"The Barbary Coast!" The Call's editors howled in 1868. "That sink of moral pollution, whose reefs are strewn with human wrecks, and into whose vortex is constantly drifting barks of moral life, while swiftly down the whirlpool of death go the sinking hulks of the murdered and the suicide!"
The Barbary Coast re-created by the Comstock Saloon, a two-month-old cocktail bar and Victorian-Californian restaurant, would have appeared to The Call as a utopian fantasy of the dives and dance halls it deplored. Call it a Star Trek version of the past. The saloon's booths are occupied by mixed groups, the bartenders have all their teeth, and the booze won't make you go blind. You bring with you a wallet of plastic cards, not a loaded weapon. Your odds of leaving the bar free of syphilis or cigar-smoked hair have improved.
That doesn't make the romance the saloon stages any less potent, in large part because everything about the place — drinks, food, decor — is so beautifully realized. Sidling up to the 1907 bar, a carved-wood confection, it's easy to spend half an hour just taking in the detailing wrought by former Absinthe bartenders Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger and Absinthe owner Bill Russell-Shapiro. First, you notice the giant ceiling fan, which looks like a walking-stick insect with ping-pong paddles strapped to its feet. Next, the tweed suits and curled mustaches on the proprietors. An Emperor Norton statue lords over the bar, guarding the beveled glassware on the opposite wall. Dandified straight guys stand around the room sipping Pisco Punches, necks craned to watch the jazz trio playing in the loft above. Around the corner in the dining room, damask wallpaper clashes elegantly with green velvet seats and century-old floor tiles. The bar seems as period as a Merchant Ivory film until you notice the Victoriana is composed with a Dwell subscriber's eye for restraint.
Comstock Saloon is just one of two early-20th-century-themed restaurants to open in the space of a month — the other one is Tyler Florence's Wayfare Tavern. While this new trend seems to have struck the Bay Area like a clap of thunder, it was foretold by a host of omens.
For one, the city's love for early-20th-century cocktails is peaking. Plus, all the urban homesteaders are making artisanal batches of the preserves, cured meats, pickles, and cheeses their great-grandparents once did to survive the winter. San Francisco bohos are showing a penchant for prospector boots and jackets with Victorian puff shoulders. And S.F. cooks are on a furious hunt for new influences to revitalize their California cuisine.
Comstock Saloon's chef, Carlo Espinas (a vet of Piccino and Camino), takes as his inspiration classic San Francisco cookbooks instead of European avant-garde chefs or Asian street food, and the results are just as exciting. Many of the dishes on his short menu date back to 19th-century San Francisco, but he reworks them with modern ingredients.
If you know that the Pisco Punch (Peruvian brandy and lime, their sharp edges smoothed by a pineapple gum-arabic syrup, $10) was once San Francisco's signature drink, it seems only appropriate to soak up the buzz with a plate of Espinas' rye toasts tiled in slices of pickled eggs ($5.50). And Hollinger's signature Martinez ($12) — the martini's predecessor, perfumed with Maraschino and orange bitters along with sweet vermouth — segues naturally into a Hamburg steak ($17), a coarsely ground patty that has been cooked to a tender medium, set on a slice of bread, and smothered in a beefy brown gravy.
Like Espinas, Raglin and Hollinger update classic cocktail recipes — Sazeracs, South Sides, Manhattans. Sit at the bar, and the bartenders comfortably make small talk; order a "barkeep's whimsy" ($10), and depending on what you last ordered, you could end up with a mahogany-colored concoction of bourbon, port, and bitters, or a frothy Cynar Sour (the last one a response to a request for a drink that would make a bitter artichoke liqueur palatable; it worked).
Even when a dish like "Crock of beans, braised salt pork, biscuit" ($9) reads like it was abstracted from a Herman Melville novel, none of the food Espinas puts out comes off as culinary gimmickry. Part of the reason is that he spends so much time on the backstory of each dish. He cures pork bellies himself, braises Rancho Gordo beans until their centers are creamy and the fat in the salt pork turns gelatinous, and sets two warm, oven-puffed biscuits on the side. His fisherman's salad ($9) assembles a host of strong flavors — fish that he's salted, cauliflower that he's pickled — and then checks them with cherry tomatoes and green beans, mint darting in and out almost too quickly to identify. Nodding to the Portuguese fishing fleets that once operated from the nearby piers, he stuffs long, skinny linguiça and uses the sausages to flavor a bowl of clams, potatoes, and wheels of corn ($16.50). Recognizing his limits, the chef contracts out desserts to Absinthe's talented Luis Villavelazquez; the pastry chef's maple bourbon pudding ($7) tastes like butterscotch updated for the salted-caramel age.
The other thing that makes Espinas' food work: The man has technique. A drinking snack, the alligator-pear toasts ($5.50) come off as an artful balance between avocado (once known as alligator pear) and grapefruit. His romaine salad ($7.50) is coated in a proper, Fannie Farmer–era buttermilk dressing, with warm, custardy cubes of fried grits and tarragon leaves. His fried rabbit ($13), showered in fried winter savory and served with chile vinegar, is the only dish that doesn't succeed. But it needs only a simple fix — the tender meat had been brined a few hours too long, leaving it too salty and juicy, which softened its crinkled golden exterior.
More fully realized is Espinas' beef shank and bone marrow pie ($17.50), paired with a tangle of frilled arugula. The brittle lard crust shatters when you send your fork into its heart, emerging with a hank of steaming shredded beef enriched with melted marrow. Those of you who imagined yourselves in a time-traveling episode of No Reservations, dispatched to clear a table of Dickensian horrors, may be disappointed at first by the pie's tastiness. On second bite, the anticlimax is replaced by a flood of false courage. If this is Barbary Coast fare, you decide, the sink of moral pollution can't have been that depraved. Bring on the whirlpool of death! Or at least another Pisco Punch.