The one type of dining establishment that I wish San Francisco had is a revolving restaurant. In California, you either have to go to the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in L.A., where the Bonavista Lounge slowly spins 34 floors above Downtown, or to the year-old Splash!, which is almost at the end of the Municipal Wharf in Santa Cruz.
Barring that, I’ve always wanted Bananas Foster flambéed tableside. Last week, I got my secondary wish fulfilled at Alfred’s, the 89-year-old steakhouse on Merchant Street, an ugly little alley full of no-parking signs where the Hilton somehow stashes the A-listers’ Lincoln Navigator limos, anyway. This $14 dessert theater includes the full presentation: A server wheels a cart out to you, ignites the rum, and flamboyantly tosses cinnamon into the flames to generate sparks. I usually have a hard time with bananas’ mushy, baby-food-like texture, but the caramelized sugar and brown butter fused so nicely with the cinnamon croutons that they essentially enrobed those ’nanners.
We also got a Peach Melba ($9) that was so larded up with raspberries it was tricky not to spill them over the side of the bowl. It’s an even older dessert than Bananas Foster, tracing its lineage back to Auguste Escoffier himself. He created it for an opera singer named Nellie Melba, who reputedly requested something that would soothe her vocal chords.
I’m recounting this experience in reverse chronological order because dessert embodied what I think Alfred’s does best: the classics, and those two desserts are nothing but. (As a rule of thumb, almost any menu item where the adjective comes after the noun, in the vein of a Romance language, is good; too bad there’s no Lobster Thermidor.) Having opened in 1928, Alfred’s became a property of Daniel Patterson about 18 months ago, but a fire in the basement earlier this year spurred the management to revamp it a little further.
The dilemma lies in how Alfred’s negotiates the intersection between traditional and contemporary. As a grand steakhouse, beef is probably going to be what’s for dinner, but unlike House of Prime Rib, it’s by no means necessary. Whereas the former is beholden to English traditions, there’s a lot more flexibility here, and that’s to Alfred’s credit. Patterson and chef Bryan Baker have taken a lot of care to add plenty of pastas and other meats, and the list of starters is long and varied, from fried shishito peppers with Maldon salt to an ounce of California sturgeon caviar.
Sticking to a menu that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald might have eaten risks appearing stodgy and humorless, so there’s a detectable impishness to the proceedings. There are tater tots, for example, as well as a $59, five-course “School Night Special” built around a different meat each evening, Monday through Thursday. It broadens Alfred’s appeal without dinging the elegance. (“I could have an affair here,” my dining mate said.)
Looked at another way, though, it’s almost as though Alfred’s blinked. Yes, there are black vests and white tablecloths and chandeliers modeled after the Vienna Opera House and blown-up San-Francisco-by-night photography on the walls and signed, framed headshots in the restroom — hello, dude who played Schneider on One Day at a Time! — but I almost wish the kitchen went all the way and served hopelessly out-of-fashion grande cuisine dishes straight out of Le Cordon Bleu, the kind of laborious things that inspired Julia Child to cook. (If the Alfred’s of the world won’t serve us an aspic, then nobody will.) There is a Celery Victor, which was invented more than a century ago right here in San Francisco and which I’d never had before, but it’s difficult to get excited about lightly cooked celery with some black pepper.
Otherwise, what is there, though, is good — if pricey. The six or so cuts of beef run from $48 to $85, which makes Alfred’s price floor roughly the same level as House of Prime Rib’s ceiling. I appreciated the char of the $75 Alfred’s cut, a 28-ounce, grass-fed and dry-aged beauty with oxtail bordelaise that became truly consciousness-expanding with a $10 side of garlicky mashed potatoes and some charred broccoli ($9). At the same time, that’s a whopping $94 for meat and two sides.
But again: You won’t feel as deprived as a vegan at a barbecue by skipping beef entirely. Oysters Rockefeller ($18), usually topped with parsley and a butter sauce, get a creamed spinach treatment with a touch of Scotch, and that’s pretty clever. Marvelous oxtail foie gras croquettes ($13) come with a delightfully bitter and beautifully presented endive salad to cut back the richness. Gnochetti with summer vegetables and basil ($13 for a side, $26 for an entree) might be the lightest thing you can order as a main at Alfred’s, and it’s still full of flavor. And the Alfred’s steak burger was like an haute Double-Double on an airier bun, right down to the fries.
I have to commend the cocktails, which were among the best (and booziest) I’ve ever had. Martinis are essentially two-in-one, with the ice-filled shaker left at the table, and they’re a nice rebuke to all those fussy, full-price cocktails in half-size coupe glasses. The Martinez, in particular — made with Zephyr gin and grapefruit oil, $15 — is one of those aperitifs that stimulates the appetite on its own and plays well with citrus-forward bites, like an oyster Rockefeller.
Where Alfred’s teeters is in the service, which is stretched very thin. Servers vanish for 20-minute stretches, bread fails to appear, and the spacing of courses feels elongated. A lead-footed pace is forgivable for a relaxing dinner, but it can be stress-inducing at lunch. I did go once for lunch, which was Thursdays-only for some peculiar reason, only to be casually informed that it was in fact the final lunch service — and the burger seems to have disappeared with it. The re-jiggering has yet to conclude, it seems.
So no more two-martini lunches, which is a shame. (The whole time I was there, I kept thinking of Kate McKinnon and Kumail Nanjiani’s brilliant “Glove Lunch” parody of the movie Carol, at the Independent Spirit Awards last year.) Across all visits, the playlist was a combination of jazz standards and pre-British Invasion pop, which feels of a piece with Alfred’s aesthetic until you realize that the truly O.G. steakhouse patrons would have regarded such music as a horrible racket for teenagers. I don’t mean to drown in borrowed nostalgia for an era when cigarette smoke was everywhere and women and people of color were probably less than welcome — but once in a great long while, I want to eat like those men ate.
Alfred’s, 659 Merchant St., 415-781-7058 or alfredssf.com