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Belden Place—A French & European Scene with Fine Dining in an Alley

By Nina Wu with contributions from Elan Schmitt and Karen Solomon

 
 

 

If San Francisco had a French quarter, Belden Place would be it. Ditto a "European Quarter." The site of the annual Bastille Day celebration (July 14th) for all the Francophiles in town, this little alleyway halfway between Kearny and Montgomery Streets is a European world unto itself. On one of those rare, warm San Francisco evenings, diners can eat at rickety cafe tables on the tree-lined street dotted with strings of lights. Both romantic and social, Belden has also become a gathering place, a strolling promenade, and a see-and-be-seen scene for a young and attractive crowd who revel in the novelty of dining with their dogs and smoking at the table.

In the San Francisco tradition of mixing cultures, the chef of Cafe Bastille (22 Belden Place), a popular casual and elegant French eatery, is a native of Mexico. Edgar Sierra has been chef of Cafe Bastille since 2000, and he previously cooked at Cafe Marimba, a Mexican-Californian place in The Marina district. Here, he brings fresh ideas to the menu every day. “I love cooking with seafood and meat,” Sierra says, “And I love the raviolis.” His passions truly show through, as the salmon and bay scallop ravioli with sauteed spinach, basil, and a Roquefort brandy cream sauce is one of the most popular dishes on the menu. Other popular plates in this airy cafe include traditional French crepes, mussels and frites, and innovative casseroles and seared meats.

 
     
 

Nearby Plouf (40 Belden) is another specialty French bistro, this time centering its menu on seafood under the competent hand of Swedish-born Chef Thomas Weibull. Plouf is one of a family of warm, casual, Euro-eateries owned by restaurateur Jocelyn Bulow, also the purveyor and creative mind behind a trio of restaurants in Portrero Hill, including Chez Papa, a Provencal bistro that draws a heavy crowd, Chez Maman, a tinier, more causal, and less expensive version of the same around the corner, and Baraka, a Middle Eastern-inspired small-plates spot. What Plouf and the other restaurants share in common is fine food, swift and attentive service, and a cozy, authentic bistro feel.

 
  Just next door, B44 (44 Belden) fits in with the neighborhood in appearance, yet makes itself distinct with the cuisine of Catalan. Nearly every table totes a luscious pan of paella, a house specialty, or some other Spanish delight. Or would you rather have Italian? Then Cafe Tiramisu (28 Belden) is your dining destination, with an excellent selection of housemade pastas and succulent meats and fish prepared with roasted peppers, olives, capers, walnuts, and other sumptuous Italian staples.  
 

But French cuisine is really what the area is known for, and French cuisine we shall seek. Within walking distance from Belden Place is Cafe Claude (7 Claude Lane), hidden in its very own in-the-know alley. In the battle amongst all of the restaurants in the French Quarter for the strongest resemblance to Paris, Claude has a leg up, as some of its furnishings and furniture have actually been imported from old Parisian cafes. They feature a regular menu of jazz in addition to classic dishes such as salade nicoise, braised lamb shank, and onion soup au gratin. The highly acclaimed cooking of Executive Chef Philippe Chevalier shows through every morsel.

 
  Le Central Bistro (453 Bush), just a bit farther away from Belden along Bush Street, was formerly owned by French brothers Claude and Pierre Cappella. It was eventually handed over to their chef Paul Tanphanich, who runs the place with his brother, Johnny. Le Central is a great lunch spot, with open windows that look out onto a bustling street scene. Ex-Mayor Willie Brown frequents the place at least three times a week, taking the window seat that is memorialized to former San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner columnist Herb Caen. Wilkes Bashford also goes to Le Central up to five times a week, donning one of his impeccable suits, of course. Actor-waiter Louis Parnell, who’s worked at Le Central more than 28 years, says Le Central is “the original French place,” and that it was there long before all the others arrived around the neighborhood. The top three most popular dishes, according to Louis, are the roast chicken, seared until crispy and flavorful with garlic and herbs, steak pommes frites, and poached salmon.  
  A bit further down Bush and yet still drenched in that Belden Place charm is Sam’s Grill (374 Bush). Only Tadich Grill downtown is older; this place dates back to 1867. Here, too, the clout and visage of Herb Caen remains: A large, black-and-white portrait graces the entryway. The history of Sam’s is a good one. Irish immigrant Michael Bolan Moraghan started an oyster saloon called M.B. Moraghan and Sons. The place was a hit, and it garnered a reputation as the leading seafood establishment in town, earning Morghan the title of “The Oyster King.” Then, Yugoslavian newcomer Samuel Zenovich bought the emporium in 1922. After a few different names and location changes, it would be years before people started calling the place “Sam’s”. Today, Sam’s Grill is run by the Seput family, with two generations involved in the family business. Sam’s offers calamari, classic local sand dabs, sole, salmon, and other ocean delicacies from the West and East coast. You can order separate plates of beautifully cooked vegetables and six different type of potatoes. Meats run the range from Salisbury steak at with mushroom sauce at $13.50 to Filet Mignon at $27.00. The service is Old San Francisco and can't be beat.  
 

