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Downtown and The Financial District

By Nina Wu with contributions from Elan Schmitt and Karen Solomon

 
 

 

Power lunches and elegant, romantic dining are the hallmark of meals downtown, and certainly San Francisco's world-class cuisine never shines brighter than it does along the tall buildings North and South of Market Street. Here, history has been made and continues to evolve, as some of the nation's star chefs tempt the palate of gastronomy with innovation and distinction. Of course, none of this notoriety comes cheaply—expect to give the credit card a workout when dining in this section of the City. However, with so many amazing tables to choose from, the quality and memory make it a splurge well spent.

 
     
 

Few restaurants can equal the parlance and reputation of Masa’s in the Hotel Vintage Court (648 Bush). Known the world over as a high-end, New French/Californian restaurant, their multi-course, ever-changing seasonal tasting menu is a thing of absolute indulgence. The restaurant had a few stormy years cloaked in the mysterious death of its former owner, but has since recovered and remained a dining establishment of high repute. Chef Richard Reddington honed his culinary skills at Napa’s Auberge du Soleil and at Beverly Hills’ famous Spago, and now overseas Masa's kitchen. Diners treat themselves to his fine selection of classic fancy foods, such as seared foi gras and duck breast essenced with black truffles. And of course, they serve an award-winning wine list to complement any dish.

 

And speaking of fine wine, does celebrity ownership translate into a good restaurant? For Rubicon (558 Sacramento), the prize-winning restaurant co-owned by Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Drew Nieporent, the answer is a resounding yes. Robert De Niro Senior's paintings decorate the walls. And Chinuly Dale, famous for his elegant and flowing glasswork, has pieces in the main dining area. Chef Stuart Brioza and his life partner and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski enjoy bringing together unusual elements here, such as halibut skewered with cinnamon, or oxtails braised in cherries and toasted oats, and for dessert, a pecorino and plum tart with olive oil ice cream. But Rubicon's elegant dining room is truly a showcase for celebrity sommelier Larry Stone's award-winning wine list, truly making this a wine-lover’s restaurant. (Larry Stone, the man in the bow tie, is known around the world as one of the best master sommeliers, and he’s passed the strict Court of Master Sommeliers exam.) Chef Brioza says that the food is changed to accentuate the sommelier’s fine collection. "We’ll taste up to four wines with various dishes, and we try to hone in on the flavor so that the wine can magnify the dish, and delete ingredients at the same time if there’s a catastrophe in your mouth." While the kitchen is certainly a star at Rubicon, Stone can be credited for making the place a success since it opened in 1994. Food and wine bring an academic approach to the restaurant, but its list of frequent diners is pure Hollywood; Coppola likes coming in for the bass, while Robin Williams eats pretty much anything. Rubicon can be an affordable luxury on Wednesdays, the only day the restaurant is open for lunch.

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Tucked into an unassuming alley, Bix (65 Gold) is a dark and spirited supper club with live jazz nightly. The décor is leaning toward modern-era cruise ship, with a mahogany bar, tall pillars, and plush booths nestled into a cool, brick space. Owner Doug "Bix" Biederbeck is an even presence around the dining room, but Chef Bruce Hill is the master of the kitchen. He brings his culinary skills sharpened in the kitchens of Stars and Aqua to the Bix menu of upscale nouveau American favorites, such as Maine lobster spaghetti and chicken hash a la Bix. Says Hill, "We feature ingredient-driven cuisine. It's all about all the fabulous farmers I work with and using all the great resources of the Bay Area and putting together sensible food in an American way that fits the atmosphere of Bix's." If your aunt from Florida shows up in town and wants to experience the authentic spirit of old San Francisco and the new, for god's sake, take her to Bix. She's going to be impressed. Take her there on a Sunday and you can hear the ledendary and lyrical San Francisco pianist Don Asher (Bigger than Life).
 
  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

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.
 
