off in a new direction. All of this has made Il Pirata a central focal point of Potrero Hill, an isolated and eclectic area where cattle once grazed (potrero is Spanish for "pasture"), before immigrant Scots, Russians, Chinese, Irish, Mexicans, and Southern American blacks settled on the hilltop to work the steel mills, sugar refineries, shipyards, and canneries ringing its base. The familiar S.F. tale of converted factories and encroaching gentrification has been the neighborhood's latest chapter, and over the past few years Potrero Hill has sprouted offices, condominiums, coffeehouses, and a handful of nice restaurants.

As its name indicates, Il Pirata was an Italian eatery for several years ("one of the few good restaurants on Potrero Hill," according to the 1987 edition of San Francisco Access). Recently, Remy Bernabe came aboard as executive chef, following stints at Masa's, Aqua, and Cafe 180 -- a résumé to contemplate, particularly in these rambunctious surroundings. The new house cuisine might best be described as "nouveau saloon," pub grub tarted up with the likes of avocado salsa, onion marmalade, Yukon Gold potatoes, and Muscovy duck. The food fits the milieu because Il Pirata is primarily a nightspot; the tables are cleared by 8 o'clock to make room for the dancers, the bar and the patio generate most of the buzz, and the restaurant side of the operation is, at this point, something of an afterthought.

The new dining room is a striking thing to contemplate, however. A large aquamarine mural of undersea life (with voluptuous mermaid) is the dominant interior motif, with burnt-rust walls, crimson wainscoting, and red-and-black checkerboard flooring taking up the slack. Each round Formica table is accented with pastel green-and-blue mats and utensils and chem lab-violet vases. Gargoyles, gilt-edged mirrors, and velvet tapestries hang at irregular intervals, and the black-and-green leatherette booths rise and engulf you like a clamshell. The overall effect is of an Eisenhower-era diner reimagined by the Merry Pranksters. In such a setting a postmodern cocktail seemed in order, and we tried two of the house specialties: the Cutty Bang, a refreshing, summery blend of two kinds of gin, lemon-infused rum, and pineapple juice; and the Bode Flow, a sweeter but still lip-smacking mix of orange juice, pineapple juice, and two varieties of rum.

The appetizers are the restaurant's tastiest examples of upper-tier bar food. Fresh oysters arrive on the half shell topped off with a creamy, chunky avocado-tomato salsa -- an inspired combination of succulence and salt spray. Even better is the rib eye bruschetta, thick slices of smoky, tender steak, silky and spicy onion marmalade, and bubbly melted cheddar set upon a thick slab of crusty grilled bread -- a lusty, satisfying treat. There are four other varieties of bruschetta as well: crab and mozzarella; duck, ham, and baby vegetable; roasted vegetable and avocado; and prawn, scallop, and mango, which we ordered but never received.

The rest of the menu employs the same basic ingredients -- rib eye, duck, ham, prawns -- in the form of pasta, salad, or risotto, an interesting variations-on-a-theme experiment that in practice inspires little gustatory enthusiasm. The duck with egg noodles, for instance, is cooked so long it's difficult to discern one taste from another, but the meat is tender and the roasted onions and squash add a hint of savor. One of the salads is a better option; for $11 you get an entire meal (protein, starch, and salad) on one big platter -- not a bad idea after a long day's work, Red Hook at hand -- and if the flavors don't exactly sing, at least it fills your belly. The roasted-lamb variety is as overcooked as the duck, but the salad's tangy vinaigrette livens things up a bit, and a seemingly incongruous side of hot, crunchy polenta adds a welcome bit of texture. Best of all is the salmon fillet, only slightly overcooked and mostly moist on the inside, accompanied by roasted vegetables and a creamy, prawn-studded risotto that doesn't compete with the fish.

Il Pirata's menu featured one dessert on the night of our visit: a peach cobbler absolutely brimming with fresh, ripe peaches but lacking in the light-and-flaky-pastry department. (A plenitude of softly whipped cream made up for it, though.) Throughout our meal the service was earnest and affable, if a bit whimsical -- I've never gotten my entree before my appetizers -- and was somehow emblematic of the operation's uncertain direction as a whole.

The wine list is about what you'd expect from a neighborhood saloon -- 20 standard selections, all of them available by the glass -- but there are also almost two dozen draft beers to choose from, including Sierra Nevada Summerfest, Humboldt Hemp, Anderson Valley I.P.A., and other modern classics. Good old Anchor Steam, brewed just on the other side of the hill, is a favorite. Sip one while you watch the Giants on the bar's big-screen TV -- the team began its San Francisco days at the old Seals Stadium at 16th and Potrero, less than a block from here -- or out on the patio, smack dab in the middle of the city's least foggy climate. Afterward, check out the scene at the Bottom of the Hill or Cafe Cocomo, hit a bucket of balls at the Mission Bay driving range, contemplate the several murals depicting local product O.J. Simpson, or wend your way down Vermont Street, the real crookedest street in the world.

Every neighborhood has its pleasures.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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