Walking through the doors of Per Diem feels like stepping into another time. Big band music plays, elaborate curtains drape from high ceilings, a massive chandelier glitters overhead. The marble bar looks well worn, softly lit from above by a series of salvaged boat lamps and dominated by a turn-of-the-century water heater that's been repurposed as a draft beer tower. Historic nautical details are everywhere, bringing to mind a 1930s-era cruise ship.
Per Diem injects some much-needed style into the Financial District, a neighborhood without much of a dining identity. The second floor holds another bar and two cozy areas known as the lounge and the library, as well as a small square patio full of lush green plants. Homey details abound: shelves of old books, a table which is really a backgammon board, and an antique (and fully operational) typewriter, from which a sheet of paper emerges emblazoned with a Virginia Woolf quote: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."
If you're seeking sous-vide meats, carbon dioxide foams, and spherified-caviar garnishes, look elsewhere: The Per Diem time-warp effect extends into the kitchen. According to chef Adam Hinojosa, the most high-tech gadgets you'll find in his kitchen are "a bunch of knives and pots." The menu is streamlined, simple, and Italian-inspired, based around locally sourced ingredients right down to "00" flour milled in San Francisco and sea salt from Monterey.
"We cure, we brine, we braise," says Hinojosa, who sees his fresh ingredients as "a palette to paint with." Menu items are tweaked daily, depending on the products that come in and what's in season. Pizza and pasta dominate the menu, along with heartier entrees at dinner and sandwiches at lunch, like the "bacon and eggs"--truffled egg salad and crispy pancetta on wheat bread.
The cocktail and wine lists are similarly streamlined, unpretentious and democratically minded. Sommelier Chris Parks gives the people what they want with a wide selection of California Cabs, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, but doesn't forget the "wine nerds" with his moderately-priced funky Italian selections, like Grignolina and Gattinara. "We want to encourage people to experiment," Parks says.
A curious concoction is the Blue Chip Martini--in bar manager Scott Brody's words, a "polarizing, dividing drink" among martini enthusiasts. Appalled by the murkiness left in a martini garnished with blue-cheese olives, he's eliminated the problem by serving a crystal-clear straight up martini (gin or vodka, your call--no judgment) with a piece of crostini topped with olive, blue cheese, and vermouth tapenade on the side--a garnish that won't compromise the clarity of your cocktail. Just make sure you have two hands free to enjoy it, or a coveted spot at the bar--no easy task once the after-work crowds start pouring in.