 

Popular for lunch is the downtown dim-sum powerhouse duo of Yank Sing (101 Spear at One Rincon Center and 49 Stevenson). It's a family business that got started in 1959 in Chinatown but moved to the financial district in 1974 with the second generation running the business. Now days, weekends and weekdays, tables fill quickly as diners wrap chopsticks around 60 unique offerings, like bite-sized scallops wrapped in rice paper and curry-stuffed dumplings, or more traditional fare like barbecue pork buns and roasted duck. Service is lightening quick but friendly and the food is delicious, but expect to pay considerably more than you would in Chinatown. You get what you pay for, right? Office workers frequent Yank Sing for its English menus and abundance of seafood and vegetable-based cuisine. If you’re not doing business over lunch, the to-go counter is a great way to eat and run. Yank Sing roughly translates to “City of the Ram”, a nickname for Canton, China, and their kitchens employ centuries-old techniques used in wrapping and preparing small plates of delicacies. For more on Yang Sing restaurant and owner Judy Chan, see Yang Sing Has It Down.

 
 

The E&O Trading Company is tucked into a corner of Union Square, kitty-corner from Banana Republic and nestled among the art galleries on Sutter Street. Walking through the doors, you’ll feel as if you’ve entered a Southeast Asian bazaar, with open bamboo bird cages dangling from above, a Shangri-la bar offering handcrafted beers and burlap rice sacks decorating the walls. Everything for the restaurant—from the concept to the cuisine to the decor and service—is actually based on a script written by the restaurant’s CEO, Christopher R. Hemmeter. The son of the late Christopher B. Hemmeter, one of Hawaii’s most prolific developers, sat down one night and wrote an eight-page script set in the 19th century. Says Hemmeter, "The first thing I did when opening this restaurant was sit down and write this eight-page drama, some of it based on pieces of factual history. I have to give my dad 100 percent credit on this one. He was always a script-writer when he did his work." The senior Hemmeter used scripting for designing a hotel lobby, spa or resort. He was a prolific developer who built some of Hawaii's most notable hotels and resorts. So here's the script for E&O: A British trader named Christopher Bailey would bring furniture, silver and gold to the Orient, along with barrels of British ales to trade for silks, teas and spices. In Indonesia, street vendors along the boat docks would sell small platters of hot, grilled foods that went well with the ales and the restaurant. Thus Eastern & Oriental Trading Company was born. E&O opened in San Francisco’s Union Square in 1997; there is also an E&O in San Jose and Larkspur. E&O offers Southeast Asian grilled plates inspired by Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Chinese, and East India. (Photo right, Burmese Ginger Salad; below left, Korean Barbeque Beef.) The menu includes beef, chicken, lamb, shrimp and fish, along with rice and noodle dishes and Indian naan. There is no attempt at "fusion," says executive chef Barney Brown. "We try to keep true to the presentations and flavors and authenticities of each dish that we do." Asked if it is difficult to do so many styles of Asian cooking, Brown says, "All the ingredients in Asia, they are all very similar—it's just that some parts of Asia maybe might use more sesame oil than the next or more chiles. It's really not that difficult." For me or for you, it might be "difficult." But Brown has a large and able crew working in a big open kitchen and producing lovely plates of food. Try the Indonesian corn fritters hot from the pan. Platters that will fill you up include the Indo Peanut chicken marinated in sweet soy, garlic and spices with Indo peanut sauce, or caramelized onion and garlic naan. Thai crabcakes, Ahi tartar, mango-glazed Thai ribs and Malaysian lamb curry are also good washed down with some ale. Whether seated solo at the bar or with friends at a table, the place offers a journey, both in taste as well as ambience. Lunch is less crowded than dinnertime, when the place offers occasional live music.

