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Nob Hill

By Nina Wu with contributions from Elan Schmitt and Karen Solomon



The passionate backdrop of San Francisco, Nob Hill is the City’s classic views, architecture, and hotels. Often the setting for film noir scenes because of its breathtaking heights and Bay exposure, this part of town packs all of the drama of the silver screen. Few events can rival the romance of a perfect day in Nob Hill.

  That day would start with a glass of single-vineyard wine at the Laurel Court Restaurant & Bar in the Fairmont hotel (950 Mason). The “Nob Hiller,” unique to the Fairmont, is also a good way to kick-start the day. It’s brandy, triple sec and a splash of lemon—a concoction akin to the Sidecar. You can sink back into the red cushions in an oasis of calm, surrounded by potted palms and a sort of peaceful luxury. Tom Wolfe, a longtime concierge at the Fairmont, will tell you the story of when he got caught riding a bike in the Senate chambers as an elevator boy. Shortly after that he landed a job driving a limo for John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was a Senator and then made his way into the hotel service business. Wolfe, who has worked both in Japan and London, speaks Japanese, French, Italian and Spanish. Stick around the Fairmont until nightfall and you will be treated to the spectacular piano playing of Eric Shifrin playing show tunes and oldies. (See Stardust, Applejack & Our Town.) This is big-city piano-lounge music at its finest. You are only going to get this in San Francisco, New York, and maybe Paris. Eric also sings and plays the saxaphone, but here you will only hear him on piano. He can also be heard at the Washington Square Bar & Grill (Herb Caen's "Wash Bag") and Enrico's. Have Norman fix you a Compari & sweet Vermouth with a splash of cognac, then sit back and enjoy such tunes as "Don't Explain," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and "My Old Flame."  
  No visit to the Fairmont would be complete without stopping for a fruity one at the Tonga Room. It’s sure to satiate the longings of the tropical-island traveler. Since the late 1940's the “Hurricane Bar” has been a popular place for locals and visitors alike to flock for that vacation feeling of paradise. The Tonga Room is a cocktail haven filled with fancy drinks and a happy-hour tasting buffet. Vines climb the stone walls and emulate a sunken shipwreck. The “Blue Hawaii” is one of their specialties drinks and like all the cocktails on their menu, it’s served well-garnished and booze-heavy. You might want to bring a raincoat just in case the lightning and rainstorm begins, as there’s a simulated storm indoors every half hour. Once the band starts playing at 8 p.m. in the center of the old hotel pool—accessible only by boat—you will loosen up like you never have before. Relax and enjoy paradise.  
  When you’re ready to get serious and have quality conversation in a stately, no-fuss place, step into the wood-panel, dark, cool interior of the Big Four Restaurant (1075 California), part of the Huntington Hotel and named after the four railroad barons who once lived atop Nob Hill. This spot is for those who truly want the old-school style of service, with no lace and no frills. The interior is all wood, brass and leather—and though the clientele is mostly male, women are equally welcome. The walls are decorated with early California memorabilia, including portraits of Leland Stanford, his wife and son, and the original Mark Hopkins Mansion. Tyrone Saunders, a bartender there for more than 10 years, will pour a hospitable martini or Manhattan. "This is an old-fashioned-drink kind of place," he said. Loyal customers and hotel guests have been coming in for two and three decades or more. Big Four has an extensive list of wines and ports. Caesar salad and potpie are also available.  
  Osso Steakhouse is a new one on the hill and, though there is nothing low end on Nob Hill, this one is the high end of the high end. It is not for a person on a budget or for someone who has just lost his or her job. You might even call it a One Percenter restaurant that could make some people mad or jealous. But it is like flying first class; if you have the money, it is worth it. First of all, it is a lovely space with a lot of privacy. It has many booths and private nooks. You are going to be able to have a conversation without the usual strain of hearing so common in restaurants catering to a young crowd. At Osso, noise is not considered "ambience." If you like to yell and get excited seeing other people doing so, go to The Square over in North Beach. You can go home deaf and horse. If you want to discuss estate planning with your family or even propose marriage to a new love, Osso is the place to do it. Your family members will get the dollar amounts correct, and she or he will understand that you took the relationship more seriously than she or he thought. But if you just want to go there for fun and enjoy great food, this is the place to do that too. "Osso" means bone in Italian, and steak, which is the specialty, comes with the bone. The reason, it is claimed, is not the sight of a chunk of some poor animal's bones, but rather flavor. Your dog would love it, and so will you. But the secret of Osso's steaks goes beyond the bone; the curing of the steak is special too. Steaks are dry-cured, not wet-cured. So what's the deal here? Actually, there is a bit of controversy around the issue. Some people prefer wet-cured beef, possible because it is what they are used to these days. Others prefer dry-cured. But true expert carnivores, if there is such a thing, prefer dry-cured. What is not always known is that virtually all beef, until about 30 years ago, was dry-cured. Then along came the plastic bag allowing for faster curing and less water loss. The industry loved it. But let us just assume that Osso knows what it is doing, because at the price you are going to pay, they better. The Gladiator bone-in filet mignon goes for 69.95, the Petite bone-in filet mignon, 36.95. I am saving my money right now, and when the Great Recession is truly over, I'm headed straight to Osso. But Osso is more than just steak. If you are one of those mad men who go to great steak houses and then order crab or poached salmon or sauteed scallops, Osso can deal with you. Pas de problème, monsieur. They are on the menu. If you do order the steak and are like me, you are probably going to want potatoes. I do not see French fries on the menu, which seems like a kind of mistake to me, but they do have twice-backed potato with zucchini, chives, bacon, and cheese at 8.95. Keep in mind that everything is a la carte and the bill always goes up, not down. But if you are there doing estate planning, or making a long-term romantic proposal, you can probably afford it. And please do ask what is so great about baking a potato twice, okay? If you can afford it, get a salad too and add dungeness crab to it for only 8.95 more. They do look delicious. And finally, if none of your relatives appears upset over the dispostion of your estate, or your date has not just gleefully announced her intention to marry your best friend, order some desert—the hot pineapple tortuga caribbean rum cake? the warm lemon torte with mint cream?—along with a shot of Courvoisier XO Impérial Cognac. Oops, the cognac does not seem to be on the menu! Then pay the bill and smile. You must be a One Percenter! — Louis Martin  
