Let's not kid ourselves: There will be lines. Once word spreads about Bar Tartine's 6-week-old sandwich shop, and especially after it starts hawking baker/owner Chad Robertson's expertly turned-out loaves from the 15,000-pound custom bread oven, these early days when you can stroll in off the street and instantly order an innovative, Danish- or Hungarian-inspired sandwich will be a fond memory. But even after the line forms, a visit will still be worth the wait.
With its light wood walls, Edison light bulbs, and rainbow-hued jars of pickles lined up near the register, 6-year-old Bar Tartine's expanded interior feels just as hip as its newer Valencia Street neighbors. When the meal arrives, artfully arranged on rough-hewn wooden platters, it is hard to resist pulling out your phone and snapping a quick photo. Food, no matter how good it tastes, is only part of the reason San Franciscans will wait an hour for a sandwich. The line is part of the experience, as are the subsequent bragging rights that come with being one of the few who soldiered through it. Instagramming comes with the territory.
"Sandwich shop" could be a misnomer, implying this is a separate space from the restaurant — it's really just a marble lunch counter (and, in a few months, bakery window and artisan larder) operating inside the dining room during the day. Order from the daily menu chalked above the counter, get your vintage-looking alphabet letter that serves as a marker, and select your own table. Four Barrel coffee and water are self-serve at the back bar.
Those familiar with Bar Tartine's previous brunch iteration will recognize the open-faced Danish smørrebrød sandwiches — a seasonally rotating array of toppings on dense slices of sprouted-rye bread. Lox, potato, beet relish, and dill sauce form a harmonious and oh-so-Scandinavian bite, with a subtle kick from horseradish. Creamy house-made goat cheese, sauteed Swiss chard, and earthy onion jam have a backbone of heat from red chili flakes. Beef tartare is garnished with fried onions; bacon, avocado, and goat cheese form a BLT like you've never had before. I expected the almond butter and chocolate version to be dessert-y, but the generous daub of chocolate was bittersweet, the almond butter tasted more of nuts than sugar, and a sprinkle of toasted almonds gave the creamy toppings a crunchy counterpoint.
Chef Nicholas Balla spent his formative years outside Budapest, and serves several versions of traditional Hungarian potato lángos — fried bread that is puffy, with a crisp crust and near-gooey interior, reminiscent of Native American fry bread or a savory elephant ear. Lángos is traditionally topped with sour cream, garlic, and dill, but you can also order sweeter variations like one garnished with strawberries, both fresh and stewed, and honeyed soft cheese that plays well with the oniony flavor of the bread. Hungover Missionites may dig the version with a fried egg and caraway-laced hollandaise, which was too heavy for my appetite, and tricky to eat. I spent half the time trying to keep the runny egg yolk from flowing off the platter onto the table and onto my lap.
That was a rare misstep where form trumped function; even the old-timey general store jars of pickled veggies on the wall weren't just for show. These dill-heavy house-made pickles come with several dishes and star in a few, like a late-summer side order of pickled baby green tomatoes served in a mason jar. They exploded in the mouth with a juicy tang, and when we finished the pickles we surreptitiously sipped the onion and fennel brine. It was a simple dish, but like so many on the menu, it featured a few familiar ingredients polished to a sheen that made them new and exciting.
There are regular closed-faced sandwiches, too, though with twists that elevate them beyond the average deli's offerings. My favorite of the three was the fried chicken on an airy potato bun, which had a thin, crispy skin and was piled with a crunchy mix of cabbage and pickles, blanketed with garlic mayo and special sauce. Another favorite, lentil croquettes, were like lighter falafel, and garnished with cucumber, sprouts, heirloom tomatoes, and padron peppers, though the thick-cut, yeasty bread outshone the ingredients within.
The experiments don't stop at the drinks, either. Brunchers or indulgent lunchers should order the pretty candied beet mimosa — less cloying than the original, and with the sweetness of beets without any lingering vegetal flavors. Light and refreshing house-made juices are available as well, like melon flavored with cardamom.
In 2008, psychologist David Norman published an update of a classic study, "The Psychology of Waiting Lines," which concluded that the memory of an event is more important than the experience — or, if the waited-for experience is positive, it tends to overshadow the unpleasantness of waiting in line. Just like I'm willing to wait 45 minutes for a perfect morning bun at Tartine, I could easily wait in the inevitable line at the sandwich shop to see whatever creation Balla and pastry chef Cortney Burns have dreamed up next. Things on bread is a basic concept; their approach is anything but, and as they keep us guessing, we will keep queueing up.