What the Castro has long needed are more and better restaurants, and it's been getting them. I've written this before, but dining options in the Castro have recently improved by about a factor of five. Yes, Anchor Oyster Bar has been there since Harvey Milk's camera shop was open next door, and Frances and Starbelly have been around a while, but in the last couple of years, Beso, Hecho, and Kitchen Story have expanded things beyond the middling tourist traps as Hi Tops, Super Duper, Ike's, and even Réveille Coffee have welded the upscale to the casual.
It wasn't always that way. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that nobody remembers Brandy Ho's — the restaurant that emphasized "No MSG!" practically to the point of embossing the toilet paper — very fondly. (The one on Columbus lives yet; I actually took my parents there once, but only to keep them from seeing The Stinking Rose.) In any case, Lark couldn't be cheesier than its predecessor at 4068 18th St. if it had singing waiters and a salad bar.
Mercifully, it doesn't. But it does have very lively patrons, the kind who love coming to the Castro and going totally bananas. On my first visit, we were seated in the front window (yea) next to a raucous birthday party (boo). One woman was wearing a bra as a top — like Sue-Ellen Mischke, the Oh Henry! candy bar heiress from Seinfeld — and the entire party of six screamed over each other for an hour. I hate to poop on people's good time, but this is a real obstacle to the Castro acquiring true neighborhood-y restaurants: A sizable percentage of diners are always going to treat dinner as a pretext to pregame. (The atmosphere during visit No. 2 was better. It was still packed, but mostly with post-Grindr dates occupying two-tops.)
Having said all of that, Lark — which is unrelated to the Lark Creek Group — is more than decent, a neighborhood restaurant in a neighborhood that still lacks enough spots in the stratum between fine dining and overpriced mediocrity. It's affordable, it combines Mediterranean techniques with California ingredients, and the wine list is big. Plates are shareable, and even if dishes like the Lark salad (baby spinach, fingerling potatoes, feta, dates, roasted walnuts, and apple cider vinegar dressing, $9) turn out to be merely okay, they're saved by things you'd expect to be ordinary but which surprise you with how flavorful they really are. The plate of olives ($5) marinated in sumac and oregano, for instance, was a little rock star.
The rest of the menu averaged two hits for every miss, but the hits truly were hits. I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but the truffle fries were tops. Served in a fryer basket (although not necessarily the one they were fried in), the portions are as generous and inviting as a pint of strawberries. And the calamari was cooked beautifully: tender, and not the least bit rubbery. The rings were enormous, but I'm always and forever a tentacle guy, and these were equally great, slathered with oregano. While it's pretty unusual for calamari to need salt, Lark's did. Shaking a little of the truffle fries' crumbs onto them made me feel like a real Mr. Fix-It.
Saumon fumé ($7) and the hummus plate ($6) were great values. One of the best dishes was the gnocchi-filled butternut squash ($16), which was light and buttery without any gluiness. (And yes to the addition of dried figs!) The kotópoulo, or roasted half chicken ($16), was deboned with obvious skill into nice fat pieces. It could have been a little juicier but the flavor was definitely there, a heavenly oregano, lemon, and olive oil combination that was a master class in keeping things simple. Chicken is meant to taste like chicken, right? It's not supposed to be a delivery mechanism for sauce and/or a crisis of overambition.
In the same vein were the Kurdish meatballs ($9), three Angus-beef-and-lamb pieces served with parsley and house herbs (and crostini). No major revelation here; they were just really freaking good meatballs. It took the better part of two meals, but eventually I realized that the guiding principle of Lark's kitchen is "Less is more." Except for the opera cake ($8), that is, which had at least 10 layers, making it the perfect note to go out on.
As for wine, the list is fairly cosmopolitan. Sitting at the bar entitles you to a wine flight (three pours of white for $15, or three reds for $17), which is always a great idea. Although the Bastide Côtes du Rhône ($11) was forgettable, on the bartender's recommendation I had a glass of Mythic Malbec ($10), which was stellar.
Obnoxious birthday party notwithstanding, Lark's vibe was overall very pleasant. Lots of eye candy for all genders and sexual orientations, and in spite of being slightly subterranean, you can hear your tablemate over the din and flirt with them as required. And I'm 100 percent positive that the vaguely Greek ambient electronica started repeating towards the end, but I was so fat and comfortable that it felt kind of homey and familiar. When the opening buzz dies away, the picture will be clearer, but the Castro might have just gotten the neighborhood joint it deserves.