Union Square's BDK Is Not Just A “Hotel Restaurant”

Apparently we’ve now entered the American Tavern-era of San Francisco dining. It sounds more like where George Washington and James Madison wined and dined and discussed the Constitution, but here in 2015 the idea just might be the next step beyond the now ubiquitous local, seasonal, organic, neighborhood bistro. What makes the month-and-a-half-old, self-described “American Tavern” BDK Restaurant any different than the aforementioned bistro concept escapes me, but hey, fun and worthwhile food are far more important than formal titles.

[jump] Taking over the Grand Café space attached to Union Square’s Hotel Monaco, BDK is a hotel restaurant that isn’t a hotel restaurant. It would be just fine and plenty enjoyable to a discerning crowd in the Marina or along the Valencia corridor on its own. I’ve stayed at a few Hotel Monacos and Kimpton hotels around the country, mainly for the free nightly wine social hour, but never dined at one of their restaurants. Since their first hotel opened in San Francisco in the early '80s, the company figured why not try to make a San Francisco hotel restaurant San Franciscans might actually patronize. BDK could already be the best restaurant tied to a hotel in this city outside of the more buttoned-up and ambitious likes of Ame, Parallel 37, Campton Place, Big Four, and Dirty Habit (probably BDK’s closest comparison except far more eccentric). But is that enough to catch the attention of San Francisco’s rigorously demanding dining public, or will BDK be just the go-to for convention goers?

For the mini truffle butter burgers ($6), the answer is Yes, the local public will belly up to the bar to seek them out. Chef Heather Terhune came to BDK by way of Top Chef and Sable Kitchen & Bar, a pretty similar concept at another Kimpton property in Chicago, and I’m guessing she learned a thing or two about how much the Midwest, specifically Wisconsin, loves their butter burgers. Hers are coated with a nice little touch of butter, but not in the Paula Deen grease-attack way. The only prerequisite for enjoying this is an appreciation for taleggio cheese — think the sharp funk of a bleu, but with the creaminess of brie. With that in mind, the pat of truffle butter melts away into the sweet onions and taleggio for a beautiful enhancement. The meat is cooked spot-on medium rare, no simple task for a five bite burger. At last, this jaded slider eater has seen the buttery light. If only there were some frozen custard to complete the real Wisconsin sensation.

For the rest of the BDK dining experience, the answer of who will be the regular diners here down the road is a more casual, or should I say tavern-style, maybe. BDK’s ultimate problem is while everything is good and the room is bumping and diners are having a blast, there is no distinct personality. It’s like a lot of other restaurants — no better, no worse. The menu tries to cover every base, hitting every trend the PR newsletters say are in fashion. Poutine given a twist with lamb? Check. (Pickle brined) fried chicken thighs with biscuits? Yep. Steak tartare, deviled eggs, crab beignets, beets with farro and goat cheese? Three appetizer sections? You bet. Major craft cocktail section? Of course.

The menu really is from all over the country and maybe the world, from New Orleans buttery barbeque shrimp to little smoked ham-and-brie “pop tarts.” Yankee pot roast gets braised in Chianti because the restaurant namesake and hotel founder Bill Kimpton adored Chianti. The perfectly pan seared scallops ($26) are the restaurant in a nutshell. Tabbouleh, pine nuts, black olive purée and non-detectable orange oil all becomes one pile of parsley and olive-driven salt. It’s a heavy-handed dish but who doesn’t like lots of olives and scallops cooked with a deft hand? Drink lots of water.

Meanwhile, dessert brings more crowd-pleasers via the likes of sticky toffee pudding cake or the sweet-salty blitz of a fudge cake with pretzel crumble and peanut butter sauce. They are definitely shooting for our inner 10-year-old. 

Designer extraordinaire Ken Fulk took the Grand Café, arguably the most ornate and spectacular competitor to the Garden Court around, and spun it 180 degrees into an intimate, 113-seat boîte. The bar shares the same floor space as the main dining area, separated by an obligatory communal table, and all the colors are a dizzying array of black, white, and silver. If you squint it really does seem like a more American version of Fulk’s Cavalier.

With all this talk of food and ambiance, it’s the cocktails ($11-12) that will get the most attention, because this is San Francisco. Kevin Diedrich, the mastermind of the Negroni on Tap just steps away at Jasper’s Corner Tap, is at the helm. Cocktails are named for the flavor or ingredient that is most pronounced, so think “snap peas,” “matcha,” shiso.” “Saffron” needs more saffron and mezcal, but involves a wonderful bruléed pineapple syrup. The knockout is “Banana” with reposado tequila, palo cortado sherry, and banana liqueur. (One may even find it superior to the whiskey-based “Banane” Dietdrich designed at Gaspar in the FiDi, possibly because this one is served with a mini sidecar of extra drink à la House of Prime Rib martinis.) 

Indeed, BDK is still a restaurant in a hotel. (One clueless businessman who had enjoyed a few beverages asked me which way is Union Square and which way is Market Street.) Sure, the lobby can be seen from everywhere in the restaurant, but if hotel restaurants and American Taverns are going in this direction, we’re heading towards the right place.

BDK, 501 Geary, 415-292-0101.

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