However careworn a proverb, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is rather cryptic. Are we not to judge because only shallow people would read The Great Gatsby because of Francis Cugat’s outstanding cover design? Or is it because a lot of bad books have bad covers, but a small fraction don’t and it would be a shame to toss them?
Maybe we should update the maxim to “Don’t judge a bar by its name.” While I respect the Hotel San Francisco for poking a stick right in the eye of search-engine optimization — see if you can successfully Google it, I dare ya — it’s also not a hotel.
While it might sound so anonymous as to be vaguely sinister, as if someone wanted to hide something behind a blandly legitimate-sounding business name, it’s quite an impressive place, serving food and drink for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some of the team are Australian, and at the risk of trafficking in stereotypes about residents of the seventh continent, those Aussies know how to drink. Their stated desire is to reignite the largely moribund tradition of a multiple-martini lunch on a discreet alley at the edge of the Financial District, and in that we wish them well.
And not to harp at length on the name, but it is a roundabout allusion to the Hotel California — some neon artwork reads, “Such a Lovely Place.” Hotel San Francisco doesn’t have mirrors on the ceiling like the accommodations in the Eagles song, but the ones on the wall reflect the red-lit rear windows, and the bathroom is aggressively wallpapered with skulls. Nothing in here is Tiffany-twisted, and there’s no Mercedes-Benz, although this address was once home to Mercedes the restaurant. The Marriott Marquis this is not.
But the $12 to $14 cocktail menu is good! Five of the stiffest classics — a Vesper, a Manhattan, a Sazerac — share real estate with less-potent originals with names like the Lil’ J. Foxglove (Aperol, rhubarb, Italian blood orange soda, lemon, and Licor 43) or the Moochie Camino (Xicaru Mezcal, tart cherry, cinnamon sage syrup, chipotle pepper, Aperol, key lime). Missed lunch? Sensibly refraining from going overboard until knocking off for the day? During happy hour, there’s a daily wine pour for $8 and all beer is $3 off.
Hotel San Francisco’s lunch offerings are hearty enough to wrestle with whatever you should happen to drink them down with, including a cod bouillabaisse, potato-and-leek agnolotti, a lamb ragu with horseradish, and a slow-roasted pork sandwich with cracklins on it. Lighter dishes consist of kampachi crudo with fava beans and rhubarb, a snap pea salad, chicken skewers, and salt-and-pepper squid. Shoehorned between Chinatown and the FiDi, one thing you cannot accuse Hotel San Francisco of is an overly rigid adherence to one cuisine or region.
Totally out of left field, and certainly not from Down Under, is an orange-pistachio cannoli ($12), such a rare treat in a city with an ostensibly strong Italian heritage. Maybe they can teach us something about what we’ve been missing this whole while.
So, in short: Don’t judge a bar by its name. Judge it by its menu, decor, and vibe.
Hotel San Francisco, 653 Commercial St. 415-263-9222 or hotelsf.com