My favorite address for dining in San Francisco is a tiny alley at the edge of the Financial District.
Belden Place is not on most tourist maps, but in my opinion, it should be. It’s a block-long slice of Europe, just east of Kearney Street between Bush and Pine streets, between Chinatown Gate and the TransAmerica Pyramid.
No fewer than nine restaurants are packed into this short stretch: French, Italian, Spanish and Greek, along with Mexican and American, and a Russian vodka bar tossed in for good measure. Each cafe takes over its section of alley from midday to closing time, extending tables three-quarters of the way across the pavement, one restaurant against the next, leaving just enough room for pedestrians to check out the menus proffered by the hosts stumping for their respective establishments.
In rain, the outdoor seating is covered. In cold, there are heat lamps. Last night, when Anna Morton and I enjoyed a French bistro-style dinner at Plouf, there was no need for either. Even in early January, it was spring-jacket weather in the City by the Bay, with clear skies and virtually no breeze.
A French waiter served us French food and French wine with a French accent. Every restaurant here tends to employ cooks and servers from its respective country. You’ll hear more accents here than at a linguistics convention. That completes the sense of being across the big pond in Europe.
We started with a salade Nicoise and a carpaccio of bay scallops in a delicate grapefruit sauce. Then we shared a pan-fried Petrale sole, cooked with bones and skin intact, and a wild-mushroom risotto. A bottle of Les Tours pinot noir accompanied. Everything was delicious. Including tax and tip, the bill came to $102.
Plouf is in the middle of the alley. Entering from the south, visitors first pass Sam’s Grill and Seafood Alley, where a $75 abalone meuniere headlines the menu. Next there’s Cafe Bastille, for French coq au vin, and Cafe Tiramisu, noted for pastas and desserts. Plouf has mussels a dozen ways. To its north is the B44 Catalan Bistro, the Greek-Moroccan Belden Taverna, and Voda vodka lounge. El Faro, which makes the preposterous claim of having served the first Mexican burrito in San Francisco in 1961, is across the alley. At the corner of Pine Street, anchoring the north end of Belden Place, is Brindisi Cucina di Mare, an Italian seafood joint.
I slept last night at the San Remo Hotel (www.sanremohotel.com), built in 1907 on Mason Street, between North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf. This offers European pension-style lodging in the heart of San Francisco. Ring a doorbell, climb a narrow stairway, share toilet and shower facilities with other guests. If you’re the sort of person who can live with that, you’ll find the San Remo delightful … at big-city rates beginning at just $60 per night. It occupies the second and third floors above the Fior d’Italia restaurant, one of San Francisco’s oldest.
Today I escaped Europe and had lunch in Asia. Vietnamese Chef Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door relocated a few years ago from the Mission District to the thoroughly renovated foodie heaven known as the Ferry Building, on the Embarcadero at the east end of Market Street. Mary Condy and I swapped plates of beef carpaccio (maybe the best I’ve ever had) with roasted peanuts and lime juice; grilled hamachi collar (yellowfin tuna) with a ginger-soy dipping sauce; and caramelized catfish in a claypot with cilantro and green chiles. We split the bill of $111, which included a Spreitzer riesling from Germany.
It’s a good thing I’m leaving for Mexico tomorrow morning. I don’t know how much more of this fine dining my palate (or my wallet) can stand.