All That Glitters

Eliza's elegance is often undercut by lackluster food and perfunctory service

I imagine there are still cities where it's hard to find a decent plate of Chinese food. San Francisco is not one of them. In fact, when out-of-towners arrive asking where to go, most of us start by narrowing down categories. Do you want dim sum? Cantonese seafood? Shanghai noodles or Hakka clay pot?

That's why I don't understand the wild popularity of Eliza's. The two locations, the recently reopened Hayes Valley original and the year-old newcomer in Potrero Hill, have lines out the door at lunch and dinner. But a couple of recent visits left me convinced you can do far better in Chinatown (House of Nanking, DPD, Lichee Garden, Yuet Lee), in the Financial District (Yank Sing, Harbor Village), or at dozens of places in the Richmond, including Fountain Court, Taiwan, Mike's, and Flower Lounge.

Far better in terms of food. Because the decor at Eliza's is stunning, especially on Potrero Hill. Carved wooden screens, colored blown-glass lights, Matisse-y stained glass, orchids everywhere — these are not your standard Chinese dives. And the tony diners wielding those lacquered chopsticks look right at home in such surroundings. Almost as if they've finally found a Chinese place in which they can feel comfortable — sort of non-Chinese, more like the sleek cafŽs and bistros that New York Times travel writers often feature in their “adventurous” forays into San Francisco's neighborhoods.

The paradoxical part of it all is the service. We're talking move-'em-in, move-'em-out on Oak Street; throw-the-food-at-you-all-at-once-and-disappear on 18th Street. Minimal to nonexistent communication. The contrast between the classy surroundings and brusque hash-house attitude has great potential for high farce. And don't think it's a language gap. I've had long, involved conversations with Chinese waiters elsewhere who don't speak a word of English, down to distinguishing between mushrooms and noodle types.

On our first visit to Eliza's on Oak, we arrive at 6:15 p.m. We're told we can have one of three empty tables if we give it up at 7:20. We're told that three times. Since we're going on to the theater and it looks like the place might fill up, we foolishly agree to this devil's pact. We sit down, nervous wrecks, wondering what will happen if our waitress doesn't know about the time negotiation and worried we'll have to abandon half-eaten plates of food when the important 7:20 party shows up — it must be at least the Gettys, maybe Wendy and Frank.

We snap to and order the combination appetizer plate ($5.95) of egg roll, crab meat rangoon, potstickers, and drums of heaven. We sigh with relief when it arrives speedily, glancing at our watches and figuring we're on schedule. At that point we also order the nightly special mango chicken ($7.95) and scallops with spicy garlic sauce ($8.95).

Crispy vegetarian egg rolls are filled with cabbage, egg, carrot, and daikon. Pork-stuffed potstickers are gingery and juicy. Happiness. But the crab rangoon is a bad idea: pastry filled with a too-sweet cream cheese (tasting like the ricotta used in dessert cannoli), flecks of scallion, and what looks like imitation crab. Actually, it doesn't really matter if the crab is fresh; it gets lost inside the gloop. Deep-fried chicken drumsticks have buckling, peppery skin overpowering the chicken inside. Heavenly? Hardly.

But mango chicken is a delight and beautiful to behold: mango squares and purple cabbage jazzing up the plate of velvety spicy chicken. Jalape–o rounds in the sauce don't really work here, deadening your tongue to the delicacy of the dish. Scallops are tender but the sauce is surprisingly bland. As a bowl of white rice arrives, I notice our neighbors have brown rice with their meal. “Can we have brown instead?” I ask the waiter, who tells me I didn't ask for it (how could I when no one told me it was available?) before reluctantly making the change.

Oh no, it's 7:20 and they've just delivered the check. Quickly, I stuff my credit card inside the folder and wait to be ejected. 7:25. 7:30. Maybe the Gettys went to Stars instead. We dodge eager diners who crowd the small entryway on our way out.

At lunch on Potrero Hill, we're seated after a five-minute wait and discover one reason for Eliza's popularity: a long list of lunch specials for $4.50 including soup. Not bad for eating in a place that looks so expensive. We choose Hunan fish from the specials and order Eliza's chow mein ($6.50) off the regular menu after seeing it delivered to the next table. No one tells us the regular menu is available. No one tells us anything.

Excellent hot-and-sour soup arrives quickly, filled with onion, cabbage, bits of mushroom, and small pieces of soft tofu. We love its fire but, as with the jalape–os, our mouths are desensitized to the flavors of the dishes that follow.

And follow they do — about two minutes after the soup is placed on the table. Big dilemma. Finish the soup and eat cold food or attack the main dishes and have cold soup for dessert? We probably could have said something adult like, “We're not ready yet. Could you please bring those dishes back to the kitchen?” But it wasn't one of our more assertive days. Besides, it's not our job to pace the meal.

We move on. Hunan fish is undistinguished: deep-fried rock cod, the batter a bit too thick, undeserving of its hot-and-spicy star on the menu. The chow mein — glossy thick noodles, vegetables (broccoli, pea pods, mushrooms, and carrots), plus small pieces of beef and chicken — is decent if somewhat greasy.

Now don't get me wrong. None of Eliza's food is bad (with the exception of that sorry crab rangoon). But it's not great in the tell-all-your-friends-about-it class. So what's with the crowds? Are they all suburbanites who don't have good Chinese in their neighborhoods? Or do orchids and stained glass make a silk purse out of a sow's ear? You tell me.

Eliza's Restaurant, 205 Oak, S.F., 621-4819; also at 1457 18th St, S.F., 648-9999. Open Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun (18th Street only) 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

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