Monday, December 18, 2006

Shopper's Refuge: Eating and Drinking Near Union Square

For people that live in the nether-reaches of Northern California and make an annual shopping trek into downtown San Francisco every year, they have usually scoped out their favorite spots to find respite from the crowds years ago. John's Grill, Cheesecake Factory, Max's and Scala's are common examples, but the list is endless. Typically this shopper found their spot in 1985 and hasn't branched out since then. They read travel guides like this and like to take the glass elevators at the St. Francis. The food at their spot is typically bad and the drinks over-priced, but it doesn't matter because this profile of shopper is looking for the good time and the memory only. I know, because in the early 90s I was this shopper.

But for those discerning locals looking for a little something more from their respite, here are my recommendations of places to check out:

Postrio Bar
- This is probably my favorite spot to stop for a snack and a cocktail. It's not the restaurant, mind you, but just the bar that has its own food menu. Their appetizers are quite good and reasonably-priced. On a recent visit we had dueling tartars of steak and tuna - both of which were excellent. Their pizzas are quite good, as are their sandwiches. They have a sausage plate that I particularly enjoy that comes with some excellent housemade mustard for $11. Even the expensive stuff on the menu is under $20. The cocktails are very good, while classic, and you always have the option of ordering off the extensive main restaurant's wine list.

Overall, this is my go-to spot in the area, however it's so small that I considered not writing about so as to not give it more publicity and make it more crowded for myself. Then I remembered that I have a regular readership that barely cracks double digits and it doesn't matter ("Hi Mom! We're number one!"). Still I'd feel better if you'd just keep this one to yourself. Thanks.

Nordstrom Cafe Bistro
- Forgotten amid the opening of the new Bloomingdale's side of the mall and all food that came along with it is the cafe at the top of Nordstrom. This place has all the necessary ingredients: a basic-but-fun menu, solid cocktails, a view, no waiting, etc. Basically, it's the poor-man's Rotunda at Neiman-Marcus but with the bonus that they don't take themselves so seriously. My go-to food item here is the Asian Chicken Salad. It's exactly what you'd expect from something called an "Asian Chicken Salad."

Sidenote: While these is quite a bit of good food in the basement of the Bloomingdale's side of the mall, the crowds are so horrendous that I can't give it a recommendation of any kind. Going down there and trying to eat is looney for at least the next year.

Johnny Foley's Irish Pub
- Located on O'Farrell and Cyril Magnin, this place executes on the Irish Pub theme quite well. The burgers are good, using good meat and handmade patties. It's all reasonably-priced. Plus, this place has a few strong advantages over most others. First, it's spacious which means that you have room to set down your shopping bags and your not tripping over everyone else's bags. Second, you can catch up on sports scores if you're shopping on the weekend. Lastly, while there you can always chuckle over the bizarre and contrived story that they tell about the real Johnny Foley found on their site.

Tunnel Top
- If you're shopping into the evening and are just looking for a drink and an escape from the crowd I profiled above, I like the Tunnel Top above the Stockton Street Tunnel. At night, it's more of a hip-hop-meets-mid-level-ad-exec crowd. I know this isn't for everybody, but I'm a fan.

- The bar in the Four Seasons is great (like Postrio, I'm promoting the bar and their separate menu here, not the restaurant itself). The cocktails are very good here, it's extremely spacious and comfortable, and it's quiet. You get olives and wasabi peas with your drink, which somehow is a huge draw for me. The bar menu is very good, including a great burger (which should be great for $18). This place is like the quieter, more-expensive version of the Postrio bar with big comfy chairs.

- I'm not the biggest fan of Indian cuisine, but sometimes I crave it for some reason. Those that really know their Indian, or at least claim to, say there's much better around SF than Shalimar. I like it however, and it's also the cheapest snack I've mentioned on this list. The downside is that it's on Jones a couple blocks and a world away from the relative safety and cleanliness of Union Square.

- I wish there was more good walk-and-eat street food downtown, but there just isn't. The hot dog stands are pretty gross, even for hot dog stands, and places like Blondies Pizza I'm not a big fan of. I like Grand Cafe and Cortez a bit. You can always go up to Bush St. and do the Belden Place scene. There's a great little bar on Maiden Lane called Otis. There are good options around, but you need to do some hunting to find them.

Offensive side note: If I were on the ball, I would've written this post about three weeks ago when it actually would've helped people. Instead, I'm writing about where to find good food and drink in Union Square a week before the traditional holiday shopping season ends. We're already halfway through Hanukkah, which could make this post tangentially anti-Semitic. But I'm going to write it anyway and hopefully it will live on and be relevant next year (assuming of course that Al-Qaeda still lets us have "holidays").