 
  Looking for something a bit more familiar? Old-timers and new visitors alike enjoy John’s Grill (63 Ellis, www.johnsgrill.com), a steaks and seafood joint and a great page from the book of history. It has the distinction of being the first restaurant to rise up from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake. And as if that weren’t enough, it’s also an established literary landmark made world-famous by Dashiell Hammett’s 1927 mystery novel, “Maltese Falcon,” and the movie of the same name staring Humphrey Bogart. The place is exactly what you’d expect: “Sam Spade Lamb Chops” and giant shrimp cocktails, plus dark oak panels, and walls strewn with photos spanning decades of San Francisco politicos, cops, gamblers, actors, writers, bishops, broadcasters, gigolos, and gangsters. One can also expect courteous service either in the main dining room or in either of the private rooms—Hammett’s Den or the Maltese Falcon Room. They also offer a nice selection of wines and hearty salads, one of which was named after fitness guru Jack La Lanne.  
  No one should leave San Francisco without a leisurely visit to the Tadich Grill (240 California). It’s easy to recognize: just look for the long line coming out the front door. The wait doesn’t seem so long, though, if you get a drink or two at the long and inviting bar, which is an essential part of the San Francisco experience. Coat hooks are handy for your wool coat, and old-school waiters serve with style and a little wit. The Tadich Grill has been around since 1849, making it the oldest restaurant in San Francisco. It has a long history—and several change of addresses which you can read about on the front of the menu. John Tadich, a young immigrant from Croatia, arrived on the shores of San Francisco in 1871 to begin his restaurant career. What began as a coffee stand then became the New World Coffee Saloon and the Cold Day Restaurant. When Tadich broke his partnership with John Sutick, he renamed his place “Tadich Grill, The ORIGINAL Cold Day Restaurant.” That was three generations ago, and in1928, Mitch Buich bought the restaurant from Tadich, and he went into partnership with his brothers Tom and Louie, and then passed it to Louie’s sons, Steve and Robert. Steve’s son Michael became a partner in 1989 and is now at the helm. Mesquite-grilled fish is a big part of the menu, as is the Dungeness Crab Cocktail. They also serve as many fish as you can net from the sea (Rex sole, Pacific red snapper, rainbow trout, scallops, jumbo prawns, halibut, calamari, and swordfish, just to name a few), either charcoal broiled, pan-fried, sauteed, poached, deep-fried, or baked en casserole. Desserts include Tadich rice custard pudding and tiramisu, and the wine list is long. Say hello to Fritz at the bar (left), or Miro, a waiter from Czechoslovakia. He can balance three trays with full plates in one hand.  
 

Kokkari Estiatorio (200 Jackson) is another matter at hand entirely. This sister venue of the Evvia Estatorio in Palo Also brings a relaxed and elegant charm to SF, with cozy, large rooms, a magnetic fireplace, and a visible kitchen. Says Chef Erik Casselman, “We want to create a very comfortable and inviting atmosphere, and not make it too stuffy.” Well, mission accomplished. In addition to looking and feeling like an old, elegant European inn, Kokkari Estiatorio offers some of the finest Greek cuisine in the City, with an extraordinary selection of Greek wine, housemade yoghurt served both sweet and savory that will blow you out of the Acropolis, and the most succulent grilled lamb chops and moussaka we’ve ever tasted. Named for a small fishing village in the Aegean Sea, the menu is also broad in its seafood dishes. As of this writing (09/04), the restaurant plans to offer a nightly roasted meat special cooked in the fireplaces of the dining room.