Stroll two blocks west from Belden Place along Bush Street towards Grant, and you will find Cafe de la Presse (469 Bush) across from the gates of Chinatown.

Aqua bought this prime location on Grant and Bush some six months ago and in late Spring shut it down for remodeling. While they missed their target date for reopening—mid August—they just had their Grand Opening. And Grand it was, maybe even Fabulous, if you like such words. Maybe even Frabulous or Frubulous. Lewis Carroll would have loved it. (See the full story: Frabulous Art, Frumptious Food & A Grand Opening.)

Now the extra month may be explained by the piles of olives, pates, frites, spreads, dips, cheese platters, plates of this, trays of that, bottles of wine, champagne, varieties pastis—yes almond, mint, cranberry, and more—that helped celebrate this event. And all the big brass from Aqua was there: Laurent Monrique (photo, right), the executive chef, Jean Claude Persais, vice president of "operations," Maria Hilario-Fendert (photo, right), General Manager of Cafe de la Press.

So the question on everyone's mind is probably this: How is the new place, how does it compare to the old? I'm sure there will be lots of opinions on this, but here's mine: Aqua has put a lot of work into this place to make it topnotch. They have also retained all the motifs of the old place: Outside tables for casual food and drink on the corner. The newspaper rack has moved to the other wall but is new: big beautiful stained-wood rack. Hard to complain about that. Classy French bistro bar now in the middle where the grungy old counter used to be. And more tables around the window side where newspaper rack used to be. Means more window space, which is a good idea. Now the restaurant: Again nice stained woodwork but a little noisy due to hard walls and a high ceiling. Maybe they will find a way to soften the noise. The wait staff is new and is still bumping into each other as they get the routine down. That is normal. There should be fewer collisions as time goes on. And finally the food: Good traditional French dishes: Steak frite, Beef bourgogne, scallops ... There is also a separate bar menu.

Now ponder this one: The price is not cheap. But remember the old place? Remember the three-dollar latte that you drank out front? Remember how long it took to get and how slow the waiter was bringing the bill? Compare the new place to this and I think you have to feel like a happy customer. Cafe de la Press is now more than a "location". Compare it also to Cafe Espresso on Mason and Sutter, also a prime corner location with a similar bistro look. I like that place for reasons unknown, but others find it a tourist trap that does not deliver. I understand how they feel. Anyway, you gotta give these guys credit for a truly grand opening. Salut, Cafe de la Press!

 
  Note: The description below matches Jack's before it closed in 2009. Chef Phillipe Jeanty of Napa fame is still the owner but he is being picky about who the new owner should be. He wants it to remain Jack's and not the sales office for a social-media startup. It is, after all, a San Francisco landmark building (#146) and the second oldest restaurant in the City. Let us wish him luck. It is a gem of a building and steeped in restaurant history and lore. - Louis Martin

We’ve strayed a bit far away from Belden Alley, but that does not mean that the spirit of the French cafe and bistro has left the building. Centered between Chinatown and the Financial District is a French bistro you won’t want to miss: Jeanty at Jack’s (615 Sacramento). Founded as Jack’s in 1864, the site is a San Francisco registered landmark. Jack’s has had a number of owners, but the place is now under the charge of famed Napa chef and owner Philippe Jeanty (also the owner of Bistro Jeanty and Pere Jeanty in Yountville), and he has once again restored its life and effervescence. The menu offers classics like coq au vin, tender steak with bearnaise, and their famous tomato soup in puff pastry. The three-story restaurant offers a charming homelike feel, with an iron banister festooned with flowers, fun color sketches, wooden coat hangers, and historical photographs—including one of Ernest Hemingway and Ingrid Bergman in front of the restaurant. The top floor holds a private dining room, which once was a brothel and served as a rendezvous for secret dalliances. The new skylight floods the area with natural light, while still making it feel very private.
 
 

And speaking of privacy, Fleur de Lys (777 Sutter), named after the symbol of the French monarchy, is sequestered away like a royal hidden treasure. Diners are transported to a different world inside; one of lush, velvet chairs and white tablecloths beneath a pitched canopy of floral fabric tented over the dining room. One word describes it best: romantique. Chef Hubert Keller and his wife Chantal can be credited for reviving this restaurant into the beauty it is today after a fire burned it down in September, 2001. Keller describes the cuisine as “contemporary French, with a California touch” of organic produce. One of Keller’s favorite hobbies is riding his Harley up and down the hills of San Francisco. But that’s not the chef’s only rebellious streak. He also believes in using less butter, and he has even come up with his own techniques for binding sauces without fat. Even Dr. Dean Ornish, the guru of healthy eating, is a regular customer, and has worked with the chef to create a healthy menu course. But Keller wants to make clear that he’s not simply being trendy. “I don’t follow trends,” he said. He was interested in lightening the cuisine 20 years ago, well before eating light became trendy. “Since day one, I feel like I took that direction,” Keller says. “I use French cuisine as a foundation, but I don’t believe you have to eat two pounds of butter.” Keller proudly serves a full-course vegetarian menu. And he likes to add Asian spices to the French canon; for example, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, cardamom and star anise. Truly, this destination is a departure for French cuisine in more ways than one.

 

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