  Traverse bravely down Mason, one of the steepest hills in the city, and you'll find a hidden treasure: Rue Lepic Restaurant (900 Pine). Named after a street in Paris in the Montmartre, Rue Lepic is one of the best-kept secrets in San Francisco. This quaint French restaurant is certainly a mix of cultures; Japanese artwork adorns the walls. That is the influence of the Japanese-born chef, Michiko Boaccar, who has taken over full-time duty as chef from her French husband who is retiring. Trained by her husband, Chef Boaccar is creating dishes comparable to genuine Parisian cuisine. The couple originally met in San Francisco, then they moved to Paris and opened a restaurant there. They decided to move back to the Bay Area after many years abroad. Though the design may be influenced by Japan, the food is purely French. The charming restaurant only seats 28 people, so be sure to make reservations. Keep an open eye for celebrities who might happen to drop-in. Keanu Reeves and Melanie Griffith are just two of the famous personalities spotted dining there.  
  If you’re looking for a meal a bit brighter and more accessible, Nob Hill Cafe Pizzeria/Trattoria (1152 Taylor) welcomes any casual yet classy diner ready for a good meal at a reasonable price. The outdoor cafe tables often have daytime dwellers relaxing and enjoying an espresso with their dogs basking in the sun. Fresh vegetables and herbs line the small open-air Italian kitchen just to the left of the entry. The portions are big and the food is consistent. “Nothing fancy but you always know you're going to get a great meal," said one diner. It's unpretentious yet still sophisticated. “It's the Italian version of Cheers”, server John Atwood claims. “Neighbors call it their kitchen, a home away from home”, he says. “Often times the locals eat here twice a day”, says Leonor Castilla, restaurant manager. One regular customer says that she’s been coming to the cafe for 15 years, and that her table is reserved for her on Tuesdays at 6:00 p.m. Also, watch out for the San Francisco twins, Mary and Vivian Brown. They'll be dressed to the nines. You'll be sure to spot them on Tuesdays and Fridays at their reserved window table.  
  Walk just a block and you'll come across one of the most exquisitely crafted Italian restaurants on Nob Hill: Venticello Ristorante (1257 Taylor). The downstairs seating used to be a gay bar in the 1960's, but these days it's a white-tablecloth affair. A beautifully tiled wood-burning oven draws almost everyone's attention. The upstairs provides a great view of the Bay Bridge, and the energy of the small bar creates a bit of a bustle. Chef Seamus Cronin was trained in Ireland to follow the Classical French Brigade System, which emphasizes giving the diner exactly what they want. The chef takes requests when making reservations and tries his best to accommodate. Reservations are highly recommended at this truly neighborhood restaurant that is packed almost every night. Venticello does not advertise; but news of its memorable dining experience have passed through the neighborhood by word-of-mouth. Try the Scampi E Pancetta Fra Diavolo for a spicy kick-off to the meal. The gnocchi and ravioli are also excellent and are all hand-made.  
  But if it’s too early for hearty Italian fare—say, closer to breakfast time—we've found just the place nearby. The Gallery Cafe (1200 Mason) is a delicious way to wake those tired eyes. Opened in February, 2003, this cafe on the corner across from the Cable Car museum features some of the highest quality coffee available. They proudly serve La Colombe Torrefaction premium coffee and espresso from Italy. The cafe also provides free Internet access and showcases local artists. They close early; 6:00 p.m., so make sure to get there before they close their doors. The barista will steam the milk to a smooth and rich pillowing froth and create a design in it, too. We learned that the secret to the milk was the Italian method of "stretching milk". Fill the pitcher halfway with cold milk, then place the steamer nozzle just below the surface and steam, aiming for a kissing sound. This is called “kissing the milk”. The correct positioning adds just the right amount of steam. Once warm, plunge the nozzle to the bottom, circulating the air bubbles in the carafe.

With enough caffeine in you to keep you going to our next stop, step just a few blocks west of Nob Hill to the aptly-named Sushi Rapture (1400 Leavenworth). They offer a sensual selection of sashimi a la carte, special nigiri, maki sushi and even teppan yaki (a sort of Benihana-like BBQ prepared before your eyes). Co-owner Sam Ng hails from Macau and actually got his start in the art of preparing sushi from his mentor, Michael, at a Taraval St. restaurant called Okazu, way out by Ocean Beach. “Everything I do is seasonal,” says Sam, who names tuna as his favorite fish. Sam and his partner, Andrea Situ from Canton, China, sport the Japanese punk-rock look, with spiked hair and all. Sam says owning the place is a dream come true. He is truly obsessed with the fish he serves, and he reports that he spends hours perusing books about the biology of fish, their life cycles and ecology, all in the pursuit of making the very best sushi he possibly can. The items he created for the menu have special symbolic meaning. The Oyako (which means mother and child in Japanese), is denoted with salmon wrapped around a salmon egg. The Sunrise, which features a raw quail egg on top, stands for the sun. The Eclipse Sushi (tuna with black caviar topped with a raw quail egg) represents the moon and the sun together. Ah, the perfect planetary reflection of a perfect day.