 
  With a 23-year track record, Les Joulins Jazz Bistro (44 Ellis) packs a crowd nightly. Originally owned by a French couple, the restaurant is now run by Osmar Uner and his wife. Serving French/Mediterranean style food, this restaurant abounds with international influences. In addition to an international staff, the American jazz bistro interior is visible in the main dining room, while the cafe next door sports a Parisian look. This joint does jump with tourists, but the restaurant also appeals to many locals, who come for the free nightly jazz. The musicians like it, too, as it's a serious jazz bar with a large stage and good acoustics. Get there on a Friday night and you will be treated to local luminaries Charles Unger on saxophone and vocalist Valencia Hawkins (San Francisco Cocktail). They've had the gig for over ten years.  
  Be transported to 1920’s French Colonial Vietnam with a visit to this restaurant tucked into an alleyway, Le Colonial (20 Cosmo), Formerly Trader Vic's for over 50 years. This location has become an historic draw with the local community. Le Colonial is more than a dining experience; it is a journey through the Vietnamese countryside. Rattan, tall wooden shutters, bamboo bird cages, a forest of palm fronds, a stamped tin ceiling, and slow-moving ceiling fans capture a timeless, filmic scene, thoroughly enjoyed by the young, affluent, 20-somethings drinking it down like rice wine. Chef Mike Yakura combines French technique with Vietnamese traditions, and the menu reflects a fusion of the two. “I’ve tried to strip down the menu and evolve it more into its basic elements,” he says, adding, “French/Vietnamese is such a humble, pure cuisine. It’s best when untouched.” His philosophy is reflected in the simple crisp shaved banana blossom and prawn salad, or cold summer rolls stuffed with salmon, dill, cucumbers, and a sweet/hot sauce. There’s also slow-cooked pork and lemongrass roast chicken. While the food is certainly a draw, the ambiance is so unique that many gather here just for a drink.  
  Those who love baseball or just want one hearty meal will love Lefty O'Doul's Irish Pub on Geary between Mason and Powell. This baseball-obsessed bar has been in downtown since 1958. The Hall of Fame baseball player's black & white photos and awards cover the walls. Prepare to stand in a short line and order from the assembly line of food. Roast beef and pastrami sandwiches are the most popular choice on the big menu behind the counter because of the large portions and the thick slices. Grab an empty table in the back where sport events play on the televisions and an empty bar sits silent until the evening. With four different varieties of mustards to choose from you'll be sure to find one you you like.  
  Leave Vietnam or the world of baseball and head for Italy—but there’s no need to trek all the way to North Beach. Uncle Vito's Pizzeria (700 Bush) has been serving pizza and other Italian specialties for almost thirty years, and they have quite a following. Watch out for the San Francisco Twins, as it's one of their weekly restaurant stops. One of the best pizza places around, Uncle Vito's always draws a crowd. Homemade pizza dough with customized toppings and a casual atmosphere means that, unlike the twins, you’re allowed to dress down.  
  The Bubble Lounge (714 Montgomery) is for those who definitely want to dress up. And those with a small appetite, a big bankroll, and a big thirst for champagne. This posh hotspot features over 300 sparkling wines and champagnes, including 30 different champagnes and sparkling wines by the glass. Big, comfortable Victorian lounge chairs line the center of the room with couches on the sides for bigger parties. Originally started in New York, this upscale bar serves a clientele willing to pay a minimum of $25 per person on menu items. With pate and cheese plates going for about $25 and a glass of champagne an average of $13, it's easy to run up a big bill. Martinis, wine, and caviar are also served, as are desserts for 10 people. On Friday or Saturday be sure to make a reservation, as the place is jam-packed. Trendy and chic, this is a great place to celebrate. Watch for wedding couples arriving in limousines. It's that kind of place.  
 

And while we’re talking about living over the top, Farallon (450 Post) is another downtown landmark of exuberance. Since 1997, designer and famed restaurateur Pat Kuleto has been wowing the jaded diner with his Disneyland-style restaurant motif, including rooms decorated to appear underwater (think custom-made jellyfish chandeliers), a retro-mod Nautilus room that appears to be the inside of a swirling shell, the low-key Pool Room, with a stunning mosaic ceiling, and a private dining room. The ambiance is the thing, but the food cannot be ignored. "It’s all about the food—let the ingredients guide the dish," says Mark Franz, Executive Chef and co-owner. Given the decor, the menu is, of course, seafood heavy, and features many varieties of oysters and seasonal ingredients. Also offered are occasional high-profile celebrity chef dinners and other special engagements, such as Pinotfest, to celebrate the pairing of wine and food. Farallon is indeed world-renowned, and it has made a huge splash in Esquire, Bon Appetit, and Food & Wine.

 

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