"Belden Place, Claude Lane, Bush Street." Just saying that makes we want to grab my hat and go eat. Along Belden Place, which is nothing but an alley between Pine and Bush, and along Claude Lane, which is nothing but an alley between Bush and Sutter—and along Bush Street itself, which connects those two alleys to each other—some of the finest food in San Francisco can be found. But it ain't just the food. It's what's sometimes called "atmosphere" but maybe better called character. You don't instantly create that. It develops with time, it ripens with age. It is like parmigiano reggiano or a rich ruby-red wine. That is the difference between a "theme" restaurant, created by money and "planners," and something that evolves. It also takes people who care about food and the whole show that goes into serving it—yes, food is art and theatre too.
So what is so great about Belden Place? For one thing Sam's, which just serves good old-fashioned San Francisco food. If you want to know what was great about San Francisco cuisine years ago and you want to avoid a trendy crowd drinking Cosmos, Sam's is your place. When you order a steak, you will get a steak. When you order string beans, that's what you're gonna get. Go somewhere else if you are into fancy presentation. Here the show is a simple one. And when Walter waits your table you will feel like a gentleman even if you're not.
But now suppose you do like things a little fancier. Or you don't like to always be eating the same thing. You can go right next door to Cafe Bastille, where executive chef Edgar Sierra presides in the kitchen. There you can have something very French but not slavishly so. Sierra, a native of Mexico, brings his own interpretation to French cooking. He respects the French tradition but is no slave to it.
But suppose you are with someone who is hard to please. Yes, they know old-fashioned San Francisco food. They've been to Tadich's and they've made the rounds of the French places, including Gary Danko's out near the Wharf, and they want something different. Then take them to Tiramisu, right next door to Cafe Bastille, or to Plouf just a little further down the alley. If they are still acting like they don't quite know what they want, take them to B44, a Catalon restaurant with a big bar and the kind of food you get in the big Cerdanya valley in northern Spain. If that doesn't please them, take them to the corner of Bush and Kearny and leave them there.
Walk to the end of the alley and you will find yourself at Brindisi's, a new Italian seafood place with a three-seat bar facing Pine Street—charming if you can ever find an empty seat. Try the crab cake. It's different from any in town. It is served cold with mashed potatoes and features large chunks of Dungeness crab. If the place is not busy you can ask owner Fabrizio Protopapa why they do it that way and not like everybody else, baked with a crust and floating in a cream sauce with little artistic swirls. You will note he has a strong opinion about crab cake, as he does about everything. Then order a drink from sexy Suhana who looks Italian but is in fact from Calcutta and who likes to put cherries in cocktails, even Negronis. She thinks it looks good and it does in a way. It's a different kind of place.
Now maybe you want to split the scene on Belden and catch the action on Claude Lane just past Kearny on Bush. You wander into the narrow alley there with tall buildings, feeling a little like you have walked into a cave. Yes, there is the place, Cafe Claude. You know that place; it's good. And there is live jazz there every night of the week. If you're lucky you will catch Belinda Blair, a far-out blond jazz singer who scats like a desperate cat on the limb of a tree in the full moon of a Summer night. But now you spot a new place that has sprung up down the way. The sign say Blupointe. It too has outside tables. But this time your picky friend says that she would really like to eat inside. Really you would like to get rid of this chick but you soon will anyway, so you stick it out. Because you're observant, or at least think you are, you note that there are three floors you might have dinner on with your picky friend. The basement might be fitting but she does not feel like that. She wants to go to the bar and be seen. Really, how much more can you take of this, you think. You go to the bar and order "The Blupointe" from the specialty cocktail list. Reading the list and ignoring the whining of your friend, you see that The Blupointe is made of Absolute Citron, Triple Sec, Blue Curacoa (hence the blue color that you are a little uneasy with), and a dash of sour and garnished with a twist. Not bad, actually. But the color? Well, okay, some people like that kind of thing. And it does fit with the theme of the place. And you are relaxing now as you sip this baby; it is taking you out to sea and away from some immediate things you'd rather not deal with. And now you look over the menu. Yep, as you guessed the place seems to be all about sea food. What else with the chef being none other than Michael Tobias, formerly of Plouf, possibly one of the best seafood bistros in the City. But if you want it, there is also "Grilled Tarragon Free-Range Chicken" and a "Sea Salt Crusted Beef Tenderloin Tournade". Appetizers run a range that should please not only your picky friend but even her pickier mother, were she present.
Are we sexually stereotyping here? Possibly. Please feel free to consider me a chick out with my picky, boring boyfriend if you like. Picky and boring are not gender-specific.
Now if for some reason neither Belden nor Claude Lane suits your fancy this evening, then split for Bush, the big street that connects these two alleyways. Up Bush you will find Le Central, a high-class French bistro with polish and an older, well-healed clientele that frequently includes ex-mayor Willie Brown, clothier Wilkes Bashford, and the soul of Herb Caen floating over the bar. But maybe this is not your kind of place either and you press on up the street to the corner to Cafe de la Presse, one of the best "locations" in the City. But what is this? It is closed and there is that paper on the windows that means secret things are happening inside. A sex show? Fat men changing their pants? Some other embarrassment? Don't be silly! The place is getting a face lift—something it has needed for a long time. As Miles, the accountant at Cafe Bastille says, occasionally a restaurant needs to make a change. Then he thinks about this statement and qualifies it. "Well, maybe not if they are doing well." Which is to say Cafe Bastille is doing well.
So what is happening behind closed doors and shaded windows at Cafe de la Presse?
Before I tell you, let me throw this out. The day before I called Melissa Davis, PR manager for the new place, I did a search on the net and came up with a rant about how bad the food was at the new place. Naturally I thought the place had already opened. So I took a walk down that way and discovered that no, it was still under construction. Don't know what new owner this person could have been talking about, since Cafe de la Presse has not changed owners in years. (Photo right, as Cafe de la Presse was.) Nevertheless there it was on the net, a communication medium that is still in its infancy in more ways than one. So it seemed the new owner was getting flamed before the place had opened. Was the reviewer anticipating bad food and unable to wait for the place to open to post his review? Hard to say. The net, I fear, was never meant for real communication. It is meant to confuse, muddle, sometimes dazzle, often disappoint, frequently dismay, and generally leave one longing for the days when people actually talked with each other face to face.
"Hi, Sid, how are you?"
"Not so good, if you really want to know. How are you?"
But we live in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. When it gets too bad we take breaks—"time out" as my fourth-grade teacher use to call it.
Okay, so here is what I found out. Cafe de la Presse will not change names. It should reopen in mid August if the construction crew stays on the job and doesn't decide to go hunting, fishing, or camping. You know how that goes, right? It will be open from 7 AM to 11 PM, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Love those hours.) Cuisine: "French light fare and bistro style." It will still feature European magazines and newspapers. Patrick Albert will be the executive chef. Aqua Restaurant Management, LLC, will be the manager.
Okay, we now find ourselves standing on the corner of Grant and Bush, our date now gone and wondering what to do next. Actually at this point I should say "I", not "we." Not a problem in this city. I turn my back on those lions guarding the entrance to Chinatown and head down grant towards Union Square. I've eaten but I now feel starved for intelligent conversation and a little culture. I think of Russell Manning over at the Weinstein Gallery on Geary. He is working the MacKenzie Thorpe gallery these days. Russell has the soul of a poet and his eyes become twinkling stars in a blue night sky when he talks about art or music.
There is a couple from the midwest in the gallery when I come in, and Russell is giving them the basics on Thorpe. It goes something like this: